We went to see Faith Healer by Brian Friel at the Bristol Old Vic last night. It’s a powerful piece with several themes: love and friendship, loyalty, what it is to be an artist and, of course, faith. I was struck during the play by the assertion of the character Francis Hardy (the healer in question) that most of the sick people who came to his “performances” were not there in faith; they hadn’t come to be healed. In fact they were there for a sort of despairing last resort – to have their incurability confirmed so that they could finally give up all hope. This idea is picked up in Joe Spence’s programme notes where he says:
“Throughout Faith Healer we are drawn back to the question of what it is to lose faith. It is suggested that people come to the faith healer not for healing through faith, nor even for the prolongation of hope, but for their elimination. The paradox of the human condition is that it is easier to live without faith or hope than to be eternally faithful or hopeful, and therefore always open to betrayal.”
This resonated strongly with me and could be interpreted rather depressingly. For me, however, it seemed somehow positive. It’s an acknowledgement that faith and hope are difficult choices, involving hard work and constant reassessment and recommitment, but nevertheless worth the effort.
As so often happens, these musings were picked up in another context. This Sunday in the church calendar is Candlemas, otherwise known as the Feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple. Luke’s gospel tells the story of Joseph and Mary taking their young child to be presented at the temple in Jerusalem for the first time. In Jerusalem an old man called Simeon had been waiting many years for the coming of the Messiah. He had received a promise that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. Finally the long years of faith, hope, prayer and devotion were rewarded by the revelation that this child was indeed the long-awaited Christ. The sermon reminded us what an amazing work of faith Simeon performed in holding on for so many years to a promise that he might have dismissed as imagination or wishful thinking.
I’m a very long way from having that sort of faith, but I do nevertheless take comfort from Simeon’s prayer of praise:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”