The Faith: A Personality, a Thing
As you probably know, the new Year of Faith begins on October 11th (see our Year of Faith Workshop). I thought I’d help kick it off by reflecting on what the great 20th century apologist Hilaire Belloc had to say about the Catholic Faith. The following passage is taken from a letter to G. K. Chesterton in August of 1922:
I am by all my nature of mind skeptical, by all my nature of body exceedingly sensual. So sensual that the virtues restrictive of sense are but phrases to me. But I accept these phrases as true and act upon them as well as a struggling man can. And as to the doubt of the soul I discover it to be false: a mood: not a conclusion. My conclusion—and that of all men who have ever once seen it—is the Faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.
I found these words—as I have found so many wonderful extracts—in Fr. Saward’s incomparable anthology (if I dare mention it yet again) of The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England. But why is the Faith described thus by Belloc? Why is it “a thing, not a theory”? In what sense does it differ from mere attitudes, tendencies, consolations, ideas and beliefs?
There may be as many ways of getting at the truth of Belloc’s observation as there are Catholics, but let me suggest a few of them here. In the first place, the Catholic Faith—and all the elements of that Faith—ultimately describe and connect with a Person. It is Jesus Christ Himself who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14:6). As soon as we experience “the Faith”, we realize that we trust not in ideas but in a Person, Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves, and whom we in turn are rapidly coming to know.
Another approach to Belloc’s conclusion is the uniquely and completely satisfying character of the Faith, in that it enables us not simply to perceive but actually to experience the goodness of God. Thus the Psalmist urges us to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8). Indeed, he invites us to consider the palpable ways in which we know this goodness:
I sought the LORD, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him,
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
All who hold some portion of the Christian faith are able to share in this sense of Divine goodness. But let us consider further what this means to the Catholic, for whom this “personality” of the Faith is made manifest in so many special ways. The injunction to “taste” the Lord’s goodness leads us straight to the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Christ, His body, His blood, His soul, His divinity. And while we may assimilate other foods to ourselves, the Eucharist assimilates us to Christ, conforming us to Him in every way, and actually making each one of us part of his Body. We can see why Belloc chose the words corporate and personality—“a thing, not a theory”.
This body of Christ has its visible form in the Church herself, Our Lord’s Mystical Body, which perdures as His corporate and sacramental presence in the world until the end of time (Mt 28:20). It is also Christ’s body the Church which gives each of us the closest possible connection—indeed, a shared corporate identity—with all the faithful of all times: those in Heaven, in Purgatory, and here on earth. And this Church too is a Person who teaches (“a personality, teaching”), freeing us from error and enabling us to see, so that having “once seen”, our “conclusion” too can be “the Faith”.
Now it is a sad and a thin reality which many Catholics make of faith because they lack this awareness of their concrete connection with the body of Christ, the Church. For too many, their “faith” is not really the Faith. It is a sentimental attachment, a sense of spiritual consolation, a vague attitude they shape to suit themselves. It is not at all a “thing”, as Belloc rightly calls it, with a definite shape and a distinct boundary into which we ourselves must fit. Those whose perception of the Faith and of the Church is so weak and watery scarcely feel themselves part of that mighty throng of saints who, conformed to the very body of Jesus Christ in his passion and death, have stood fast with Our Lord since Pentecost.
In marked contrast, Belloc possessed a marvelous grasp of the oneness of the Faith with the Church. This was as clear to him as the oneness of the Faith with Christ Himself, a simple matter of the fundamental unity of terms which describe different aspects of the same reality. In the Faith Belloc found himself united with both Christ and the Church, and with every living member of Christ who has gone before or will come after. This was not for him an abstraction, still less a sentiment. It was a tangible reality, with a characteristic shape of spiritual bone and muscle and sinew which bestows on us a very specific and highly tempered identity, an identity which sustains and defends each one of us against principalities and powers, against the despair of failure and the risk of eternal loss.
This was what the Faith meant to Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, that most sturdy and concrete of Catholic literary masters. The Faith was overwhelmingly tangible for Belloc, and so it should be for each one of us: “Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”
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