Do we have faith? What is faith? What kind of faith do we have? Can we increase our faith? How? Let’s go over some of these questions.
Do we have faith?
First let’s examine ourselves briefly if we have faith. How? Very simple. Take the same test the Lord gave to His Disciples:
“If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there’, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20).
Well then? Do we? Now you are going to say: Wait a minute. I know in my heart that I believe. I know that I have faith. And don’t tell me that the Lord was speaking literally here. So it’s got to be an exaggeration, a hyperbole. Right?
I don’t think the Lord was prone to exaggeration, to imbalanced and distorted views of reality, although He spoke boldly, as when He said, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). But if it wasn’t an exaggeration, if it wasn’t an unrealistic expectation, then how are we to interpret these words, which sound to be an examination of the Twelve and of all of us?
The Lord was giving us a dynamic image,
“a symbolic depiction of the dynamism contained in faith. It is a description of the indescribable vitality filling and watering our existence, when we give ourselves totally to the person of the God-man. A representation of the volcanic energy that rests within our innermost ‘being,’ when we go beyond our human doubts and cast anchor in the harbor of God’s love. If you have faith so small, yet so dynamic, as is the microscopic seed of mustard, says the Lord, you will move even the enormous masses of mountains”.1
Atomic fission in our age gave us a dimension of the dynamism included within the smallest particle of matter.
What is faith?
But what is faith? What do we mean when we say “faith”? “Faith,” for us Christians,
“means basically and primarily the free and wholehearted acceptance of the person of Jesus Christ and of His Message”,
“in an honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15).
“Faith,” says St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), or to say it more simply:
“Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV).
But we cannot have this assurance and certainty without the grace given to us “from above”; without first uniting ourselves with the Holy Spirit, abandoning ourselves to His guidance. “By the Holy Spirit every soul is quickened, and made shining through fire, it is purified, by the threefold oneness in a hidden manner,” we chant in the Gradual of the Fourth Tone of the Orthros Service. Thus the soul is offered to God purified, sanctified. It lives the divine presence.
But faith is also the confidence in the Person of the Lord, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and gives us strength and performs mighty deeds. Says St. John Damascene,
“Faith is the unhesitant and unshaken confidence that the promises of God will be fulfilled and our requests answered”.2
And elsewhere he defines faith as ἀπολυπραγμόνητος συγκατάθεσις, an “ascent without much examination” (ibid. 11(84)). Such was the faith of the Saints.
Our faith and the faith of the Saints
What kind of faith do we have? Let’s compare it to the faith of the Saints. The Saints had so much faith in God they seemed to… order God. Abba Moses followed an inner voice, which told him to dwell in a cave by a cliff. When he ran out of water, he wondered where he would find some. He turned to God and said:
“Now remember, Lord, You brought me here, so see to it that I get the water that I need for my brothers.”
Suddenly a cloud was carried by the wind just outside his cave and poured down so much rain as to fill all his jars.
“Why did you seem so concerned earlier?” two fellow monks asked the Elder.
“I was in court with God,” said he with simplicity of heart. “I was reminding Him of the obligation He had assumed, that He needed to fulfill!”3
In the first of many astounding stories narrated by Elder Paisios in his book Fathers of the Holy Mountain, he gives us the following example of “simplicity of heart” exhibited by one of the elders.
“When I was a novice in the Monastery of Esfigmenou, the pious Elder Dorotheos told me that in their infirmary would come this elderly monk to help them out. His simplicity was such that he thought Ascension was the name of a saint, like Saint Barbara. One day, when a sick brother was admitted and there was no food around to strengthen him, this elderly monk run fast down the steps to the basement, opened a small window above the sea, stretched his arms and said: “My Saint Ascension, give me a small fish for the brother.” And, what a marvel, a big fish leaped into his opened hands! And he very naturally, as if nothing extraordinary had happened, ran joyfully and prepared the fish for his sick brother”.4
One more episode from the same book.
“In the Skete of Iveron, ol’ Nicholas narrated to me of a Father who also had great simplicity. One time their well had dried up. He lowered an icon of St. Nicholas with a rope and shouted: ‘St. Nicholas, come up with the water, if you want me to light your candle – since you can do it… You see how many people come here, and we have no cold water to offer them.” And what an amazing thing – the water level began to rise slowly, with the icon of St. Nicholas floating on top, until he took it with his hands, kissed it reverently and brought it to the church.”
It sounds like extortion, but didn’t the Lord say “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force”? (Mt. 11:12). The holy Elder Paisios writes:
“The Fathers of those days had great faith and simplicity, and although most of them were not educated, they had humility and a fighting spirit, that’s why they received divine illumination. Whereas in our times, when knowledge is increased, unfortunately logic has shaken the faith of the people from the foundation. So, it follows that we are deprived of miracles, because the miracle is lived, it is not explained with logic.”6
And he speaks of the “aroma of [their] simplicity.”
How should we increase our faith?
What does faith do in us? As the seed of faith is planted by the Holy Spirit in our receptive heart, it begins the marvelous miracle of life. It begins to move, to break the soil and shoot into the air and the sun, it lifts its stem up high, to produce buds and bear fruit. All the vitality is enclosed within its dried skin. All the generative and growth power is contained within this tiny seed. The Lord compared the seed to the word of God, seeded in the hearts of men (cf. Luke 8:11). But what is the word of God? What else, or rather who else, but the living Word of God, Christ Himself, living in the heart and soul of the believer, through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Our faith too, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, should be alive, palpitant, vibrant. St. Symeon the New Theologian somewhere says, “When you are in prayer imagine you are holding the Lord by the feet. Don’t let go until your request has been answered.” Similarly Elder Joachim advises “Hold fast throughout your life to the robe of the Mother of God, and she will lead you to her Son”.7
Our faith is not just another religion, but life in Christ; Christ living mysteriously, but really, in the heart and soul of the believer. So faith is mainly the life of Christ in us. Therefore true faithful are those Christians who are in communion, that is, those who are united with Christ. That’s why as soon as we receive the mysteries of Christ (that is holy Communion) we shout triumphantly: “We have seen the true light… We have found the true faith…”
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: We call ourselves believers, men and women of faith. But are we? We often find our faith to be anemic, watered-down, shallow, sickly, sterile, tasteless, lukewarm, infertile. The seed of faith implanted in our baptism remains dormant. It doesn’t even germinate, let alone produce fruit! How can we increase our faith? How else, but by imitating Christ and His Saints. This is the very thing St. Paul exhorts us to do at the end of the Gospel passage we heard today. Let us be receptive, and as good soil let us receive God’s Word and allow it to grow and produce fruit—and fruit abundant. Let us prepare the soil of our soul with prayer and fasting, with askesis, with dynamic, living faith… Let us examine ourselves: are we truly faithful?
Many of us, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, have almost complete ignorance of our faith, and continue to live in ignorance, without even realizing it! Let us make a concerted effort to increase our knowledge of Christ and His message through Catechism and Bible Study, offered again this fall.
We’ll end by praying with a selection from Prophet David’s 27th psalm, a great prayer of confidence, faith and trust in God; a prayer of serenity, tranquility and peace:
- Metr. Nikodemos, p. 140.
- Exact Exp. 4 (77)
- p. 9
- pp. 39-40 and ff.
- Source unknown. Possibly Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters.
- Cont. Ascetics of Mt. Athos, p. 77.