June 29, 2015

Pope Francis' encyclical The Light of Faith (LF) obviously presents faith as a light which illuminates realities, enabling the believer to see and understand them.

This light, the pope says, "is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence" (LF4). It is a light that does not come from ourselves because it is a light that shows us reality, not some figment of our own imagination.

However, faith is more than light. In the section of the encyclical we examine this week (LF29-36), the pope notes that there is a limitation to understanding faith in terms of light and seeing. The limitation is that faith is more than "a kind of static contemplation."

Faith has the quality of freedom, something not well represented by images of sight where either you see something or you don't. Faith understood solely in terms of seeing "comes down from heaven directly to the eye, without calling for a response" (LF29).

Faith should also be seen as a journey – a personal journey and a communal journey – and it can also be understood in terms of the other senses, particularly hearing and touch.

In the story of Jesus healing the blind man, the three senses of seeing, hearing and touching are all involved. One might say that hearing – Jesus' call and the man's response – is most important here. When the man says his seeing is only partial, Jesus puts his hands on the man's eyes a second time, and the healing is completed.

Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him,

Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, "Can you see anything?" And the man looked up and said, "I can see people, but they look like trees, walking." Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

Mark 7.22-25

Touch is important in the handing-on of faith. It is an aspect of several healings by Jesus; there is also a healing where a woman reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus' garment and Jesus' feels the healing power go out from him (Luke 8.43-48).

In the Acts of the Apostles, the laying on of hands is the way by which believers are anointed with the Holy Spirit. This anointing is typically a powerful occurrence in which there is no mistaking that one is being transformed.

Pope Francis quotes St. Augustine, "To touch [Jesus] with our hearts; that is what it means to believe." Heart touching heart enables the eyes to see with faith.

Likewise, faith can come through hearing the spoken word. In Romans 10.17, St. Paul writes, "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ."

Hearing leaves room for our freedom. We can hear and believe, or hear and either disbelieve or be indifferent. Hearing leaves room for our interpretation and our appropriation of the message.

Bernard Lonergan, the Canadian theologian and philosopher, once wrote, "Coming to understand is not a logical deduction. It is a self-correcting process of learning that spirals into the meaning of the whole, by using each new part to fill out and qualify and correct the understanding reached in reading the earlier parts."


The spiral is a good image for the learning that takes place through faith. It is not simply that you hear something and you know it fully. The learning of faith involves an interplay between what is heard or read with one's life experience.

Faith deepens as one gains experience in life and one reflects on that experience through meditating on Scripture or the content of the faith.

The spiral involves a search, a search in which God lets himself be slowly discovered. Writes Pope Francis: "Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself, and to find the God of perpetual surprises" (LF35).


God respects our search and accommodates himself to it. But he does want us to seek him. Not often will he reveal himself to a person with an irresistible blinding light.

The light that God does offer is a gentle light, one which slowly grows stronger and illumines more and more of reality. Seeing with the eyes of faith requires patience.

And humility. There is a widespread notion that the person who claims to know truth is claiming a triumph over supposedly inferior beings who are in the dark.

In humility, the person who does know religious truth knows it as something infinitely greater than oneself. To know such truth is to be humbled before it, to learn one's place in relation to "the unfathomable depths of God" (1 Corinthians 2.10).


To know religious truth is not like amassing a number of facts; it is to have an encounter with a person. That person is Jesus Christ who is "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1.15).

The truth that we see, hear and touch is known through an encounter. In that encounter, we come to truth, yes, but also to love.