Note: While this article was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – ed.
Some years ago, I came across a newly published edition of the diaries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06). With fascination I gobbled up the four hundred pages of daily diary entries that recounted the adventures of this thirty-person team as they traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific coast and back. What struck me most was how their experiences mirrored the life of a disciple.
At the beginning of their journey, Lewis and Clark travelled through relatively well-mapped lands and made significant progress. Though they were beginners and still learning the ropes, they made the greatest progress at the start. As they went along and gained experience, the way became paradoxically more difficult. The terrain became harder the lands were not well mapped, and they finally had to abandon their boats and climb into the mountains. As they grew in skill and became more wilderness-wise, the way became steeper and harder.
In the end, Lewis and Clark would have perished in the mountains except for the intervention of the native peoples, who provided them with horses and guided them across the mountains. With this help, they were able to complete the journey to the Pacific Ocean and make their way back again.
Isn’t this a pattern for discipleship in Christ? We set out on the path with great energy and often make significant progress early on. But then we encounter hard things that slow us down and even tempt us to stop and go back. Finally we reach terrain that is steep and seemingly insurmountable.
Almost despairing of life itself, we make it through by the grace of God and the help of others. Paradoxically, as we grow in wisdom and virtue, the way seems to become harder and more challenging. Christ our Lord brings us more fully into his own counsels and invites us to share more deeply in the cross – in his death and resurrection. As we embrace this, we are changed into his image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
There is no blueprint for how this will work out for each one of us. But we are pilgrims and wayfarers, walking a common road, called to support and strengthen each other as we together walk the path of lifelong discipleship.
When Lewis and Clark set out on their trek across the unmapped wilderness of the North American continent, they took great care to equip themselves for what was likely to come. They gathered all the knowledge they could find about the lands ahead, and they brought supplies and tools to get them well launched. But they knew that most of their provisions would be found on the way: food, water, shelter, and human guides. They had no clear maps of the area; they had to make judgments about the best course to take in uncharted territory.
In a similar way, when we set out on the path of discipleship, we want to count the cost and equip ourselves with everything we can in order to walk that path successfully. But most of what we will need lies ahead of us. We need to trust in God for our daily provision and place our hope in his providential grace if we are to persevere and reach our goal. There are many gifts and graces available to us as we walk the path of discipleship: the Scriptures, the sacraments, the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, and many more.
In our study of discipleship, we would like to revisit the roles of the theological virtues – faith, hope, and love-in the life of a disciple. These primary gifts of grace provide us with crucial and essential resources for successfully living a joyful, adventurous life in Christ. First we will consider faith and hope, and then we will conclude by examining love of God and neighbor through the lens of friendship.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the core meaning of faith:
Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.#1814
But a full expression of faith also includes the commitment of our lives, as we entrust ourselves completely to God.
“Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God …. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says”.Catechism, #150
In one sense, faith is the door by which we enter into a relationship with God in Christ; faith comes at the beginning. But faith is also the gift of grace within us by which we continue to trust God and offer ourselves to him. We don’t leave faith behind as we become mature disciples; rather, faith matures and continues to play an essential role in meeting the challenges and trials that we face.
In a landmark homily, St. John Henry Newman calls us to embrace the “ventures of faith” that are required of a Christian, not only at the beginning of life in Christ but across the entire journey as disciples. “Here then a great lesson is impressed upon us, that our duty as Christians lies in this, in making ventures for eternal life without the absolute certainty of success.” 110 What does Newman mean by the phrase “ventures of faith”?
This, indeed, is the very meaning of the word “venture”; for that is a strange venture which has nothing in it of fear, risk, danger, anxiety, uncertainty. Yes, so it certainly is; and in this consists the excellence and nobleness of faith; this is the very reason why faith is singled out from other graces, … because its presence implies that we have the heart to make a venture.111
There is nothing safe or predictable about this aspect of faith. On the one hand, this active, venturing faith is noble and generous.
