I came across a blog post the other day in which a guy talked about being plagued by feelings of doubt, which are occasionally dispelled by an experience of consolation at Mass. The consolations eliminate the doubt for a time, until the doubt feelings return, which in turn are eventually dispelled in a similar manner.
I can relate to this experience. Once in a while, the Mass strikes me in such a way as to strengthen and renew my faith; or at least, provide me with feelings of stronger faith and renewal; deep, powerful feelings, sometimes accompanied by tears.
But I think it helps to remember that faith is not a feeling, but an act of the will. Since faith is not a feeling, faith’s opposite also is not a feeling. Therefore, feelings of doubt do not imply lost faith. Since faith is an act of the will, its opposite must also be an act of the will. While feelings are not always under our control, faith cannot be taken away against our will.
In this way, faith is like love: Love too is an act of the will and not primarily a feeling. Long after feelings of love have disappeared, we can choose to continue loving our spouse, parent, sibling, etc. In fact, that is a test of love: Whether we continue caring for someone when their company becomes burdensome or onerous to us. Will we love someone only while it’s easy? What kind of love is it that disappears like a puff of wind when our feelings change?
No, we can choose to love regardless of our feelings. And we can also choose faith.
I happened to read the following passage in my mid-day prayers:
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” Gen. 12:1-4.
Abraham is sometimes called the Man of Faith (Gal. 3:9 (NIV)). This passage illustrates what earns him that title: God tells him, at the age of 75, to pack up his things and take his family to a strange land, “which I will show you”.
“So Abram went.” He made the act of faith, or rather the act of the will that constitutes faith. It says nothing about how Abram felt about it. Was he sad to leave his home, or was he excited to go on an adventure? I would suggest that his feelings are not mentioned because they don’t matter. The point is that he went, irrespective of feelings.
By the same token this blogger, who received feelings of consolation when he went to Mass, demonstrated his faith by going to Mass in the first place, even though he had, in his words, “fallen prey to doubt”.
It seems to me that a basic sign of genuine faith in a Catholic is whether he goes to Mass regularly. People may go to Mass for various reasons, whether out of habit or to avoid displeasing one’s family. But when a Catholic doesn’t go to Mass, it’s a pretty good indication that he lacks faith: He feels compelled neither by habit or family, nor by the command of the Church.
The Holy Eucharist itself, on the surface, has nothing that compels belief in us. Its form is as plain as can be: A simple round wafer, bland in color and taste. As the old hymn goes,
“Not to sight, or taste, or touch be credit,
Hearing only do we trust secure;
I believe, for God the Son has said it —
Word of Truth that ever shall endure.”
(“Adore Te Devote” by St. Thomas Aquinas.)
“Hearing only do we trust secure” — we go to Mass not because of visual marvels, or any properties appealing to taste or touch, but only because of what we have heard and believed: Like Abram, we hear and believe and therefore we act.