I’ve been told many times by many people that they wish they had my faith or that they admire my faith. It sometimes seems as though they think faith is a gift I’ve been uniquely given, but the priest at last Sunday’s Mass had a definition of faith that helped clarify what I can never express. He defined faith as the absence of certainty.
That put a whole new spin on things. The idea of faith as the absence of certainty made me think back to all the doubts I’ve had over the years and what I’d done about them.
In middle school, I was awkward and ugly and bullied and fortunate to be able to transfer to an all girls’ Catholic high school which probably helped save my life. I saw the blessing of that school, but my gratitude was outweighed by past pain and weird contrasts of inferiority and arrogance.
In high school I faced normal growing up type questions when I, like many teenagers, rebelled against authority and questioned God. I wasn’t a bad kid. In fact, I would have been pointed out as a role model by many of my teachers, coaches, and school administrators, but I was more than what I appeared to be – or maybe I was less.
Maybe I still am.
I struggled with a family life that wasn’t as picture perfect as others might have thought and with memories of past abuse by someone outside my family which kept me from ever feeling completely safe. I often wondered where God was when bad things happened and why He didn’t think I was worth protecting.
High school strengthened me and by college, I thought I was ready to face the world, but high school had sheltered me too. I was unprepared for a world of good people making bad choices or how easily I could justify bad choices I made too. I still went to Church most Sundays, but you couldn’t tell from the way I acted the other six days and 23 hours a week. My arrogance had grown although I would have balked at anyone saying so. I believed my search for fun outweighed God’s moral standards. I believed He’d forgive me. I believed there was little to forgive since everyone was on the same path I was. I didn’t even really see anything wrong with what I was doing.
What do they say about the path to Hell being wide an well paved compared to the path to Heaven being steep and narrow? I was taking the easy way out, going along with the crowd and believing what I was fed by modern culture and those who didn’t dig deeper. I am sure I was also feeding the some dirt to others who watched me even without my knowing.
The strange thing is though that as my arrogance grew and I believed more in what I was doing and sacrificed more of what God tells us to do, my feelings of inferiority grew as well. The only way I knew to overcome that feeling of inferiority was to grasp more arrogance and make my “fun” better than God’s paths.
I met my husband shortly after graduating from college, and he appeared to be everything I wanted in a man. He was tall, dark, and handsome, an athlete and a hard worker, and I fell hard. By this time, I’d stopped partying and my foolish college ways. Most people who didn’t know me during that short four year span of my life would have found it hard to believe I partied at all. I was a good girl again. I went to Church every Sunday and brought my husband back to the faith.
It seemed I was the model Catholic young woman or maybe it just seemed that way to me. I didn’t really ever know any devout Catholic role models, male or female. No one told me the way I was living was still wrong. I wasn’t partying anymore, but I wasn’t living my life under God’s laws either.
That arrogance and inferiority still existed hand in hand without my understanding or realizing it. I made choices and justified them. I did things my Catholic faith said were wrong but justified them with future plans and beliefs that parts of the Catholic faith I struggled with were old fashioned and not meant for today’s society. I picked and chose which parts of my faith I’d follow and which didn’t really apply to me or my situation.
And 17 years after meeting my husband, all of it came crashing down around me.
The tenuous faith I’d counted on for years, the shaky ground I learned to walk on, the shifting sand I’d built my children’s lives on…it all came crashing down on one beautiful May day.
Faith is the Absence of Certainty
Look carefully at the photo above. Do you see the mustard seed? I was a cradle Catholic. Surely, I had faith greater than the size of a mustard seed. Look at how small and insignificant that seed seems. Jesus tells us in Sunday’s Gospel,
If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to [this] mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.
When my husband suddenly left, the world crashed. I was certain of nothing anymore. The man I thought had loved me so much suddenly hated me with a consuming passion I couldn’t understand. My safety, my security, my future, my emotional, physical, financial well-being, all my hard work and dedication and, most painfully, all the magic I thought I’d bring to my children’s childhood was instantly pulverized by one man’s actions.
