From a November 2015 journal entry. My friend gave me permission to share this anonymously:
I was speaking with a friend recently about the hardships in his life. This man has been to hell and back. He has lived St. Siloan’s saying: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” My friend asked me: “Why does it seem some people have the ability to be good people, to love God, raise kids well, and then others – like me – are totally crappy at all that, screw up constantly, and everything comes so hard, even though I have deep down the desire to be better? Sometimes it seems to me God doesn’t deal us even hands. How is that fair?” I was overwhelmed by the complexity of his question, said a quick prayer inside and replied: “I can’t answer that in some final way. Why don’t we just think about it together.”
So we set out on this exploration together, on the phone. I was very fearful that by agreeing to wade into these troubled waters I had no real idea where we would end up. What if I make things worse? No turning back, though. His questions really took us to the foundations of everything. It’s hard to talk about the ground you stand on. It’s really walking into mystery. For those like me tempted to say too much, Job said it well:
I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (Job 42:3).
I started by sharing with him St. Therese’s image of humanity as a field of diverse flowers. Here was the passage I was referring to (wish I’d had the original as we spoke!):
I had wondered for a long time why God had preferences and why all souls did not receive an equal amount of grace. Jesus saw fit to enlighten me about this mystery. He set the book of nature before me and I saw that all the flowers He has created are lovely. The splendour of the rose and whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realized that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wild flowers to make the meadows joyful. It is just the same in the world of souls — which is the garden of Jesus. He has created the great saints who are like the lilies and the roses, but He has also created much lesser saints and they must be content to be the daisies or the violets which rejoice His eyes whenever He glances down. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be.
I stretched the analogy some. I said that some flowers are great and strong, while others are small and fragile. Some are fragrant, others unscented, while still others are pungent and maybe even seem repulsive. Some seem flawless, others are torn and deformed. I tried to imagine how that floral menagerie, growing wild in a meadow, somehow made for a beautiful whole only so beautiful with the whole rag tag collection. Even if individual petals seem woefully incomplete and defective on their own, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is an Augustinian argument.
There was silence on the phone for almost a minute. He said, “I see it. But being torn and smelly is hard to live out.” More silence. In that second space I thought of one of my favorite stories from the Gospel — Mark 2:3-5. I asked if I could read it to him. He said, “Sure.”
And they came, bringing to Jesus a paralytic, carried by four men. Being unable to get to him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying. And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Then I said to him:
I’ve always thought of this story as an image of the whole Body of Christ, of the church being made up of ‘carrying’ and ‘carried’ humanity. All standing before Jesus, anxiously waiting for His saving power. Those faithful carriers, full of vigor, were willing to tear open a roof to get the paralytic to Him. Think of the daring love for this man and the faith in Jesus they had! And Jesus, when He sees their “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6) on this man’s behalf, makes the paralyzed man completely whole, body and spirit … This is what we get in Christianity: the way God has designed things, some can carry, others can only consent to being carried. It means that as He saves, God ensured that love grows; love that binds us together closer. Never in isolation. Salvation is reconciling, binding, uniting, a community of carrying. In some sense, I guess, all of us are both carriers and carried, sometimes one more than the other. Think of the Good Samaritan story. Carrying and carried. In fact, think about this crazy thought: Jesus Himself was both carrier and carried. So why would we, His Body, be any different? Perfect love is never found only in the isolated parts, but in the whole; in a “communion of carrying.” It’s not the collection of saints, but the communion, which means carrying and carried. When God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” and Cain replied, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”– Cain had dropped Abel and left him for dead. He had broken the Body. And as I think here more, here’s something even more outrageous: even in God Himself it’s this way. Among the three divine Persons. Have you ever seen this graphic Trinity painting? It’s the one with God the Father holding the lifeless corpse of His Son. God carrying, God carried. The Spirit is between them, and maybe you can say He’s the Father’s carrying Love. And then there’s the Pietà, with Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. And then another one of John holding Mary as she falls in grief.
As I recall this, I have even more thoughts: Jesus, as God-made-man, is God who’s consented to being hemmed in, circumscribed, limited, dependent and weak. The Son surrenders to this mind-shattering paradox precisely because He trusts absolutely that the Father will lift Him up; will carry Him. That’s the Resurrection. Again, the Son is carried not just by the Father, but by Simon of Cyrene (Luke 23:26). By Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38). A really sharp woman I know in Tallahassee — a Jewish mother — once told me when I balked at accepting help: “Tom, we are made in weakness that we might supply for each other.” Made in weakness! Not weak simply because fallen. Weakness thus seen is lionized in Christianity, and great power is found in joining weakness to Christ’s Body (2 Cor. 12:9). It takes serious humility to see and accept that truth. Fr. Mychal Judge served as chaplain for NYC firefighters, and carried them as a spiritual father. On 9/11 he engaged in his last act of carrying before being killed by falling debris. Then the men he had carried carried him … Even Matthew 25 totally makes the Last Judgment 100% about the quality of carrying and being carried.
After I said all that, we were silent for a stretch again. Then I had to go. I said, “Love you, man. Praying for you.” He said, “Thanks for carrying me.” I said, “Ditto.”