Thinking Anew – Faith changes people for the better
Saints are prophets of a less stereotypical kind but are prophets nonetheless. They change nappies; help people across the road; encourage people; try to patch things up and generally avoid being unkind
The cry of the prophet, “repent and believe”, conjures up one stereotype of prophet: somewhat wild, maybe eccentric, definitely charismatic and likely good at projecting his voice. It is a far cry from the more common experience of faith – most believers repent because they believe.
Dramatic pronouncements and miraculous stories of conversion pepper the story of every faith. Not everybody has an experience of celestial visitations and wonderful apparitions to stir their faith. Most of us simply found it on the way. In answer to the question “When did you realize you had faith?”, one common answer is “I don’t really know. I think it was always there somewhere.” In many ways the answers depend on what stereotypes of prophet you encountered on the way.
Jesus compared faith to a mustard seed; to something that starts small and grows almost unnoticed. There was a shoot, a stalk and suddenly there is a full plant. Here in the west we think of mustard as a small shrub. Jesus would have been familiar with it as a spreading tree that grows up to 10 metres and provided welcome shade in an arid place.
Faith can be very like a plant. It is seasonal. It passes through times of hope to joy to fruitfulness to decline and then back to joy and on. It is also very hard to get rid of plants. They keep coming back. Sometimes bits of it fall off and die. That paradoxical death usually rots but feeds the very plant it fell off.
Unlike plants, the seasons of faith do not follow the climate of the planet. The climate of society has a more noticeable effect on the life and health of collective faith.
Individual faith has its personal cycles and is not always synchronised to the collective experience. From there we react to the more general experience. In times of strong faith we can be affirmed by the faith of others. In times of apathy we can be recalled or repelled by the faith of others. In times of despondency the force of faith can lift us or bury us. It all depends on balancing your openness to faith with the authenticity of the faith you encounter.
There is a role for the dramatic prophets and for great events but the life of faith can never be dependent on them. Jesus issued a simple “follow me” invitation to his disciples. There was neither miracle nor magic; no drama nor debate; no promise and no proof – and they simply followed him and his quiet invitation. In following him they would come to believe. In believing they would come to repentance. You cannot encounter something good and not come away improved by the experience.
Faith changes people and always changes them for the better. Faith’s usual form of transmission is through the unremarkable encounter with saints. A saint is someone who brings something that is good into better repute. Saints are prophets of a less stereotypical kind but are prophets none the less. They change nappies; help people across the road; encourage people; try to patch things up and generally avoid being unkind.
There is a silent repentance in the life of every saint. Faith is slow to judge, avoids harsh criticism, does not gloat at misfortune and is sensitive to others. These are not instant skills. We make gradual improvements to our decisions, suggestions, solidarity and empathy. Believe and repent is the usual way of faith.