Imagining Grace


Imagine this: A man, entirely careless of all moral and spiritual affairs, lives his life in utter selfishness, pleasure his only pursuit. He lives the high life, never prays, never goes to church, has numerous sexual affairs, and has no concern for anyone but himself. After a long life of this, he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness and, on his deathbed, tearfully repents, makes a sincere confession, receives the Eucharist, and dies inside the blessing of the church and his friends.

Now, if our reaction is, “Well, the lucky fellow! He got to live a life of selfish pleasure and still gets to go to heaven!”, then (according to Piet Fransen, a renowned theologian on Grace) we haven’t yet, at all, understood the workings of grace. To the degree that we still envy the amoral and wish to exclude them from God’s grace, even as we count ourselves in, we are the “Older Brother” of the Prodigal Son, standing outside the Father’s house, heaven, in envy and bitterness.

I teach in a seminary that prepares seminarians for ordination. Recently our professor of Sacramental Theology shared this: He’s been teaching a course on the Sacrament of Reconciliation for more than forty years and only in the last few years have the seminarians asked: “When do we have to refuse giving someone absolution in confession?”

What’s betrayed in this concern? The seminarians asking the question are, no doubt, sincere; they’re not trying to be rigid or hard. Their anxiety is rather about grace and mercy. They’re sincerely anxious about perhaps dispensing God’s mercy too liberally, too cheaply, too indiscriminately, in essence, too unfairly. Their fear is not so much that God’s mercy is limited and that there’s only so much grace to go around. Not that. Their concern is more that by giving out grace so liberally they’re being unfair to those who are practicing faithfully and bearing the heat of the day. Their fear is about fairness, justice, and merit.

What’s at stake here? That grace is not something we merit. After the rich young man in the Gospels turns down Jesus’ invitation to leave everything and follow him, Peter, who watched this encounter and who, unlike the rich young man, hasn’t turned down Jesus’ invitation and has given up everything to follow him, asks Jesus what those who do give up everything are going to get in return. In response, Jesus tells him the parable of the generous land owner and the vineyard workers who all arrive at different times, wherein some work for many hours and some for virtually no time at all, and yet they all receive the same reward, leaving those who worked the full day and bore the heat of the sun bitter with sense of unfairness. But, the vineyard owner (God) points out that there’s no unfairness here since everyone has in fact received an over-generous return.

What’s the deep lesson?  Whenever we’re protesting that it isn’t fair that those who aren’t as faithful as we but are still receiving the full mercy and grace of God we are some distance from understanding grace and living fully inside it.

My dental hygienist knows I’m a Catholic priest and likes to ask me questions about religion and church. One day she shared this story: Her mother and father had both, as far as she knew, never attended church. They’d been benign enough about religion, but not interested themselves. She, their daughter, had begun practicing as a Methodist, mainly through the influence of friends. Then her mother died and as they talked about plans for a funeral, her father revealed that her mother had been baptized as a Roman Catholic, though she had not practiced since her middle-school years. He suggested they try to arrange a Roman Catholic funeral for her. Given all those years of absence, it was with some trepidation that they approached a priest at a nearby parish to ask whether they might have a Roman Catholic funeral for her. To their surprise, the priest’s response was non-hesitant, warm, and welcoming: “Of course, we can do this! It will be an honor! And I’ll arrange for a choir and a reception in the parish hall afterwards.”

No price was exacted for her mother’s life-long absence from the church. She was buried with the full rites of the Church … and her father, well, he was so touched by it all, the generosity of the church and the beauty of the liturgy, that he has since decided to become a Roman Catholic.

One wonders what the effect would have been had the priest refused that funeral, asking how they could justify a church funeral when, for all these years, they weren’t interested in the church. One wonders too how many people find this story comforting rather than discomforting, given a strong ecclesial ethos today wherein many of us nurse the fear that we are handing out grace and mercy too cheaply.

