A gritty faith

The best-known book of the late Oliver Sacks, a physician and professor of neurology, may be one with the fascinating title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer’s disease. At first I mistook the book’s title for an E.B. White essay, one of his winsomely insightful commentaries on life, but Dr. Sacks’s book interests me for other reasons: for its treatment of patients lost in their own bizarre and apparently inescapable worlds, and for how it explores the borderlands of neurological experience.

During the Easter season we face the bizarre and apparently inescapable worlds in which we spend most of our days, and we probe the borderlands of human experience. It’s what anyone committed to a life of faith does in any season. “Now we see things imperfectly,” St. Paul wrote, “but then we will see everything with perfect clarity (1 Cor. 13:12 NLT). The stories of resurrection are about seeing life and creation “with perfect clarity” and exploring the borderlands of a new, radically unfamiliar, radically authentic, radically abundant life.

On the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, Mary Magdalene saw what Peter and the beloved disciple could not see: someone she believed to be the gardener but who turned out to be the risen Christ, love alive in a new form that was just becoming recognizable (John 20:1-18). That evening, and again a week later, when the disciples were locked in their familiar and apparently inescapable world, new life from beyond the borderland of their experience stood among them (John 20:19-29).

Elsewhere that day, two other disciples were walking to Emmaus, trying to find sense where nothing made sense any longer, where the boundaries containing life grew thin and where a dimension of life beyond their conscious awareness confronted them with a fresh new reality. And in a flash of recognition, they saw through the scrim of appearances into another dimension of life that is always present but rarely seen. And as quickly as the vision appeared, it vanished (Luke 24:13-15).

The experience of perceiving what is always present but rarely seen was captured in a story from the early Christian hermits and monastics who went to the Egyptian desert to see through the veil cast over human existence and to experience for themselves the fullness of the hidden reign of God on earth.

According to the story, a desert hermit heard a knock at his door and saw a mother and father with their young daughter standing there. The parents asked him to pray for their daughter, who “as you can plainly see” had been turned into a donkey by an evil wizard. Inviting them to come in, the hermit asked the parents to sit off to one side as he asked the little girl if she would like something to eat.

As the hermit prepared her meal and she ate, he continued talking with her, asking her questions about things that mattered to her. When the parents saw the love with which the hermit prepared their daughter’s food and the sincere affection in his conversation with her, they suddenly realized the wizard had not cast a spell on their daughter, turning her into a donkey. Rather, the wizard had cast a spell on them, so they believed their daughter was a donkey. And seeing that their daughter was truly the little girl they loved, they were filled with joy and tearfully embraced her.

How like those parents we are! The perfect reign of God is spread around us in every aspect of the natural world, and new life is being raised in every one of us, in every person you see. Yet we see the world as merely ordinary, and we see others not through God’s lens but through ours. How can we look beyond the frame of our own apparently inescapable worlds to see the new life that is hidden in plain sight? How might we see our fellow traveler and dinner companion as the risen Christ, and see the precious ordinary world around us as the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17)? We can look with grit.

Angela Lee Duckworth is a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who studies intangible concepts such as self-control and grit to determine how they might predict both academic and professional success. Duckworth and her team went to West Point Military Academy to predict which cadets would stay in military training and who would drop out. They went to the National Spelling Bee to predict which children would advance farthest in competition. 

They studied rookie teachers in really tough neighborhoods to find who will still be teaching by the end of the school year, and who will be most effective at improving learning outcomes for their students. They partnered with private companies to find which salespeople are going to keep their jobs and earn the most money. In all those very different contexts, one characteristic stood out as the most significant predictor of success. It wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks or physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. The greatest predictor of success was grit.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” Duckworth said. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Those two disciples on the road to Emmaus had grit; they pushed through their confusion and disillusionment to find a new life had been with them all along. Thomas the Twin had grit; he pushed through his hunger for an original faith until it came and met him face to face. Saint Paul had grit; he pushed through hardship and persecution until at the end of his life he was able to say with satisfaction, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

Nurture grit in your faith. When opposition blocks your path, and you see no way around it, grit down, persevere, and keep the faith. When obstacles stand in your way and you see no way over them, grit down, persevere, and keep the faith. When failure looms and you see no hope of success, grit down, persevere, and keep the faith. When confusion and doubt reign in your life, grit down, persevere, and keep the faith. When your dreams and goals seem too far beyond your reach, grit down, persevere, and keep the faith. Hold on to the kind of faith William Bathurst prayed for in his hymn.

“O for a faith that will not shrink,
Though pressed by every foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
Of any earthly woe!

“That will not murmur nor complain
Beneath the chastening rod,
But in the hour of grief or pain,
Will lean upon its God;

“A faith that shines more bright and clear
When tempests rage without;
That when in danger knows no fear,
In darkness feels no doubt:

“Lord, give me such a faith as this;
And then, whate’er may come,
I’ll taste, e’en now, the hallowed bliss
Of an eternal home.” ▪

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