In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo receives a gift from one of the elves. It was a small phial of water that contained the light of their most beloved star that was to be a light to Frodo when all other lights had dimmed. This gift, this weapon, this illumination, symbolizes the gift and the light of our faith.
In 2013, Pope Francis wrote his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith). He emphasized the importance of right vision and how faith illumines the way of the Christian. Focusing on themes from Pope Benedict XVI, Francis begins to explain how faith has been viewed as only “sufficient” light “for societies of old” and warns that “once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.” (Lumen Fidei, 4). Those who cannot see the light of faith have tried to dismiss it as antiquated and elderly, demanding that society make room for the more “mature” light of science and reason. Ironically, Francis begins Lumen Fidei with the call and response of the aged Abraham. As our “Father in Faith,” he exemplifies the power of trusting in God’s promise. Saint Augustine says that “We are faithful when we believe in God and His promises; God is faithful when he grants to us what He has promised.” (Lumen Fidei, 10). Our trust in what has been promised is a “remembrance of the future, memoria futuri,” and therefore faith is secured to hope. In John’s gospel, Jesus says “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” (Jn 8:56). Francis explains that
“Abraham’s faith pointed to him [Jesus]; in some sense it foresaw His mystery. So Saint Augustine understood it when he stated that the patriarchs were saved by faith, not faith in Christ who had come but in Christ who was yet to come, a faith pressing toward the future [the hope] of Jesus.” (Lumen Fidei, 15).
Is faith as intangible as light? On the contrary, faith is very much palpable and even sensual. In Isaiah 7:9, the prophet says “unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm” and Francis adds, “Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a [firm] footing. It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves.” Without the truth of the Gospel, we see only what we want to see and the light of faith is dimmed.
The Holy Father proposes,
“In the end, what we are left with is relativism…the question of universal truth – and ultimately this means the question of God is no longer relevant. The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness…
‘One believes with the heart’ (Rom 10:10)…the core of the human person, where all his or her different dimensions intersect: body and spirit, interiority and openness to the world and to others, intellect, will and affectivity. If the heart is capable of holding all these dimensions together, it is because it is where we become open to truth and love…faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love.” (Lumen Fidei, 27-29).
Faith is ultimately a gift from God in order to see God. Francis has also articulated that faith can exist only in connection with hope and openness to charity. “Since it is born of love, it can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman.”
So how can we come to acquire such a gift? We ask for it and search for it; just as you would for any other necessity. In Mark’s gospel the blind man is asked by Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man answers that he wants to see and “immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.” (Mark 10:51). We can see why “blind faith” is then a contradiction because true faith does not stifle or consume, and therefore, lose the light of the person, “like a star engulfed by the dawn.” (Lumen Fidei, 40). The formerly blind man “followed him on the way” because faith illuminates the person and their path in life, like Moses at the burning bush. We, like the bush, are not consumed and turned to ash but rather transformed and elevated “all the better to know the object of our love.” (Lumen Fidei, 41). It is because of this relationship to charity that “it is impossible to believe on our own.” We are relational beings because we are created by and for the Relational Being; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “Like every family [that] passes on to her children the whole store of her memories,” we come to see how the light of faith yearns to spread its invitation of joy within the community of the Church. The sacraments then transmit “an incarnate memory” that engages each of our senses in order to incorporate the whole person into that light of faith. This happens principally at baptism. “No one baptizes themselves, just as no one comes into the world by themselves. Baptism is something we receive.” (Lumen Fidei, 50).
Frodo received the illuminating phial of “baptismal water” at the beginning of his journey as a gift, a weapon and defense against a growing darkness. We, too, receive this light at the beginning of our journey and Francis offers encouragement during the struggles that may appear in our lives,
“Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, His response is that of an accompanying presence…” (Lumen Fidei, 68).
May our faith be a light when all others have gone out.