If your faith lives only in your head, you’re doing faith wrong.
No other lesson in life has cost me so much in the way of blood, sweat and tears. Okay, mostly tears.
I used to think of faith as the “safe” virtue. Pray for it, receive the sacraments, do some theological studying so you can answer questions and defend it rationally, and then check that box off. Faith: we’re good. On to practicing the harder virtues like temperance, fortitude, hope and (hardest of all) love. For years, I was the girl people came to with their faith questions. I stood out in my social circles and even in my family as the prime example of someone who “knows and lives her faith.” Of course, I would have demurred politely if you called me “perfect,” but faith was my strong suit.
Enter reality check. In a really, really big way.
It hit full-force on a chilly morning in May 2016, when I missed a 5:15 flight by about 30 seconds. The gate slammed shut with a sickening thud behind the flight attendant, leaving me alone and frantic in the quiet airport. I felt the cold sharply that morning; for the first time in two years, I was not wearing a full religious habit. I felt anonymous and exposed with my close-cropped hair, thin skirt and bare legs. I’d left my religious identity behind me, stuffed in a pillowcase ready for the laundry when the rest of the convent woke up. My religious name, typed in an elegant font on the nametag I’d been given for special events, sat on the bedside table with a bundle of other articles to be thrown away or recycled as the sisters saw fit. All I had with me now were a few books and some personal belongings in a small carry-on bag. I clutched at my driver’s license for dear life. At least if anyone else questioned my identity, I could offer something tangible.
I had no phone. I had no money. I was bewildered, hurt and very, very sad to be leaving the convent I had hoped to call “home” for the rest of my life and the religious sisters who had become as dear to me as my own family. Standing alone in that airport, I had no hopes for the future. My only plan was to fly back to my family and crawl into bed. I had never felt so vulnerable.
In many ways, this day had been a long time coming. Many difficult months of tough internal questioning, some gutwrenching conversations, a flash of peaceful realization, and now here I was, stranded in a busy airport, too unsettled and miserable to manage the tears that would have been a needed relief. To say my faith had been shaken by all of this would be a massive understatement. Two years of religious formation had done a lot to unmask and tear down the comfortable little faith I’d nurtured for so long. Now, leaving the convent had put the final touches on the demolition.
That morning, watching from the airport window as my flight took off without me, I realized God was standing there with me, and he was making me an offer. He was presenting me with faith—the real thing this time. Maybe he’d always been there offering me this gift, but I’d never noticed him before. And now, stripped of all my safe, well-cushioned illusions about my own faith, I had a scary choice to make.
Because now I understood with glaring clarity that real faith isn’t safe at all. It isn’t comfortable. It isn’t predictable. It isn’t something you can master or perfect by reading the right books, praying the right prayers or even by entering religious life.
Real Faith is a Trust Fall
It’s handing over the reins in the darkness and trusting that there’s Someone there to drive. And in that moment, when my life as I had planned it had disappeared without a trace, leaving me in utter darkness, God was inviting me to accept the terrifying gift of real faith. From now on, he wanted to hold the reins in every part of my life, from travel plans to life plans. The words floated through my mind, words I had prayed thousands of times before, but never really understood: “Jesus, I trust in you.”
Jesus, who had broken my heart when he said “no” to my desire to be a religious sister. Jesus, who had turned my whole life on its head and sent me back out into the world with nothing but the ill-fitting clothes on my back. Jesus, who seemed to be standing by passively as I missed the flight that was supposed to carry me back to my family—the one bright spot in my otherwise bleak prospects for the immediate future.
Jesus…I trust in you.
In the weeks and months that followed my return to lay life, I battled sadness and anger—even outrage—with God. Some days just the attempt to pray felt like running a file over a raw wound. I didn’t struggle at all with doubt—the vice we typically think of as being opposed to faith—but it took all my willpower to continue to trust when things seemed so very dark.
Thank goodness God is such a gentle teacher. When I was too upset to pray, he reached into my life and encouraged me to trust by sending along people to walk with me and demonstrate his love—sometimes perfect strangers. It began with a kindly Delta flight attendant in the airport that first morning. She asked no questions when I tearfully explained that I had missed my flight, I had no phone and no money and no idea what to do. Instead, she handed me her personal cell phone and said, “Call your mom, hon, and take your time. We’ll get you on another flight.”
Following my return home, family, old friends, former colleagues, new friends and perfect strangers reached out to me in more ways than I can ever recount. One woman I had never met sat with me one morning in a quiet church while I sobbed. She didn’t ask any questions, just put her arm around me and said, “Sweetheart, you just cry. Sometimes you just need to cry it all out.”
My parents and siblings welcomed me home with open arms, and gave me all the time and space I needed to work through my broken heart and disappointment. And a wise spiritual director let me talk—and cry—it all out over several months, offering not just advice but support and kindness while I tried to make sense of everything that had happened.
Looking back after nearly two years, I’m only just beginning to understand the magnitude of faith and what it requires from us. Faith isn’t simply an intellectual assent to a body of teachings (though we certainly need that component). Faith is the choice to surrender in trust to a God who loves us, even when we’re tempted to wonder if he’s really there or if he really cares. And in order to plant that gift of true faith in us, sometimes God has to smash our preconceived notions of holiness, of our relationship with him, of who we are. He has to rip up the hardened soil of our own self-righteousness so we can finally allow that seed to take root in us and grow. He has to interrupt our carefully laid plans so he can draw us more deeply into himself.
For most of my life, I wanted to believe that faith was a thing I could perfect all on my own. If I just lived the right kind of life, kept up the right spiritual practices, prayed the right prayers, and settled into an admirable vocation, I could coast along for my whole life, comfortable in the knowledge of my own goodness. God had to turn my life upside down to show me what faith really is: our response in trust no matter how dark things get, and no matter how small, weak and sinful we are. In fact, the more honestly we can look our littleness and woundedness in the face, the stronger our response in faith can be, because that’s when we realize that faith is the only answer. We have nowhere else to go. It’s like St. Peter said to Jesus in a moment of incredible confusion, when given the opportunity to walk away: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Faith is a trust fall. And as I’m still learning, it’s a trust fall that happens again and again and again in our lives, every day, as we learn to say “yes” to God in the face of darkness, fear, humiliation and confusion. My “yes” these days is often still a grudging, reluctant assent. It’s not romantic or exciting, and, in fact, it usually means just turning back to the task at hand, instead of begging for answers to the bigger questions like “What am I doing with my life?” and “Where are you leading me?”
Sometimes I want to throw up my hands and holler, “What are you doing?” Thank goodness God gives us plenty of chances to practice this difficult virtue of faith. I have a long, long way to go, but I know he’s right there with me, walking the uneven path by my side, loving me in my brokenness and lighting the way even when everything seems lost in darkness.
I Trust in You
Mary Beth Giltner is a book acquisitions editor for Our Sunday Visitor and writes about the intersection of faith and daily life.
Follow her on Twitter @m_b_baker