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Deacon Kyle Eller: How to handle ‘sagging or fainting faith’

A book that often comes to mind these days is “Lord of the World,” by Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, an English convert to the faith. Written in 1907, it depicts a vision of the end of the world — one of the oldest novels of the genre, yet prophetic enough and contemporary enough that both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have cited it.

The part that sticks with me is not usually the big set pieces of the story — the rise of the Antichrist and the final confrontation and culmination of history — but its depiction of a widespread apostasy, with many losing their faith. Early in the book, we see the church (and especially the book’s main character, a priest) struggling to combat this. Despite his best efforts, one of his brother priests gives in and quits. So do staunch Catholic families, leaving not shouting in anger at some perceived evil or triumphing at finding something they believe is better but with a sad sigh.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

It’s not even their falling into serious sin. (“Now they’re not all knaves,” one priest tells the main character. “I wish they were; it would be so much easier to talk of it.”) It’s not because some powerful argument has been marshaled against the faith that no one can refute.

It’s rather a sense that the world and its science and technology and especially its worship of humanity itself, along with public opinion that treats faith as silly, becomes just mesmerizing and so all-encompassing that it’s hard to see past it to what is really real.

Sometimes our world seems to look a lot like that. Certainly all of the causes mentioned play a role. Lots of people get caught up in sins they don’t want to give up and their faith becomes a casualty. Scandals in the church, and especially sins of the clergy, present a challenge to faith for many people. The world is certainly full of sneering contempt for faith, even if its arguments are, if anything, getting lamer.

And finally, obviously, our technology and self-worship are certainly shiny and mesmerizing. Many of us live in a world that is more virtual than real.

Our faith is so deeply precious — it is a “pearl of great price,” like in the parable of Jesus. Our faith has everything to do with our eternal destiny, whether we become what we were made to be, and even our joy and happiness in this life.

So what can we do to protect that faith amid all these dangers?

Let me offer a few suggestions:

Pray for faith: Did you know that faith is a divine gift, as well as a human act? It is. Rely on that fact. Pray, — earnestly, like the widow begging the unjust judge in another of Jesus’ parables — for the gift of faith. It is a traditional and pious practice to pray frequently for “final perseverance” in the faith — to keep it until death, which is what really counts.

Keep in mind that faith here is not a feeling, it is assent of our mind and will to God and what he has revealed. It’s God’s grace that enables our will to make that assent, and it’s not dependent on how we’re feeling that day.

God wants to answer this prayer for us. He wants us to be saved. So visit him in the Blessed Sacrament and spend an hour in prayer, and then another and another. Look with hope for him to act.

You know who else wants to help? The Blessed Mother and all the saints. Ask them for help.

Go to confession: Another obstacle to faith is sin. We all have them, but the more we fall in love with those sins, the more our hearts become enslaved to them and turn from God. The cure is turning the other way,back to the God who loves us and restores us in this sacrament. Make a good, prayerful examination of conscience and go to confession. You may be surprised at what a difference it could make.

Frequent Communion: Arguably the greatest English writer of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkein, was a daily Mass Catholic, and he memorably wrote a letter giving this advice to his son: “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect.”

This might be the opposite of our inclination. In our struggles, we might think we don’t belong at Mass. The opposite is true. Jesus gives himself to us to sustain and heal us. Let him. If you’re struggling, get to daily Mass.

Study your faith: This is advice I got in confession once a few years ago when I was going through a struggle, and I found it helpful. Perhaps one reason is that the world, for all its mockery and derision of faith, is woefully and often willfully ignorant of it. If we’re not ignorant, it becomes a lot easier to see the world’s mockery for the hollow sham it is. So get a catechism and read it. Open up your Bible, with the help of a good, faithful Bible study. And feel free to mix in a few good apologists — people like G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft. The actual arguments people make against the faith aren’t really new, and smart people have been answering them for 2,000 years.

Unplug: Living primarily in a virtual world is bad for the soul. Yes, technology in our gadgets and social media can bring many blessings. I’m a big geek myself, having been in many ways a creature of the Internet since the 1990s. But over the years, through experience, I have become certain that when it begins to occupy too big a place in life, I need deliberate time away from it. If you’re struggling with faith, turn off the screens for a few days. Take a walk. Look your family members in the eye. Read a book. Go to a concert in the park. Whatever. But get into the real world and real life for a while. The wind in the trees and the starry skies do wonders for my faith.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]