One of my spiritual companions this Lent has been the Australian Trappist Michael Casey. His book Toward God has many insightful offerings, and the one that has been in my room of reflection this past week is the chapter entitled, “Sometimes …”
I found myself nodding in appreciation at many things in these twelve pages, but one important observation, helped by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, is the human tendency to waver in our practice of a determined faith.
We wobble along the journey, stumble off the path, find ourselves attracted in other directions, stand still, even regress. This is almost universal experience. What is significant is the strength of the reflex that keeps us bouncing back. There is something we keep returning to: a vision, a dream, a hope. Something gives us the courage to get up after each fall and resume the journey. This is concrete evidence of the Spirit’s work, far more potent than any spiritual euphoria.
I will confess to you readers that my biggest difficulty with the Sacrament of Penance has been the frustration that it seems to lack a preventive quality. At least for me. When I was a kid, I would confess the kid things: disobey my parents, stick it to my siblings, harbor envy about my peers–the usual stuff. As I progressed into adulthood, I found new sins that would repeat themselves. Confession and absolution would give me a certain spiritual euphoria. But I remember one particularly profound experience of the sacrament, and only three weeks later I had fallen back into my pattern of self-destruction. I went to confession again, only to fail a few days after that.
Perhaps I see today that my patience with grace and with myself was a little lacking. The sin seems almost irrelevant. Was I prepared, I might ask myself, to bounce back daily from committing the same silly sins over and over again? Maybe seven times isn’t enough. Maybe, for me, seventy times seven is about right.
Casey also writes of the “dual nature” of the spiritual experience being “both attraction to God and detachment from sin.” More:
It is not always recognized that the positive element, being drawn toward God, has to come first. No matter how disgusting our sins, we show little interest in giving them up unless something better offers. Then we gradually lose interest in what has satisfied us previously.
I took some time this past week to process these insights. I’m disinclined to share the disgusting side of my life, but suffice it to say, I found Fr Casey’s insights helpful. In the very mundane experience of growing up, I can relate that the sins of my first confession are likely behind me. My life doesn’t revolve around dropping a figurative banana peel in front of my sister, brother, or the dude who’s dating the girl I like. I’d like to think my relationship with my mother involves matters deeper than her saying, “Frog!” and me figuring out how not to jump.
As I often do, these reflections led me to ministry. Especially my “thing” these days, evangelization.
Every human being experiences the wavering commitment, from the doubtful agnostic to the saint. Likewise the people who some judge are in deep sin and outside the Church, are also in a situation in which the attraction to God must come first. Or next. If we are on the fence concerning the choice of running to God or divesting ourselves of sin, we likely should go to God. God is certainly aware that a sinner needs some glimpse of something better.
Our approach to those we might consider sinners is to offer God first. In reflecting on the recent episode of a lesbian daughter being denied Communion at her mother’s funeral, I think the reverent course of action would be to offer Christ. Instead the irreverent course was chosen: the denial. While canonically correct, my sense is that the instinct to follow the letter of the law shows a lack of spiritual depth, and ultimately a lack of hope and faith. If God is so fragile that the edifice comes tumbling down for one breach of rule or law, for one sin, then we really have precious little hope in Christ and what transpired during his Passion.
For the ancients gods were gods and lived apart. For the Israelites, God made himself known in their midst. But in Jesus Christ, God was to be found outside the Temple, outside the holy places of gold, and even beyond the sanctuaries of mountain and desert. And Christ deemed these places apart, these temples of gold and cedar, these mountains and deserts and wild places something not to be grasped at.
(Christ) emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)
I never quite understood stations 3, 7, and 9 of the traditional Way of the Cross. Why did Jesus have to fall? Okay, falling once–I get the point. But he falls after a bystander is pressed into service. And he falls three times. Is that some reflection back at Peter? Peter, who wasn’t even present, who ran away? Are these falls, in some way, meant to inspire believers? To urge us to bounce back when we have hit bottom?
Simon of Cyrene carries the cross. Veronica wipes his face. I used to see myself in these two people. Isn’t the point of being a Christian to help others in need? Wouldn’t we help Jesus, stand in his place, if need be?
These days, I find myself confronted more with station nine, Jesus falling the third time. I have no excuses for my falls. But thanks to Christ, and because of his grace, I have a way up. I hope, readers and friends, you have a way up, too.