Our Journey of Faith
We are all on a journey of faith. Whenever I meet someone, I never think of them in a static place of either black or white – as a believer or non-believer, as a Christian or non-Christian, as an atheist or anything else. Instead I see each person somewhere on a dynamic journey of faith. It’s not only important to know where one is on the journey, but maybe more so to see what direction they are going. Ultimately, only God knows what is in the heart of each person, how seeds of faith are growing, and whether one is going towards God, or turning away from Him.
I often think of a powerful story in one of my favorite books that I’ve ever read, Fr. Arseny: Prisoner, Priest, Spiritual Father. Fr. Arseny was a famous Russian art historian who decided to become a priest during the most dangerous time of the Stalinist years of the Soviet Union. Shortly after becoming a priest, he was betrayed by one of his own spiritual children, and sent to the gulag concentration camps in Siberia, where he suffered in that frozen hell for 25 years. The book reveals a life full of incredible stories where he brought divine light even into the darkest places of hell, all through his love, prayers and the godly witness of his life. A life full of miraculous events revealing God’s grace. One such experience occurred when he had an out of body, near-death experience. As he was lying in bed, dying in the prison barracks, God gave him a unique experience where his soul seemed to come out of his body and he was looking down at the entire prison camp, seeing all the prisoners and camp guards as if from inside their souls.
“The souls of some were afire with faith which kindled the people around them; the souls of others burned with a smaller, yet, ever growing flame; others had only small sparks of faith and only needed the arrival of a shepherd to fan these sparks into a real flame. There were also people whose souls were dark and sad, seemingly without even a spark of Light… Fr. Arseny was extremely moved and prayed, ‘ O Lord. I lived among these people and did not even notice them. How much beauty they carry within.’
This prison was full of some people being persecuted for their faith, others persecuted for political crimes, together with hardened criminals who had committed terrible crimes. Yet Fr Arseny saw sparks of faith in each of these people, along with even seeing good in some of the guards and administrators who oversaw the harsh and cruel punishment of the prisoners.
From that experience, Fr. Arseny learned a fundamental lesson he never forgot for the rest of his life. No one can ever judge another, because none of us know what actual sparks of faith are within their soul. Our role as Christians is not to judge, but to encourage and bless others by fanning whatever sparks of faith may be within. We don’t need to focus on the darkness in someone, on their sinful deeds, or on their brokenness. We don’t need to highlight the doubts and questions that one may have. Instead, Christ always sees the beauty that lies within, the sparks of faith that need to be fanned, and he wants His followers to show others the direction which leads to greater faith and union with God.
I thought of this as I reflected on the Apostle Thomas and the doubts he expressed about the reality of Christ’s resurrection. We heard in the Gospel today that a week after the Resurrection, Thomas wasn’t sure about what all the other disciples saw – the Risen Jesus. Thomas found it difficult to believe that someone who was crucified, who was buried, and who tasted death for three days could come back to life. Such doubt doesn’t seem so crazy, does it? How many of us would have similar doubts, or even have questions now? Thomas was unsure, yet his doubt didn’t define who he was. He surely had faith, mixed with uncertainty. The Apostle Thomas represents many of us. Faith mixed with doubt. Questions wrestling with our belief. We may think it’s bad to doubt. We may fear questions that arise in our hearts. Yet, doubting doesn’t mean we don’t believe. Remember the words of the epileptic’s father in another Biblical story: “I believe. Help my unbelief.” These are some of my favorite words in the entire Scripture.
An essential lesson to learn from Thomas is that doubts do not define us. Our faith journey may be one with many questions, with some uncertainty, with outright doubts. Some doubts may only be one side of the skepticism that tries to pull us away from God. Yet it doesn’t need to pull us away. Thomas began by doubting, yet concluded by crying out, “My Lord and my God.” Remember also Fr. Arseny and his life lesson. Not only doubts, but even dark and sinful behavior may try to turn us away from God. Yet, God doesn’t focus on the darkness or on the doubts; instead He sees the good and the light that is within. He wants to feed whatever seeds of faith are within us. He wants to fan even a tiny spark to become a blazing flame within our soul. And likewise, we want to try to constantly do the same for others. Let each of us strive to notice whatever sparks exist in others, and fan those sparks!
Let me conclude with another great example of understanding the journey of faith. Alexander Papaderos, a lay Orthodox theologian, a peace advocate, and faithful Christian has spent his life promoting forgiveness, reconciliation and the illumination of darkness in human life. He was once asked “What is the meaning of life?” to which Papaderos took out a small mirror from his wallet and shared a story from his childhood. He grew up in a poor, remote village of Crete during World War II. At that time, he found pieces of a broken mirror from a German motorcycle.
“At first, I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible,” he shared. “So I kept only the largest piece. And this one I still keep in my wallet. I began to play with it as a boy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game, but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world… This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”
Meeting people wherever they are on their journey of faith, even with whatever doubts they may struggle with. Fanning whatever sparks of faith we may find, no matter how small it seems. And shining divine light in dark places, no matter how great the darkness. This is what makes life’s journey of faith so exciting, and this is what makes each one of us important instruments in God’s hands. Journeying towards God, and helping and encouraging others on that journey as well.