As a sinful woman, I have been much humbled to understand that God, in his love and mercy, draws near to the imperfect soul at his own pleasure, no matter what state the soul is in and regardless of what anyone else thinks about it.
Grace is a great mystery. What motivates the all-perfect and all-good to come running toward what is so vastly imperfect, faulty, and broken when he is called? It is the same unfathomable love that gives foolish Israel a worldly king when it has demanded one; it is a love that acquiesces in incomprehensible, paradoxical ways in order to teach by example; it is a love that will heal our wounds instantly or over time—depending on the injury—as often as we reopen those wounds and no matter how much we fight against our own healing, as we too often do.
We taste its sweetness or spit it from our mouths by our own choice, but either way, God’s love is a love that never fails, even though we do.
Understanding this, when I hear suggestions that only certain types of people belong in church or ministry, I mostly laugh. A healthy church opens its doors to all the sick people seeking to be made well; all are welcome. While some might like to believe that their community is “more tolerant” or “more obedient” than others, my experience within the Catholic Church is that this welcome is stubbornly, sometimes surprisingly true and more real than some want to believe, regardless of how a parish identifies. Yes, the rare, noteworthy, and shameful exceptions do happen because human beings can truly be terrible sometimes. But they are exceptions, and here is why:
A parish that is sincerely seeking Christ is one that fundamentally understands how flawed the people are within its walls and that we seek out God with and through each other. That we commence this search through the thick jungle of psychological, ideological, and prejudicial barriers we foolishly place before ourselves only demonstrates the extent of our collective and individual illnesses. Perhaps we believe that by insulating ourselves with the “right” kind of people in the “correct” sort of parish, we have protected ourselves from the so-called “ick factor” of the other, whomever we perceive that “other” to be.
But there is no room for an “ick factor,” or an identifiable “other” in the life of the Church or the Christian. We are told to “instruct and admonish one another in all wisdom,” (Col. 3:16), and if wisdom is made perfect through Christ, this can only mean in love. The way to love the “other” is to first come to know the “other,” which means we look at ourselves and our own “ick” as we look outside of ourselves too.
In truth, the “other” is you and me, and that part of us that does not want to hear the word “no” or be told that we must work against the powerful instincts and urges that so tantalize us into believing that we lack self-control. Someone might not wish to be told that it is to his spiritual advantage to say “no” to sexual temptation; another may grouse to hear that her body, mind, and spirit would be better served by saying “no” to a stack of pancakes and a fantasy about some pop-mart heart-throb; yet another might wince to hear that “no,” she ought not participate in the Eucharist for now, even if she really wants to, because withholding herself temporarily may facilitate her understanding, trust, and growth in ways she cannot yet imagine.
“It comes from saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. . . . It’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”—Steve Jobs
Our willingness to hear the word “no” and to at least attempt to discipline ourselves to self-restraint and surrender are what will ultimately help us to grow in Christ.
Jesus, we are told, moved with determination toward Jerusalem, the City of Peace (Luke 9:51). We are all called to do the same, to seek out this same city. Real estate aside, Jerusalem is meant to live within each of us. Our job is to move determinedly toward Jerusalem every day, and the City of Peace cannot be a place of judgment, animosity, jealousy, ego, spite, or malice.
Aspiring to Jerusalem, we are all on the road; conservative, liberal, gay, straight, fat, thin, cynical, naive, we trod the same rugged path. Along the way, we encounter numerous daily weigh stations—they pop up everywhere—where we must make our choices in order to press forward; we must decide on a thousand different “nos” in order to complete the journey to the ultimate “yes” of Jerusalem.
Some of our nos are collectively understood. We will not kill. We will not lie. We will not take what is not ours to possess or deliberately hurt or tear down.
Some of the nos are personal challenges meant for the individual journey.
We will not over-serve the addictive and powerful temptations of the flesh—be they sexual or sensual—no matter how much the world, which is not traveling the same road, encourages us to yield.
We will not surrender our charity to the self-satisfaction of the ego—in its rush to correct and condemn—no matter how many times our virtues are overpraised, and our sinfulness is minimized by those who have an interest in keeping us distracted and easily tripped.
The great saints did not spend a lot of time focusing on the sins and imperfections of those around them. Jesus had kindly taught them that looking backward, or sideways, might cause them to tumble or to step off the road altogether, and so they remained focused on their own walk, their own work, and their own sins.
Moving with determination toward our interior City of Peace, our footpath is crowded with other pilgrims seeking that same destination, facing their own weigh stations, confronting their own cracks and sinkholes. May God help us to support each other in “wisdom made perfect” as we put one fragile foot forward and then the other, on this long and arduous trek toward Jerusalem.