But grace and mercy are never given out cheaply since love is never merited.

Divine Understanding


A number of years ago at a symposium on faith and evangelization, one of the speakers made a rather startling statement. She, a Christian activist, ended her presentation with words to this effect: I work for the poor and I do it out of my Christian faith. I’m committed to this because of Jesus, but I can go for three years on the streets without ever mentioning his name because I believe that God is mature enough that he doesn’t demand to be the center of our conscious attention all the time.

Like many others in the audience, I’d never heard a spiritual writer or preacher ever say this so bluntly. I’d heard biblical scholars speak of God’s self-emptying in the incarnation, of Christ’s burying himself into anonymity, and of God’s patience in being ignored, but I’d never heard anyone say so plainly that God doesn’t mind that we don’t give him explicit attention for long periods of time.

But is this true? Is God okay with this kind of neglect?

There’s an important truth here, though only if it’s sufficiently qualified. Taken as it stands this can be used to justify too many things (spiritual laziness, selfishness, excessive self-preoccupation, culpable resistance to deeper thought, excessive procrastination with what’s important, and countless other things) that are not good. But here’s its truth: God understands! God is a loving parent who understands the inattentiveness and self-preoccupation of his children.

God has not put us into this life primarily to see if we can keep our attention focused on him all the time. God intended for us to immerse ourselves in the things of this world without, of course, forgetting that these things are, at the end of the day, passing and that we’re destined for a life beyond this world. We’re not on this earth to be always thinking of the eternal, though we’re not on earth either to forget about the eternal.

However, because the unexamined life is less than human, we also need to have moments where we try to make God the center of our conscious awareness. We need regular moments of explicit prayer, of meditation, of contemplation, of worship, of Sabbath, of explicit acknowledgement of God and of explicit gratitude to God. We do need moments when we make ourselves consciously aware that there is a next life, an eternal one, beyond this present one. 

But, in the end, that’s not in competition with or in contradiction to our natural focus on the things of this life, namely, our day-to-day relationships, our families, our work, our concerns for health, and our natural focus on news, sports, entertainment, and enjoyment. These are what naturally draw our attention and, done in good will and honesty, will in the end help push our attention towards the deeper things and eventually towards God. The great mystic, John of the Cross, tells us that if we’re sincere and honest as we focus on the mundane things in our lives, deeper things will happen, unconsciously, under the surface and we will grow closer to God.

For example, the famed monk, Carlo Carretto, shares this story: After living many years alone as a hermit in the Sahara desert and spending countless hours in prayer and meditation, he went back to Italy to visit his mother. She was a woman who had raised a large family and who had gone through years of her life when she was too burdened with responsibility and duty to spend much time in explicit prayer. What Carretto discovered to his surprise was that she was more contemplative than he was, not because all those hours of explicit prayer as a monk weren’t good, but because all those selfless tasks his mother did in raising her family  and caring for others were very good.

 And God understands this. God understands that we’re human, spiritually frail, busy, and instinctually geared towards the things of this world so that we don’t naturally move towards prayer and church, and that even when we are at prayer or in church, we’re generally still distracted, tired, bored, impatient, thinking of other things, and longing for prayer and church to be over with.

It’s not easy to keep God as the center of our conscious attention; but God both knows this and is not unsympathetic.

Kate Bowler, coming at this from the Mennonite tradition, comments on what the Church calls “Ordinary time”, that is, those times during the year when, unlike the Advent, Lenten, Christmas, or Easter seasons, there is nothing special to celebrate. What happens then? Well, what happens then is that things get “ordinary”: “There is no birth at the manger or death on the cross, just the ponderous pace of people singing, praying, and keeping their kids quiet during the sermon. The magic fades and reveals the church for what it is: a plain people in a boring building who meet until kickoff.” 

Yes, most of the time that’s us, plain people in boring buildings waiting for the kickoff. And God understands perfectly.

