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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Faith

Over the past month I’ve read three books all of which had as a central element a story about faith. I did not set out with the intent of a literary journey on the subject, it was purely serendipity. The first, a true story, concerned the shipwreck of a British man of war off the coast of Patagonia in the early 18th century, and the fate of its crew and captain. A novel, set in Appalachia in the 1970’s concerned the life of an orphan coming of age in a small, close-knit community, while a third, also a novel, was set in India at the dawn of the 20th century spanning seventy years in the life of a single family and the community in which they lived.


The latter addresses the subject of faith in the most traditional sense, faith in a merciful God. The real-life account of the wreck of the HMS Wager and its survivors offers a different take on faith, the struggles of two very different men, one driven by a sense of personal destiny and the other by faith in a higher power and himself. The third story presents yet a different picture, a young man who against all odds rises above endless misfortunes to find faith in himself and the community of those who have loved him.


Each of these books journey through calamity, hope, dismay and ultimately redemption, and while the principal characters, both real and imagined, approach life in very disparate ways and with very different convictions they are all about sustaining faith in the face of loss.


It borders on the trite to suggest that adversity either drives people to the brink of despair or endows them with equanimity but that is what these three stories convey. They also suggest that faith is found within. To whom or to what we turn when facing dire circumstances, it turns out, is quite a separate question from how we decide to accept or defy the challenges with which we are faced. The hinge point, at least as far as these three stories go, is belief in our own agency.


I met a man many years ago who had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. He was hospitalized and wished to go home to be with his family in his final days. His physician advised that doing so in his condition might very well result in his immediate demise. Pressed for a solution the doctor told my acquaintance that if his fever abated, his oxygen levels greatly improved, and he could eat without a feeding tube it would be safe for him to be transported home. These seemed impossible odds. Lying in his hospital bed the man turned not to prayer but to another force within him. He said he willed himself out of desperation to do what the doctor required and in less than 48 hours he was stable, and off the feeding tube. As he tells the story, reflecting on what had transpired he decided that if he could will such a dramatic change in his health in two days he could also challenge the doctor’s gloomy prognosis. When I met him, he had been disease free for seven years.


It is an amazing testimony, some might regard it as a miracle even, evidence of God’s mercy. Perhaps it was, I make no claims and neither did this man, but whatever else was at work I believe my acquaintance healed himself by faith. It would not be the first time in medical history that such things have happened.


Two men were responsible for the improbable survival and return to England of a handful of crewmen and officers following the wreck of the Wager, the ship’s recently promoted captain and its gunner. The captain was driven by a sense of duty, instilled in him since birth, and perhaps more by faith in his own destiny. The gunner, by all accounts a devout but pragmatic man, possessed a fierce sense of self preservation, and his personal log attests to an abiding love for his wife back home in England. Both were men convicted by their belief that they alone could save the remnant crew and officers. But as it happened, they fell out—sought separate and desperate strategies to return home and by dint of their convictions both prevailed. Faith, it seems can take many forms.


The two fictional works echo this thought. Men and women turn to God for guidance, for succor, and for answers, as Job did in the midst of his afflictions. Faith in themselves gathered their resolve and the support of others to overcome the obstacles that beset them. Voltaire said that “faith consists of believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.” We must ask, though, what animates that belief when reason does not? For some it is the invisible power of a loving God. For others, love of another or a sense of personal destiny. The spark that ignites the flame of faith resides in us all, but the force that fans it, that is the mystery.

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