On “Personal” Faith

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard my friends say “I think faith is a personal thing. I don’t believe we should force our beliefs on others. When I ask what forcing our beliefs on others actually means, the reply generally boils down to “Talking about our beliefs in any way.” The idea at work behind this notion is that personal means subjectiveprivateesoteric and inward.

I used to believe this myself when I was a teenager. “Spiritual” experiences were, I thought, the sort of thing that ought to happen to us when we have achieved some special state of consciousness, some plateau of contemplation forbidden to the unwashed herd of humanity, some enlightened state of mystical insight incommunicable to the hoi polloi. However, as I got older (and especially as I came to understand the Catholic Faith better), I learned something I should have know all along.

Personal things are not private; personal things are common.

When do we really feel the deepest movements of our hearts? Precisely when we find ourselves connected to another human being by some experience which is utterly ordinary. A shared meal, mourning the death of a friend, cracking jokes, celebrating a book or a movie we have both loved with a passion, feeling pride when our children grow to be good boys and girls, seeing the sun rise, rejoicing at the first snowfall. These are the sorts of things that we feel most deeply and most personally. And they are not rare or esoteric things known only to the elect but common things shared by all. It is when we meet another person who has loved and lived (and appreciated!) these sorts of things in all their everyday humanness that something within us rejoices and cries, “You too? I thought I was the only one!” When we meet what is universal, we meet what is most personal and are led, not to some isolated mountaintop of mysticism, but to the broad plain of the human family.

This is no accident and is true “all the way up.” What is it that makes a great spiritual teacher great? Is it that he or she tells us something we’ve never ever heard before or leads us into hidden caverns of mystic wisdom intended only for the initiate? On the contrary, great spiritual teachers remind us more than they instruct us. Thus Moses says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will go up into heaven?’ or ‘Who will go down into the abyss?’ The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Rom. 10:6-8). Likewise Isaiah grabs Israel and shakes them saying “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning?” (Is. 40:21). In short, this isn’t private. Everybody knows this stuff.

That’s why when the rich young man cried “What must I do to be saved?” our Lord also tells him nothing new: Do what Moses said. Love your neighbor. Tell the truth. The usual. Jesus sends him, not off on a quack quest to track down misaligned engrams, but straight back to the common things he learned on his mother’s knee.

But the rich young man wouldn’t have it. He was apparently looking for trendy past life regression training or whatever the Shirley MacLaine’s of his day were selling, because when Jesus challenged him with the dull commonplace that he had too much dough, he balked. His wealth was private to him, like he wanted God to be. And so he went away sad: no spiritual thrills here. No revelation aimed only at the rich and famous. Turned out this supposed Messiah was just another peasant carpenter worried about money, fer crying out loud. How common!

The peasant carpenter, for his part, went down a different road–and was eventually raised from the dead and proclaimed King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

This is the curious quality of God’s revelation: it is hidden in plain sight. Sort of like the Word made flesh. You could look right at him and, depending on whether you chose to have eyes to see or not, behold a peasant carpenter or the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. It all depends on whether you believe God is so fragile he can only reveal himself in private trances to sensitive people, or so powerful he lets himself be crucified in broad daylight and held up for the whole world to see.

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