For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of 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.
— Matthew 17:20 NRSV
One concept I have run into again and again, both among Christians as well as among others with an interest in mysticism, is the idea that mysticism is about experience which is somehow different from faith.
The logic seems to go like this: as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But mysticism, by contrast, is about the experience of God’s presence in our lives. Why would anyone settle for mere faith, which seems to be built on hope rather than real, lived experience? Wouldn’t it be better to trade faith in for a more direct, immediate, feel-it-in-your-bones sense of God’s reality and activity in our lives?
The Apostle Paul says we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1). But if faith justifies us, how much more will direct experience contribute to real, lasting intimacy with God?
The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes an “either/or” relationship between faith and experience. Somehow, if we have a real enough experience of God, then we no longer need faith. “Faith is not important to me, because I know in my heart that God is real and God is present in my life,” someone once proudly told me. She was young, self-assured, a minister in a small church. Politeness prevented me from telling her what I thought of her aplomb: it sounded to me like she hadn’t had a dark night experience yet. Yes, mysticism is all about experience, but mysticism is both bigger and deeper than experience. Sometimes God comes to us through absence. Sometimes faith is tested in the crucible of doubt. And even when an experience hits us over the head with the proverbial two by four, we still must reflect on the experience and interpret it, with the language, values, and religious symbols that contribute to our sense of spiritual identity. Such a process of reflection and interpretation is a process that depends on faith: faith in the very trustworthiness of our own experience, and in our knowledge and ability to reflect on and interpret it.
Why is faith important? Why is it essential, even to the mystically inclined? For one very simple reason: No one has a perfect experience of God. Anyone who says that they do is just fooling themselves. Perfection is a concept related to completion, which implies that nothing can ever be perfect in human experience until we reach the end of our lives. In the meantime, faith is the tool by which we navigate all the great unknowns of life, including our relationship to the future, to our deep unconscious, and yes, to everything about God that is beyond our puny little experience, no matter how personally meaningful such experiences might be.
If you embrace the contemplative life, you will be opening your heart to a quest for experiential intimacy with God. This is a good and beautiful thing. But it doesn’t render faith unnecessary. On the contrary; faith becomes more important than ever. Cultivating faith is at least as important as daily meditation or the practice of virtue.
And how do we cultivate faith? Two thoughts here. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ,” proclaims Paul (Romans 10:17). Dust off your Bible, my friend; and if you aren’t already participating in the weekly Mass or worship service of your faith community, then start doing so. Participating in regular worship and daily scripture reading is of central importance when it comes to nurturing faith. Granted, the “word of Christ” can come to us in ways other than through Sacred Scripture. But keeping the ear of our hearts open to listen for the word of Christ however it may come to us does not render Sacred Scripture (or corporate worship) unnecessary. On the contrary, reading (and hearing) Sacred Scripture will attune us to recognize the word of Christ however it may come to us: in the words of a homeless person, in an insight while reading the news, in a conversation with a trusted friend. The more we listen for the word of Christ, the more we nurture our faith. And do I need to point out that such listening requires the cultivation of inner silence?
My other thought about cultivating faith has to do with the meaning of the word itself. Merriam Webster defines faith as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God.” So to nurture faith, we need to nurture belief, trust, and loyalty. Belief, incidentally, is not so much about certainty of the mind as openness of the heart; trust and loyalty are also heart-centered virtues. So faith comes not from the intellect so much as from the will: it’s not what we think, but the choices we make, that make us faithful. I choose to trust God. I choose to open my heart to God. I choose to stick with God, no matter what. Out of these choices, faith happens.
And faith does not replace or crowd out the experience of contemplative awareness of God’s presence: rather, it sets the stage for such an encounter to take place.