When the disciples said to Jesus “Increase our faith” (tomorrow’s gospel) they spoke for all of us. However, he didn’t give them a special formula because there isn’t one; instead, he showed them that faith was to some extent a journey, a way of life modelled on him. So, faith can never be static, unchanged since school days, no matter how formative those times might have been.
St Paul makes the point: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” – something everyone should do, according to former Bishop of Oxford John Pritchard: “As I think back to the faith I lived with through my childhood and teens, it seems to me that it was all rules and regulations designed to save me from the worst excesses of myself . . . The great liberation which I discovered at university was a faith that was intellectually credible and emotionally satisfying, and which, above all, was based not on rule and regulation but on relationship and, indeed, love.”
Helen Adams Keller, who lost her sight and her hearing after a bout of illness at the age of 19 months, went on to become a prolific author and campaigner for civil rights, and world peace. She had a strong faith and was never troubled by her moments of doubt. She wrote: “It need not discourage us if we are full of doubts. Healthy questions keep faith dynamic. Unless we start with doubts, we cannot have a deep-rooted faith. One who believes lightly and unthinkingly has not much of a belief. He who has a faith which is not to be shaken has won it through blood and tears, has worked his way from doubt to truth as one who reaches a clearing through a thicket of brambles and thorns.”
But keeping the faith can be challenging when times are difficult, as we are reminded in tomorrow’s reading from the prophet Habakkuk which describes a religious people going through hard times and crying out to God: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”
Faith will often be tested but we find encouragement in those whose faith survived in seemingly hopeless situations and provided reassurance and hope for the future.
Early in the second World War, for example, the composer Olivier Messiaen was serving with the French army when he was captured by the Germans. In a prison camp he and other musicians got together to make music including new works which Messiaen himself composed. One of these, The Quartet, which would come to be recognised as a classic, was premiered at the camp in January 1941 in front of about 400 prisoners and guards. Speaking later of those times, Messiaen said the work was inspired by words from the Book of Revelation which speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth”. Of the fifth movement “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus”, Messiaen said that Jesus is considered here as the Word – the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out.”
In Why Are We Here, Alister McGrath, former atheist and Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, writes: “Christianity offers us another way of seeing things, offers us another way of living, and invites us to share these. We need a frame of reference, which offers a secure foundation and focus for our lives. For Christians this foundation and focus is the living God, ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:3)’. This God makes himself known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the pages of scripture. But he also makes something of himself known through the natural world, the world of creation, as a voice which called us, beckoning from its depths and mysterious beauty.”