Saturday, March 30, 2013

God makes whole the brokenness of our lives. (Good Friday Reflections on the Life and Ministry of a Priest)

O felix culpa,
O certe necessarium Adae Peccatum,
qui talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!
 
O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
that has gained for us so great a Redeemer!
 
(From the Exultet, the Easter Proclamation, English, Old Translation)
 
The life of a priest is a good and truly happy one—in the best and truest sense of these words. And it is even more so when he lives his ministry with his whole being in it, heart, mind, body, and soul. And yet a priest who is happy isn’t a perfect priest, one who always says and does the right thing, who never makes mistakes, who has never experienced failure, disappointment, or frustration. Rather, one who finds true happiness and peace in his calling and his ministry is a person who has recognized the reality of his imperfection. He is always in the process of being invited to respond to Christ’s call to live a faith that is genuine and a life that is full. He is one who knows that to be genuinely human is to recognize one’s weakness, sinfulness, and ultimate inability to save oneself on his own. He is one who has come face to face with the fact that however hard he tries, he is a creature of this earth, born into sin, and therefore constantly failing in his response to God.
 
Brokenness, after all, is part of the human condition. In a very real sense, it’s our wounds and scars that not only define us as human beings, but also bind us together as brothers and sisters, in the most profound way. No one escapes woundedness, least of all the priest. I’m sure that the years you have spent in seminary have, by now, made you aware—perhaps even painfully so—of this perplexing reality. We may not like it, we may refuse or reject it, we may even run away from it, but it just keeps coming back to confront us, reminding us not only of our pained and scarred state as persons, but also of our calling as ministers of the Gospel, to transcend these hurts and allow them to transform us into ‘doctors of souls’ and ‘healers of the wounds of humanity’.
 
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp just days before it was liberated, used to say that “when Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. There is a very real sense of “dying” that is asked of one who enters seminary, as there is a very real invitation to continue along this path when one is ordained. Sacrifice is a word that many find undesirable in our age of comfort-seeking and soft-values. In many ways, the harshness of the church—real or imagined, especially before the reforms of Vatican II—has led many to go to the opposite extreme and champion what some theologians call the “therapeutic culture” that denies any value to suffering and sacrifice, even if these are undergone for the sake of a higher purpose. This is something we need to guard against, especially among those being formed to be future priests. Being able to sacrifice—to “carry one’s cross” as Jesus says, and to live with the challenges and difficulties of seminary formation, are things we need to accept and to a certain degree, welcome, as means of forming us into strong and courageous ministers of the gospel.
 
When I was a student, my spiritual director used to tell his students not to fear looking deep into ourselves, even if what we saw there frightened and terrified us, even if what we saw there was dark, scary, and embarrassing. “Look at it”, he would say. “Don’t ever deny what you see, whether it be good or otherwise. Because what you see is a real part of who you are and that is where you will find God at work, and that is where you will find your way to him”.
 
I never forgot that wise priest’s advice. It made me honest. [His word was always, “be brutally honest with yourself, even if it hurts”.] He made me look unflinchingly at sin and grace dwelling in me, and he made me realize the reality of God’s challenging love. It was a love that was true. It was tough. It was never the coddling type. “God is Father”. He wants us to be responsible, to be accountable, to realize that we are men, and must live up to the demand that we be “good”. And we must strive, despite constant failure, to live a life of integrity, truthfulness, honesty, conviction, and fidelity to the commitments we make. But God is like a “Mother” as well, forgiving to those who come to him acknowledging their mistakes and resolving to try again. He is compassionate to those who come to him in their sinfulness as well as the acceptance that on their own, they will not succeed.
 
A priest is a happy man because he knows he is a “vessel of clay”, made of earth and therefore given to weakness, formed by a potter’s hand into a masterpiece that is beautiful but fragile. A happy priest is one who can look at himself squarely and see himself for everything that he is, a person broken and wounded, sinful and weak, and yet loved by a God who has known him long before he was born, who has singled him out, not to give him privilege, but to form him into an instrument, by which grace can be known by a people who are just as vulnerable, beautiful, and fragile as he. In this a priest becomes a “bridge”.
 
Only by seeing himself in his weakness and fragility can a priest also know what it truly means to be a creature of grace, loved infinitely by God, and therefore tasked to share that most profound experience of grace with those to whom he ministers. And this is born of having come face to face with who and what one truly is. One cannot separate one’s priesthood from one’s humanity, they go hand-in-hand. The priesthood is not sugar-coating on something bitter; it isn’t something tacked on in order to make something unpleasant look good, or enhance something that would otherwise be unappealing. A priest is a “vessel of clay”, he is a man like other men, but he is also one who has peered deep into the reality of himself, and with the strength and courage given by Christ, willingly accepts what he encounters as a gift of God, the very earth out of which God is going to fashion for himself, an instrument who will bring a message of grace, compassion, love, and challenge to a world that is also striving to make sense of its experience of darkness and light.
 
