Friday, January 11, 2008

Trial of Faith

As any classical grammarian will explain to you, “of” is an ambiguous word. (Classicists refer to it as the “genitive,” but it’s the same thing.) The word after “of” can be the object of the word before: the love of horses means that the horses are what’s being loved. But the word after can also be the subject of the word before: the beauty of horses refers to something the horses have. Sometimes, but not always, a phrase is ambiguous: the love of Sally could mean Sally’s love for horses, or it could mean Tommy’s love for Sally. This is an interesting ambiguity in the phrase “love of God.”

Sometimes, of can also indicate an identity between the words before and after. The “law of the seas” is an objective genitive: it’s the law that obtains over those at seas. But the “law of gravity” is not a law over gravity, or in the realm of gravity; it means that gravity itself is a law. I’m not sure how grammarians categorize this one. It could be a subcategory of the subjective genitive, like “beauty of horses,” so that of would indicate a particular aspect of gravity, the part that is a law. But that seems wrong. Probably this is another kind—I’ll call it the genitive of identity—so that “law of gravity” means neither the law that rules over gravity nor the law that gravity possesses, but gravity itself, which is like a law.

(Sidenote: in Latin, at least St. Thomas’s Latin, “natural law” is usually not lex naturale but lex naturae: the law of nature. You get very different ideas of natural law depending how you construe this genitive: is it objective, the law that rules over the state of nature? or is it subjective, the aspect of nature which serves as a law? or is it a genitive of identity, nature itself taking the place of law. I believe St. Thomas understands it in the last way, but moderns, especially in the wake of Kant, construe it in the first.)

What occasions these reflections is my perusal of the new book on Mother Teresa, which reveals the darkness of her life of faith through her private letters to priests, and which I received for Christmas this year. I’ve only perused it, so these reflections are based more on my reading of theology, especially Garrigou-Lagrange (who shows up a lot in the footnotes to the Mother Teresa book) and the Neo-Platonic strands of St. Thomas. And other saints, especially Thérèse of Lisieux.

So here’s the question: if Mother Teresa’s interior darkness is called a “trial of faith,” or “test of faith,” what does of mean?

The standard assumption is that it’s an objective genitive: faith is what is being tested. So we assume that anyone who goes through that kind of darkness must have a lot of doubts about whether God really exists. Their faith must be sorely “tried.” How can you believe what you don’t see?

But, of course, when you put it that way, it’s a stupid question, and you see that “trial of faith” can’t be an objective genitive: you can only believe what you can’t experience. That’s what belief means. That’s what faith means. If you can see, then by definition you aren’t believing. Faith is always dark. That’s what distinguishes it from sight. (And that’s why we call heaven the “Beatific Vision”: where faith gives way to sight.) The lack of evidence can’t, by definition, “try” our faith.

(This is not to say that faith is contrary to evidence. Indeed, there is lots of evidence, both historical and metaphysical, to confirm what we believe. But nonetheless, faith is by definition what you believe because you have been told, because you have heard, not seen.)

I think the correct way to construe “trial of faith” is as a genitive of identity: faith itself is a trial. But—and here’s the key point—it’s more of a trial for those who love more. For us schleps who really aren’t that interested in God, we believe what we don’t see, but it really doesn’t bother us whether we see or not. Faith isn’t a trial if the darkness doesn’t bother you.

But for the saints, for those who really love God, who desire his presence more than anything, faith is a horrible trial, because faith is defined as distance, inability to see the one you love. Mother Teresa’s darkness was not some strange trial imposed on her, not the removal of something that the rest of us have. Rather, the darkness we all have became a trial through the addition of love. She experienced her distance—the distance of all of us wayfarers—with acute pain because she didn’t want to be distant.

Which is why the great spiritual writers insist that the “dark night of the soul” (a subjective genitive) is common to all the saints. Those who do not experience darkness are by definition not saints. If your inability to see God doesn’t bother you, if the life of faith (objective genitive) doesn’t drive you crazy, you don’t love enough! Of course, most of us don’t. But we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter darkness. We shouldn’t be surprised when prayer ceases to be fun. We shouldn’t be surprised when the more we advance, the more we seem to recede. Because in the life of faith, we are distant from our Lord. He who does not ache for heaven is not really a Christian.

And the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” And he who hears [the believer?] says, “Come!” And the One who thirsts will come. And he who desires will receive, by grace, the water of life. — Apc. 22:17