Every year, when my English class begins the section on poetry, I read them this poem by Billy Collins:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I think sometimes we treat our faith the way Billy Collins’ students treat poetry. We tie our faith to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it. We shine a light in its eyes and shout unanswerable questions at it: “Why is the Church so corrupt? Why is the Church so intolerant? Why is the Church so irrational?” We ask all these questions at once and without waiting for an answer so that our poor faith, which we've been keeping in the basement for years, malnourished and isolated (and now beaten senseless), blurts out incoherent answers to our impossible questions. Then we throw up our hands and declare that we can't possibly take faith seriously when that’s all it has to say for itself.
That, or we beat our faith into submission until, weary and confused, it begins to say pretty much whatever we want it to. Then we lead our poor faith back down to the basement, lock the door, and march out into the world, coerced testimony in hand, smugly doing whatever we darn well please. (Years later, in a moment of weakness or loneliness, we might wonder whatever happened to our faith and why it died. But by then, we don't miss it much. We've learned to live without it.)
The truth is, if you objectify your faith, it will become an object. But if you treat faith like a person—if you make dates with your faith and keep them, if you sit down and converse with your faith, listen to your faith, question and challenge your faith—if you smile at your faith first thing in the morning, and kiss it good night before you go to bed…then your faith will begin to respond in kind: it will amuse you, challenge you, teach you, infuriate you…charm you. To know your faith, therefor, you must treat your faith as a living person.
But this relationship takes work. Once the initial infatuation passes, the long labor of love begins. Which brings us to today’s readings. We are nearing the end of Easter. The honeymoon is over, as they say, and to make matters worse, Jesus tells us in the Gospel that he is leaving. “In a little while the world will no longer see me…”
“…but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” Do we see the Holy Spirit? Do we know him? He is, after all, the soul of our faith. Our duty for the next two weeks is to prepare for the coming at Pentecost of this unseen friend.
What will happen then? That’s up to you. But try to remember that the Holy Spirit is a person—a friend, who perhaps you haven’t seen in a while. By then it will be Summer. Waterskiing is not out of the question.