Any arrogance I had earlier was replaced by anger and an overwhelming fear and a certainty that I could never be good enough. I looked back and beat myself up for things I’d done wrong in my marriage but still I didn’t fully embrace my faith – unless my faith was defined as the absence of certainty. That I had plenty of.
Even those closest to God have periods of doubt and times when their faith sinks to painfully low levels, but this was different from all my past dips in faith. Other betrayals, even those I committed upon myself, were caused by those who I knew did not love me. This divorce was committed by the one person I believed found me worthy despite my many faults, the one person I believed would love me as I loved him, imperfectly together until death do us part.
But now he was gone, and I was alone with five small children looking to me for answers I couldn’t give. There is nothing quite like that experience to shake up your faith.
Faith as the absence of certainty. It’s quite a concept.
We are told of the greatest virtues, faith, hope, and love. We are also told of these three only love remains forever. Upon death, we will have no need for faith. We will meet our King. Upon entering into Heaven, we will have no need for Hope. We will have our Hopes fulfilled.
Only Love lasts forever.
But to get to Love, we must have faith.
As an abandoned woman, the idea of having eternal Love was one I wasn’t sure I could trust. I questioned my own lovability. Was I such a horrible person? Had all my bad so grossly outweighed my good? Was I so ugly inside and out?
Was I truly unlovable?
I looked back through the years as far back as I could remember to picture my life and my faith struggles, of what had brought on those struggles and how I’d answered them.
I saw myself as a middle and high school girl writing in my journal, pouring my heart out to no one in particular. I saw myself sitting on the steps of the big yellow Church overlooking the Hudson River and West Point and feeling small and alone but at least not bothered by those who scared or hurt or confused me. I prayed a lot there. Alone, I cried even more.
I saw myself in the high school I attended standing outside the locked Sanctuary wishing I could go in for a few moments not even sure of exactly what I sought but knowing I needed more than I had inside of me. I saw myself seeking the friendship of my coach who taught me more than she’ll ever know and of how I believed she was a gift from God. I probably believe that even more now than I did then.
I pictured the day I wanted to leave my husband, when things had gotten so bad between us that I was at a total loss and could see no end to our misery. I pictured pulling up to the Church to drop off the CYO basketball forms for the team I coached and I pictured myself sitting in the car unable to go inside, knowing that my God was in there, knowing the path I was on led to destruction, knowing I was being called to change but wanting God to see what I was going through too, knowing that arrogance was fading but still obstinately present.
I pictured myself finally succumbing to that call to change, to work to repair fissures in our relationship, to find things to love in my husband no matter how he treated me and to fall back in love with him.
And I pictured what I had faith in. Even after succumbing to increased humility, I still had faith in me and in my husband, in my Church rituals and selfish prayer. I was still arrogant and inferior. My faith hadn’t changed much in the almost 40 years between when I was born and when my husband left.
The Mustard Seed Myth
A mustard seed starts out small but grows to become a very large plant. When used for cooking, a mustard seed is a potent spice, and one can immediately tell a mustard seed when one bites down on a raw version.
But the thing about a mustard seed is that alone, it is not much of anything. It is small and will eventually decay into nothingness if left uncared for. It is only through the hard work of the farmer who studies the plant and provides nutrient rich soil, clean water, and a field of other mustard seeds that the mustard seed grows to what it was meant to be. Left alone in a jar in a cabinet, the mustard seed sits unnoticed and unassuming. It is only when the chef takes out the seed and stirs it into the dish that the mustard seed is taken in and enjoyed flavoring the meal.
A mustard seed absent of hard work is nothing.
Faith is the same. It must be grown and cared for, tended and studied. I looked back at all the times I had sought my faith and realized I had planted in shallow ground. I had fed it cheap, selfish prayers of demand rather than thanksgiving. I had watered it with dirty water rather than washing it clean with Confession and Reconciliation. I had tried to plant my faith while surrounded by music and movies and people that were more like sumac trees than mustard plants.
And I wondered why my faith crashed.
God provides us with all we need to grow our faith, but unless we make an effort to do so faith, like the mustard seed, sits idle and eventually loses flavor. In turn, we get upset because our unused, dried up faith fails to sustain us. We then we lose hope because our faith never develops.