The only way by which a priest can live up to his call to heal those who are wounded by life is for him to realize on the one hand that he has been given the strength to do so, while on the other realizing that in the end, he himself is in need of healing, because he too, like everyone else, is wounded. He is at the same time messenger of grace and sinful messenger, healer and healed, chosen vessel and unworthy instrument. In his being dwell the twin-realities of light and darkness, grace and sin. In his awareness and living out of this reality alone does he serve his purpose as “bridge-builder”, between a sinful and pained humanity, and a compassionate God who loves unconditionally. And it is by constantly reminding himself of his living within this tension of grace and sin that he escapes the temptation to blow his importance out of proportion or to despair that he will never be truly worthy.
 
A priest can only heal if he himself has experienced the healing touch of Christ in his life. This presupposes that he has come face to face with his own frailty and inability to pull himself out of the ‘darker side’ of the human condition. It is when we stand before our own sinfulness, when we confront and are confronted by the undeniable fact of our wounded humanity, when we stand in the stark nakedness of the wrong that we are capable of doing as men, that the purifying flames of God’s undying and all-embracing love for us slowly begin to burn us, stripping us, until it accomplishes in us the emptying of self that is at the heart of Christ’s Incarnation. Then, as we hit rock-bottom and find ourselves declaring, like Peter, “leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8), we begin to understand the words: “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection”. (II Cor 12:9)
 
It is one of the supreme paradoxes, one of the most profound mysteries of the life of priests that only when our ultimate limitations stare us in the face do we also realize the depth of God’s love for us. Just as only those who have drunk life’s cup to the dregs know what it means to truly live and value life, so too only those who have sunk into the mire—despite their best effort—can fully comprehend their ultimate inability to rescue themselves from it and acknowledge their utter dependence on God. For it is often our mistakes, errors, and sins, that bring us to God—by means of the profound realization that on our own, we can accomplish precious little, and can in fact cause tremendous harm rather than good.
 
Priests are men of clay and earth, they aren’t supermen by any stretch of the imagination. One’s being a Christian, one’s being a disciple, his vocation as a priest, demands that he lives a life worthy of his calling. And he must do everything in his power to be worthy of his state. But he isn’t superman. He is, rather, as fragile and sinful as the next man, yet he has heard God’s voice in the night asking him to be His messenger (I Sam 3:2-10), but not after having told him first that He loves him, forgives him, and accepts him; and not after having challenged him, “Sin no more” (Jn 8:10)
 
“God loves me, no matter what”. This simple statement represents the “rock of faith” upon which a priest’s healing ministry is built. Without it, he builds on sand.  Without it, he has no Good News to proclaim. A priest must be able to say with conviction: God loves me, accepts me, makes use of me, however sinful I am, however dark my life might have been, however incomplete I feel, however unworthy I am in the eyes of all the world. This is not for me a cause of pride because of a feeling of predilection. No, it is the simple recognition that I am nothing, period, and “Yet God loves me still”.
 
“God loves me, no matter what”. Only the priest who has come to the full realization of what this simple utterance means can say to those he ministers to: “God loves you, no matter what”. It represents the same profound conviction at the heart Jesus’ words and deeds two thousand years ago. It is the same conviction that must power a priest’s healing ministry in every age. For only a personal experience of this intimate connection and unconditional acceptance by God, can give legitimacy and credibility to a priest’s words of consolation and comfort in a world so deeply skeptical and cynical, because of its having been wounded over and over again.
 
Only when a priest fully realizes and accepts that he bears in himself the reality of sin redeemed, can he be a healing balm to others. The Letter to the Hebrews says as much: “He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people”. (Heb 5:2-3) Only when a priest fully understands what this means in his life can he learn to be patient, accepting, tolerant, compassionate, kind, loving, thoughtful, generous, and forgiving. Only in being so can he be an instrument of God’s healing grace in the lives of the people he serves. But it is also only in being so that he can challenge people to holiness, and thereby live out his prophetic mission with a credible voice. Only in being so is he truly a priest.
 
The realization of God’s love in the face of real human sinfulness is the deepest experience of grace there can be. In no other statement is this reality so profoundly captured than in those magnificent lines in the Exultet sung at the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam which has gained for us so great a Redeemer!” None other summarizes completely, the mystery of a priest as healer and healed, and as sinful and graced.
 
