What does it mean, from a Catholic perspective, to have faith? How should we conceive of our relationship with God, and how should this understanding inform our conduct and our outlook on our lives? In his book, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted that “every religion naturally lifts the soul into regions far above the realm of the senses … and so draws one away, from time to time, from thinking about himself.” Catholic faith invites us, in this vein, to look outside of ourselves: to others around us, to saints and other exemplars within the Church and to God. These three points are crucial for articulating our understanding of religion.
First, faith, as those who have been fortunate enough to take a course with Georgetown University’s great Fr. Stephen Fields will know, is an infused virtue — one given to me by God’s grace, not solely through my own efforts. To borrow from the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is imperative that I have the humility to recognize that, for all the efforts I might make to conduct myself with love and charity, the initiative for reconciliation with God comes from him — an initiative embodied by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Our act of moral freedom comes in choosing to accept or turn away from this opportunity for reconciliation, but we must remember that it is God who first extends his hand to us.
The practice of faith is also imitative. One particular insight of Catholicism is that we can be inspired to do good works and live by love if we have earthly exemplars to emulate. The recent celebration of All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 offered me a special chance to reflect on this aspect of faith. On this feast day, Catholics commemorate not only those especially virtuous people canonized by the Church, but the entire “communion of saints” — all holy men and women who are worthy of imitation.
Catholics have a special reverence for history and tradition and venerate the saints because these are all wellsprings of examples to follow to become closer to God. Conversely, making the choice to place our faith in God connects the faithful to their ancestors who did the same, uniting them with their forebears in a perpetual, metaphysical communion.
Perhaps most importantly, faith is inextricably linked to service and love for others, a relationship succinctly outlined in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
The main act of service I undertake in the name of faith is my work with Music Ministry on campus. It is almost cliche at this point, among choral circles, to quote St. Augustine’s timeless “he who sings, prays twice,” but there is profound truth in this adage. Music speaks to the innermost reaches of the human soul, and our music serves three purposes crucial to a life of faith: we glorify the Divine, nourish our own souls and touch the hearts of others through our song.
Whether as a cantor or as part of the Chapel Choir, I strive to ensure that all who come to Dahlgren Chapel for Sunday Mass leave closer to God than when they entered. During the Mass, our song inspires joy, provides much-needed comfort and consolation or both. In a sense, we are God’s emissaries during that hour. Our purpose is to serve as earthly conduits for his love; through our own prayerfulness as we rehearse and sing, we infuse our music with God’s love and grace and bestow it upon those who come to church.
The importance of this endeavor for my own soul cannot be overstated. During the virtual academic year brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, I was a freshman without a clear sense of belonging in the Georgetown community and was looking for a North Star to guide me through the most bewildering and disorienting time I had yet lived through. Joining Music Ministry and participating in virtual choir recording projects was my salvation.
Not only was the music we made beautiful in itself, but the act of coming together to glorify the Divine, even if our communion was spiritual rather than physical, helped to ground and even rekindle my faith at a time when churches were shuttered.
It would have been easy for any sense of deep meaning and transcendence to slip away in the fog of the virtual year and in the face of the pervasive, nihilistic “doomerism” I encountered whenever I ventured online. The art to which I was contributing oriented me toward a higher good and reminded me that there is a deep, beautiful meaning to our existence, thereby helping me to trudge through the endless lockdowns until our return to in-person life.
If my studies at Georgetown have given me one key insight into human nature, it is this: we human beings cannot be properly understood without the recognition that we are constantly on a quest for the transcendent and the divine.
This longing for deeper meaning is an ache in the human soul, and it can be fulfilled by turning to faith in order to accept truths of even more profound importance than those we can perceive by rational or material means. In turning to faith, we recognize our dependence on God, our debt to those who came before us and who built the world in which we live, and our obligation to love one another.
Connor Hartigan is a Junior in the College.