While riding the train home from downtown this afternoon, staring out the window as I often do, I noticed something that struck me as odd. A young man on a bicycle pulled to a stop in front of a large, ornate cathedral. He dismounted, then hurried up the steps and disappeared inside the church to confess his sins or pray or whatever it is good Catholics do on a Monday afternoon.
I wanted to bang on the window and call out, “Hey, you forgot to lock your bike!” After all, it could have been an oversight. Perhaps he didn’t mean to leave a perfectly lovely bicycle resting, unchained, against the base of the cathedral stairs, where any number of dishonest people may come along and steal it. Maybe he was simply in a hurry to attend mass, or so distracted by the burden of his transgressions that he forgot to lock the bike.
Or maybe it was a matter of faith. What if that man just happens to place so much faith in the magical supernatural powers of that cathedral, that he doesn’t think anyone would dare steal his bicycle? Not in front of God’s house! It must take a great deal of faith to believe such a thing — that despite crime statistics in the neighborhood of the cathedral, and despite the fact that he made not one effort to secure his property, that somehow, God would watch over his bike.
It is difficult not to feel a sense of admiration when a person, against all odds, against the pressures of society, and even against scientific evidence, continue to have faith that something they choose to believe is true. What security such a faith must bring! What a sense of peace such a faith must offer – no need to wonder, to doubt; none of the skeptic’s dilemma of constant questioning. Only certainty.
And, perhaps, foolishness, at times.
After all, faith in the unknown must have its limits. No matter how much one prays for God’s protection or provision, or believes that God will supernaturally intervene, one must accept that if they were to jump from a rooftop, no miracle will take place to keep them from falling. And as for that young man at the cathedral, well, I can only hope that the downtown thieves were too busy this afternoon to notice his unlocked bicycle. Faith, no matter how admirable, makes a lousy security system.
Back when I used to pray, I truly believed, thanks to the widespread teachings within the conservative evangelical Christian church, and perhaps my own naïvete, that my prayers, and the prayers of other believers, could influence God’s choices. Pray incessantly. Pray with insistence — keep knocking on God’s door until he grants you what you seek: wisdom, peace, healing from disease, money. (Wait…what? Well, some people believe that, too.) Later, I came to prefer the explanations of believers who took the bible less literally. Their faith was not in their ability to change the mind of God, but in God’s ability to change them. Ahh…now that is a faith that I can truly admire.
“How does God help you to make life choices?” I asked this question once during a gathering on young Christian college students, because I earnestly wanted to know. So many people in my peer group held a strong faith that if they were to seek God’s guidance, then He would offer it to them. “But how do you know that the conclusion you reach comes from God, and not from yourself, or other influences?” I asked.
“You just know,” was the general consensous. You just know. Like a gut feeling or a lucky hunch. Or intuition, or psychic revelation. I was never satisfied with such a fallible theory. What if the warm, fuzzy feeling about taking Plan A instead of Plan B was just my intelligent brain making a logical decision, and had nothing to do with the guidance of a deity? How can anyone possibly know?
Maybe one cannot know. Instead, one must have faith.