It is not fearful or constrained. On the other hand, it is not rash or frivolous but grounded in the faithfulness and providence of God.
The faith-filled person is able to step out and risk everything for God, at each stage of life.
Whether we are natural risk takers or naturally risk averse, we are all called to invest our lives in the kingdom of God with a venturesome faith.
This is what Mary did when the angel announced to her a jarring and unexpected message. Yes, Mary received all the grace needed to fulfil her role in God’s plan, but this does not mean that she was forewarned in detail about what God would ask of her, so that she was able to practice her part ahead of time. There was no prepared script for her to follow. The angel Gabriel appeared without forewarning, and when he greeted Mary, she “was greatly troubled … and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Gabriel then announced God’s plan, that Mary was to bear a son, the Messiah.
Mary’s response came in the form of a question: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). Gabriel explained that it would occur through the power of the Spirit:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.Luke 1:35
The drama here is intense. What will Mary do? How will she respond to this unexpected interruption in her life?
Showing herself to be the model disciple, Mary put her faith into action and replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In Mary’s free, faith-filled response to the initiative of God, “Let it be to me according to your word,” we see how a venturesome faith enables us to meet the call of God at each stage in our lives.
What role does hope play in helping us press on as disciples for the whole of our lives?
Hope is the virtue that provides a living connection to our heavenly destiny; it enables us to live now in the strength and encouragement that come from knowing we are bound for eternal life with God. The apostle Paul tells us that, as disciples, we live by hope:
“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”Romans 8:24-25
The Catechism describes hope in this way:
Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.Catechism #1817
Through the activity of hope, we trust not in ourselves or what we see in the world, but in the promises of Christ.
The Catechism further describes what hope accomplishes in us as we journey through life:
“It [hope] keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude”.Catechism #1818
It is hope that bears us up and enables us to persevere through trials, hardships, perplexity, and setbacks.
The true measure of our discipleship is how well we love.
We cannot know ahead of time what trials and crises we will encounter along the road, but we can be confident because of the hope that lives and acts within us. We have the biblical promise that God will give us the strength and perseverance to carry on in faithfulness:
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSVCE)
The hope we are talking about here is not certainty that everything in this life will turn out well; it is not an optimistic view of the world. Instead, hope assures us that we are known and loved by God and called to eternal life, and it produces in us joy and energy for living and acting in this world and seeing God’s purposes come to pass. As we make our way as disciples, traversing the various crossroads along the way, supernatural hope provides a crucial help, not only to persevere but to flourish as joyful disciples of Christ.
Paradoxically, having our hope in eternal life actually makes us more hopeful for this world as well: “Supernatural hope, then … is able to rejuvenate and give new vigor even to natural hope.” 112 Those of us who hope in Christ for eternal life should also have hope for this life, despite the insecurity and uncertainty of things in the world as we know it. As our hope in Christ deepens, our hope for the world also increases. It is precisely because the source of our hope is not in this world but in Christ that, as missionary disciples sent into the world, we can have hope for this world.
In no uncertain terms, Jesus established the heart of missionary discipleship: we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one another as ourselves (see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34). These two commandments sum up the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and love will endure to eternal life (see 1 Corinthians 13:8, 13). Above everything else, we are called to clothe ourselves in love for one another (see Colossians 3: 14).
Simply put, the true measure of our discipleship is how well we love. If we seek to cultivate a vision for lifelong discipleship, if our aim is to form mature disciples, then we must make love our aim (see 1 Corinthians 14:1) and seek to grow in charity (see 1 Thessalonians 3:12). If we fail in love, then our labors for the kingdom of God will not amount to much (see 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). And the greatest expression of love is laying down our lives for God (as martyrs) and for one another (as fellow servants and friends).
Friendship with One Another
In an age of hyper-individualism, when more and more people are living alone and fewer people are having children, we believe it is essential to form disciples who know what it means to live in committed communities of mutual friendship. Real friendship, grounded in Christ, is an important antidote to a world marked by superficial relationships and terminal loneliness. If we seek to raise up missionary disciples but fail to help these disciples form communities of friends, then something essential is lacking. If we hope to fulfill the command to love one another, then we need to be in real communities that call forth sacrificial love.
