“Unless you believe, you will not understand.” Isaiah 7:9

by Dr. Wes Ely

Read that quote again. Notice that most of the world operates the other way around. We first seek to understand and then begin to believe. Indeed, absence of understanding serves as a stumbling block for so many of us in our faith journey. But the instruction above, the truth above, is to believe in order to begin understanding.

When I was a boy, my mother gave me a small bookmark with a picture of Jesus at the top. Below that she wrote, “Wes, Jesus loves you. May you know this and love and serve Him all the days of your life.” I knew immediately it was true, internalized what she had written, and never looked back.  It was a Grace, clearly.  As I told this story to a Vanderbilt medical student last week at the beginning of the year barbecue for the SSCD (Society of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the Catholic medical student association), she recounted how she had been similarly “gifted.” All of us who have made the choice to believe, to walk in faith, have been blessed with such a grace. Yet it must never be taken for granted, and we must nurture this faith daily.

Isaiah 7:9 is used to begin Chapter 2 of Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei. During this year of faith, we are called to dive deep into our own personal journey towards God. Fulton Sheen points out that this journey is our response to Him having initially reached down to us. Christianity, he says, is a religion in which God first reached down to man, as opposed to most other religions where man is reaching up towards God.  Returning to this quote, then, what do we make of our own ability to believe even in the absence of full understanding?

St. Paul tells us, “One believes with the heart.” (Romans 10:10) and we know that ultimately our faith is a leap of the heart. It will depend not upon our understanding, or upon our “seeing” God, but rather upon whether or not we actually hear what we have been told happened 2000 years ago. Not vision, but “hearing” will be the key.  Jesus cried to us, “Anyone who has ears for listening should listen!” (Mk 4:9 and Lk 8:8)

Later in the second chapter of Lumen Fidei, Popes Benedict XVI and Francis (since they co-wrote the encyclical), recount the story of St. Augustine from Confessions when he heard a voice telling him to “take and read.” He then took up the epistles of St. Paul and, having listened, began to read. Are we listening? His speaking to you won’t be a thunderbolt or an auditory exclamation that others around you can hear, but when we believe, even before we understand, we will be driven to pray and talk to our God. Such conversations, when coupled with adequate listening, will bring us a message of hope, happiness, and joy that should physically produce a smile.

Let me explore one other angle with the same ultimate point.  It is known that Pope Francis loves Dostoevsky. For all of us in medicine, who understand physiology and the rheology of blood flow, Dostoevsky provides another side of belief, without understanding, in his 1869 novel The Idiot. In this story, the character Prince Myshkin, is obsessed with the painting of the body of the dead Christ in the tomb by Hans Holbein the younger, which was painted in the 1500s. The character mistakenly concludes that the visual of Christ on such a dilapidated path towards putrefaction could make one lose faith. Really?

Or is it the other way around?! Seeing that body in such a state, knowing the blood flow has clotted, the organs are filled with edematous fluid, and then believing, even before understanding, that this body was resurrected, alive, eating fish on a beach with friends… It is then, just following Apostle Thomas’s Divine declaration of our Lord (which was incidentally the first of any person in the New Testament), that the words of Christ make the most sense:
“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29)… even without understanding…

“Unless you believe, you will not understand.” Isaiah 7:9

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