I recall a scene in a war movie when during a losing battle a general shouts out, “Every man for himself!” How drastic and demoralizing those words must have sounded to those soldiers who up to that moment had been relying on each other for everything. That feel for the whole, that sustaining togetherness, instantly evaporated, and what a difference it made in attitude, obligation and responsibility. From “we’re all in this together” to “everyone on his own.”
There’s a way in which this isolation can creep into attitudes toward faith and religion. “My belief is between me and my God. It’s very private and individual, my business and no one else’s.”
While there’s truth in this (everyone does have a unique, one-on-one relationship with God), it overlooks another fundamental dimension of believing: in relating to the Divine, we’re all in it together. Your faith strengthens my faith; the depth and sincerity of your belief has its effects on the quality of my believing.
This truth appears vividly in a scene from the Book of Joshua (c.24). Shepherding the Hebrews through a time of crisis, he gathers his people and confronts them with a stark question: “Whom do you choose to serve? There are the gods of these people around you — and then there is The Lord God of Israel. Your choice.”
Two answers emerge, each one collective. From the people: “It was the Lord God who brought US out of slavery. This Lord is the one WE will serve. This Lord is OUR God.” And after that, Joshua’s ringing answer: “Not just I myself, but I and my whole household will serve the Lord.”
Faith has this communal thread. Granted each person must give his or her assent, the health of that assent is qualitatively enriched by the believing stance others take. It is not the whole story that everyone believes on his or her own. Rather, everyone’s faith is affected by the strength or weakness of others belief.
When at a decisive moment in John’s gospel, Jesus gives his disciples the option to stay or leave, they speak their answer as one: “WE have come to believe and WE are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.” (Jn. 6:69)
The example of others has always played a part in anyone’s life of grace. A clear instance of this is the solidarity worshippers sense when gathering on a Sunday morning. Echoing this interdependence, St. Vincent counsels one of his priests, “That is what a good Missionary should be – always ready to help his brothers. I hope God will give this charity to all the members of the Congregation. For by means of this mutual support, the strong will sustain the weak and God’s work will be done.” (Volume 5; p 607)
In these days of fall-off in Church attendance, this communal dimension counts even more. With lessened cultural supports, mutual faith-witness grows ever more necessary.
Though it might take extra effort to note places where faith is alive, doing so makes a difference. Besides the testimony of fellow worshippers, there are the charitable works of the different societies and agencies who serve in the name of Jesus Christ, our Vincentian organizations in particular. We might also bring up memories those solid believers who went before us — parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors whose faith resilience lasted a lifetime.
Then there is the support from that especially consoling belief in our Creed, the communion of saints. St. Paul images it as an encircling cloud, an assembly of witnesses cheering us on in our faith journey from the sidelines — Sts. Louise deMarillac, Justin deJacobis, Mother Theresa — all those whose lives were glowing instances of what it means live in Christ.
Our believing is not solitary. The quality of one person’s faith spills over into the religious convictions of all the others. My faith picks up reverberating echoes in the witness of those around me.
Let each of us be open to (and lean back on) the faith of fellow believers, all those who affirm with Joshua, “Not just me, but I and my whole household will serve the Lord.”