Limping toward God
Monsignor Michael Heintz | Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Most, if not all, of us make progress in the faith. We make our way toward God, not by leaps and bounds, but by stutter-steps: slowly and incrementally. The historical record — the lives of the saints — verifies this. Even those saints who had a remarkable or extraordinary experience of divine grace spent the vast majority of their life moving slowly toward God, with bumps, potholes and obstacles all along the way, and many of these self-imposed. In the wake of what is perhaps the most famous “conversion story,” an experience of grace in a Milanese garden, St. Augustine (430 A.D.) later tells us that the resolution achieved there was only partial, and that, even as a bishop, he battled the familiar temptations and sins of his past. So we mustn’t imagine that this otherwise nameless Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel who was shacking up with her paramour, after her encounter with Jesus, toddled on home and never sinned again. That encounter with the Living Water, that moment of grace, was not the end of the story; in many ways, it was just the beginning of one. As those who have participated in the RCIA can tell you, baptism isn’t the end of the process; it’s just the beginning of another, longer process of daily assimilation to Christ.
So if you find yourself struggling — struggling to pray, struggling to keep focus, struggling to believe, struggling with the Church, struggling with the same old sins — don’t lose heart and don’t give up. Perhaps our biggest problem is that we live in the culture of the microwave and the internet, and so we like easy, quick and push-of-a-button solutions to our daily dilemmas. Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus teach that perfection is achieved in a single, instantaneous, freeze-dried moment of grace. In fact, it is this impatience with our human incompleteness and creaturely status which, according to St Irenaeus (220 A.D.), prompted Adam and Eve to grasp the fruit in the garden: in due time, God indeed would have given them to eat of it, but they were impatient with the divine pedagogy, with the way God was bringing them along: they wanted to be perfect — and they wanted it right now. Very many people who come to confession — and some avoid it for this very reason — say “I always seem to confess the same things.” Welcome to the fallen human race. Confessing the same sins does not necessarily mean you’re not contrite. We repeatedly confess the same or similar sins precisely because most of these sins are deeply embedded in our fallen nature and over time have become firmly entrenched in our personality. Slow progress over time is what we should be looking for. There is good reason, after all, why the Church allows us to celebrate the sacrament repeatedly in the course of our life.
The earliest Christians knew well that it is precisely the struggle which constitutes the life of the Christian; they used the graphic language of the “agõn,” the combat, the contest, and even employed images of wrestling in describing the life of those who follow Christ. They might even suggest to us that if we don’t find ourselves struggling, we should be very wary lest we’ve deceived ourselves about ourselves; for to struggle is precisely what it means to be a Christian in this world. And this struggle even has a cosmic dimension: each of us is engaged, as it were, in a struggle of allegiance, a contest of loyalty, between the Ruler of this Age and the Crucified One, and the daily decisions we make reflect precisely that larger, cosmic engagement, over whom we will serve.
Yet what is needed in us is not merely a change in behavior; conversion does not mean simply being “nicer” to other people, as though the Church is a kind of reform school where, in Skinner-like fashion, we are conditioned by fear to avoid bad behavior and to choose the good simply for a reward. No, what needs healing in us isn’t simply our behavior, but our very nature. All of our sins, our external bad acts, are but symptoms of a more profound internal pathology, a psyche that is distorted by pride, by what St. Augustine calls superbia, the absence of self-perspective induced by our self-absorption. We commonly equate pride with arrogance, but that’s just one of its more noticeable expressions. Pride is more deeply rooted in us than we might imagine. Most of us don’t roll out of bed in the morning, look into the bathroom mirror and say “I am the center of the universe.” No, it’s far more insidious than that. Pride isn’t one more icon on the screen of our life, it’s more like a virus which infects our whole operating system. This pride formats — that is, it distorts — the very way we perceive reality, including ourselves. Other people then become either a means we use to get what we want or an obstacle to the exercise of our will, an obstacle we must either overpower or remove. Our very thought processes, all our calculations and scheming, reflect the willfulness and self-referentiality which is pride: “It’s all about me,” after all. And so the healing and elevation of our nature, which is what conversion means from God’s perspective, is the work not of one evening, one mission, one retreat or one confession; rather, it is the work of a lifetime. Far from being a reform school, the Church is more like a convalescent home, where the medicine and healing of grace — through the sacraments — are to be found and applied. And I might suggest that the one, common antidote for all the deadly sins, whether pride, avarice, lust, anger, envy, gluttony or sloth, is charity; if every sinew of our being is infused with God’s love, if we’re chock-full of charity, there’ll be no room for sin. So in your daily struggles to overcome sin — whether you’re greedy or lustful or lazy or consumed with jealousy or have a nasty temper — don’t begin by asking to have fewer impure thoughts, or for a weaker craving for material goods or for more control of your short fuse; always start by first asking to be filled with His divine love. And you’ll be amazed at how effective this is.
And so if you’re struggling, don’t lose heart and don’t give up. It’s the Enemy, the Ruler of this Age, who wants you to equate the struggle with failure. Then he wins. And you lose. Rather than give up out of frustration or discouragement, re-frame your understanding of the Christian life precisely in terms of this slow, daily, incremental assimilation to Christ. And remember, as Thomas Aquinas is said to have taught, “it is far better to limp along the right road than to run headlong down the wrong one.”
Monsignor Michael Heintz is the director of the MDiv Program at the University of Notre Dame and can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.