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Held by Faith

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
John 14:23

Sister Loretta Palamara was the loving presence who comforted both patients and staff at Cabrini Hospice. She was earthy for a nun. And independent. The first day I met her she told me she didn’t believe in hell. Not being Catholic, I felt immediately at ease.

I had the privilege of providing the music at a memorial service at which Sister Loretta delivered the homily. She preached on the Twenty-Third Psalm. She called our attention to its first half:

The Lord is my shepherd.

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

He restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

These verses all have one thing in common: they speak of God in third person.

Then she pointed out a sudden change:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.

Your rod and your staff - they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

It is when we are suffering, it is when we are grieving, it is when we are troubled in deep darkness, that God becomes a “You.”

The Psalmist tells us just the opposite of what we might expect. We might think that it’s harder to find God when we’re in pain. But when we’re not in pain we don’t feel the need for God as much. When we “walk through the darkest valley” God can become an intimate companion, a “you.”

How does this happen?

For a long time this was a mystery to me. It still is. But I encountered this faith many times in many of my hospice patients. Those who were blessed to have it were not overcome by fear, even though they suffered acute pain and knew they were dying. I spent time with many of them trying to understand how they came to this faith. But no one could explain it to me. One can find it only in one’s own experience.

Jesus tried to teach this to his disciples. They were afraid of what would become of them once he was gone. As long as they could see him with them physically, they felt supported. But once he disappeared?

It is only then, Jesus told them, that they can come to real faith:

But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:5-7)

Or as Sister Loretta might have put it: “As long as you have the security of my physical being, God will always be third person to you. But when I am gone an Unseen Presence will come and befriend you.”

This Unseen Presence is the parákletos, “paraclete,” literally “called to one’s side.” Sometimes it is translated “advocate,” the one by your side who protects and defends you. It is also used in some Greek renditions of the Hebrew menahém, “comforter.” The word has many shades of meaning, which appear in different versions of the Bible.

All of these meanings are significant, because no single one of them captures what this is. In Christian theology it is called “Holy Spirit,” but traditional formulations of the Trinity doctrine have made this confusing for many. We might try looking at it in a different way.

What distinguishes the person of faith is the awareness of a sustaining presence beyond what is visible. It is a deep sense that the trials and sufferings of this world are not all there is. There is “something else,” which accompanies and guides us. Those who lack this awareness, who are weak in faith, are more vulnerable to fear’s corrosiveness. There is nothing shameful about this. No faith is perfect. We are here in this earthly life to learn about faith and so appreciate the presence of God.

But this presence that the faithful sense is not all of God. God is too great and unfathomable to be contained in the singular presence available to guide each one of us. This presence, which we may be blessed to sense, is not the totality of God. It is God’s “messenger.” The biblical term for God’s messenger is “angel.“

“For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). The person of faith is aware of this angelic presence, which is accessible to everyone. It is the universal Covenant that God has made with humanity.

We all have an angelic presence available to us. We may not know where to find it, or we may choose to ignore it. But I believe most of us experience it at least occasionally, particularly in moments of prayer. The essence of prayer is not asking God for things; it is allowing oneself to be grasped by the presence of eternal life. There is a special consciousness created in any space that people united in true prayer inhabit. Sometimes one may feel this consciousness in a house of worship even during off-hours, when the pews are empty but the spirit that filled them still lingers. The angelic presence remains.

Jesus embodied a special angelic presence, which may be called the Christ Angel or Spirit of God, which he received at his baptism (Matthew 3:16) and which spoke through him. This is, I believe, what Jesus meant by the “Paraclete.” Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit, which worked though him, comes to us too, as advocate, comforter, friend, and guide. This happens once we pass a certain level of commitment: the Christ Angel itself, beyond the individual angelic presence available to each of us, comes to live with us. This is deep faith.

But how do we find it?

This is the nature of “covenant.” A covenant is reciprocal. Both sides must participate; there is no cheap grace. So Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:15-16). Keep the commandments? All 613 of them? Jesus distills their essence into this single one:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

As I have loved you means without any personal investment or self-interest. This love is the nature of the Christ Angel, and is the love we are called upon to reflect. We will not get it perfectly, but we need only commit ourselves to approaching it as best we can.

So if we feel a need to be more aware of the presence of the Advocate we can move toward it in a number of ways: through prayer, through lectio divina (engaging a sacred text through deep contemplative reading and reflection), through communal worship, and most of all, through practicing non-self-interested love. Then that love becomes our home, a place of shelter and safety. Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1). The Advocate or Christ Angel is indeed a dwelling place, but it is also dynamic. It comforts, guides, prods, and changes. It does not prevent mishaps and suffering, but helps ensure that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). We may not even notice its presence in our lives until we look back and find a directedness that was totally beyond our control.

But we have not yet come close to the richness of what this divine love gives us. That is fulfilled only when we trust it enough to allow it to lead. It is so easy to lose track of that, and we are tempted at every moment. If, however, we can learn to return to the awareness of this special Presence in our lives, we can remind ourselves to step back while it takes the initiative, showing us what to say and what to do. Most of us will forget and lapse frequently, but God knows our frailties and makes allowances for them.

Letting this special Presence lead may be a new idea for us. Just accepting and believing in its existence may seem challenging enough. But following the path Jesus prescribed helps it become a living reality. This is his message in our chosen text: the love that reflects God’s love comes back to us as a power that gives us direction and shapes our lives to conform to our God-given destiny.

I have seen this at work in the lives of others. The patients I met in hospice, who had this deep faith that both amazed and puzzled me - those whom I got to know well, I discovered, lived very loving lives, putting their faith into practice, extending themselves to friend and stranger alike. If we feel our own faith lacking, we would not begin badly by taking the lives of such people as examples.

The covenant that first appeared to Noah in the form of a rainbow, then to Abraham in the form of an inheritance, appears through Jesus Christ as a Presence promised to us all. It is all one Covenant: God’s active participation in the life of human beings. The Messiah originally expected was to have transformed the world, but that would have left us unchanged. Instead of doing it all for us, he showed us how to get there ourselves. He did not transform the world. He transformed us instead.

October 2017