Thursday, October 04, 2007

I Believe

vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem: Quam nisi quisque integram inviolatamque servaverit, absque dubio in aeternum peribit."

-The Athanasian Creed

"I believe". These words have haunted the imaginations of Christians for centuries. In the days of the infancy of the Church, a Christian could literally get killed for saying these words; and, just as it was before, saying 'I believe' today marks one for persecution of the world. The Christian who is not afraid to say that he believes in Something greater than what the eyes can see, what the ears can hear, and what hands can touch, is either branded a lunatic or a fanatic.

But what exactly do we mean when we say 'I believe'? The Latin word credo has a very interesting etymology. Many have theorized that the verb credere is formed by a compound of the words cor, cordis (heart) and do (entrust); taken together, credo is properly translated as 'I keep to my heart'. The foundation of Christian belief, then, is primarily trust in God.

The German end Old English also share some similarities: the German belieben, for example, is strikingly close to the English believe. It is interesting to note that, whereas the context of the German is in preference and allegiance, 'belief' today in the English language has come to mean s mere affirmation of doubt; to believe someone, then, is almost necessarily an inferior way of knowing the truth. To believe has simply come to mean 'What you say is incredulous, but I will still listen to it, on account of the fact that I cannot offer a suitable alternative to yours-- that is, for the time being'.

How did this come about? Many of us will no doubt blame certain historical epochs for this loss; the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age and the Age of Commercialism immediately spring to mind. Then there is also the arrival of science, that sole arbiter of empiricism, whose has shattered the concept of religion, and consequently God, for many the world over. To a point, it is true; the Church's greatest enemy has always been apathy, and one has to wonder, what place is there left for religion in the world? We live in a society where material possessions are the pinnacle of human existence; in such a world, traditions simply have no place. Even Faith itself seems to have bee influenced by the secular to a certain degree.

A cursory glance at apologetics will reveal a mindset of self-preservation, especially in the First World, where the practice of religion is rapidly declining. I cannot blame people for thinking this way-- and as any person will tell you, Christianity itself is the greatest apocalyptic movement to have ever existed on earth. Admittedly, there are also times when we must face the 'dark side' of our history if we ever want to see where we are headed. But then, what next? It is not enough to merely believe that God exists-- one must believe in Him.

I was struck at the difference between the kind of traditional Catholicism practiced by today's reverts, perhaps even myself included. Tradition is basically packaged as a set of philosophical musings-- of legalese and endless quodlibets after piles and piles of 'yes' and 'nos'-- the kind of doctrine that would hold a geeky lawyer's attention for hours at a time. But the gutter Catholicism of the poor is something much more raw; it is a religion of pilgrimages on knees, prostration before the Blessed Mother, bargaining with saints, and kissing the polychromed cheeks of the Holy Child, that in the rays of the sun, it would seem as if He were really sweating amidst the pulsing, throbbing multitudes gathered before His effigy. This is the Catholicism inherited from ignorant, uncatechized elders, the Church closest to the leper colony who clung to Our Lord with their disease-ridden hands.

That poor mother of ten in the streets, upon learning of a cancerous growth, would perhaps go to Baclaran on her knees, and in a piously vulgar display of devotion, would crawl to the Virgin of Perpetual Help; the hunted murderer would flee to the Lord of Quiapo and vow to pull the ropes of His carroza for fifteen years straight if He would but give him peace of mind. These are very much physical acts, veneration at its most profound. At the core of belief lies the conviction that the Other loves us for who we are; and we respond to this love, tentatively, perhaps with more than a grain of caution.

Faith, then, is not so much the interior convictions but the actions of the individual. To believe is to love the other for who he is and what he is, the same way that a mother would still find it in her heart to forgive her soon even with all the evil he has committed against her. That we have 'divorced', as it were, this aspect of doing from the concept of belief is perhaps symptomatic that there is something very wrong with us. As I've already mentioned, belief these days is practically worthless; in the same way, the soul is slowly being ripped apart from the self, that it becomes just another byword for thousands of other bywords out there.

In the Philippines, it is a curious thing that majority of people who do extraordinary acts of penitence in Holy Week are usually the berdugos-- the wandering tough guys, macho men who drink and whore any other day of the week-- lining up in columns of up to hundreds at a time, their faces obscured by a blood-stained cloth, their backs scarred from the countless lashings of a whip. For the catechized, it is a spectacle of unimaginable superstition; the fundamentalist Protestant would probably whisper 'Pelagianism' underneath his breath, while the radical traditionalist would probably be invoking canon after canon in condemning the wicked practice.

But for the better part of the last few hundred years, such idioms of piety, complete with wailing and much ululations, constituted the norm for the Church. Perhaps this repulsion stems from the fact that their God is a small god, a god of the philosophers, rather than the personal God of the Christians. At the end of the day, God is neither contained by our limited understanding of Him; we only end up putting Him in the midst of immobilist politics. In my opinion, we have simply become far too smart for our own good, that we are confusing what little germ of faith we may have had in the first place with how we think the Church, and God, ought to be.

It is surprising to me that religion involves very little of creeds and formulae in actuality, but seems, for the most part, more concerned with the here and now of worshiping, adoring, prostrating, praying and devoting. Maybe the surest sign of a secularized church is not so much the apathy of its congregation but rather the excess of their devotion. Yes, it can go either way, but too often the tendency is to ignore an over-wrangling reach of so-called traditionalists into matters solely for the eyes and ears of the Curia. The pious Catholic today is one who has memorized as many encyclicals as possible and who wears three-piece suits to Mass and chuckles with a socialite's glee at the under dressed. The simple pieties of old, of kneeling before the image of a beheaded saint for hours at a time, is relegated to the rubbish bin of ignorance and 'misguided' beliefs.

Thus we hide under the cover of complaining how everything about the Church is in such a state of calamity, because we envy those who, even in the midst of the most banal Novus Ordo 'bastardization', can calmly close his eyes and kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, however irreverently It is treated. We invoke the clause of 'modernists running the Church' because we secretly desire to run the Church, but are afraid of the consequences and responsibilities. We criticize those who persevere in error, not taking into account our own sins. We are a people who have forgotten how to love.

Being a Catholic is definitely not one of the easiest things in life-- the badge carries with it a stigma of being brainwashed followers of an old man with a funny hat who sits in his golden throne in Rome, and it carries with it a 'gutter' culture, at least in the eyes of the 'polished' Christians. But that is ultimately what it means to have faith-- it is to love, to hope, and to do. To believe is to know that the world, for all its temptations and evils, can be overwhelmed and fit into that small pocket of the heart.

It is said, man is the only being capable of lying in the face of the Truth. Not even the highest angels are given this privilege. That we are capable of living a lie and yet acknowledge the Truth is something that puzzles me still.


wnpaul said...

Just a quick comment on the German word for "believe" or "have faith": it is not "belieben" as you suggest, but "glauben", which derives from a Germanic root meaning "to trust", "to have confidence in".

The German "belieben" indeed speaks of preference, and as such would almost suggest that which is now called "cafeteria Christianity" or "cafeteria Catholicism" -- you believe whatever you like, and reject what you don't like.

Archistrategos said...

Interesting. Thank you for the clarification, it is much appreciated