By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
You know what I don’t do that often? I don’t often think about what it means to say that I have faith. Maybe that’s because I’ve got it and I’m busy trying to live being guided by it. So what’s it matter – if I’m already using and profiting from it – to think about what it means to have faith?
Well, if you don’t know what it means to be something then you are never going to be able to use that thing to its full potential. Imagine if all you knew about a smartphone was that it is a phone. Imagine if all you knew about clothes is that you wear them. Imagine if all you knew about painting is that you put it on a brush and smear it on paper. Imagine if all you knew about faith is that it means you believe in the existence of an eternal, infinite, super existence.
That’s often enough all I think faith is. Luckily I am reminded every now and then that there is more to it than just that. Most recently, I was struck by this description from Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book, Prayer: “The person who has faith and describes themselves as a believer is actually saying that they have the ability to hear God’s word.” Now that is a description of faith worth writing a blog post about!
I gave a lot – and yet not nearly enough – thought to this quote. I say I have faith, but do I also say that I can hear God’s word? If someone asked me, “Can you hear God’s word?” I’d probably give a very theological answer like, “Sure, in the scripture, for instance, we hear God’s word.” That isn’t a wrong answer, but it is also not what Balthasar is getting at (though he does emphasize the importance of scripture). No, there is something else more intimate than the sense of hearing that Balthasar is trying to remind us of. “The human was created to be a hearer of the word, and it is in responding to the word that each human attains their true dignity. Their innermost constitution has been designed for dialogue. Their reason is equipped with as much light of its own as it needs to apprehend God speaking to it… The human is a creature with a mystery in their heart that is bigger than their self. They are built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery.”
For us, then, to say that we have faith is to say that we accept ourselves as listeners. We are receivers of gifts. To say we have faith is not just to say that we believe in an idea, but that we have a relationship with someone greater than ourselves who gives us not only what we need to live, or to be our best selves, but to be more than we could reasonably expect to be. To say we have faith is to say that we have a relationship with God, one that is far more intimate and necessary than acknowledging God is there, somewhere. To say that we have faith is to say that we acknowledge God’s voice speaking to us in the Church: in the people of our community, in our scripture, in our sacrament, and in our conscience. Here we meet Jesus, the Word, and listen to him and make him our own. To say we have faith is to say that we are part of the body of Christ, able to hear the Word that comes from the Head because we are filled with the same Spirit that fills it.
When I first read Balthasar’s description of faith, I was shaken, I was worried. Do I listen to God’s word? Do I have this faith? I don’t know. But I do know what I am going to try to be from now on when I say I have faith; I’m not going to try to believe something, I am going to try to hear someone.