Thursday, March 16, 2017

GOD ALONE MAKES WHOLE THE BROKENNESS OF OUR LIVES (The seminary is a place of "encounter in honesty" before God, a place where "wounded healers" are born.)

"O happy fault
O necessary sin of Adam,
that has gained for us
so great a Redeemer!"

- From the Exultet, the Easter Proclamation

The life of a priest can be a truly good and joyful 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 with his life and ministry isn’t a perfect priest, one who has always said and done the right thing, who has never made mistakes, who has never experienced failure, disappointment, or frustration.

Rather, a priest who finds true happiness and peace in his vocation is one who has recognized the reality of his imperfection, the truth of his sinfulness, and his vulnerability before God. 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 is, after all, 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 reject it and even try to 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, once said 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 ages past - real or imagined - has led many to go to the opposite extreme and champion what some refer to as the “therapeutic culture” of our time, one 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.
As a student, my spiritual director used to tell us seminarians not to fear looking deep into ourselves, even if what we saw there frightened  us, even if what we saw there was dark, scary, even embarrassing.
"Look at it," he would say. “Don’t ever deny what you see. Because what you see is a real part of who you are and it is where you will find God at work, just as it will also be your path towards him”. 

I never forgot his advice. It made me honest. [His word to us was always, “be ruthlessly 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, never the coddling type. God is a Father. He wants us to be responsible, to be accountable, and to live up to the demand that we be genuinely good men. 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 acknowledge their mistakes and resolving to try again. He is compassionate to those who come to him in their sinfulness, recognizing 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 yet fragile. And he can therefore 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” between God and His people. For only by seeing himself for what he truly is - as weak and fragile, yet infinitely loved - that he can then proclaim to those who also need it, God's infinite love and mercy.
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 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 and one of the most profound mysteries of the life of a Christian, most especially  a priest, 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, so too only those who have sunk into the mire, despite their best effort, can fully comprehend their ultimate inability to save themselves and thus acknowledge their utter dependence on God. For it is often our mistakes, errors, and sins, that bring us to God—by means of the realization that on our own, we can accomplish precious little, and can in fact cause great 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 live a life worthy of his calling. And he must do everything in his power to be worthy of his state. But he is no superman. He is, rather, as fragile and sinful as the next person, 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, my Father, loves me." 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, my Father, loves me." Only the priest who has come to the full realization of what this simple utterance means can say to those he ministers to: “God, your Father, loves you."
It represents the same profound conviction at the heart Jesus’ ministry 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 it has itself 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 we fully understand what this means in our lives as priests can we learn to be patient, accepting, tolerant, compassionate, kind, loving, thoughtful, generous, and forgiving. Only in being so can we be instruments of God’s healing grace in the lives of the people we serve. But it is also only in being so that we can challenge people to holiness, and thereby live out our prophetic mission with a credible voice. Only in being so are we truly priests, for 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, rid of all the trappings that can hinder him from showing God who he truly is.

Yet the seminary is also the place where the seminarian must learn that while such prospect might seem 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 love and mercy 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, can actually be one of the most profoundly liberating experiences of grace there is; and so, there is absolutely nothing to fear. In the presence of our loving Father, we can let our guard down, simply be ourselves, and know that we are truly, deeply, and forever, loved.  

This is the paradox that characterizes the life of a good and truly happy priest: in facing what is most terrifying, he does not find himself defeated and destroyed. Rather, he finds himself redeemed, made whole, set on fire, and emboldened to proclaim to all he meets, the grace and mercy that he has himself experienced as he brought to God, everything that he is: the desirable and the undesirable, the holy and the unholy, the darkness and the light.

Only one 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 others who will recognize in his very experience, a similar invitation to open themselves up to the flames of God’s purifying love.


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