It’s like getting mad at a neglected mustard seed for not growing into a tree or spicing up a cabinet where it sits untouched.
A mustard seed is a tiny but powerful little thing when it is used as intended. By itself, the mustard seed is nothing. It does not grow. It does not add flavor or spice. It just sits. Over time, the neglected mustard seed, even kept in a fancy bottle in a designer cabinet, breaks down, becomes dust, and is lost, never to serve its purpose, never to add pleasure to one’s palate, never to fulfill its destiny.
Faith Like a Mustard Seed.
Faith also needs to be fed to grow roots and blossom. Thankfully, those roots can be planted in infancy, but they can also be planted in adulthood. Strengthening and growing those roots requires a hunger for more, for peace, and for an open heart and mind. Faith is fed through quiet time alone with the Lord in prayer, in the Blessed Sacrament, in acknowledging that Jesus’ Blood paid beyond the continuous bloody animal offerings of the Pharisees and far beyond the beatings we make upon ourselves and those who have harmed us.
Faith needs to be studied through reading the Bible and the writings of the saints and sitting in personal contemplation just as a good farmer studies growing techniques, soil pH, and discusses methods with likeminded farmers. Faith needs to be organic and surrounded by healthy relationships, by others rooted and growing in the same manner. Faith, like a mustard seed surrounded by sumac trees, will not grow when one associates with those who care little for faith or who compartmentalize faith, hiding its expression in music, movie choices, literature, or private thoughts and actions.
Faith, like the mustard seed, needs to be watered. Faith is not grown through a one time watering performed in a long ago Baptism. Faith needs to be watered continuously. A tsunami of water one time does not help faith to grow anymore than a daily drop of water helps faith to grow. Faith must be watered gently and in all aspects of the day. Faith must be washed clean through Confession and Reconciliation, through blessings ourselves, and through satisfying an unending thirst for what is good and clean, pure and beautiful, powerful and satisfying long-term.
Faith must be grown in the light. Just as light pulls the mustard seed up from where it was buried in the darkness of the dirt, faith can pull us up from our darkest moments when we seek light, but, just as sunlight does not hit every part of the globe, just as sunlight can be denied an enclosed room, light can also be denied a closed heart and a closed minds. Faith and growth do not happen because the light fails to exist. Light never forces a seed to accept it, but it is always there waiting.
Have you ever bitten into a mustard seed? It is a powerful spice, touching one’s tongue with a heat that is warming and pleasant but which can also put tears in your eyes and make you sit up and take notice.
Faith does the same thing, but like the mustard seed, faith does nothing for you until you decide to either bite into it taking in that heat along with the tears or nurture and grow it. Faith, like a mustard seed, will do nothing more than decay, turn to dust, and be gone if you don’t use it.
What is the myth of the mustard seed? The myth is that the faith you have now will move mountains, that it is good enough, or there is something broken in you that will not allow your faith to grow.
I’m here to tell you, faith can grow but you need to work at it.
I am much happier, healthier, and stronger than I ever was with my husband. He was the sumac tree which needed to be uprooted to allow me to grow. I had built my home on sand and not even realized how poor my soil was. God allowed me to be uprooted and planted in richer soil.
Whatever you are facing now could be your replanting process. Maybe you are being uprooted and placed somewhere better but you have to choose to move. As painful as this time is now, you can one day look back on this time with gratitude and amazement at being able to accomplish all you have if you refuse to bury yourself but still choose to dig deeper.
It’s possible, but it won’t happen by itself. If you want a better life tomorrow, you need to grow your mustard seed today. Watch who you put your faith in. Love many. Trust few, and always put your faith in the Lord rather than in people. Build your relationship with Him. Read your Bible. Underline, take notes, or journal on what speaks to you. Seek communion with the entire church in the communion of saints. Make a confession and then seek Reconciliation. Pray the Scriptural Rosary. Listen to Christian music. Surround yourself with people who are not just good but faith-filled. Spend time meditating on Christian beliefs as Jesus showed us. Know this is not the end, but only the beginning.
You are small, but you are powerful when you grow your faith. It is time to stop accepting good enough and to plant yourself in rich soil.
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