“I do believe, help my unbelief”
Homily preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, January 30, 2011, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
From ancient times, Christians have been visiting an area of rolling hills overlooking the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. There a church was built as early as the Fourth Century to mark the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus taught the Beatitudes, which we just heard in today’s Gospel reading.
The modern church that sits on this site was built in 1938. It’s a small, octagonal church with a central dome. The surroundings are expansive and vast. From a plaza beneath the church you can sit and look out over the Sea of Galilee. It is so easy to imagine listening to Jesus teach in the open air.
I’ve been to that spot three times, leading pilgrimages. Generally I would take the group into the Church, and we would listen to the same Gospel reading we’ve just heard, sitting in a circle around the altar. After a short period of reflection, we would go outside and discuss what the Beatitudes meant to us.
The last time I led a group to the Church of the Beatitudes, we stood waiting for the groups ahead of us to each complete a short time inside the tiny church. Most of the groups were led by priests. Some would have a little prayer service, some would listen to a short talk by their priest leader.
As our turn came to enter the church, a diminutive Italian nun jumped into the doorway to block our entrance. “No, no!” She insisted, pointing us to the exit. I was puzzled. Why were we not permitted to enter? I attempted to talk to her. Unfortunately she did not understand English. She only waved her finger at us and said “Protestanti!”
Because I, the leader, was not wearing a clerical collar, she assumed our group was made up of Protestants, and she did not want any Protestants in there! Imagine if she had known the real make-up of our group of pilgrims. We were not only Catholic and Protestants, but also Jews and Muslims, on an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. If she had known that perhaps her head would have exploded. This was a stark contrast to our previous experiences at Mount of the Beatitudes. Other nuns in previous years had been thrilled to welcome Jews and Muslims into the church with kindness, warmth and hospitality.
Unable to communicate with this tiny guardian, I pulled out my identification card as a deacon of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She carefully perused it, but did not seem convinced. She finally let us walk quickly through the church but would not let us pray there.
So we went to a small amphitheater next to the church and sat there looking out over the Sea of Galilee. There we had our little prayer service.
To each of the Christian pilgrims I gave a slip of paper with one of the Beatitudes written on it, and then asked them to read them in order. “Blessed are they who mourn… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the peacemakers…” As each pilgrim read one of the Beatitudes, I asked, “Do you believe this?” In turn, each would pause for a moment, thinking in the bright sun on that hill, then look up and say, “Yes, I believe this.” It was a powerful moment that brought tears to the eyes of many of our Jewish and Muslim pilgrims.
We were not allowed to hear the words of Jesus in the lovely little church, so our band of outcasts sat there and listened to them in the open air, just as others did 2,000 years ago.
Often we hear that the Ten Commandments describe a way of life for the Christian. That’s not exactly true. The Ten Commandments prescribe the bare minimum. Following them does not make one a disciple of Jesus. Do we really want to one day stand before God to give an account of our life and say, “Well, I never killed anyone.”
It is in the Beatitudes that we find one of the most sublime descriptions of what it means to live as a disciple.
And yet the world described by the Beatitudes can seem elusive.
Recently among a group of educated and committed Catholics I tried the same prayer experience I like to offer on the Mount of the Beatitudes. I distributed to each a slip of paper with one of the Beatitudes and asked them to read them in order, and after each one I asked “Do you believe this?”
Each one thought for a moment and then gave startlingly sincere answers. Some, with obvious sadness, replied, “No, I don’t believe this.”
Their reasoning was difficult to disagree with. The mourning are not always comforted. Those who hunger for justice are not always satisfied. Peacemakers are rarely called children of God; there are other, more vicious names people call them.
What these faithful disciples were expressing is the painful reality that our hopes and dreams often collide with reality. There is a Christmas song that also recounts this painful realization. The lyrics are a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written on Christmas Day, 1864. It was during the Civil War, that great national tragedy where nearly one million people died:
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men…
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,‚” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
It is part of the human experience that despite the glory of the Gospel and our inherent belief in the teachings of Jesus, we fail to follow him. Sometimes we even fail spectacularly.
Perhaps the Church of the Beatitudes itself is a witness to the tormented human soul and the contradictions we encounter as we walk with Jesus. That little church, completed in 1938? It was built by the ruthless Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Hope is a Christian virtue. In fact, it is one of the three most important virtues for every follower of Jesus. And it is perhaps only with hope that we can hear and believe the Beatitudes. And in that poem by Longfellow, after we hear the expression of pained despair, there is another verse:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
We can see the struggle represented by the Beatitudes played out in every age and in every place, even on our television screens and the Internet. We see the vibrant reality of the Beatitudes and how they speak to the human heart in the streets of Cairo, in the ruins of Port au-Prince, in the slums of Kolkata, in the barrios of Los Angeles. The Beatitudes are promises. It can be a struggle to live them, but a struggle undertaken with fierce hope.
There is a story in the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 9) that may help us to reconcile the simple beauty of the Beatitudes with the complex reality of human nature.
In this story, Jesus come up to the disciples to discover them arguing with a group of scribes. Jesus seems uncomfortable with their arguing. But just as he is confronting the disciples, a man comes up to Jesus with his son, who has been tormented by convulsions his entire life. There, before Jesus, the boy falls to the ground, rolls about and foams at the mouth. The father begs Jesus to cure his son.
Jesus tells him,
“Everything is possible to one who has faith.”
And the father’s response is amazing. It is perhaps even something each of us has said at one point:
“I do believe, help my unbelief.”
This is a struggle for all of us, and our children are not exempted.
Today we also celebrate Catholic Schools Week. Our Catholic Schools were established in order to help families raise their children as confident and faithful followers of Jesus who have the tools to face reality.
The aim of our Catholic Schools is to produce adults who can, amid the terrible reality of war, still believe in peace, as Longworth’s poem describes. People who can believe that the mourning will be comforted, that peacemakers will be honored, that seekers of justice will be satisfied. That it is better to be poor in spirit than to pursue wealth single-mindedly, better to be quiet and gentle than famous, better to be merciful than to get even.
This is not to say that Catholic Schools can inoculate children against doubt. But at their best, they can help our children become empowered adults who have the tools to make sense of the world, to understand their place in society through the lens of the Gospel.
We see the horrors inflicted on so many by the world, and in the midst of suffering we envision the peaceful world envisioned by the Beatitudes.
Does this make us idealistic fools?
Paul reminds us today:
God chose the foolish of the world
to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world
to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something..
Foolish, week, lowly, we dare to envision a different world. We roam the hills of our imagination, hearing the words of Jesus in the open air as the refreshing breezes from the Sea of Galilee blow over us.
Here a dictator who led a nation into a devastating war built a church as a monument to his ego, but he was confounded. Instead, people come hearer to hear the words “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Rarely do we see more astonishing physical evidence that hope can triumph over cynicism.
Or did Mussolini build the little church for a different reason? Was there a tiny voice within him that whispered “I do believe, help my unbelief.” If this was his motivation, Mussolini ultimately rejected the idea of peacemakers being blessed; he opted for the real world that blesses the warrior.
We can sit down to think and pray. Are the mournful comforted? Are the peacemakers honored? Are the seekers of justice satisfied? There we can se a world where such things happen. And if we see around us that the Beatitudes are not reflected in the real world of greed and violence and oppression, here’s something we can agree on: If I begin to live this way, the Beatitudes become real—if only I believe that I can do this.
And then we can hear the Beatitudes again and say,
“I do believe, help my unbelief.”