If the life of the spirit is a “long journey home,” faith is food for the journey. It is what sustains us and enables us to keep moving forward.

Faith is not a Pollyannaish attitude that everything will be fine, a belief in pie in the sky. It does not mean simple-mindedly regarding disasters as God’s will, or pretending that tragedy (usually someone else’s) is a blessing.

It is also not a manufactured feeling or a belief adopted because someone told us we should. True faith grows naturally from experience.

I am going to talk in terms of a relationship with God because that’s my experience, but I think people whose spirituality doesn’t include a belief in “God” as such can also be faithful.

The people of profound faith I have known have all been through very dark times, have wrestled with personal demons and with God, and have come out the other side. They have been touched in the core of their being by a power far beyond themselves and have been changed by it.

This is not usually a “struck by lightening” experience, or a complete about-face in their personality. But it is a permanent change. I do not consider myself a shining example of faith, but I have had the experience of being touched by God when I was in great emotional and spiritual pain, and I was changed.

Having had that experience, I can never again doubt that I belong to God. I was told “Whatever happens, I will be with you,” and whatever pain or grief or fear I may have to go through in the future, I will endure it with the ongoing presence of that experience in my heart.

Let me underline that: the experience happened once, but it will last as long as I do. It exists in the eternal present as part of the essence of my being, and will probably continue even after I die.

The faithful people I have known feel everything the rest of us do — anxiety, anger, fear — but with a difference: the presence of divine love is grafted into them, their trust in God is “hard-wired,” so to speak, by their experience of God’s trustworthiness.

There is a saying that “faith isn’t faith until it’s all you’re holding onto.” I would add that once a person has had the experience of relying completely on his or her faith and being held by the divine, that person’s faith is a much more reliable support the next time it is called on.

Eventually, perhaps, we reach the point described by St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews (chapter 11, verse 1), “Now, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This is not the same as knowing what will happen, or even knowing that everything will turn out all right, in the conventional sense. It is more about knowing who God is (at least a little bit), and being certain that God can be trusted to love and care for us at all times.

With faith like that to cling to, we can begin to glimpse God’s will for us even in the awful things that befall us, and find blessings where others see only devastation. We can acknowledge the awfulness, discern what we have gained, and go on.

Even in matters of life and death, we can be sure that while we may not survive, God will be with us whatever happens. And God will still be there when it’s over.