Why I believe--Part II (Faith)

The title of this blog comes from probably my favorite passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the story of Elijah the prophet.  As was his way, Elijah had made himself unpopular with the powers that be in the Kingdom of Israel (notably King Ahab and his wife, the original Jezebel), and had fled to Mount Horeb to escape the mob out to kill him.  Elijah had more or less given up on this whole being a prophet of God thing at this point, and tells God this in no uncertain terms.  To which, God says:

"Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by."  Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-12 (NRSV).

What I love about that story is that it wasn't the spectacular things signaled the presence of God--it was the quiet things, the subtle things that we can easily miss.

The most significant spiritual experience I've ever had was about six years ago.  I was in Los Angeles visiting some friends.  One evening, the group of guys I was with wanted to go play poker at a casino.  The truth is I don't find gambling particularly compelling, so I begged off and decided to find my own plans for the evening.  I drove the the beach in Santa Monica, and when I got there it was about sunset.  The sun was setting over the cliffs of Malibu, and the whole sky looked like it was on fire with brilliant reds and oranges.  I waded out into the ocean about to my waist, and just stood there watching the sun go down over the cliffs.  I was transfixed by the scene, and in that moment, I felt a profound and unique sense of peace.  I felt like I was loved in a very personal way.  For me, it was a sound of sheer silence.  I believe God was there in that place and time.

It's not a particularly world-shaking story.  No one who watched me from the beach would know something was happening.  If anyone thought about what I was doing, they likely thought I was a stoner or something.  Nor can I say that that my life changed radically as a result of the experience--I continued on the trip, and went on with my life.  But the experience meant a great deal to me, and it is something that I go back to often in my mind.

"Faith" is often presented as a set of abstract propositions that you either accept ("believe") or reject.  I look at it a different way.  To me, faith is two related concepts.  First, faith is a vocabulary for expressing and explaining those experiences of the transcendent (or supernatural, or divine, or whatever you want to call it).  One of the qualities of these events is that they are often hard to put into words.  The passage quoted above provides some insight into what I felt on the beach in Santa Monica, and a way to talk about it with other people.  Without some kind of framework, I don't know how I would have reacted to or tried to understand what happened.  Faith is the way to place one's own experience into context.

As everyone knows, there are many different religious traditions, and as such many different "languages" to explain these experiences.  And yet, when you look at the religions of the world, it seems to me that you find a thread of commonality running through them.  That's not to say they are all the same--they are not--but to me that speaks to a unity in the experience these different faiths are describing.  To me, it is the analogy of the blind men touching the elephant.  Even though each person has a different experience of the elephant, it is still the same element.  I believe that everyone is experiencing the same ultimate reality, despite the different ways of speaking about it.  So, without denigrating any particular faith "language," I refer to it in the language that is familiar to me--God.

But I think there is another component to faith.  There must also be a response to the experience.  Because the experience of God can often be the "sound of sheer silence," a person can choose to discount those experiences of the transcendent.  A person can choose to see them as something else, or a figment of the imagination.  A person does not have to go deeper and attempt to get to the root of these experiences.  But, for whatever reason, some do attempt to seek out where those experiences lead--to look to figure out what is at the source of this encounter.

That, to me, is faith.


V.D.E. said…
YES! I know of what you speak. I have experience something very similar, an event that made me fully understand God and why the Church is correct.

During the Homeland War, I fought for many years, sometimes a lot, other times just every now and then. Towards the glorious end of the fighting, in 1995 we did much fighting and much of it was very tough. We had just finished clearing a small village of enemies and it was almost nighttime. Collaborators fled the village, carrying their dirty belongings with them, looking like fleas jumping off of a mangy dog. We let them go because we were tired, though some soldiers fired over their heads to hurry them along (I did not approve of this- ammunition was very precious). My good friend Luka had been wounded in the arm, they would eventually amputate the arm once gangrene set in (we call him One-Arm Luka now and he owns a nightclub in Zagreb- very pretty girls!!). All the soldiers were tired, some smoking cigarettes, other passing around a bottle of slivovitz (plum brandy- very good!). I walked off by myself, very worried about my friend, looking to find some quiet after a very loud day of machine guns and rockets and bombs.

As I sat on a rock, I looked up into the sky, watching the patterns the smoke from the village made in the evening light. Whereas the day had been nothing but gray and brown and black, now the light caught the smoke, creating the most wonderful colors. A schoolhouse was burning fiercely, sending much smoke into the air and the wind would come by, swirling the smoke into incredible patters.

Some soldiers said that God must be on our side because we were victorious during operation storm, because we were able to drive the enemies from our homeland. I used to think this, but we had been beaten and defeated so many times in the past, how could this be true? Was God on the heathen serb side during those times?

When I saw those colors HE gave us to celebrate our fighting, it was then I knew not only did he exist, but that he smiled on what we had done. Protecting His children from the enemies, those godless ones who so often killed and harmed our loved ones, that was the reason God put us, the Faithful in the path of evil. A few week later, the fighting was mostly over, just some "clean-up" missions and it was back to my bakery that my grandfather bought in 1942 (from a jevrejin- very good price!!)

Years later, people would criticize us for committing "war crimes" and even tried to imprison some of our great leaders. They complain, "You destroyed their churches," as if they were real Churches and not idolator temples with their fancy pictures. But once again, God was Great, swaying those judges to release our heroes so they could return to their families. During this time, I had to leave my homeland since I was a good Catholic who tried to protect my people and that is how I came to the USA!

-Vox Dei electus

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