Part of my series for Lent 2015.
+ + +
The third sermon in The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Lent is entitled "Faith," and is a meditation on the Gospel passage about the Canaanite woman, Matt. 15:21-28.
After this, Jesus left those parts and withdrew into the neighbourhood of Tyre and Sidon.
And here a woman, a Chanaanite by birth, who came from that country, cried aloud, "Have pity on me, Lord, thou son of David. My daughter is cruelly troubled by an evil spirit."
He gave her no word in answer; but his disciples came to him and pleaded with him; "Rid us of her, they said, she is following us with her cries."
And he answered, "My errand is only to the lost sheep that are of the house of Israel."
Then the woman came up and said, falling at his feet, "Lord, help me."
He answered, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs."
"Ah yes, Lord," she said; "the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."
And at that Jesus answered her, "Woman, for this great faith of thine, let thy will be granted." And from that hour her daughter was cured.
The theme of the sermon is: How can anyone's faith be "greater" than another's? Francis tries to show this by using the Canaanite woman as an example of "great faith."
St. Francis first begins by defining faith as an interaction among the understanding and the will and the truth: by it the will chooses to adhere the understanding to truth:
[Faith] is nothing else but an adhesion of our understanding to these truths which it finds both beautiful and good.
Consequently, it comes to believe them, and the will comes to love them. For just as goodness is the object of the will, beauty is that of the understanding...for beauty is never without truth, nor truth without beauty.
Now the truths of faith, being true indeed, are loved because of the beauty... I say loved, for although the will has goodness for the direct object of its love, nevertheless when the beauty of revealed truths is represented to it by the understanding, it also discovers goodness there, and loves this... In order to have great faith, the understanding must perceive the beauty of this faith.
...The understanding, feeling itself drawn or captivated by [beauty], communicates this truth to the will, which accordingly loves it for the goodness and beauty it recognizes there.
Finally, the love that these two powers have for revealed truths prompts the person to forsake everything in order to believe them and embrace them.
All this helps to explain how faith can be said to be nothing else but an adhesion of the understanding and will to divine truths.
I like this because it reminds us that faith is an act of cooperation between the understanding (the power of reason) and the will. Once a truth is known to be true, the will chooses to "adhere" to it despite the confusing, unreliable signals we may get from (for example) emotions, rationalizations we may make, other people. The starting point of that faith is a point of understanding, of being convinced of a truth. It does not substitute for the understanding, the being convinced. It chooses to adhere, to remember.
So how can one person's faith be "greater?"
With reference to its object, faith cannot be greater for some truths than for others.
I think the idea here is that while it's possible to be more convinced of one truth than of another truth, in the sense that some truths may be supported by more or stronger evidence; faith is the act of holding on to the correct degree of certainty (whatever it might be).
Nor can [faith] be less with regard to the number of truths to be believed. For we must all believe the very same thing, both as to the object of faith as well as to the number of truths. All are equal in this, because everyone must believe all the truths of faith... I must believe as much as you and you as much as I, and all other Christians similarly. He who does not believe all these mysteries is not Catholic...
Thus, when Our Lord said, "Oh woman, great is your faith," it was not because the Canaanite woman believed more than we believe. It was, rather, that many things made her faith more excellent.
And the idea here is that a Catholic is by definition one who adheres to all the truths of faith (or, I suppose, all the truths he or she is aware of); so you don't get praised for greater faith because you believe more of the truths than somebody else. That might make you less heretical, but not a Catholic of "greater faith."
So what Francis is saying is:
It is true that there is only one faith which all Christians must have. Nevertheless, not everyone has it in the same degree of perfection.
The remainder of the sermon uses the Canaanite woman to expound on how one's faith may be more perfect than another's. Here's how this plays out:
- Faith accompanied by charity may be living, while faith separated from charity may be dying or dead.
- Faith may be sluggish and dormant, if it is lax in contemplation, or it may be vigilant.
- Vigilant faith is accompanied by virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
- The faith that the Canaanite woman possesses is an attentive faith.
- Attentive faith is accompanied by virtues of confidence, perseverance, patience, and humility.
On a living faith united to charity:
[C]harity cannot really be in the soul which has faith without performing works either little or great. It must either produce or perish, because it cannot exist without doing good works.... We know by the works which charity performs whether faith is dead or dyng. When it produces no good works we conclude that it is dead, and when they are few and sluggish, that it is dying. But just as there is a dead faith, there must also be a living one which is its opposite.... Joined and united with charity and vivified by it, it is strong, firm, and constant...
Now when we say that this faith is great, we certainly do not imply that it is something like fourteen or fifteen units long... It is great because of the good works it performs and also because of the many virtues which accompany it, acting like a queen who labors for the defense and preservation of divine truths. That these virtues obey her demonstrates her excellence and greatness--just as kings are not great only when they have many provinces and numerous subjects, but when, together with this, they have subjects who love them... But if, despite all their wealth, their vassals pay no attention to their orders nor to their laws, we would not say that they are great kings, but rather very petty ones. So charity united to faith is not only followed by all the virtues, but as a queen she commands them, and all obey and fight for her and according to her will. From this results the multitude of good works of a living faith.
