Several years ago, I attended the funeral of a young man who had been killed in a traffic accident. From nearly every point of view he died in less tha ideal circumstances. He was still very young, not yet 30 years old, had come from a very traditional Catholic family, but had, for the past several years, not been to church, been sexually promiscuous, and died intoxicated. Hardly the paradigm for a Christian death!
I was the presiding priest at the funeral and as I looked around the congregation, at his family, his relatives, and his friends, I saw not just a deep sadness about his loss, but also a real fear for his salvation. These were good people present, good Christians, who were worried that this young man – whom we all knew and whom we all knew to have, underneath his adolescent irresponsibility, a good, sincere heart – might now be in hell because he had, by all surface appearance, died outside of grace, in serious sin. A woman, an aunt of his, had commented to me the previous evening, at the wake: “I wish I were God, running the gates of heaven. I would let him in, despite of the way he died … he had such a good heart!”
Her comment became the basis for my homily within which I assured everyone present that this young man, with his good heart, was, right now, being solidly, lovingly, and joyfully embraced by God – not unlike the prodigal son. If we, with our weak understanding and imperfect compassion were able to see through this young man’s struggles to the goodness of his heart, how much more so God? Sometimes we do not give God much credit for intelligence, compassion, and forgiveness!
We teach that God is unconditional love and seldom, in fact never, take that seriously enough. Our generation likes to believe that we have freed ourselves from some older fears – within which God was sometimes seen too much as Someone with a big stick, ready to punish us for every weakness and infidelity, or as Someone with a big book, recording every one of our sins in view of some great future reckoning. We have moved a bit beyond this conception, though not nearly as much as we give ourselves credit for. By and large, our God is still a vindictive God, a petty God, a stupid, non-compassionate God. In conservative circles, God is hung-up on orthodoxy, of dogma and morals. In liberal circles, God is hung-up on social justice. In neither circle is He very joyous, understanding, and compassionate.
We are still a long ways from appropriating the God that Jesus incarnated. Do we ever really take the unconditional love of God seriously? Do we ever really take the joy of God seriously? Do we ever really believe that God loves us long before any sin we commit and long after every sin we will ever commit? Do we ever really believe that God still, unconditionally, loves Satan, and everyone in hell, and that God is, even now, willing to open the gates of heaven to them? Do we ever really take seriously how wide is the embrace of God? Do we ever believe Julian of Norwich when she tells us that God sits in the centre of heaven, smiling, his face completely relaxed, looking like a marvellous symphony? No.
Except for rare, graced, moments we still believe in a God who is hyper-serious, wired, intense, pained, disappointed in us, disappointed in the world, and far from unconditionally forgiving.
Yet the deep struggle of all religion is to enter into the joy of God.
Some years ago, while I was doing a 30-day Ignatian retreat, my director, a wise, though not very old, Jesuit, asked me to meditate the scourging of Jesus by the Roman soldiers. He gave me the text from scripture where Peter out of fear betrays Jesus, denying that he knows him and follows at a safe distance, pretending he is not one of his followers. Then, just after Jesus has been scourged and humiliated, he turns and looks Peter square in the face.
“In your meditation, pretend you are Peter,” my director instructed me. “Let Jesus look at you, really look you in the face, then come back and tell me what you saw in that face.” I did the meditation a number of times, but every time I contemplated Jesus’ face I saw the face of someone very good who loved me – my father, an intimate friend, my mentor – but the face I saw showed, besides love, something else, pained disappointment in me. My director made me do the meditation over and over until, finally, in a graced moment, I saw what Peter must have seen, and what made him go out into the night and weep bitterly, namely, a softness, acceptance, and non-dissappointment beyond what any human being has ever shown me.