The Weight of Faith
No one can truly appreciate a huge, weeping willow tree the way a child can. When I was seven, my family moved into an old home at the foothills of the Shenandoah, built with all the charm of the antebellum south. It was the first time I had lived in the country, and the possibilities for adventure were endless. Of course, the height of my play revolved around a giant willow. You cannot help but admire these trees. Towering over the oaks and sycamores, with thick trunks and branches bending over like a waterfall, they give an impression both foreboding and otherworldly. At the age of seven, this tree was enchanted. My thoughts still wander back to it as a place of joy and wonder.
In our Gospel this morning, Christ spoke about another striking tree.
“The kingdom of heaven,” he says, “is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Mt. 13:31-35).
The Middle East is like Texas, where its native trees tend to be rather small and scraggly. The mustard tree was prized. Not only did it grow tall and give shade to birds and passersby, it was also medicinal. Its seeds and oils were used to treat sicknesses, produced warmth and stimulated the appetite. This “greatest among herbs” does not grow in an instant. It begins as a tiny seed (around 1 to 2 millimeters thick) and requires years on end before reaching its potential.
We cannot comprehend the greatness of faith. Some despise faith. Most of us appreciate it. None of us really get it. We value faith because we have seen its power in our lives, in little doses. Maybe we have known men or women who stand out because of their faith, in their exemplar character, fearlessness, or unwavering hope. In our own lives, we have seen how faith gives us meaning and carries us through tragedies. Yet, faith has a bottomless depth and we have barely scratched the service.
What is faith like? Faith is like the mustard seed. It begins small. It starts out when our eyes are opened up, just a little, and we get a glimpse into reality. We realize all that sophisticated talk — that we are merely trousered apes, that there is nothing more than what you can see and measure, or the vain lie that you can find meaning without God — is all a bunch of hogwash. You wake up to reality and discover God waiting on the other end.
Then you start to work. You realize the existence of God always means an expectation for man. We have no life in ourselves but only in obedience to God’s law. John 3:16 does say it all: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” However, we know that to “believe” in Jesus Christ is not simply to acknowledge him, but to walk with him. The Epistle of James brings faith into sharper focus: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder! (Jm. 2:19).” “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jm. 2:25). Once the seed is planted, we have to nurture it with work, discipline, and perseverance.
Our Christian life is a life of battle and perseverance.
Elder Joseph the Hesychast says of the Christian labor: “It is not to try out and then retreat, but to enter the battle, duel, defeat, and be defeated, win and lose, fall and rise, crush the gates everywhere, and to expect struggles and fights until one’s last breath.”
Fr. Seraphim Rose, when he discovered Orthodox Christianity, discovered the colossal distinction between the original Christian faith, and the watered-down versions so common in our times. We live in an era of Christianity without asceticism. No longer a religion of repentance, of honoring the Holy Days, and transformation through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, Christianity today (so-called) is too often about feeling good, being nice, and respecting God from a distance: a sort of soupy, moralistic, therapeutic, deism.
The seed of faith fell in his soul, and Fr. Seraphim moved out into the wilderness to nurture it. He followed the example of the saints who left the world to pursue holiness. He fled to the mountains of northern California, where he built a 6x10 hut, and gave his life over to study and prayer.
Fr. Seraphim looked around at the 20th century and saw what we are up against:
“We have to be aware that what is being pounded in upon us [in society] is all of one piece; it has a certain rhythm, a certain message to give us, this message of self-worship, of relaxing, of letting go, of enjoying yourself, of giving up any thought of the other world…It is actually an education in atheism. We have to fight back by knowing just what the world is trying to do to us…We have a choice: to follow the way of this world…or to choose the way of life.”
God plants the seeds of faith. It is up to us to water them.
What is it all for?
“When it is grown, [the mustard seed becomes] the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Mt. 13:31-35).
We do not comprehend faith. We do not realize the wonder of true, matured faith. Only the saints truly got it, and they became saints because they got it. The more they discovered what faith could be, the more they gave up everything to have more of it.
Holiness is like the mustard tree. It gives shade, in that it is the only state where one can have peace. Like the medicinal values of mustard oil, holiness heals everyone who comes in contact with it. Like the birds of the air that rest in the mustard branches, the saints and angels gather around a man of God. Holiness, the fruit of faith, is the only pursuit worthwhile in our life.
Our Lord’s words about the flourishing mustard seed brought me back to that old weeping willow in my youth. As a child, that tree impressed on me a vision of strength, vitality, and wonder. This is the way Christ describes the soul of a man and woman filled with faith. He, whose “delight is in the Law of the Lord…he shall be like a tree planted by the waterside, that will bring forth his fruit in due season; his leaf also shall not fall, and whatsoever he doth, it shall prosper” (Ps. 1). May God give us strength and determination to pursue his kingdom and to exercise the faith within us.