Sunday, January 1, 2012

Obedience of Faith

I think Vatican II described the journey of the Christian experience quite succinctly:
"The obedience of faith" (Rom 16:26) must be given to God as he reveals himself. By faith man freely commits his entire self to God, making the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals, and willing assenting to the Revelation given by him. Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth. The same Holy Spirit constantly perfects faith by his gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly understood (Dei Verbum § 5).
Conversion of heart can be difficult, but only because we cling to our own desires in place of God's will. Often our desires seem like the better choice because false goods are attractive in their vanity, but, to quote Spock from Star Trek: "You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. This is not logical, but it is often true." The wise man already knows not everything that is desirable leads to lasting satisfaction. Only with divine grace can we let go of our desires for the things that will constantly disappoint. The struggle to make our desires obedient to God's will is for every man and woman -- human or vulcan -- for "sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it" (Gen 4:7).

Have you ever heard of the so-called Cafeteria Catholic? The term describes a Catholic who picks and chooses the beliefs and behaviors that are worth practicing, as if God's Revelation were individual products in a lunch line. This spirituality is to be rejected. Why? It is an obstacle to holiness. Such a Catholic is likely rejecting aspects of the Faith that are most needed for personal sanctification. This should be no surprise since it is natural for a person to accept what is compatible with their tastes and to resist the opposite. Clearly, the Catholic Faith makes demands of its adherents, but it always seems most demanding in areas of life where we cling strongest to false goods. St. Paul has a good list of those: "fornication, impurity, lewdness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like" (Gal 5:19-21).

Although the term was coined in the 20th century, the spirituality has been around in all centuries for the saints to rebuke. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), for example, says that a Catholic who picks among Church doctrine is not manifesting faith but exhibiting personal preference:
Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. Hence it is evident that a person, who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith, is not prepared to follow the teaching of the Church in all things; but if he is not obstinate, he is no longer in heresy but only in error. Therefore it is clear that such a person with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will (Summa Theologica II-II, 3, 5).
Therefore, it must be conceded that the so-called Cafeteria Catholic is like having "received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it" (Acts 7:53). Adherence to some teachings is good, and anything good is to be praised, but goodness is incomplete; perfection is lacking and disobedience remains. Thankfully, there is a role model in Holy Scripture that exemplifies the "obedience of faith" (Rom 16:26)!

When the angel appeared to the Virgin and announced that she would be a mother, she inquired, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34). After receiving an answer and knowing God's will for her, she assented to the request: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). What can be learned here?

First, obedience does not mean blind obedience. The Virgin sought understanding before proceeding. Like all encounters with God in Holy Scripture, the privileged soul is able to converse freely with God and ask about His will. Even when some answers must remain secret until The End (Acts 1:7), there is no offense to asking questions in earnest since, to quote St. Anslem (1033-1109), "faith seeking understanding." But, truthfully, who can understand like God understands? No man, woman, vulcan, or angel will ever know all thing like God; creatures have finite intelligence but God is infinite and totally unbounded: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9).

Eventually, the want for answers must yield way to absolute trust in a loving Creator who orders all things towards good. Understanding God's Revelation is good, but loving the Revealer is better. Therefore, the second lesson is faith is man's response to God. As Vatican II stated, God "opens the eyes of the mind and makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth," and the Virgin exemplified this in her acceptance of her mission to become Mother of our Savior. She is called "blessed" not because she understood how all things would pass, but because she "believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" (Luke 1:45).

I conclude with ancient biblical analysis from St. Irenaeus (c.125-202):
The Lord's obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband. As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve (Against Heresies 5 § 19-20).
Blessed are you Virgin Mary for all generations!