While many fine definitions of faith exist, the one I have found most useful in my life is articulated in the Letter to the Hebrews (11:1): “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Over the years of my life, this understanding of faith seems to have “covered all the bases,” but my recent experience in a small Peruvian town tells me that there may be a better approach. St. James (2:17) hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” While it is clear that faith allows us to believe in those things for we hope in life and to believe that which we cannot see, it is also clearly evident that faith is demonstrated in action.
Peru is a land of unbelievable beauty, from the shores of the Pacific Ocean on the west to the jungle of the Amazon basin on the east, with the majestic Andes Mountains, with many peaks over 20,000 feet, running north–south through the middle of the country. Most people are familiar with the metropolis of Lima and possibly even the great city of Cusco, which lies at the heart of the Valle Sagrada (Sacred Valley), as the former capital of the Inca Empire.
Smaller towns, however, do not appear on our radar screens. Approximately 75 minutes by car from Cusco, one arrives in the town of Urubamba, a Provincial capital in the Department (state) of Cusco, which lies between the famous ruins at Machu Picchu to the north and the lesser-known but equally impressive Inca city of Pisac to the south.
As a crossroads community, Urubamba sees a lot of tourist traffic, but possibly because it has no significant ruins within its municipal limits, not many take the time to stay, except possibly for a night or two in one of the upscale tourist hotels along the main street of the town. Nonetheless, it was here that the idea of faith through action became manifest to me.
Having been to Peru on seven previous occasions, I thought I knew Urubamba and understood its residents, but in a recent visit God manifested to me a whole new way to experience faith. I was privileged to stay with a local family, middle-class by Peruvian standards. Besides the two-story block structure which was home to the matriarch, her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, the family owned a small farm, approximately two acres, upon which one could find many forms of beautiful flowers and fruit trees, as well as alfalfa, the latter used primarily to feed cuyes (guinea pigs), which are a local delicacy in this region of Peru.
While living in this environment, the power of faith as expressed through action became crystal clear. One day a gentleman, living on the other side of the unpaved dirt road that fronts along the house, came to me asking, “Padre, we need a priest to give two talks for this weekend’s Cursillo. Can you help us?”
I responded, stating that while I could probably make myself understood, the participants in the retreat deserved someone who was more fluent and confident in Spanish so that their retreat experience would be the best possible. While he heard my “plea to be excused,” he nonetheless said in reply, “We have no one else; please help us.” Not wanting to disappoint, yet feeling a sense of trepidation, I agreed to assist with the retreat.
Three days later, on Sunday, a driver called for me and together we journeyed to a small town, Yucay, approximately 10 minutes away from Urubamba. I had done my best to prepare, but I was counting on the Holy Spirit to give me not only proper words, but sufficient courage and strength to appear confident before the group. The first talk, approximately 30 minutes in length, was well received, despite my, I am certain, numerous errors in grammar and poor pronunciation.
After this talk, the retreatants and I stood outside in the glorious crisp morning sunshine and sang songs of praise as we awaited breakfast. The fervor and strength of these men’s faith was manifest through their song, their camaraderie, and the obvious general affection for each other that was growing from their common retreat experience. After a hearty breakfast of coffee, bread and cheese (a very typical Peruvian breakfast) we gathered once again for my second scheduled talk.
Once again I was surprised at how well received my words were to these men of simple yet profound faith. My meager efforts solidified my faith; their faith was demonstrated by actions of acceptance, kind words, and even assisting when they knew what I wanted to say but could not adequately express. Yes, faith had always been associated with that which is hoped for, or could not be seen, but now faith was as plain and straightforward as one could imagine, for it was manifested through my own actions and those of others.
My experience of faith through action was made manifest once again when, only a few days after the Cursillo experience, another opportunity came my way. While on my daily exercise walk through town, I encountered the local pastor who informed me that he and his assistant, along with all the priests of the Archdiocese were to leave in one week for a five-day retreat. He wanted to know if I would be willing to say Mass in the town’s two parishes, the main church of San Pedro and Nuestro Señor de Torrechayoc. With my confidence level raised and the fact that I had celebrated Mass in Spanish numerous times before, I readily accepted the invitation, although I told the pastor that my homilies “would not be the greatest.”
My experience in the two parishes was even more gratifying, and it manifested more profoundly faith in action than the earlier Cursillo encounter. The faithful who came to daily Mass not only graciously accepted me with my far-less-than-perfect Spanish, but they demonstrated their faith through action. Requests for blessings of many sacred objects, celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, and a general sense of confidence that they placed upon me were all examples of how faith through action was expressed. Young people too, by their desire to serve at Mass, their curiosity and questions about the United States, and their overall willingness to help in any way made the faith come alive for me.
As I walked home every evening from the church (daily Mass there was at 6:30 p.m.) I often thought, “How do American Catholics react to foreigners who can’t speak the language well, look different, and do not understand local customs?” I wondered if visiting priests in the United States, who found themselves in the same position as I had in Urubamba, could experience faith through action as was so clearly evident to me.
St. James certainly had it right, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” While I have always gravitated toward the definition of the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews, my experience in a rural setting in Peru has provided much food for thought and the opportunity to consider what faith truly is. The challenge provided to me, one which I certainly did not expect, is a significant lesson from which we can all learn! TP
Father Gribble, a member of Holy Cross Congregation, writes from North Easton, Mass.