The Faith That Lies Beneath Faith

Recently my wife and I finished reading Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. In the last part, the protagonist Levin has a crisis of faith. He is driven to the philosophy of his day (the 1870s), looking for reasons to explain the natural life he sees around him, but it only makes him intellectually desperate. He has to order his servants to hide all the ropes around his place, and he avoids hunting with guns because he’s afraid he will kill himself. Tolstoy himself actually did this, according to his Confession.

There comes the day when one of Levin’s peasants describes a local  innkeeper who lives only for himself and his belly, whereas another of their neighbors lives for the soul: ‘He remembers God.’ At this, Levin becomes unaccountably excited. He discovers he has received a great blessing and reassurance. A few pages on, he says, ‘I haven’t discovered anything. I have just found out what I know.’

He had been living (without being aware of it) by those spiritual truths he had imbibed with his mother’s milk, and not only thinking without acknowledging these truths, but studiously ignoring them.

This is a pretty good description of faith: a kind of knowledge that underlies everything else we know. We can studiously ignore it, and many people do. But there can come a day when it is neither discovered, nor deduced from evidence, but found out as something long since known, as if from mother’s milk. It might be called a confidence that underlies all lesser confidence, deeper than what Freud called the subconscious, which turns out to be only a defensive middle layer that protects true madness.

There is a 1974 YouTube item from Irish television in which Mother Teresa of Calcutta talks to Nodlaig McCarthy about her vocation. Near the end of the second half, Ms. McCarthy asks,

What do you say to people who come to you, who say that they have no faith?

Mother Teresa answers:

I don’t believe that there is any human being that doesn’t believe in God, . . . . But deep down in their heart it must be that faith that there is God, only maybe it’s under cover and they are, as you say, in darkness and they can’t see.

Well might we pray not to discover anything, but like Tolstoy’s Levin, just to find out what we know already.

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