From a young age, I understood there to be two separate meanings to the word “faith.” There was “faith,” as in being a person of prayer, and “faith,” as in fidelity, loyalty in love, or commitment to a person or organization. Only quite recently, with a little help from St. Mary Magdalene, did I realize that the meaning of “faith” is the same, in either context. No doubt all of the saints learned this in a most intimate way.
After going through a reversion early on in college, I felt as if I was on a Jesus high for a few years. Christ had welcomed me home and absolutely carried me for months. I had periods of difficulty or suffering, but these truly did bring me closer to God, and it was easy enough for me to understand what he was asking of me.
But as the months turned into years, something began to shift. The crosses became heavier, more inscrutable, and God felt increasingly distant. I struggled to orient myself, or even motivate myself, in prayer. Most everyone who has a relationship with Christ either has or will eventually experience this; after the wave of fresh joy crests, the spiritual life becomes harder and more desolate.
The most difficult part is aching to make sense of what’s happening, to maintain some semblance of feeling that Christ is still there, and does indeed have a purpose in bringing us to these low moments. I was happy to be a faithful daughter of God when all was going well and I understood what was going on in my life. The eventual lack of clarity, spiritually or otherwise, was a major temptation to draw further away from God and rely on myself.
But one rainy, boring afternoon, as I mechanically flipped through the Gospel of John, a verse caught my eye: “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (19:25). It’s impossible to comprehend the pain these three women must have been experiencing. And although I don’t doubt that the Mother of Jesus suffered most acutely, I was struck by the thought of what must have been going on in Mary Magdalene’s heart.
The Blessed Mother, united as her heart is to Christ, would have had some idea of the purpose of her pain, and that her son would be victorious indeed — that there was a method to the madness, that he might even be back soon. But for Mary Magdalene it must have felt as if her entire world was crumbling, senselessly, with no foreseeable recovery. Here was the Christ — the one who had completely turned her life around, had saved her, whom she had such love for — suffering and dying like a criminal. One day she was beloved and protected and filled with purpose; the next morning the source of her confidence was being sentenced to death and tortured. Her pain and confusion were undoubtedly extreme.
Yet she stayed. She had learned to love Jesus, first and foremost, for himself, not for whatever clarity or comfort he graced her with. At the most painful moment of her life, she let go of the need to understand the details and faithfully stood at the foot of the cross while Jesus expired. And a few short days later, she was touchingly reunited with Christ, privileged to be the Apostle to the Apostles, able to experience all of the joy of his resurrection. All because of her fidelity. I don’t doubt that she had to die to herself in a major way to be able to stand loyally at the foot of Christ’s cross. And I don’t doubt that, however uncomfortable it was for her, her love was a comfort to the Lord as he faced death.
And so with her prayers, I hope to learn to do the same. I hope to learn how to abide in suffering, to love Christ even when I don’t feel loving, and to learn how to let go and trust that God will draw me closer to him whether I know how he’s doing so or not. I hope to learn, really learn, the fullest meaning of faith.
Life is full of difficulty and short on lucidity. We often have to step back and reconcile ourselves to not knowing why something is happening to us, or when things will start to work out. But we can have faith that, whether we feel it or not, the Lord loves us, and allows everything for our ultimate good. All we have to do is be present with Christ in our current reality, even if being present means being at the foot of the cross. This is the deepest form of loyalty, the truest form of faith. One day, before we know it, we’ll be reunited with him, and he’ll show us the fruit of our sufferings and what he was able to accomplish through our faithfulness.