The seminary is a place where young men are first and foremost initiated into this “encounter in honesty” before God. It is in seminary that a future priest must be taught to stand in the presence of God, empty of all his pretensions, bereft of all the trappings that can hinder him from showing God who and what he truly is. But it is also the place where he must be told that while such prospect might seem utterly terrifying and excruciating, it is the only way by which he will be able to genuinely offer something worthwhile to God. And it is the only way by which God can use him to communicate his life to his people. The seminary is the place where one learns that rather than being a fearful experience, standing before God in all honesty of self, is actually the profoundest experience of grace there can be, and hence there is absolutely nothing to fear. Enter into the fire then, allow the flames to consume you, and know that God will be there with you.
 
There is a paradox that characterizes the life of a good and happy priest. In facing what is most terrifying, he does not find himself defeated and destroyed, instead he finds himself on fire, emboldened to proclaim to the whole world, the grace and forgiveness that he has personally experienced as he brought to God’s altar, everything that he was, the desirable and the undesirable, the holy and the unholy, the darkness and the light that dwell in him. Only a man who has known what it means to stand completely empty before God can become an instrument of grace that will set on fire the hearts of other men and women who will recognize in his very experience, a similar invitation to open themselves up as well to the flames of God’s purifying truth.
 
Truth, for the priest, not only sets him free, it also makes him an instrument of the truth. But truth begins with oneself. There is simply no other way. A vessel that has not been washed, cleansed, and purified by the truth, will forever fail in communicating God’s grace and mercy that alone can wash, cleanse, and purify the hearts of others who long to experience what a priest experiences. One who fails or refuses to stand in all honesty before God and self will find himself grasping at straws, carving an identity out of superficial trappings that will only give fleeting and superficial happiness. How many seminarians and young priests sometimes find themselves erecting wall upon wall around them, each wall higher than the previous one, each wall mistaken for the real thing? And as one goes through his priestly life, the walls increasingly become a cocoon which makes a priest slowly forget who he is. He begins identifying himself with the externals he has erected around him, as his true self recedes more and more. Soon he becomes comfortable living an “un-truth”. But the walls eventually come crashing down. They always do, and the life he has lived is shown to be what it truly is. Then he breaks down, sometimes completely. The words of Jesus in the gospels must be our constant guide in this matter: 
 
“ Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted.  So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”. (Matt 10:26-31)
 
The history of the church is replete with stories of individuals who thought they could forever live in such way, only to one day have a rude awakening. The scandals that have rocked the church will forever be monuments to this sad and unfortunate reality. It is the greatest service a seminary can do to the church and to the life of individual priests, to see to it that every seminary student is spared the heartache and destructiveness of this experience. But this can only be done if the seminarian seeks to live in honesty, integrity, and truthfulness. He must not be afraid to live the truth and bear witness to the happiness and goodness of a life lived in fidelity to it. But this is something that does not happen overnight. Living for the truth is a journey that progressively deepens our encounter with Christ. It sets us on the path to reaching the innermost core of ourselves, the place where St. Augustine encourages us to go when he says, Noli foras ire, in te redi, in interiore homine habitate veritas. “Do not go out. Go inwards. Truth dwells in the inner man”.  The place where God dwells is found deep within our hearts and souls, not in some external or superficial trapping, however attractive it might be. 
 
In the end what we find, as we journey deeper into the reality of our vocation, is that our call is to enter into the heart of Christ himself. And as we move closer to our goal, we discover that at the very end of the journey we find something that we’ve known all along, something that has always been the case, and that we are merely rediscovering. We haven’t really arrived at something completely new, only a rediscovery perhaps of something that was already there at the beginning, something that many of us tend to forget. As we progress in our journey, we discover more and more the foundational reality of the priesthood: we are called to be spiritual leaders, we are called to be spiritual men. That perhaps is the simplest, but also the most profound realization we can have. It almost sounds too simple. But it is precisely because of its simplicity that it can be forgotten. One who seeks to follow in the footsteps of Christ, must consequently set his heart on things that belong to what Augustine says is intimeor intimo meo, that “which is most intimate than our most intimate thought”. He must strive to be a man of spirit; he must learn to see through superficial and marginal, and go right to the heart of the matter, and the heart of the matter is Christ whom he touches, knows, experiences, and is conformed to, when he sets his heart and mind to becoming that spiritual guide, that instrument in the hand of God who has chosen to continue his Son’s work in the world through the life, ministry, and witness of his priest.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)