The opening lines of Karen Armstrong’s introduction to her book A History of God: “As a child, I had a number of strong beliefs but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.” I wrote about an interview of Armstrong in my blog a few days ago. (December 6 – The Golden Rule – for All of Us)
It is difficult to describe my experience of God when I was a child. My family lived across the alley from our parish church, Our Lady of Lourdes, on the north side of Chicago. The children in our building, my brothers, cousins and I attended the Catholic school a block away. Church was far too conveniently located for us to ever consider not attending mass on Sunday. I can remember rolling out of bed, rolling up my pajama bottoms and running over to the church to get there before the offertory when the faithful could arrive at mass and still avoid the pain of mortal sin. Once the offertory was over, you might as well stay in bed. There were no degrees to doomed. Hopefully one would stay alive until the next Friday’s confession opportunity.
Mine wasn’t one of those Catholic families that would have been called faithful. We went to mass when we were supposed to but we never prayed novenas or attended a parish mission. We didn’t pray together as other families with grace before meals or the rosary. There was no picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or statue of the Blessed Virgin in our home. All of us kids were baptized, received first communion, were confirmed and later married in the Church. I have a cousin who is a priest. He was the son of the only sibling of my mother’s who was truly faithful. They sort of made up for the rest of us.
Our parish in Chicago had a small chapel attached to it that was created to duplicate the location where Bernadette had a Marian apparition in Lourdes, France in 1858. This meant that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to her, as she prayed. I would often go into that chapel and kneel before a rock formation and look up at a statue of Mary propped in a cavern. There were rows and rows of candles on either side with flames lit as prayer offerings for those who have died, those who are sick, or for other reasons the people came with petitions to Mary. As Catholics we prayed the Hail Mary, which was held up there with the Our Father, distinguishing us from our protestant friends.
Thinking about Armstrong’s statement about belief and faith above, I find it hard to name what it was that drew me into the chapel. In religion class, we were made to memorize doctrinal statements and our belief in the truth of them was taken for granted. I am probably among the few in my family that later questioned the teachings. But something else besides belief was happening when I knelt in that illuminated room. What I was experiencing was faith but I am just not sure exactly what it was I had faith in. I was never challenged to explain to anyone what was going on in my mind while there. I was feeling more than thinking. Perhaps I was seeking to have a spiritual experience as Bernadette had.
I guess one might say that my belief in the propositions set before me by my Church was casual, loose enough to break away later when challenged by other propositions. But the faith of that child kneeling in the grotto never really left.