There is a memorable character in the Graham Greene novel A Burnt Out Case named Rycker who is a former monk who has left to get married. He is living in mortal sin, but he thinks the dryness of his spiritual life is because he is going through “the dark night of the soul.” So deluded by his own spiritual pride he imagines that he is a great saint who is suffering for Jesus. In fact, Greene brilliantly portrays the man as almost a comic figure for his foolishness, false humility and fake bravado.

It is a cautionary tale reminding one of the genuine minefield  that the spiritual life can become. There are all sorts of ways one can lose the faith, and there’s the old story about the sixteen year old schoolgirl who went to the Mother Superior at her convent school and said, “Ohh Reverend Mother! I’ve lost my faith!” To which Reverend Mother replied, “Nonsense girl. You cannot lose something you’ve never had!”

One can certainly lose one’s faith through mortal sin–not necessarily the great, shameful and shocking sins we think of, but the long slow slide into sin that we excuse in ourselves, sin that we tell ourselves is not really so bad, sin that we really do not want to give up even if we could. That is one way to lose one’s faith, when one simply wakes up one morning and realizes the faith is not there any more. You simply don’t believe any of it and can’t see the point of religion. So you stop. You pull out. You leave it. There was no great moment of doubt and despair. The faith simply rotted on the vine and fell to the ground and dissolved in the heat.

Then there is the great crisis of faith when, perhaps, one if faced with a great difficult that turns into a doubt and one can’t see the way around it and the faith begins to disintegrate. I don’t think there are many people who lose their faith this way. What they lose is their naive, childhood version of the faith. Surely without good catechesis or good reading or study or at least someone to answer the questions, this can lead to a loss of faith. But I sense that most people who say they are losing their faith because of some intellectual problem are actually having a problem in the area of the moral teachings of the church, not the doctrine. Another old story is Fulton Sheen on an airplane: A young priest comes and sits next to him and says, “Can you help me Father, I’ve lost my faith.” Fulton Sheen asks, “Is she a blonde or a brunette?”

One can certainly lose one’s faith in the midst of terrible suffering or persecution and pain. “Where is God in all this?” But the person who asks that question still believes in God. They are going through an understandable crisis of faith and are faced with the darkness and despair, but there is still faith there even if the person is wrestling with the dark angel. Remember, Jacob who wrestled with the angel came out of the struggle wounded, but blessed.

All these are ways to lose the faith, but they are not the most common. The most common way to lose the faith is much more subtle and disturbing. I’m thinking of the man who has really lost his faith but he doesn’t think he has. This is the self righteous man who continues to practice his religion–in fact he is likely to practice his religion more diligently and more strictly than anyone else. He may very well observe all the rule, regulations and rubrics. He may study all the best books late into the night. He may also lead his family in prayers and be the most upright of citizens and the most self disciplined of Christians. But he has lost his faith. It is not the Christian faith he is practicing–it is an elaborate pantomime to convince himself of his own godliness.

There is no faith in such a man. He has lost his faith while he is steadfastly convinced that he is the most faithful of men.

He is a fraud, a charlatan, a phony and a fake. But how can we distinguish this man–who looks just like the most saintly of souls–from the real thing?

I will tell you how. He is a disobedient and impenitent person. The fraud may seem to be most pious and holy, but he is only obeying a rule of life of his own making. He is not obedient to anyone and most of all he is not penitent. He does not go to confession, or if he does go to confession he does so in another extravagant ruse to convince himself–and the confessor if he can–that he is indeed the most holy of men–for he even goes to confession too and he is pleased that he has made “a good confession.”

“Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

So if he is the fraud where is the authentic man of faith? It is the penitent man. Only the penitent man may pass, and how do we know if a man is truly penitent? How do we know if his heart is broken by sin and he throws himself on the everlasting mercy?

Who knows? Only the penitent man himself who comes face to face with his own misery, his own depravity, his own hunger for God and calls out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner!”