To avoid a dormant, sluggish, apathetic faith, meditate on truth often:
[I]t is the opposite of vigilant faith. It is lax in applying itself to the consideration of the mysteries of our Religion... it does not penetrate revealed truths at all. It sees them, to be sure, and knows them... it is not asleep, but it is drowsy or dozing.
...Persons who have a dull and dreamy mind have their eyes open, appear very thoughtful... but they are really oblivious to what is going on. It is the same with those whose faith is dormant: they believe all the mysteries in general, but ask them what they understand about them and they know nothing.
Meditation and consideration of what one knows, on the contrary, makes faith vigilant:
But vigilant faith... penetrates and understands revealed truths quickly and with great depth and subtlety of perception. It is active and diligent in seeking and embracing those things which can increase and strengthen it. It watches and perceives from afar all its enemies....
This vigilant faith is accompanied by the four cardinal virtues: fortitude, prudence, justice, and temperance....
Faith employs prudence to acquire whatever can strengthen and increase it. It is not satisfied with believing all the truths necessary for salvation...[but] is ever on the watch to discover new ones and ...penetrate them.
"Attentiveness" is a quality of faith that the Canaanite woman had, and here St. Francis brings in some imagery that I for one will carry with me always back to this Gospel:
[N]otice this pagan woman standing among His listeners, carefully observing to see when the Saviour, about whom she had heard so many wonderful things, would pass by. She was as attentive as a dog carefully watching its prey, lest it escape...
[T]he Canaanite woman, who had been watching to seize her prey, came to present her request to Him, crying out: Lord, Son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is cruelly troubled by the devil.
Reflect a bit on this woman's great faith. She asks... only that He have pity on her, and believes... that will be sufficient... Her faith would not have been so great had she not been so attentive to what she had heard...and to what she had concluded about Him.
We normally observe this among the ordinary people of the world. In a gathering where good... subjects are being discussed, an avaricious man will indeed hear what is said, but when it is over just ask him the subject of the conversation, and he will not be able to relate a word of it. Why? Because he was not attentive... his attention was on his treasure.
...Oh woman! how great is your faith, not only because of the attentiveness with which you hear and believe what they say of Our Lord, but also because of the attentiveness with which you pray to him and present your request.
This is fantastic because, as we all know, this is sort of a controversial Gospel story; it's the one in which Jesus can be interpreted as calling this woman a "dog" compared to the "children" to which He is sent to bring food. And she replies that the dogs receive the crumbs that fall from the table: witty, to be sure, and Jesus appreciates the reply -- not for its wit but for its faith, or perhaps its wit and its faith are one and the same.
Here, St. Francis has taken a quality of dogs -- attentiveness -- that is desired by the humans who care for and live with them -- and ascribed it to the woman as a great virtue. We are used to taking the "dog" comment as necessarily a slam.
But -- especially given that the woman, more or less, asks in reply, "Consider the dog --"
Yes, let's consider the dog. What are dogs? They are not the same as children, and that otherness is exactly what Jesus is pointing to with his words addressed to her first. And yet -- they live in the master's household, they serve the master, they are fed by the good master and loved by him, they are faithful, and ready for the slightest word. And for the slightest crumb -- have you ever had dinner with a dog in the room? That's "attentive!"
The woman was not only humble, hoping for a crumb. Jesus tossed her one. And she snapped it up with her reply, because she was ready, alert, attentive.
St. Francis uses the woman's smart remark to tell us that in one aspect of our faith we might want to emulate dogs, sitting by the table watching for that crumb to fall, ready to dash at it.
+ + +
There's quite a lot more here, because St. Francis goes on to explain that, because her faith is attentive, the woman possesses confidence, perseverance, patience, and humility. He turns that into a lesson of persevering in repetitive life and repetitive prayer that I particularly like. He is talking about religious sisters, whose life may be beautiful but is certainly monotonous after a fashion; the same, though, is true about family life in some ways.
[P]erseverance in always doing the same thing... is a martyrdom... for the fancies of the human spirit and all self-will are continually martyred there...
Is it not great perseverance for peasants, who ordinarily have only bread, water, and cheese for their nourishment? Nevertheless, they do not die any sooner but rather are in better health than the fastidious, for whom one does not know what food is right. They need so many cooks, so many different kinds of preparations! Then, present it to them and see what happens: "Oh," they say, "take that away from me, it is not good'; or "That will make me ill," and suchlike nonsense. But in religion we do not make use of such artifice. We eat what is given us! And this is a martyrdom, as is the constant following of the same exercises.
Let us persevere in prayer at all times.
I would like to quote more, but I'm already two days late with this reflection...