A few weeks ago, the people in Hawaii received an emergency alert indicating that a missile attack was underway. The alert soon was revealed to have been sent in error, but not before most people endured some anxious moments. More recently, a parishioner told me that for relatives who had been among the affected, it had been horrible.
My first reaction was that it would have been less horrible if they had been going to confession regularly. This seems a bit callous, or even self-serving, but not really. That is what confession allows us to do: prepare for death and judgment. If we know our sins have been forgiven and our soul is prepared to receive the Lord, then we have far less reason to be anxious about meeting Him. An absence of anxiety is an absence of fear; how can it be callous to offer that?
However, even having no fear of death or judgment is not enough to make one welcome death. But might it help us welcome…life?
In 1922, when asked what he would do if faced with a hypothetical situation that very nearly matched what our friends in Hawaii experienced, the author Marcel Proust suggested: I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly. But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again!
Imagine; threatened with the loss of life, we realize how beautiful it is. Proust realized how in ordinary circumstances, we miss precisely this ever-present reality. Once no longer threatened with privation of life, how quickly we would settle back into our indifferent squandering of it: The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today.
Unafraid of death, delighted by life; the two seem to be opposed. But clinging to only one or the other is results in an unbalanced, even unhinged disposition. We need to cultivate both together, for only that can stabilize us and satisfy our deepest yearning. We should not dread death, but neither should we fail to love life, even for a moment.
This happy balance, this perfect complementarity, seems impossible to attain. Perhaps to attain it for ourselves is impossible; but to receive it as a gift is surely possible. For this union of fearlessness and delight is the fruit of faith. Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because He is truth itself. By faith "man freely commits his entire self to God." For this reason, the believer seeks to know and do God's will. (CCC 1814)
So yes, faith is a gift (from God) that makes possible a participation (by the believer). Can it be a gift if it require participation? By all means; it is not hard to imagine a gift that is no gift at all unless we use it, and use it for its right purpose. And the right purpose of faith is to free us from fear, and fill us with delight. What better gift could there be not only on our last day, but on our every day?
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody! Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to thee, O LORD, among the peoples,
I will sing praises to thee among the nations.
For thy steadfast love is great above the heavens,
thy faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let thy glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 108:1-5)