Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


September 14, 1998

There is a story about St. Christopher, probably more legend than truth, which runs this way:

As a youth, Christopher was gifted in every way, except faith. He was a big man physically, powerful, strong, good-hearted, mellow and well-liked by all. He was also generous, using his physical strength to help others.

His one fault was that he found it hard to believe in God. For him, the physical was what was real and everything else seemed unreal. However, he yearned to believe in God and deeply respected those who did believe.

And so he lived his life in a certain honest agnosticism, unable to really believe in anything beyond what he could physically see, feel and touch.

This, however, did not prevent him from using his gifts, especially his physical strength, to serve others. This became his refuge, generosity and service. He became a ferry-boat operator, spending his life helping to carry people across a dangerous river.

One night, during a storm, the ferry-boat capsized and Christopher dove into the dark waters to rescue a young child. Carrying that child to the shore, he looked into its face and saw there the face of Christ. After that he believed – for he had seen the face of Christ.

The very name, Christopher, contains the legend. Christopher means Christ-bearer.

Fact or fiction? In either case, the story contains, within its very simplicity, a profound lesson. It gives us an answer, a practical one, to one of the most difficult questions of all: What should we do when our faith is weak?

What should be our reaction in the face of the fact that God often seems silent, distant, dead? How do we move from believing only in the physical – from believing in the reality of only what we can see, feel, touch, taste and smell – to believing in the existence of deeper, spiritual realities?

Christopher's answer? Live as honestly and respectfully as you can and use your gifts to help others. God will appear. Faith is not so much a question of feeling as of selfless service.

That is also the lesson in the biblical account of the apostle Thomas, and his doubt about the resurrection of Jesus. Remember how he protests: "Unless I can (physically) place my finger in the wounds of his hands and stick my finger into the wound of his side, I will not believe."

It is noteworthy that Jesus offers no resistance or rebuke in the face of this remark. Instead he takes Thomas at his word: "Come here, and (physically) place your finger in the wounds of my hand and the wound in my side – see for yourself that I am real and not a ghost."

That is an open challenge for all of us: "Come and see for yourselves that I am real and not a ghost!" The challenge, however, has a couple of conditions – honesty and generosity.

Skepticism and agnosticism, even atheism, are not a problem as long as one is honest, non-rationalizing, non-lying, ready to efface oneself before reality as it appears and generous in giving his or her life away in service.

If these conditions are met, God, the author and source of all reality, will eventually become evident, even to those who need physical proof. The stories of Christopher and Thomas teach us that and they assure us that God is neither angered nor threatened by an honest agnosticism.

Faith is never certainty. Neither is it the sure feeling that God exists. Conversely, unbelief is not to be confused with the absence of the felt assurance that God exists. There are, for every one of us, dark nights of the soul, silences of God, cold lonely seasons, bitter times when God's appearances to us cannot be truly grasped or recognized.

The history of faith, as witnessed by the life of Jesus and the lives of the saints, shows us that God often seems dead and, at those times, the reality of the empirical world can so overpower us that nothing seems real except what we can see and feel right now, namely our own pain.

Whenever this happens, we need to become Christ-bearers, Christophers, honest agnostics who use their goodness and God-given strength to help carry others across the burdensome rivers of life. God does not ask us to have a faith that is certain, but a service which is sure.

We have the assurance that, should we faithfully help carry others without first thinking of ourselves, we will one day find ourselves before the person of Christ who will gently say to us: "See for yourself, that I am real, and not a ghost."