My hometown in the Valley of Thorns (Esquel, Argentina)

I had been a Catholic only for a few years when one day I casually engaged in a pleasant conversation with a kind Catholic lady. She seemed to be interested in my conversion, how have I started to write about the faith and so on. At one point she said: “Well, like the Bible clearly says ‘Act as if you have faith and faith will be given to you.'” I was familiar with the phrase, having heard it for the first time from the lips of Paul Newman in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. There Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) the formerly successful Boston lawyer, now an alcoholic in the twilight of his career, delivers the closing argument in a trial rife with judicial partiality and corruption. Galvin has become an outcast, a “has been” struggling to get back on his feet in every aspect of his life. He is an exile in his own land. I will return to that later.

On hearing the phrase, I remembered Paul Newman’s movie. I responded in a kind tone: “Oh! Yes, that is not in the Bible, I believe it is an Irish proverb …” I was not ready for the violent reaction to my innocent clarification. In a somewhat strident tone, my interlocutor shrieked:

“How do you know that is not in the Bible? The Bible is a thick book, you know? You’re not going to tell me you read the Bible from cover to cover don’t you!?”

Aghast, I stood there silent, thinking fast how I was going to defuse the situation. I managed to say:

“I’ve been reading the Bible for about fifty years, a few times ‘cover to cover’ as you said. It may sound unbelievable but I enjoy reading the Bible very much. I know that phrase is not in the Bible in the same manner that I know ‘all is fair in war and love’ is not part of War And Peace, or ‘a fool and his money are soon to part’ is not found in The Wealth Of Nations. One can simply know a book without necessarily memorizing it whole. Please look it up in any Bible searching computer program. You won’t find that, I can honestly assure you. I did not mean to offend you.”

That was followed by something in the line of “The problem with you converts …” I will spare you the rest of the sermon. That person was asserting her “Catholic seniority” as she blurted nervously that her entire education took place in Catholic schools and she had been told many times that “Act as if you have faith and faith will be given to you” was indeed in the Bible. She promised to find it and come back to me before leaving unceremoniously and visibly upset. I’m still waiting.

I had a few similar encounters over the years. I learned to heed Proverbs 26:5 never to “answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be like him.” I believe that saved me from being chastised a few times but the problem keeps coming back. Is it a character flaw on my part? It may be! Here is Frank Galvin’s last argument:

“So much of the time we’re just lost. We pray, please God tell us what is right, tell us what is true. Why there is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless. We’ve become tired of hearing people lie and, after a time, we become dead… we think of ourselves as victims and we become victims, we become weak, we doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs, we doubt our institutions and we doubt the Law but today you are the Law:  You are the Law; not some book, not the lawyers, not a marble statue, or the trappings of the Court. See, those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are in fact a prayer, they are a fervent and frightened prayer. In my religion they say “Act as if you have faith and faith will be given to you.” If you are to have faith in Justice we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.”

Frank Galvin is exiled from his own profession. His own weaknesses have made his enemies strong. Now he is involved in a momentous fight. He cannot afford to lose. His clients are in the right and he is their last hope but inside him in his heart of hearts he is his own last hope. God, justice, sin, human weakness conspire all at once to save his soul from being swallowed in the quicksand of the world’s unjust condition. He manages to understand what is happening and he rises to the challenge and wins.

We the plain, we the pedestrian lay faithful of this Church are very much in Frank Galvin’s predicament. We have become wary after this long trip now lasting two millennia and still going. We started long ago aware that we were Abel, conversing with God and sacrificing a lamb to Him knowing very well that God was moved by our condition. Trusting that God would do something to get us out of our exile here and lead us to the land of the living. Crisis after crisis, battle after battle we arrived to this terrible century and now we have to face the sum of all our fears and “make one heap of all our winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss” as we move forward into the last hour of history.

The judgment began with the people God chose. They faced their antichrist and lived through their Shoah. It is our turn now. It is coming. We will live our Shoah and meet the final antichrist. But we will not prevail, God will not let us prevail, if our hearts are engaged in seeking to fetch the trappings of this world: importance, advantages, recognition, fame, riches … the impulses of darkness that got Adam out of Paradise.

On our imperfect backs rests the struggle but the struggle belongs to God. My previous post was a commentary on someone’s attack against Benedict XVI. That attack was unfair in my view. I saw myself a little bit on Benedict’s place: exiled long ago from the land I love, surrounded by envy and strife, powerless to do anything but pray and wait for God’s justice and —at the same time— hoping that God’s justice will overlook my grievous faults.

But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

The justice of God found that poor man worthy of the mercies of the Court. The other man, the one that was only just in appearance went home with an unfavorable judgment. His argument was faulty because it rested not in comparing himself to the perfection of God but what he saw as the injustice of his peers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

I find the words of Jesus quite frightening: “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’” (Luke 18:14)

It is high time for us (myself first) to examine our hearts with brutal honesty. That is the only way we are going to find justice in ourselves. That is also the best way to brace for the fight ahead, praying for each other and for our enemies as well. I believe God will put justice in our hearts if we go there and clean them first.