A sadly common misconception about “faith” is that “faith” is simply another way of thinking.

“Faith” is always misunderstood when it is viewed as an intellectual proposition that can be argued about and proved or disproved by reason.

Alfred Delp, the Roman Catholic priest who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, was a man of penetrating intellect. But, in prison he came to understand that faith does not operate primarily in the realm of the intellect. In the six months leading up to his execution, Delp began to see that faith functions on an entirely different plane than intellect.

As much of his writing from prison occurred leading up to Christmas, Father Delp found a beautiful parallel between the nativity story and his own life experience. He realized that on the surface the events recorded in the Gospels around Jesus’ birth, present a picture of poverty, defeat, alienation, and powerlessness.

But, Delp saw beneath the surface and here he realized something else was going on.

The gray horizons must light up. Only the foreground is screaming so loudly and penetratingly. Farther back, where it has to do with things that really count, the situation is already changing. The woman has conceived the Child, sheltered Him under her heart and has given birth to her Son. The world had come under a different law. All these are not merely one-time historical events upon which our salvation rests. They are simultaneously the model figures and events that announce to us the new order of things, of life, of our existence.

The “foreground” of our lives is always “screaming.” We get so caught up in the drama and urgency of our circumstances that the clamour of daily life becomes deafening. We are unable to perceive that dimension of life that is “farther back,” where Delp maintains, “it has to do with things that really count.” Here he says, “The world has come under a different law.”

The “different law” to which Delp, bound in a Nazi prison, bears witness is the law in which poverty, vulnerability, and powerlessness open us to a deeper reality. Here is the place where we come to the end of our coping mechanisms. Here is the place where our schemes for conquering the world run out.

For Alfred Delp, powerless and helpless in prison, Mary, the mother of Jesus served as an icon of this different dimension of reality. He saw in her one of the “model figures” revealing “the new order of things, of life, of our existence.”

We have to remember courageously today that the blessed woman of Nazareth is one of these illuminating figures. At a deeper level of being, even our times and our destiny bear the blessing and the mystery of God.

This is not an intellectual formulation. Delp cannot prove scientifically his perception when he ponders the figure of Mary. But, in Mary, despite all evidence to the contrary, Delp perceived at “a deeper level of being,” that there is “the blessing and the mystery of God.”

It is one thing to perceive “the blessing and the mystery of God,” when we are surrounded by beauty and comfort. It is quite another thing to be able to open to the dimension of reality in which we become aware of “the blessing and mystery of God” even in the midst of deprivations, darkness, and doubt. This is the place where faith is born.

If we are to enter into the realm of faith we must follow the example of Father Delp, who suggests that

The most important thing is to wait, to be able to wait, until their hour comes.

To “wait” is to be present to reality at it is and to allow our hearts to open to the transcendent presence that permeates that reality.

No doubt there can be no fully rational explanation for why a thirty-eight year old man, alone in prison facing death, should find his heart opening in that dark and desperate place. But that is Delp’s testimony. He is not alone.

From generation to generation, those who find themselves in desperate circumstances have attested to their experience of a transcendent comforting presence even when their circumstances make such comfort impossible to imagine. It is sad to wait until our circumstances are desperate to allow our hearts to open.