Advent is a time of exhortation and urgency: keep awake, be ready! One resounding question rings out: ‘When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?’ The Lord’s question is a profound recognition of all the obstacles and opposition to keeping faith. It is not at all unusual for individuals who are active and practising Christians to lose a grip on faith and for the oil of hope, faith and love to be exhausted and to experience a disconsolate darkness. The security of the spiritual direction relationship is one in which this ‘loss of faith’ can be explored and a way found to live through it hopefully.
This loss of assurance and confidence in the faith is not the same as the experience of a violent attack on belief when a person finds questions arising into their consciousness that they have never been challenged by before. This is especially the case when these doubts arise out of nowhere into their heart and mind. This is the kind of challenge presented by some very direct questions: ‘What if the Gospel is a load of old fairy stories? What if I have got it all wrong? Have I been fooling myself?’ These experiences in mature and experienced Christians can be very disturbing, but they are clearly recognizable as having an origin outside of the person, they are a spiritual attack. Often these violent spiritual challenges come at a crucial point in a person’s life. I remember one man experiencing this on the eve of his ordination. In these more dramatic episodes it is simply a case of recognizing the enemy and resisting him. The Lord’s Prayer is a powerful prayer in these circumstances.
When the consolation of faith dims, creating anxiety and confusion, many factors can be at work but it often signals a new path on the Christian journey, one that is walked by simple believing obedience without any inner sense of peace or wellbeing. God is drawing that person into a deeper dependence. It is, of course, foolish to make any general rules about the causes of this ‘loss of faith.’ The remedy is almost universal: it is a simple one; practice the disciplines of the faith more assiduously. It is most important to keep attending church, and receive Holy Communion regularly. There is a two-fold medicine at work here: one is the powerful grace of the sacrament itself and the other is the vitality that is drawn from the Body of Christ, which is the church. Another strategy is to go back to those prayers and scripture passages that have been nourishing in the past. Last but by no means least remember the promise: ‘He will not allow you to be tested beyond your limits.’
The Advent hope and the Christmas Gospel proclaim afresh the great truth that ‘Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ That includes that darkness when all consolation is absent. It is the darkness that surrounds both that night in Bethlehem and the Friday afternoon on Golgotha when the cry went up: ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ Even in a crisis of faith we are in communion with Jesus.