[I had planned to skip today, but when I was awakened this morning early this post was insistently knocking]
I was speaking with a friend the end of last week about family dysfunction and the depth of pain it can engender. She said, “It’s easy to feed the poor and walk away from them; or to do good for strangers and feel good about it as you go home for the evening; but when it’s your messed-up family you have to deal with, well, there’s no getting away. You can talk about love, but when you have to do it with people permanently connected to you who despise you, it’s really hard.” Then she quoted this line from Dostoevsky I’d never heard, but now will never forget — “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
After she left, I sat in silence for a while just processing. She’s the kind of person whose words, because they are so sincere, just cut to the heart.
I’ve often quoted Thoreau’s line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” A religious order priest I knew in south Florida introduced me to it when he was telling me about his priestly work in what Pope Francis now calls the “ministry to the margins.” This priest worked in tandem with several drug rehab facilities to help the families of recovering addicts find support and a way forward. He told me that among the families he dealt with were middle class to upper middle class families who, to outsiders, seemed to be happy, ideal, functional families. They had become masters of illusion. But what the addiction crisis had done is force them to drop the facade and face the depth of dysfunction and pain. “In fact,” he said (and I will never forget this),
if I spend any time in compassionate listening with anyone — of any socio-economic class, race or creed — very soon a story of pain or hardship will surface. Suffering doesn’t discriminate. I’m not a psychologist or a social worker, and don’t pretend to be. My ministry is simple: help people to get real, stop glossing over the stink in their life, get real with Jesus and invite Him into the mess. Most people, in my experience, don’t see faith as anything more than a stop-gap for their crap. Maybe they say a prayer to God when things go south, but they keep God at a safe distance. At best religion dulls the pain like Advil or distracts with some nice hollow cliche like, “It’ll all work out in the end.”
I tell them: Let’s get real with God. Jesus wants to get His hands dirty and deal with the rot. He’s not impressed with your stiff upper lip. And Jesus makes “getting real” easy for me, when I can just take out my crucifix and ask them to hold it, look at Him and speak to Him honestly from the heart about their whole world of hurt. 99% of them have never done anything resembling that before. Yet that’s what Christianity’s all about! Marx called out this kind of faith as an opiate for people. Faith’s not an opiate, it’s open heart surgery.
He said when he got out of seminary and was first a priest, his hyper-idealism made him think people should be a lot farther ahead in their faith walk than they actually were. So his homilies missed the mark and he’s sure most probably tuned him out — “Not for me.” But over the years, and especially since he began his work with addiction recovery, he saw that helping people just take “the next best step” (his favorite ministry line) could contain the brightest flashes of heroism. Sometimes, he said, it’s heroic to simply honestly acknowledge to myself how messed up my family of origin is; or to speak to my sibling in a civil tone; or speak the words “I forgive you” to my dead uncle for his past crimes against me; or pray for a parent who did me harm. “I tell them,” he continued, “sometimes just these tiniest of steps, when we can manage them, can be immense signs of grace at work in us. Things to be proud of. Before the face of God, these seeming nothings can surpass in merit all the gushing virtues in another person who seems to be so naturally capable of more ‘quantitative’ goodness than I’ll ever be.” He went on to say:
Once when I was con-celebrating a Mass, I heard a priest say in his homily, “only bring God your best when you come to Mass.” I got what he was trying to say, but I wanted to punch him then and there. I told him after Mass that, by saying things like that, he’s cheating people out of hope. Who would ever want to approach God if that’s what it took? Good God. Become a saint and then come to God with your perfect offering. Who needs that? That’s religion for choir boys. I told him he needs to tell them that God dances over tiny mustard seeds of goodness and faith we bring, and doesn’t need us to bring towering sequoias. If there’s anything the crucifix teaches, it’s that God can take the worst we’ve got. He takes sinners like us who are willing to show Him the way it is, even as we don’t like the way it is and want to be better. But for now, God, this is what we’ve got. And He’s pleased.
But without God being invited into our skeleton closet, life’s hell. True? Living in all your crap without hope that there’s a Higher Power out there who cares, who’s ready to get dirty in your screwed up world, and who has a will and a way to take you, raise you up from where you’ve fallen? I don’t know how unbelievers press on without faith. It’s hard enough when you do believe. But when people have a faith that tells them they have to have their shit together first before they can come to God? I’d prefer atheism. And in that church you’ll just have the front-row pews full of a few people living in fantasy land.
A hard-core priest. Servant of a God who is a hard-core realist, which is really the core message of the cross. Realism. God’s love is real, evil in the world is real, therefore God’s love hangs on a cross as a corpse filled with hope in a Father whose will is to raise the dead, to conquer death and hell. God is anti-Pollyanna, since love is the ground of all reality. In Christ, dwelling deep in the pit of hell on a Passover Sabbath, love is a harsh and dreadful thing
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned (Song of Songs 8:6-7).
He who descends into hell with us, ascends on High for us. Come, O Lord, grasp my faltering hand, enter my darkness, and lead me out of the abyss into your Kingdom.