That is the burden of a lonely heart, of a heart you carry on your own and keep closed to every other human heart. That will lead you to stand on the thin ice and lure your tormenter there, and then stand tormented about what you really want to do: save him? or watch him suffer? That is what faith outside a community leads you to.
But is faith inside a community any easier? No. No, it is not easy at all. But it is faithfulness, to carry the burden of others as well as the burden of yourself. The goal of faith, as Christians define it, is not to know God in your own thoughts, but to know God in the experience of other people. So even the Desert Fathers did not retreat to the mountains, did not abandon all human contact and disappear from human society; so even monks and nuns live in community, carry out the tasks of faith by living together. Faith, in Christian terms, is about living for others; living for others whether or not your faith is known to those others.
But that is a dry and empty exercise, if you try to do it alone. That is a fruitless and thankless task, if you try to be faithful all on your own in a world that doesn’t recognize anything about your faith and what it asks of you. Faith alone soon turns either into an excuse for retribution or a private scorecard used to measure yourself against others. Faith lived by the individual alone is “too much of nothing,” and it soon decays into faithlessness, no matter how faithful you think you are. Because faith that is not lived with others and in others who share your faith, is faith lived for you. It is faith in yourself, and when the time of trial comes, you are not ready to receive the words you need. For God is not known in the solitary confines of the human heart: God is known in the faces and hands and eyes and ears and mouths of people: people of faith, and people of no faith. “Christ before me, Christ beside me…Christ to comfort and restore me…Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger” is not just a prayer for protection, it is also a confession of the true nature of faith and faithfulness.
Faith, in other words, is not fire insurance, as a dear friend put it to me once. It’s not about hope of reward or fear of punishment.
(Nor, I think, is atheism about the rejection of consequences. Among my many shitty TV habits is House, a doctor who is supposed to be an atheist, and who had an utterly stupid and dishonest conversation with the Mary-Sue-est of all patients who tried to convince him that faith was about ultimate payout. His answer, since he’s written by a not-too-bright high school sophomore who’s just discovered Nietzsche and Nine Inch Nails, is that there are no consequences, which is a stupid fucking thing to say. It’s not that the consequences don’t exist, it’s that they’re here, now, today, not a hundred years from now when our cosmic prince arrives to count out who was naughty and who was nice. I was dying for him to say that, but this is network TV, not eternal salvation, so I was left to fling throw pillows at the screen, declare my love for the show over, only to turn back in the following week because Hugh Laurie is really, really, really hot.)
Christmas is making its annual spiritual booty call. The days are getting darker and it starts making more and more sense to go inside, light some candles, and be with people. Eat some fruitcake already. It’s the story of the stranger, rather than the friend, that calls to my fearful soul: The assurance, which I never really had until I traveled far outside my comfort zone, that the world will catch me, that somebody will give me directions or feed me or patch up my wounds if I’m hurt on the road. That if I’m poor, and lost, and scared, and there’s no room at the inn, somebody will give me a place to sleep, even if it’s in a stable, even if. I’m not sure that’s got to be God, but I’m also not sure it’s anything else.