Yesterday I mentioned a powerful homily I heard at a private retreat, preached by the retreat master, on the problem of suffering and evil in the life of Christian faith. The focus of the retreat was on cultivating a spirituality of the Cross, and his particular interest was in helping us learn how to trust God enough to give ourselves entirely, without fear’s reserve, to the hard work of the spiritual life; and that even, and especially, in the darkest times. It’s true enough, he said, that for so many of us the larger part of our failure to progress in Christian perfection is staurophobia, fear of the cross. This fear takes many forms. It could look like anything from an unwillingness to work hard at the difficult virtues, to a reluctance to die to our cherished vices or disordered attachments, to a mistrustful fear that God will not shepherd us along the way into the final safety of eternal life. That last one, he said, is a cherished lie of the Enemy, who Itself hates the cross with a perfect hatred.
The retreat conferences were sweet but, like the scroll John ate (Rev. 10:9), while they were sweet to my mind they were bitter to my passions and will!
If you, O Lord, laid bare our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you. — Psalm 130:3-4
A third point he made, which I’d like to mention briefly today (and I am tight on time, which is to your benefit!), was about how we are to face the sufferings caused by our own bad decisions and stupidities, our own sins. His last Conference, incidentally, was on how to redemptively face the sufferings caused by others. Maybe another day I will sum that one up here.
He commented on how important it is for us to inventory our own lives, our own decisions and personal responsibility, whenever we face hardships. We would do well to ask, In my present hardship and trials, where am I paying the price for past imprudence, impatience, rash judgment, anger, lust, greed, envy, pride, laziness, lack of discretion, ignoring good advice or warnings, and so on? While in our culture we are quick to blame our folly on factors beyond our control, the Christian must honestly come to terms with free will, personal culpability and discern his or her own responsibility in the unfolding of life’s events.
Though we need not identify specific sufferings and trials directly with divine “temporal” punishments (this, he said, is too complex and dangerous to sort out in detail), he continued, nor do we need to wallow in paralyzing guilt or self-pity over our misdeeds, we should humbly and honestly own our own responsibility in the present state of affairs, repent of wherever we may have been culpable for sinful decisions, and face with serene hope the hardships that have flowed from our poor decisions with trust in God’s merciful, redemptive, purifying Providence. “We must face our sinful past with Peter’s bitter tears, humility and rekindled love, and not with Judas’ self-centered, self-reliant, self-pitying despair,” he said.
How many times, I thought, I have moaned and groaned over trials that are largely attributable to my own bad past decisions! And it’s true enough to say that there are few things more distasteful than enduring the protests and kvetching of someone who bemoans the real-world consequences of their own poor decisions. My spiritual director would often say to me, “Your failures are supposed to food for your virtue and the greatest source of your humility. So get to it!” How marvelous, he’d say, that every off-key note you insert into God’s unfolding symphony can become, when you humbly surrender your junk to His mercy, the first new on-key note in a new movement within that symphony.
The Paschal symphony! It became a new theological analogy for me to think about everything. The terrible dissonance of the Cross, resolved by God into a new and unspeakably lovely harmony rising from the Body of the Risen Christ. What a fresh view of what Liturgy is! For me, that’s the heart of hope that motivates me to get up after I fall.
“Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton”
I had a friend years ago who was what you might call an “old salt” or a brilliant rustic. He blended faith into his acerbic, curmudgeonly personality in a singularly unusual fashion. He would often say that the greatest cross God gave him was himself (though that may be said to simply be a universal truism)! Anyway, once when we were having a “holy smokes” chat (cigars and God-talk), he shared with me in a particularly rare and vulnerable moment that he had once made a “deal” with God years ago that went something like this (used with his permission):
Lord, if I willingly accept all the thorns you permit in my life as merciful remedies for my past, present and future sins, please do me the favor of sparing me Purgatory and making me into a most unlikely creature: a saint.
What I love about his approach is that, while he knows his own follies wreak plenty of havoc in his life, he’s not scrupulous about it, but very matter of fact in admitting he’s had a hand in his own travails and God can turn those in his favor if he’s humble and trusting about it all. To me, that’s humble in the deepest sense: the ability to look at our broken reality truthfully, without rationalization, but to do so through the lens of mercy that alone can make of our imperfections a way to perfection. Only the humble can be hopeful, while the arrogant despair. As St. Silouan of Mt. Athos starkly puts it,
Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.
Salvation is about God, and while rationalization makes salvation about me, repentance and and hope make salvation about God. My rustic friend trusts that God’s mercy is what counts, and his own willingness to say fiat voluntas tua, “Thy will be done.” He trusts that whatever may come to pass in his life will yield ultimate good for him if, as he said, “I let God have His way and not insist on my own.”
His words reminded me of King David’s response to the prophet Gad when, after he had yet again sinned against the Lord, David was offered by God through Gad the chance to choose among three different punishments for his offense. When Gad said, “Which do you choose?” David responded,
I am greatly distressed. But let us fall into the hand of God, whose mercy is great, rather than into human hands. — 2 Samuel 24:14