“Beware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees,” Jesus admonishes us in today’s gospel. The Greek root of the word “hypocrisy” is hypokrinomai, which means “to pretend,” “to play a part,” or “to feign”. It was one of the greatest sins of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and he never tired of reminding them of the need to be honest before God.
“The seminary,” my old spiritual director used to tell me, “is a place where a young man must be initiated into that school of honesty and integrity where he is challenged to stand before God, stripped of all his pretensions and masks, so he can present himself to God as he is, in the fullness of his humanity, with its good and bad, its light and its shadows.”
Our time in seminary must be a time of growth in heroic truthfulness before God, before those forming us, and before ourselves, because it is the only way by which our humanity can be transformed by God’s grace.
In this effort, though, one the greatest enemies we shall encounter is fear. Fear can make us hide our true selves, from those forming us (sometimes even from our spiritual directors), from God, and often, even from ourselves. It makes us want to not see those things about us that we don’t like, things that embarrass or make us uncomfortable.
Fear makes us want to run away from the shadowy parts of ourselves, from things that perhaps our family and our society have told us are bad and unacceptable. And so we hide them, pushing them deep into a corner of our souls where we think no one will see them, and where they can stay hidden and forgotten.
And that is a problem. Because they don’t stay hidden forever. They reassert themselves even more powerfully later on, especially after we’re ordained and the support of seminary life is gone.
Hypocrisy is a manifestation of a great insecurity, a great fear to look at oneself with courage, honesty, and trust in God’s mercy and love. It was one of the Pharisees’ greatest sins.
With ourselves and with God, Fr. Adrian Van Kaam, author of Religion and Personality says, we must be “brutally and ruthlessly honest.” We mustn’t be afraid nor embarrassed to look into the darker and shadowy side of who we are. For they too - as my spiritual director never tired of reminding me - are God’s gifts; hard, tough, difficult and even painful, but gifts nonetheless.
Older Christian terminology calls them the “crosses,” we have to bear. Saint Paul calls them “thorns in the flesh.” Of these “thorns,” Van Kaam says:
“We fear that by looking at those things about ourselves which we aren’t so proud of, that by acknowledging their existence, they will destroy us. Paradoxically though, when we do acknowledge them in all honesty before God and ourselves, they don’t destroy us. Instead, they become sources of strength, for ourselves and for those we shall later on serve as priests."
Because through such honest acknowledgment of our thorns, and with the suffering and pain such honesty can cause us, we allow God’s grace to shine its light into those darkened areas of our lives, purifying and transforming them.
And we come to understand the truth of Paul’s words: “In weakness, power reaches perfection. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”