Friday, January 26, 2018

St. Paultide Reflections – Hope for imperfect people

I am currently making my way through the little book of talks collected under the title The Road to Eternal Life by Michael Casey, OSB. I have found it very helpful not only as a commentary on the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict, but as a distillation of much of the best of Western catholic Christian thought and practice.

With the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul yesterday, we have entered into a short period in the calendar focused on this Apostle, his character and story, ministry, and some of the important figures arising from that ministry (including the Patron Saint of the parish I serve).

In a delightful example of synchronicity, my daily readings from Casey’s book have recently drawn much of their insight from the writings of the Blessed Apostle, and I wanted to share with those who might read this blog a few passages I have found very useful.

“It is by God’s grace that I am what I am” – warts and all. When I survey the landscape of my giftedness, it is not hard to praise God as its origin. There is, however, another side to my life that I hope will never intrude into public awareness. This is the shameful history of my selfishness and hardheartedness. For this I alone seem responsible. Indeed, this appears to be what Saint Benedict is saying in the fourth chapter of his Rule: “If he sees anything good in himself, let him refer it to God and not to himself. But let him know that the evil is always from himself and take responsibility for it.” (RB 4.42-43)

I do not want to appear to be ascribing to God the ugliness that is entirely my own creation. What I am saying is that the aspects of my life that are displeasing to me are not outside God’s plan; they are designed to bring me to a fuller realization of the unconditional character of God’s love. If I were all sunshine and light I could easily believe that God loves me because of my inherent goodness and that, in some way, I have made myself eminently worthy of that love. That seems to be a harmless enough delusion, but it is not. What do you think will happen when eventually I fall into some action that even I cannot deny, excuse, or rationalize? The logical conclusion will be that because of my misconduct God no longer loves me. My shame will quickly lead me to despair, as though God could be surprised and disgusted by the way human beings act.

Here’s what the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich has to say about this situation:

For, in truth, we shall see in heaven for all eternity that though we have sinned grievously in this life, we were never hurt in God’s love, nor were we ever of less value in God’s sight. This falling is a test by which we shall have a high and marvelous knowing of love in God forever. That love [of God] is hard and marvelous that cannot and will not be broken for our trespasses…In love mercy allows us to fail somewhat, and in failing we fall, and in falling we die…Our failing is full of fear; our falling is marked by sin; our dying is sorrowful. Yet in all this the sweet eye of pity never departs from us and the working of mercy never ceases. (Revelation 14, chaps. 61, 48)

It is true that it is by God’s grace that we are what we are and by God’s grace we have been preserved from countless calamities of our own making. Even though we fall short of our own hopes and expectations, it is by God’s grace that we are what we are. God has a plan for us, of which we have only the sketchiest knowledge. Let us allow God to get on with the work and not delay its outcome either by taking credit for what meets with our approval or by becoming downcast when we are plunged into the mystery of our own resistance. “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am.” Whatever I have, I have received from God, and whatever I have become, it is part of the mystery of Providence. As always, the bottom line is this: I can never be beyond the pale of divine mercy.

As I reflect on this passage, a number of things stand out as very important and useful in my life as a disciple and in my work as a pastor of souls.

The first is found in the sentence: “Let us allow God to get on with the work and not delay its outcome either by taking credit for what meets with our approval for be becoming downcast when we are plunged into the mystery of our own resistance.”

In my own life, I have often been intensely frustrated—and embarrassed—by the degree to which I have resisted God’s promptings and direction. Invariably, when I finally let go of the resistance to what God is giving me grace to embrace (this is the moment of compunction or penthos, followed by repentance), real growth follows.

Over the years, I have come to see my resistance as an apparently necessary part of the work of being a disciple. Instead of being disgusted or even terribly embarrassed about this, I am gradually coming to accept that part of my humanness is being a thickie when it comes to learning the Gospel way of life.

In doing so, I have found that the resistance actually declines. Part of the resistance to God, it seems, is simple pride and stubbornness. When one accepts the limitations of the self and our actual need to fail as part of the process of believing and growing in belief, this self-acceptance leads to quicker repentance and greater assurance of God’s ongoing love for me…in spite of my sins.

The quote from Bl. Julian of Norwich is another part of this section of Casey’s book I find helpful. That the sweet eye of pity never departs from us and the working of mercy never ceases is an important truth for me to accept as I learn the implications of what we are taught in 1 John 4:8 (“God is love”). If God is indeed love, then all elements of a human-style transactionalism or quid-pro-quo relationship must be cast out.

St. Paul experienced perhaps the most intense form of realization that one’s faith has been mistaken. The feast we celebrate on January 25 is as much about his failing on his own as it is about God’s success in his life. His failing, then his falling, and finally his dying-and-rising to new life in Christ, is a clear exposition of what all who follow Jesus must undergo, each in his or her own way.

This fact never departed the Blessed Apostle. His writings frequently betray self-knowledge of his resistance—in the past and as an ongoing reality in his life. But, “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am” remains true for him—and us—at each step of the journey. This form of self-acceptance does not lead to complacency; indeed, it is inimical to complacency. Rather, it is a growing awareness of what God’s love for us really means, and how that love brings forth from us more and more desire to let salvation be accomplished in us, rather than resist it.

It is not that God creates our sinfulness or our brokenness—not at all. Yet, God’s work in our life goes beyond the day-to-day: he knows our potential self already, and the work of salvation we experience in moments of growth and in moments of resistance to that growth partakes of an ongoing relationship, a communion that is itself an expression of our created nature and God’s revealed will for his creatures.  In this sense, our resistance—like St. Paul’s—becomes part of our own story of God’s victory rather than merely our folly. Even our resistance, you see, must be given over as an intentional offering to God.

When we learn to “get over ourselves” and allow God to love us through the good and the bad, we join St. Paul in being able to say: “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am,” and say so in hope as we make our way towards that perfection which only communion with our knowing-and-loving Triune God makes possible. And that is very good news, indeed for as-yet imperfect disciples like me.

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