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“A cloud of witnesses.” (Hebrews 12:1)
Ancestral Courage

What is faith? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see.”

It is not a function of organic vision. Rather, it is an act of seeing in trust.

Long ago, when I spent a month working at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta, I sought a sure answer to my future. On the first morning I met Mother Teresa after Mass at dawn.

She asked, “And what can I do for you?” I asked her to pray for me. “What do you want me to pray for?” I voiced the request I had borne for thousands of miles: “Pray that I have clarity.”

She said no. That was that.

When I asked why, she announced that clarity was the last thing I was clinging to and had to let go of. When I commented that she herself had always seemed to have the clarity I longed for, she laughed: “I have never had clarity; what I’ve always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust.”

Thus Mother Teresa became for me a member of that cloud of witnesses to which the Letter to the Hebrews refers: heroes of faith, who had conviction about things unseen.

So it was with Abraham and Sarah, who believed they would give birth to a child in their old age (the very idea was enough to make Sarah laugh out loud) and make “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands of the seashore.”

The Letter to the Hebrews celebrates the faith of Abel, dead but still teaching us; of Noah and his improbable ark; of Jacob, at death’s door, finally able to bless Joseph’s sons; of Moses, the child unguarded and abandoned, who would one day lead a nation) against impossible odds, into a territory his feet would never touch.

How much we have to learn from the great ones who have gone before us.
Faith felled the walls of Jericho and saved the prostitute Rahab. It was faith, the letter says, that discovered new lands, bestowed wondrous strength, and inspired uncommon courage in ordinary men and women.

Some were pilloried, flogged, even chained in prison, stoned, beheaded, homeless, dressed in rags, penniless, given nothing but ill-treatment, living in caves and deserts and ravines.” (Heb 11:33)

They were all heroes of faith, the letter continues, but they did not live to see what was promised.

How much we have to learn from the great ones who have gone before us, not only the Hebrew saints praised above, but our own as well—those who, after Christ, believed in him despite adversity.

We imagine faith to ease confusion, dull the pain, redeem the times, but we miss the testimony of the clouds of witnesses. Our faith does not bring final clarity on this earth. It does not disarm the demons. It does not still the chaos or dull the pain or provide a crutch so we might walk.

When all else is unclear, the heart of faith says, “into your hands I commend my spirit.”

So it was with all our heroes.

These died in faith. They did not obtain what had been promised
but saw and saluted it from afar …
searching for a better, a heavenly home
(Heb 11:13)

John Kavanaugh, SJ
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Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
The Word Engaged: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York (1997), pp. 91-92.
Art by Martin (Steve) Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go
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