The Gospels depict the journey of faith, towards deepening certainty, through multiple vignettes. For example, the prophetic story of Peter’s Three Denials (Matthew 26:31–35; 69-75), and the story of ‘Doubting’ Thomas, who was guided to probe Christ’s wounds (John 20:24-29), each illustrate the deepening of faith following personal revelation.
Following Jesus Christ requires not only faith but also courage and self-denial. All disciples stumble along the way. The New Testament is clear, however, that many come to certainty through faith and with the help of special graces, and it that process, often involving personal revelation, they become courageous disciples for Christ.
Christianity grew out of the convictions of such disciples and their readiness to accept martyrdom for proclaiming the faith. Christianity would have died long ago had it not been for a continuous line of such disciples, renewing the Church, defending the Church, and extending the Church through mission. These acts, requiring self-sacrifice, are born out of freedom, not compulsion or threat. It is the conviction of such witnesses that sustains and drives the Church.
If one looks at the major Catholic religious orders, and examines the conversion stories of their founders, often one can see the New Testament pattern of conversion mirrored over and other, profoundly. See, for example, the conversions of St Francis of Assisi and St Ignatius of Loyola, which I will examine in due course. These men, who had lived worldly lives, became the founders of two of the greatest and largest Catholic religious orders (Franciscans and Jesuits), still thriving today. On close examination it is difficult to sustain the charge that their conversion experiences were ‘all in the mind’ or similar to those of other religions, and not highly specific to Christian doctrine.
The best witnesses to certainty-of-faith are those most fully transformed to Christ. The most pre-eminent are the Saints, and it is of great value to study their lives closely:
- How they were before conversion;
- What happened at conversion – precursors, experience, transformation; and
- Their lives and works following conversion.
Some saints have been elevated to the position of “Doctor of the Church” on account of their significant contribution to theology or doctrine. Many of these were men and women of great intellect and wisdom. These disciples clearly had certainty of God’s existence even if they had uncertainty about many other things. St Augustine is one such example. Reading his Confessions is a great place to start, for it is widely recognised as one of the greatest works of western literature.