One of the things that we are meant to do when we try to reflect God’s mercy in our lives is “to counsel the doubtful”; for it is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy that I am talking about this Lent. Now the first thing I want to say about this, is that we do not help the doubtful by appearing to be too certain of things ourselves. We have to be very careful about this, because people assume all too easily, if they look at us on the surface, that if we are Catholics and are at Mass every Sunday then we must have a rock steady faith with no problems and no doubts. You all know that this is not the truth, but that’s the impression people have of Catholics, and so we need to work quite hard to deal with these false assumptions. Now if you think it’s hard for you, it’s even harder for us priests. We are supposed to have a rock solid faith; and because of this many people with doubts are afraid to share them with us, because they assume they will simply be told off for being weak.
One of the ways I suggest that people share the faith with others is by telling them about their own experiences of God. A story of something that has happened to you or me, in which we have felt God’s presence or help, is a million times better than just talking about the faith in a general way. But here too we must tell our story in such a way that people do not think that once we had this experience of God, everything has been plain sailing.
Abram in our 1st Reading today (Genesis 15:5-18) – Abraham as he was called later – did not have it easy after his vision of God in the midst of his deep sleep. He was to struggle with the fact that, despite this vision, he had to spend many many years without the child, and thus the descendants, he had been promised. Later, when he did have a son late in life, he agonised about whether his love for his son was more important to him than his love of God; and he even thought of killing his son, to show God his love was real. No easy faith for him then!
In our Gospel too (Luke 9:28-36) Peter, James and John were not given a certain faith after their vision of Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Indeed they simply found the vision confusing; and it was not until they had lost their faith and run away when Jesus was killed on the cross, and then found it again when Jesus appeared to them at Easter, that they could make sense of what they had seen. And Jesus too had to face the agony of that Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the soldiers came and arrested him. How easy it would have been to slip away and avoid the conflict and pain that he feared so much. It took great courage in the midst of uncertainty to choose the hard way, to do the will of the Father.
So when people are doubtful, they need to know that we struggle with doubts and temptations too, don’t they? They need to know that we often fail to be good Christians. There is nothing more comforting in the confessional than to hear the priest say of some sin that we are struggling with, that this is one he struggles with too. Of course we must share the joys of the faith too, the sense of the presence of God in little things and unusual places; but we must also share with people that sometimes we come to Mass and feel nothing and wonder why we are here at all. It is like being a parent with a baby. There may be joy, but there is also hard work and sleepless nights; and both are part of the way we show our love. Love is not a nice feeling all the time, it is also an act of will – a choosing to do something for another. or for God, however hard that may sometimes be.
To say to someone who cannot see the point of coming to Church, that it means so much to us, may not help at all, To say instead “Yes it is hard for all of us sometimes. It is hard to continue believing and trusting in God when sad or bad things happen. It is hard to be at Mass when we would rather be sleeping or watching the football or walking in the countryside.” To say things like that, to share our own struggles, that is surely a better way to help and counsel those who are struggling too.
Of course there are moments when we must be more definite, and I will say more about this next week when I talk about “instructing the ignorant”; but we must never be definite in a way that makes people think we never struggle or have doubts ourselves. St Paul shows this in our 2nd Reading (Phil 3:17-4:1) as he talks about his tears, and then says to comfort them “Do not give way, but remain faithful” Listening to people, even weeping with them, allowing them to share what they are struggling with, this is the better way.