BARRETT: Faith:Where to get it and how to keep it



Tom Barrett

The Franciscans have this great quote: “Preach the Gospel. And if necessary, use words.”

For most of my life, I have been a practicing Catholic, but I have been growing increasingly distant from the Church over the past few years. While I haven’t lost my belief in Jesus’ message of love and compassion for all mankind, the other, more dogmatic aspects of Catholicism have made less and less sense to me. I don’t really understand the doctrines of the Trinity and transubstantiation or why believing in them is essential to true Christian faith.

Going to Mass has begun to feel empty as well. Not too long ago, I found myself sitting, kneeling, standing and idly reciting prayers throughout the service without really knowing what I was doing or saying. It has just started to feel like the priests and congregation alike aren’t really living out their faith but rather are just going through the motions every week. Despite my disillusionment with this institution that has been a huge part of my life, my faith in the Christian message of love has remained strong.

Over this past fall break, however, I witnessed faith in action firsthand as I had never seen before. My friend and I led a service break trip to the St. Francis Inn in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, and I can honestly say that this soup kitchen is a special place. The Franciscans and volunteers who run the kitchen are all united under a Catholic identity, but they lived their lives like few Catholics I’ve ever met.

Taking the Franciscan motto close to heart, they put their faith in action each and every day as they live in solidarity with the poor to serve them out of love and understanding. They have no government or Franciscan funding, nor do they ask for donations, yet somehow they always find themselves with enough money to keep the much-needed Inn open and with enough food to feed roughly 350 people every day of the week. They live with complete faith that God will provide, and they’ve kept St. Francis Inn open for 30 years now.

This week in Philadelphia helped me realize some important things about faith. First, faith must be active. Simply saying, “I believe!” is not faith. It’s a statement. Going to church once a week and reciting prayers will be nothing but a weekly hobby if those words aren’t matched with actions.

But how are we supposed to act? That was my second realization. Faith must always involve questioning – how we live, why we live a certain way, what feels right in our hearts. As soon as we tell ourselves, “Ah-ha! That’s it! I’ve found the truth!” is exactly when any real learning and growth immediately ceases. Faith is a constant discovery. It is questioning with certainty in two things: we will never get all the answers that we want, but if we question honestly we will find ourselves getting closer and closer to these unattainable answers.

Thirdly, faith is uncertain. If faith were a matter of fact, it would be knowledge. We know that chairs exist: We can see them; we can sit in them; we can taste them if we really want to. We don’t say we have faith in chairs. That would be ridiculous. Faith is a paradox: It’s knowing without really knowing. Faith is trusting in the fact that, by living in accord with the answers we’ve gotten from honestly questioning our hearts, we will not be steered wrong.

Finally, and most importantly, I’ve realized that it is OK for us to be unsure. Faith is a journey, not a destination. It’s a lifelong commitment that includes moments of clarity and periods of extreme doubt and despair. We must accept that these questions in our heart will always be there and that they should be there.

We must accept our limitations and humbly understand that we are only human. Faith isn’t about successfully finding God and truth and the meaning of life. Doing so is impossible. Faith is about following our hearts and minds and – though we may not be able to feel it – trusting that we are getting closer and closer to wherever it is that we should be going.


Tom Barrett is a senior philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].