The chief reason we may disregard faith is our preconceived idea that we must feel God and divine things. Although we know speculatively that God is not felt, practically we hold the contrary. We believe that the true story of our spiritual life is made up of all those things we have sensibly experienced. Nothing is more erroneous.
The spiritual life is not perceived by the senses. Do we feel a sacrament producing its proper effect? Do we feel the increase of grace in our soul? Do we feel the death of the soul by sin and its resurrection by sacramental absolution? Do we feel the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist in such a way that if we did not perceive Him sensibly, we would not believe in it?
Without doubt there are times when our Lord allows Himself to be sensibly felt, yet it is not precisely grace that is felt, but often something else that accompanies it. For example, we go to Confession to a priest who simply listens to our sins, gives a penance, and absolves; and we feel nothing. We go to another who understands us, who helps us in our disclosures to him, who gives us helpful advice; and we feel such a peace and refreshment that upon arising, we seem to be other beings. Was it the grace of the sacrament that we felt? No. It was the profitable experience that we had with the second priest.
Undoubtedly there are also stages in the spiritual life in which one becomes aware of it, at least momentarily. But to be conscious of a thing and to feel it sensibly are not the same thing; neither is one’s whole spiritual life a thing of continual conscious awareness. If we read the life of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus with attention, we shall be convinced that she experienced delight only a very few times in her spiritual life, and that she rarely enjoyed the sensible consolations that we are considering. She lived by faith, by the obscurity of faith, and she is one of the most marvelous examples of that life of faith. In the midst of desolations, doubts, and terrible struggles, she always maintained an intense interior life. She is one of the few souls whom aridity and desolation never disturbed, because she had a deeply rooted and vigorous faith. And thus, we read in her autobiography that her falling asleep after receiving Communion did not disconcert her; neither did that fearful desolation which she had in the last days of her life, when the light of Faith appeared to have gone out in her heart.
How many of us, on the other hand, when we go to prayer and experience consolation, come forth content with the assurance that God loves us a great deal? But if we do not feel Him, we come forth brokenhearted, sadly thinking that He has no regard for us, or that we have none for Him. And simply because we do not feel Him!
And yet there are so many things, even material ones, that we do not feel. Do we feel the blood circulating through our arteries? Do we feel the mysterious workings of the brain? Do we notice that marvel by which digested food becomes assimilated and transformed into our proper substance? When we were children and youths, did we feel an increase of growth each day? And if we do not feel these material things, how is it that we wish to feel that which is spiritual?
The Spirit’s gifts aid your faith
This light of Faith with which we always encounter God is in a certain sense the only way, and in a certain sense it is not. It is the only way, because in this world, every manner of knowing God has faith as its basis. If we except the case in which our Lord grants certain extraordinary graces, there is not on this earth any other light by which we can know and contemplate divine things than the light of Faith.
But in a certain sense, it is not the only way, because among the gifts of the Holy Spirit, there are at least three that serve to aid faith: the gifts of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. These gifts do not supplant the light of Faith; they merely remove certain imperfections from it and bestow upon it certain prerogatives. They do not take its place; they simply make it more perfect.
One of the proper effects of these gifts is precisely this: under their influence, we not only know divine things, but at times we also savor them. Hence, it can be said that through the medium of these gifts, particularly through that of wisdom, we savor God. But it is necessary to understand this expression of the mystics well. It does not mean that we perceive God with our bodily senses. By this expression, we manifest as well as we can that conscious knowledge, which is in a certain sense experiential and intuitive, that we have of God, particularly through the gift of wisdom. Even then, however, we perceive God with those two savors of which we spoke: bitter and sweet; honey and myrrh. Who would have believed that the most excruciating desolations are the fruits of the Holy Spirit; that these sensations which desolate souls experience and which seem to them to be the very tortures of Hell, are produced by the Holy Spirit through the medium of the gifts?
Thus, with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, one often feels the spiritual life, but in many instances, it would be better not to feel it, since it is experienced in a terrible and crucifying manner.
Seek God with the eyes of faith
To sum up: The first secret in finding our Lord is faith. He does not hide Himself from the gaze of faith, nor can He elude it. Faith never has obstacles; it penetrates all recesses; it pierces all veils. If only we would understand the secret of living by faith, of going to God by the way of obscure faith!
We approach the tabernacle, and we feel nothing, just as though we were drawing near an empty tabernacle. We say, “Jesus is here,” but it is as though we were pronouncing words in an unknown language, for they move not a single fiber of our heart. But faith assures us that God is there, and if we would comport ourselves in harmony with what faith tells us, how different our prayer would be! We speak to Jesus, but we do not feel that He is listening to us, nor that He is answering us; and our colloquy languishes, and soon we do not know what to say. But faith tells us that Jesus listens to us and that He speaks to us, and that He needs neither external sounds nor extraordinary means in order to speak with us. He is the divine Master, who speaks and instructs without the noise of words. And if faith assures me that Jesus hears me, speaks to me, and loves me, then delights and consolations are not necessary — no, not anything at all.
The obscurity of faith, to be sure, does not accommodate itself to our sensible tastes. We would desire, above all things else, to feel; and faith is not for feeling and savoring, but for knowing.
“I do not find God,” you may say. You do not find Him according to your way — that is, in a sensible manner. But do you believe? If you have faith, you already know that God does not stand far from you, because in Him we live and move and are; because He surrounds us on the right hand and on the left, above and below; because He penetrates us and lives by grace in the most intimate part of our soul; because He is present in that flower, in that fragrance, in that ray of light in that glorious sky, everywhere. Consequently, if we knew how to profit from faith and to live by faith, we would always find God, and thus we would have solved our problem; we would have discovered the great secret of the interior life.