Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Strength in Fragility

From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us.

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity, Good Lord, deliver us.

From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.

In these three petitions we bring before God the vulnerabilities, flaws, and delusions which beset all humanity. Why this? How can it be “good psychology” or “beneficial self-esteem” to do this? It is because the strength we seek can only be found by a clear understanding of our own fragility.

The first petition cries out to God that we are utterly beset by brokenness. Any honest, clear-eyed assessment of the world will attest to this fact. We had best admit this; if it were not so, why would be appealing to God on behalf of a suffering world in the first place? This brokenness, this illusory search for life apart from God, has a name: sin. It is not just an impersonal “concept.” It is a highly personal fact, addressed to each one of us by our ancient foe: the devil. Evil’s desire is for our final “undoing,” our complete rejection of relationship with the Triune God. The ultimate cost of yielding to the false logic of sin is an everlasting aloneness.

The second petition moves from the grand scale to the theatre of the human heart. In our search for life apart of God, we have become blind of heart: alienated from the illumination coming from God alone, we grope in the darkness of our own aloneness. Having lost full union with the God who gives us dignity and value, we have substituted pride and vainglory, searching for identity and purpose by exerting power and control over others. Because we are not whole and honest with the God who formed us, we have split the world in two – the world of “being seen” and the “personal life” where we live and do as we please, giving rise to hypocrisy. With these distortions in our heart, we are constantly tempted to act out of their deadly fruit: envy, hatred, malice, and want of charity. Our Lenten pilgrimage each year deepens our recognition of this “other law” within us, a law we must acknowledge in order to fight against in the power of God revealed at Easter.

The third petition “gets down to cases,” as we might say. We confess to the specific ways in which sin operates on the personal level. In a society obsessed by comfort and license, we recall the inordinate and sinful affections we place higher than “the kingdom of God and its righteousness,” and by which we allow the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil to go unchallenged as our personal (if unacknowledged) “logic.” Thus, the tragic dimension of our fallen reasoning, desires, and expectations are laid honestly before our own eyes and before our God. But why do we do this here in the Litany?

The reason is difficult for the secular – or the secularized Christian – mind to comprehend, distorted as it has become by confusing self-esteem with self-awareness. The Christian confesses his or her fragility precisely because it leads to renewed trust and strength in God. Without this we will likely only further the wrong done by those before us. By renouncing Satan’s ancient lie – that by severing our life in God we can become “gods” – and embracing the gift of True Life which comes from God alone through salvation in Christ, we are freed to do the true work of discipleship. Only then, with humility (in the sense of knowing and living in reality), may we proceed in prayer aware of our true place, our proper and indeed essential role of sharing in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and intercession. It is when we come to understand, with St. Paul, that we are "treasures in clay vessels" that God's strength may be "perfected in human weakness."

(Photo: Ad Meskens)

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