Perhaps because of the strong rain, all 60 or so of us were brought closely together on our wide verandah where we shared friendship, family stories, memories, laughter and birthday feast.
Two days later, our mother fell and broke her arm, had to be hospitalised with all the resultant suffering, pain and uncertainty following this event. Because of her great age, we were not sure if she would ever get well enough to return home.
How quickly life can change and alternate between joyous times and times of suffering, pain and grief, and how much courage we need to find the necessary inner strength to cope with all the vicissitudes of life.
When our mother improved greatly after two weeks, thanks to the great care of doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists, I asked my sister: “So what have we learnt as a result of this experience?”
Her response: “We must have faith and while we prepare for the worst, we hope for the best.”
St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:1) speaks of the variety of spiritual gifts and in the following chapter intertwines the gifts of faith, hope and love into one: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:7) and ends this beautiful chapter on love with his strong statement: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)
There are several other passages in which St Paul speaks of these three gifts together. e.g. “We heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” (Colossians 1:4)
The three great spiritual gifts of faith, hope and love are sometimes called “theological virtues” because they refer directly to God in whom believers place their Faith, their Hope and their Love.
Most people have faith in something. It becomes specifically religious faith when it is a response to God’s mediated presence, in our midst. For the believer, God lives in our hearts, is present in our human lives, speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures and is revealed in His creation. Above all, God – Ultimate Reality - is mediated to us through Jesus Christ, God’s Son who despite betrayal, unjust sentencing, suffering, and experiencing abandonment on the cross, never wavered in his faith and hope in the love of God, His Father. Thus in His Resurrection, he himself became for all believers “our hope of salvation.”
There are many ways of deepening one’s faith. Many people read their Bible and reflect and share the Word of God with others. In doing so, greater understanding is added to their faith, which in turn leads to love and compassion shown to others. Others make retreats (taking time out of their normal routines and going to a house of prayer and quiet) and reflect more deeply on their life experiences.
These reflections can lead to deeper understanding and recognition of the ways their lives have been touched by God, times in which they have experienced a sense of “wonder and awe” in God’s presence.
In the face of such an experience of “mystery” the best response is silence. It is also a time to be reminded that the most important aspect of any religious experience is one’s relationship with God in faith and hope, and not only with the gifts of God’s felt presence.
Another helpful way to deepen one’s faith is to take some quiet moments at the end of the day, to reflect over what happened during the day, to give thanks for all that was good, to express sorrow for what was not, to look at the challenges the day has brought, and again to see where God’s presence has been felt in all that happened during the day.
So many times when I reflect on my day, I am amazed to see in it, the many spontaneous acts of kindness shown to me by so many people whose love, support, smiles, mediate to me the presence of God. I am then filled with deep gratitude, and am inspired to do the same for those I meet.
Personal prayer and reception of the Sacraments of the Church are also important helps towards a deepening of faith.
Testimonies of faith
I have read the lives of many saints, reflected on the example of my grandparents, looked into my own faith life and talked to enough people to know that the presence of God in people’s lives is very real - today in the Cook Islands, in the world, and down the ages. For example, in the CINews this year alone, I have read of people suffering from cancer whose faith in God has given them such strength and hope and courage in the face of their illness.
There are the testimonies of others whose lives have been turned around for the better – people who have felt the touch of God in their hearts and who have immediately changed from a Godless path to one dedicated to the Lord.
One of my godsons, a former impassioned atheist in his 50s, had this to say upon his conversion: “Once you are touched by God, nothing but nothing can be the same.”
Another friend, a grandmother, described her faith as being. “in the very marrow of my bones”.
Lastly, a priest friend said that when his brother died, he assured his family that the brother was now with God.
“I believe that, but I was glad no one asked me how I was so sure!”
Respect for the faith beliefs of people
In one of his press conferences (Vatican Press, 2013) Pope Francis had this to say to the journalists: “Most of you are not Catholic.
Some of you do not believe. I respect your conscience. You are all children of God.”
Faith in God with its accompanying virtues of hope and love, is a gift to be responded to freely and not to be coerced by anyone. Faith can also be weakened and lost if it is not nurtured.
Tourism Cook Islands, with their “Kia Orana Values” has this to say in their brochure, under the section: “Turanga Evangelia (Respect for all religious beliefs)
“We enjoy freedom of religion in the Cook Islands and so have deep respect for each other’s beliefs. We encourage courtesy and respect amongst our visitors for the religious customs of Cook Islanders, while being careful that we don’t impose our own religious beliefs on others, including our visitors while they are here.”
Hope and trust
Our mother continues to recover. In the worst moments when the pain was too much to bear and she felt so weak, the temptation to despair would creep in and she would ask: “What’s the use of going on living?”
To keep up her hope, I would usually respond in her own words, so often spoken when she was well: “We shall continue to trust God and leave everything in God’s hands.”
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” states the letter to the Hebrews (11:1) and the great St Paul in summing up the variety of spiritual gifts, declares:
“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Sister Elizabeth Browne-Russell