Our Grandiosity and Our Wounds


We wake up into life with the incurable sense that we’re special, that we’re the center of the universe. And, subjectively, we are! In our awareness we’re the center of the universe and life does revolve around us. Our own being is what’s most massively real to us. As Descartes famously said, the only thing that we know for sure is real is our own selves; I think, therefore, I am. We may be dreaming everything else.

Spirituality has perennially judged this negatively. Egocentricity, feelings of grandiosity, self-centeredness, and pride were seen as the result of the corruption of human nature through original sin. We called it, The Fall. Our first parents attempted to overreach, to be more than God intended them to be, and this irrevocably corrupted their nature and we, their children, inherit this.  So we, adult children of Adam and Eve, too instinctually tend to overreach, to puff up in self-importance, to fill with pride, and think first about ourselves.

That doctrine of original sin has something important to say, but it isn’t first of all to shame us in our natural pride and sense of specialness. The real reason why pride and grandiosity are incurably ingrained inside us is because God built us that way, and that, of itself, is not a fault or a corruption but instead constitutes what’s highest and most precious inside us. Both Christianity and Judaism take as dogma that we’re born, every one of us, in the image and likeness of God. That’s not to be imagined piously as some beautiful icon stamped inside our souls but rather as fire, divine fire, which because it is godly brings with it a sense of the preciousness, dignity, and uniqueness, of our lives.  But with that too comes (as part of the same package) pride and grandiosity.  Simply put, we can’t have Godliness inside us and not feel ourselves as special.

And that makes for a less-than-serene situation for the planet. We’re now seven and half billion people on this earth, each one with the same innate sense that he or she is the center of the universe and that his or her own reality is what’s most real. That’s the real cause behind what you see happening on the world news each night, for worse and for better. Grandiosity is the source of human strife, but equally the source of human greatness.

Important in our understanding of this is that our innate sense of godliness is also the place where we suffer our deepest wounds. What most wounds the image and likeness of God inside us? These things: humiliation, lack of adequate self-expression, the perennial frustration of bumping up against the limits of life, and the martyrdom of obscurity.

Each of us, by our nature, possesses a divinely-given uniqueness and dignity and thus nothing wounds us more than being humiliated and shamed in our struggle to live this out. A shameful humiliation, even as a very young child, can scar us for the rest of our lives. It’s one of the reasons why we have mass killings. Likewise, as Iris Murdoch once said, the greatest human pain is the pain of inadequate self-expression. There’s a great artist, composer, teacher, athlete, and performer inside each of us, but few people can ever give that satisfying expression. The rest of us have to live with perennial frustration because what’s deepest in us lies unexpressed. As well, we’re forever bumping up against the real limits of our own lives and limits of life itself. In Karl Rahner words: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we ultimately learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony.  In the end, all of us die with a life that was never fully consummated. And that isn’t easily accepted! Everything inside us militates against this. Finally, almost all of us live a certain martyrdom of obscurity, recognized and famous only inside our own daydreams, our greatness hidden from the world. That too isn’t easily accepted.

What’s to be taken away from this? Since we secretly nurse thoughts of specialness should we also nurse a secret shame? Is our innate pride something that sets us against holiness? Is our grandiosity a bad thing? Is our frustration with the limits and inadequacy of our lives something that displeases God? Are our daydreams of uniqueness and greatness something which taints our contemplation and prayer? Is our nature, of itself, somehow corrupt? Must we somehow step outside of our own skin to be saints?

Each of these questions can be answered in two ways. Grandiosity, pride, shame, frustration, and daydreams of greatness, can indeed be our downfall and turn us into awful persons, selfish, jealous, spiteful, and murderous. But they can also be the source of greatness, of nobility of soul, of generosity, of selflessness, of generativity, of true prayer, and can turn us into selfless martyrs of faith, hope, and charity. Our godliness is very mixed blessing; but it is, no doubt, our greatest blessing.