I believe, Lord, help my unbelief

Anthony recently posted about faith, doubt and intergenerational worship. There is something important about young persons seeing their elders at worship (and vice versa). One might say something analogous about people of different races, cultures, economic classes, etc. Diversity in the assembly is a reminder that, in the words of Lumen gentium 9: “At all times and in every nation, anyone who fears God and does what is right has been acceptable to him (see Acts 10:35). He has, however, willed to make women and men holy and to save them, not as individuals without any bond between them, but rather to make them into a people who might serve him in holiness.” In the case of youth, it can be valuable to see older generations continue to assemble through life’s ups and downs.

I’d like to nudge the conversation in a slightly different direction, however, by turning to the relationship between liturgy, faith, and doubt. In their 1999 document on catechesis, Our Hearts Were Burning within Us, the U.S. bishops offer this tidbit in paragraph no. 52: “A living faith is a searching faith—it ‘seeks understanding.’ Adults need to question, probe, and critically reflect on the meaning of God’s revelation in their unique lives in order to grow closer to God. A searching faith leads to deepening conversion. Along the way, it may even experience doubt. Yet the essence of this quality of adult faith is not doubt, but search—a trusting, hopeful, persistent ‘seeking’ or ‘hunger’ for a deeper appropriation of the Gospel and its power to guide, transform, and fulfill our lives.” It seems to me that what the bishops say here about adults also applies to youth who have begun to reflect critically on faith.

Certainly, homilies can be one forum to address this search. Musical selections can do likewise—years ago Joe Wise adapted a version of the Apostles’ Creed and added the refrain “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief” from Mark 9:24. That verse, by the way, never appears in a Sunday reading in the Roman Catholic lectionary. Nor does Psalm 44, in which Israel raises pointed questions about God’s fidelity. (As Walter Brueggemann and others have pointed out, lament is not a common feature of the psalms regularly used in Christian worship.) In what ways do our liturgies manifest a faith that has no space for wrestling with God? In what ways do our liturgies manifest a confident faith that also is honest about struggle and question? Such liturgies might serve our youth—and all in the assembly—in good stead.

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3 comments

  1. Perhaps we could start with the Catechism (@ para 24):

    “Above all, teachers must not imagine that a single kind of soul has been entrusted to them, and that consequently it is lawful to teach and form equally all the faithful in true piety with one and the same method! Let them realize that some are in Christ as newborn babes, others as adolescents, and still others as adults in full command of their powers…. Those who are called to the ministry of preaching must suit their words to the maturity and understanding of their hearers, as they hand on the teaching of the mysteries of faith and the rules of moral conduct.”

    As children (if we are fortunate), we tend to see the world as more certain than it is. As adults, we recognize uncertainty, contradiction, and doubt to be all around us, and we spend our lives trying to make sense out of those uncertainties and to seek truth amid conflicting claims. Doubt is not (necessarily) evil and to be avoided, but can cause us to delve deeper into mystery.

    I have to say that I most appreciate liturgy which requires seeking and exploration of the mystery of God and life, because that seeking and exploring is work—indeed I think it’s at the core of liturgy (and of life). My observation is that most frequently what is presented during the liturgies I attend are certainties, concepts and (literal) interpretations which might be suited for someone “in Christ as newborn babes”, but which fall far short for the rest of us. If we think our faith is a set of rules to be followed, then knowing the rules (and perhaps being fearful of breaking them) is sufficient. If we think our faith is about a relationship with the living God, then we need more mystery, symbolism and allegory to work with to develop and ever-deeper relationship. Literalism and dogma will not, in the long run, be life-giving.

  2. My guess is that not many Christians have a fully integrated faith and spiritual life. We pray for integrity but the words “I believe Lord, help my unbelief” are a succinct statement of our actual condition. We’re divided against ourselves at times. (Paul’s “I do that which I do not want to do…” is another expression of a similar dilemma.) Young people or new converts will certainly pick up on this when they observe the words and actions of the faithful, which often fall short of full faith, charity and compassion. Better to be honest and show how this contradiction in our lives also serves as a goad to spiritual growth and, hopefully, a closer union with God. Timothy’s reflections on searching are certainly true and a good reminder that faith doesn’t always make us comfortable with ourselves.

  3. Thomas Merton concluded “The Seven Storey Mountain” with the words:
    “Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi” – “Let this be the end of the book, but not the end of searching.” The searching inspired the rest of his life.

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