Part 1 Faith – Week 3

Introduction to Christianity: Doubt and Belief (II)

Last week, Ratzinger began his reflection on the situation of the Christian in the contemporary world by pointing out that if he was sufficiently critical and honest, he would realize that the problem of faith today was not simply one of communication, not simply a question of finding the right strategy or outward form in which to ‘dress up’ and present these truths to those who do not believe. Today, we read how he continues that argument, pointing out that the problem with faith is in the first place internal; it has to do with the precarious nature of belief itself, with the fact that both doubt and belief necessarily cohabit the world of the believer and that he often feels himself to be alone, cast adrift on the ocean of uncertainty…


“First of all, the believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him. A few examples will help to make this clear. That lovable Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who looks so naive and unproblematical, grew up in an atmosphere of complete religious security; her whole existence from beginning to end, and down to the smallest detail, was so completely molded by the faith of the Church that the invisible world became, not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself. It seemed to be an almost tangible reality that could not be removed by any amount of thinking. To her, “religion” really was a self-evident presupposition of her daily existence; she dealt with it as we deal with the concrete details of our lives. Yet this very saint, a person apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her, from the last weeks of her passion, shattering admissions that her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains and that have only now come to light in the new verbatim editions. She says, for example, “I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism”. Her mind is beset by every possible argument against the faith; the sense of believing seems to have vanished; she feels that she is now “in sinners’ shoes.” In other words, in what is apparently a flawlessly interlocking world someone here suddenly catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking – even for her – under the firm structure of the supporting conventions. In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thing that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise – the dogma of the Assumption, the proper use confession – all this becomes absolutely secondary. What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. Wherever one looks, only the bottomless abyss of nothingness can be seen.

Paul Claudel has depicted this situation in a most convincing way in the great opening scene of the Soulier de Satin. A Jesuit missionary, brother of Rodrigue, the hero of the play (a worldling and adventurer veering uncertainly between God and the world), is shown as the survivor of a shipwreck. His ship has been sunk by pirates; he himself has been lashed to a mast from the sunken ship, and he is now drifting on this piece of wood through the raging waters of the ocean. The play opens with his last monologue:

Lord, I thank thee for bending me down like this. It sometimes happened that I found thy commands laborious and my will at a loss and jibbing at thy dispensation. But now I could not be bound to thee more closely than I am, and however violently my limbs move they cannot get one inch away from thee. So I really am fastened to the cross, but the cross on which I hang is not fastened to anything else. It drifts on the sea.

Fastened to the cross – with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss. The situation of the contemporary believer could hardly be more accurately and impressively described. Only a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink. Only a loose plank connects him to God, though certainly it connects him inescapably, and in the last analysis he knows that this wood is stronger than the void that seethes beneath him…”

Questions for reflection:

How often does my faith seem to be drifting in a sea of confusion?

Throughout this next week, reflect on those moments and situations in my life in which I am or have been tempted to doubt that God really is who He says He is and that I am His beloved child.

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