Metaphors can help us deepen our faith

For many Catholics, the definition of "faith" is hard to grasp. It is not uncommon, for example, for those experiencing a sense of harsh abandonment and suffering to conclude, falsely, that they are undergoing a "crisis of faith." A metaphor for faith is usually helpful in sorting out such misunderstandings. Of course, metaphors do not provide the precision of a scholastic definition. But a reasonably accurate metaphor prepares us to enter more deeply into the mystery leading us to the faith Jesus exhorts us to have: "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you" (Lk 17:16).

Christ Himself uses metaphors in the Gospels. The "kingdom of God" parables, for example, help us begin to identify our destiny as well as the obstacles we face in our pursuit of it. The scattering of seed, the vibrant growth or the choking off by weeds provide vivid images to help us understand the nature of this kingdom. Christ is truly the master of the metaphor - witness the poignant parable of the prodigal son. Of course, His richest metaphor of all is the raw material for the blessed Eucharist, where the metaphor of bread is elevated. And Christ, "the bread of life," becomes present again among us again at every Mass.

But metaphors should be on target. Contrary to the cliche, faith is never "blind." In this Sunday's Gospel, we hear about Bartimaeus, a blind man, begging by the roadside. To the annoyance of the disciples, he pesters Christ until he receives a hearing and pleads, "Master, I want to see." Christ immediately responds, "Go your way; your faith has saved you." Bartimaus at last has the eyes to see Christ clearly and to follow Him. Indeed true faith opens our eyes to Jesus.

Contemporary metaphors for faith are not lacking. Years ago, the famous Hubble orbiting telescope, because of a design flaw, needed to be fitted with corrective lenses. After astronauts retrofitted the Hubble, the stunning images that came back were those of a distant universe, including images of magnificent energy bursts. Faith is like corrective lenses to the eyes of our fallen nature that help us to see deep within the ways and heart of Christ.

Communication with spaceships also provides useful images of faith. When Apollo 13 during its famous mission to the moon was crippled by an explosion, the astronauts returned to earth only because of their ability to communicate with NASA's mission control. Faith in Christ and His church is something like that. Tuned in to the church's teaching by faith, we are infallibly guided to our heavenly destination despite the slings and arrows of our daily lives. And similarly, there is the traditional image of the church as the "barque of Peter," a ship of safe haven in the stormy waters of life.

Yet metaphors, however clear and effective, always fall short. St. Paul acknowledges this when he writes, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9). Hence, to enter more deeply into the mysteries of faith, it is necessary to advance with the formulation of magisterial definitions. Even here, a metaphor can be useful.

Catholic author Flannery O'Connor wrote wonderfully eccentric short stories with profound insights obviously gleaned from her faith. In her letters, she defines dogmas of the faith as "windows to the infinite." When we in faith accept a Catholic dogma, we do not close our eyes, but rather we see more clearly the divine mysteries. The dogma of the incarnation of Christ - the word made flesh - reveals that the Second Person of the Trinity became man. In pondering the meaning, we cannot but conclude that God and man are reconciled in the person of Christ. Human nature hence is elevated by God above all other creation. The dogma of the Incarnation not only teaches us about Christ, but about our innate human dignity.

With our eyes opened by metaphors of faith, we may be better able to appreciate the power of the written word and doctrinal formulations. Perhaps we are able to grasp this definition of faith as taught by the First Vatican Council: "Faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, the Catholic church professes to be a supernatural virtue, by means of which, with the grace of God inspiring and assisting us, we believe to be true what He has revealed, not because we perceive its intrinsic truth by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, who makes the revelation and can neither deceive nor be deceived."

Faith, the size of a mustard seed and precisely defined. And worthy of hours of prayerful meditation. Now that isn't so hard, is it?

Fr. Pokorsky is pastor of St. Michael Parish in Annandale.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012