The First Letter of John teaches us that if we fail to love our brother or sister whom we see, then we cannot claim to love God, whom we cannot see (see 4:20). By building committed communities of friends – and forming others to do so – we not only learn what it means to love one another but also learn more deeply what it means to love God.
Friendship has become a very hot topic today-and rightly so. The TV sitcom Friends, one of the most widely watched TV series on record, portrayed a felt need to form a community of friends amid an increasingly rootless society. The drive to gather hundreds of friends on social media reflects a contemporary thirst for friendship – for belonging and identity. We live in a world deeply hungry, even desperate, for friendship, but real friendship remains in short supply.
The plight of same-sex attracted people should cause us all to think more deeply about the importance of friendship. In a culture that glorifies sex and considers sexual expression essential to personal happiness, many argue that it is unfair and unreasonable to ask same-sex attracted people to refrain from sexual activity. The underlying assumption is that true human happiness requires a sexual partner of one’s own choosing. This is assumed to be a basic human right.
To counter this view, many same-sex attracted Christians have spoken out with great courage about their commitment to follow Christ’s teaching on sexuality and so refrain from same-sex activity. But they also describe the loneliness and isolation they often experience, even within the Church. Their situation has put the spotlight on the need to rejuvenate a vision for non-erotic friendships that bring life and fulfillment-and this need is not only for same-sex attracted people but for all Christians.
Friendship is a gift of God to his people. Consequently, to communicate the nature of true friendship in Christ, to gain wisdom about how to form such friendships, and to enkindle enthusiasm for building committed communities where friendship in Christ will be valued and cultivated are critical pastoral priorities for today.
Christian discipleship thrives in a communal context. We are not lone Christians walking a solitary pilgrimage of faith. Rather we are banded together with other companions in a common pilgrimage-serving together, standing together against a common foe, and helping each other thrive along the way.
Crucially, our friendships in Christ are not merely instrumental, not just things that help us make progress on the path. The goal of eternal life is communion (koinonia) with God and with one another. Our friendships here in this life are the training ground and foretaste of the friendships that will be ours eternally. Christian discipleship, at its core, is also a school of friendship.
But the casual, informal model of friendship on offer today simply won’t provide what we need. When personal compatibility and common interest alone provide the grounds for friendship, we are building on shifting sands that won’t weather the storms that will come. Even within marriage, committed love provides the primary anchor for the development of friendship between the spouses, not the other way around. If friendship is to flourish, then we need to cultivate committed communities of disciples who gather, not primarily in fact for friendship, but to love and serve God and advance the mission of the gospel. In such settings, friendships can develop easily and naturally.
In this “rnissional” context, a wide variety of friendships can flourish – some stronger, some more modest – without the intense pressure that often accompanies gatherings of people who are primarily seeking friendship as their goal. Families will naturally be the bedrock of these committed communities, but ample space should be made for singles, young and old, who are full members, not second-class citizens of the Christian community.
We might ask ourselves: “Who are the people that I am called to befriend? Who are the people God has placed in my life to be friends for the journey, gifts from his hand? And how can I nourish these friendships and recognize the great gifts that they are?”
Christ – who has called us to be his friends – is our model and guide. And the Holy Spirit is the person (and power) living within us who teaches and directs us in forming friendships that reflect and participate in the Trinitarian communion of love.
This article © by Dan Keating is the 3rd portion of a three-part series:
Part 2: Discipleship Crossroads
This article is adapted from the book Called to Christian Joy and Maturity by Daniel A. Keating and Gordy C. DeMarais, published in 2021 by The Word Among Us Press, Fredrick, Maryland, USA. Used with permission.
Top image credit: background illustration of metallic cross and sky, © by rolffimages, stock photo ID:16038023. Used with permission.