Conversion involves trustfulness and self-surrender, not simply impulse

A friend has taken me to task for using the phrase “leap of faith” in a recent blog. What I had written was “Sometimes you have to jettison the arguments and invite the sceptic to make that leap of faith, a leap of humility and trust towards the invisible reality that lies beyond the visible.”

My friend, who informs me that the phrase “leap of faith” comes from Kierkegaard, points out that “Enormous numbers of sensible people become theists without any perceptible leaping. They are simply taught various things and have no second thoughts. We also need to enquire whether this leap is only required in this instance [for] to say that leaping is uniquely required in connection with religious belief would introduce an unnecessary mystery about it. One has to consider the position of children who have to depend so much on what they are told.”

I didn’t know the phrase comes from Kierkegaard. Yet it is a powerful image suggesting trustfulness and self-surrender. It is not simply impulsive or done without thought; nor is it the same as the self-destructive urge to leap over a cliff. It also suggests a romantic act rather than a logical step. I also qualified the phrase with “sometimes”; clearly the conversion experience takes many forms. Nonetheless, when my friend states that “Enormous numbers of sensible people become theists without any perceptible leaping” I begin to demur from his own use of language.

The word “sensible” implies that the “leapers” may be foolish (though I prefer to think they have surrendered to the romance of faith). “Theists” makes me wince; it puts me in mind of freemasonry and the “Great Architect”. Don’t people become Christians – or indeed Catholic Christians – because they are drawn to or magnetised by Christ? Further, the word “perceptible” implies we can see and follow the process of conversion; but we can’t. Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing” – a poetical way of saying we are people of emotion as well as reason. How do we know what goes on in the privacy of men’s thoughts under the influence of grace?

Finally, Jesus said that we have to become like little children in certain respects, that is, their trustfulness and candour, their openness to mystery. This is different from credulousness or gullibility (which many adults share). As a child in the 1950s I learnt the Catechism – an activity of the head. But we also sang the beautiful Catholic hymns, often by Fathers Faber and Caswall, in the Westminster Hymnal and it was their potent, poetical words, the images they evoked of the heart of Jesus that moved my own childish heart more than the dry formularies of the Catechism.

I am beginning to feel sorry for all those sensible theists. This is the more so as I have just read a most affecting story about reconversion – a word that reminds us we should never take the view that faith is a given or that we don’t have to develop it or grow into it more deeply. It comes from Angelo Stagnaro’s Pursuing Holiness in Today’s World (Hope and Life Press).

Stagnaro writes that like “many college kinds living away from home, I considered myself too intelligent to believe in God.” One day in his selfish and hedonistic life he returned from work to find a homeless tramp sitting on the steps at the front door of his apartment building. He confesses, “My shame would not allow me to pass by this man.” He found he could not concentrate on anything “but that enormous, empty, calloused, grimy hand reaching out to me.” Stagnaro continues that “despite logic, rationality, fear, disgust, apprehension” he handed the man the bag of food intended for his own supper.

The homeless man said “Thank you, Sir”. Knowing he was not worthy of the man’s respect, Stagnaro relates that “Tears swelled my eyes.” Back in his apartment he argued with himself: “I can’t help everyone in the world” and “These people are cheats.” Yet “None of these arguments worked on me this time. In the safe confines of my apartment I let out a long wail…I do not recall ever sobbing so loudly in my adult life.” After emptying the contents of his fridge he ran after the homeless man and handed him more food. He writes that he “cried a lot that night”, realising that “Everything I had done in my life since abandoning Christ…had been a worthless waste of time, resources, gifts and humanity.” In that man, Stagnaro realised, “I had seen the suffering face of Christ.”

Not everyone is given so dramatic an opportunity to turn their life around. Not everyone is given the opportunity to make “a leap of faith.” There are many faithful Catholics kneeling in the pews, as my friend reminds me, whose lives have not been shattered and remade by God. Yet I stubbornly continue to believe that such interventions are the real stuff of life.