Just about this time, 19 years ago, I found myself with my fellow chaplains-in-training in the woods of
Fort Jackson, South Carolina at 3 AM. We were practicing “night land navigation,” ie, finding the way
from point A to point B in the dark. Each group had a map reader, a “pacer” (who walks with a
consistent gait) and, of course, the leader who holds the compass. Guess which role fell to me? It was a
moonless night; I could see nothing beyond the “cat eyes” (illuminated dots) on the helmet of the
soldier in front of me. My main thought was: “Dear God, we’re going to die in the woods.” Only two
things kept us going: (1) the cadre’s assurance that the object of our search (the flag of our unit) was at
the destination, and (2) the drill sergeant who, with a look of amused annoyance at our ineptitude, kept
pointing us in the right direction. The takeaway was clear: there is no substitute for expertise, but the
ability to search for treasure is not itself a guarantee that the treasure exists. Along with the ability to
read the treasure map, the seeker requires faith that the treasure chest is out there.
Often, I hear from people of my generation that their children do not so much reject their Christian
faith as they simply have other interests. These things are legitimate: education, profession, home,
comfort, entertainment, etc. By contrast, the spiritual life seems dull, a sad reality not always helped by
the dry, bloodless explanations of religious types like me. Still, I think we can all agree that by their
very nature these good things will pass away. What then? In a world of fragile peace (at best),
senseless violence, and misplaced priorities, is it any wonder that people, particularly young people,
experience a crippling loss of meaning in life?
The Catholic sensibility, once again, provides direction, much like that drill sergeant. On the one hand,
faith is trust that the source of Being that holds everything together is “out there,” so to speak. On the
other hand, faith points us in the right direction: perfect union with God in Heaven. Faith is not an
excuse for avoiding homework; we must learn, work, train, sweat, love, and suffer through life. On the
contrary, faith gives cohesion to these eminently human undertakings, which in turn give life meaning
and beauty. Ultimately, only God is worthy of our trust because he will never pass away. Still, we must
keep in mind that faith, by its very nature is a gift. One cannot simply go out and “get” it. Then where
do we turn?
Today’s artwork is Titian’s 1541 masterpiece, Pentecost. Art historians tell us that his style is marked
by natural colors and a soft texture best appreciated from a distance. The scene, with the Holy Spirit
(the dove) descending upon the Apostles in tongues of fire, illustrates the creative tension between
faith and reason I’ve described above. Reason, for all its benefits, is limited in its ability to pierce the
veil of ultimate reality, and risks falling into the dark skepticism of doubt. It needs faith—freely given
by God—not to control it, but to give assurance that the Source of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness
beckons us to come near.
We reenter Ordinary Time bringing the comfort of faith to a world so desperately in need of it.