On Forgiveness

                During my formation, I spent a year working with Fr. Dan Barnett; it was a great blessing and I learned an incredible amount from him. One of his sayings has always struck me: “In a world without sin, there can be no forgiveness.” At a surface level this is pretty innocuous and straightforward statement: forgiveness necessarily follows sin, and if no one has sinned there is no need for anyone to be forgiven. It took me a while to realize the deeper significance of his statement. Sin and evil exist in the world whether or not we acknowledge it. However, when it goes unnamed we deny ourselves the tools of reconciliation. It is only through a broader recognition of sin, especially sin in our own lives that forgiveness becomes possible.

John’s account of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) bears this out beautifully. In an attempt to trap Christ in his two-fold mission: fulfillment of the law and the forgiveness of sins. St. Bede comments saying, “If [Jesus] determined that she was to be stoned, they would scoff at him inasmuch as he had forgotten the mercy that he was always teaching. If he prohibited the stoning, they would gnash their teeth at him, and, as they saw it, rightly condemn him as a doer of wicked deeds contrary to the law.”[1] In many ways it was a great trap: two apparent options either one leading to Christs downfall. Yet, by drawing upon his testers’ own guilt and sinfulness, he was able to negotiate a third way, show mercy while not negating the law.

Woman taken in adultery

            This event is a microcosm of the way in which God cultivates mercy and forgiveness in our own lives. When Peter asks Christ ““Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:21-22). Christ goes on to explain through parable of the unforgiving Servant. In this parable one servant, having been forgiven a great debt by his master, refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to his fellow servant. In so doing, this unforgiving servant forfeits his own forgiveness.

unmerciful servant

Willem Drost: the Unmerciful Servant

            Christ calls us to recognize the great debt incurred to God because of our sinfulness, and, having been forgiven that debt, to be forgiving in our own lives. We are to be so transformed by this forgiveness as to be judged by the very level of forgiveness that we mete out. Were we to contemplate our prayer a little more deeply we might hesitate to say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I know that I am not perfectly forgiving in my life. Even those whom I desire to forgive, or have chosen to forgive, I sometimes find that I continue to resent in my heart. Fortunately, there is hope that the grace of God will continue to work in my life but will only do so with my cooperation.

            Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular is often criticized for making too much of sin and guilt. While, at times, excessive focus upon one’s own sinfulness can lead to despair, a recognition of one’s own sinfulness is necessary to truly appreciate the great gift of forgiveness that God extends to us. There are many opportunities to embark in such an exercise: at the beginning of nearly every Mass we “call to mind our sins so to prepare ourselves to celebrate these sacred mysteries.” We visit the sacrament of confession to make explicit our faults before Christ. At night, we examine our consciences asking God to forgive us our daily sins. All of these things help us to cultivate a greater sense, not simply of our sinfulness, but of God’s forgiveness. In seeing God’s forgiveness of us, in turn, we hopefully cultivate a greater forgiveness of others in our own lives.

            All that being said, I fully recognize that, while forgiveness is always necessary, true reconciliation, at least in this life, is not always possible. We as humans have the unfortunate capacity to rupture our relationships to such a degree that it is not always possible to repair in this life. Sometimes that is because one party or the other is unwilling to make the changes necessary. Sometimes both parties may be of good will but full reconciliation is simply beyond the scope of this life. In faith, such situations ought bring about two responses in us: sadness at the loss in this life and hope, that in the fullness of time God will heal all wounds and divisions.

            Our command to forgive as God forgives cannot be rightly understood as some mere practice that God has us engage in so as to prepare for heaven. Heaven is not the reward of a donut to small child who obeys himself at Mass. Rather, our call to forgive is intrinsic to the very nature of heaven. Without forgiveness how could we hope to spend eternity happy with somebody whom we cannot stand to spend ten minutes with now?

[1] Homilies on the Gospel I.25

A Practicing Catholic

 

There are few things in the liturgical life of a priest more difficult than the funeral of a family member, all the more so when that family member is a parent. In the midst of your own grieving and loss the family calls upon you to set aside your “son” hat and put on your “father” i.e. “priest” hat. While this is a difficult task for any priest, though in its own way often cathartic, I cannot imagine having to do so under the spotlight of national attention. For Fr. Paul Scalia to simply get through his Father, Justice Antonin Scalia’s, funeral well would have been an achievement. Yet, in the midst of this very difficult situation Fr. Scalia gave us one of the most beautifully profound homilies I have ever heard. While it would certainly be worthwhile to write about Justice Scalia’s funeral, that is not the point of this post. Rather, Fr. Scalia’s Homily is a great inspiration during this season of lent.

In his homily, Fr. Scalia states:

We thank God for his goodness to Dad, as is right and just. But we also know that, although Dad believed, he did so imperfectly, like the rest of us. He tried to love God and neighbor but, like the rest of us, did so imperfectly. He was a practicing Catholic—practicing in the sense that he hadn’t perfected it yet. Or, rather, that Christ was not yet perfected in him. And only those in whom Christ is brought to perfection can enter Heaven.

Here, Fr. Scalia beautifully draws out the verb “to practice” from the adjective, “practicing” Catholic. That is to say, so often when people refer to somebody as a “practicing” Catholic, they do so as if that was the completion of the task, or that some sort of perfection existed in this state of “practicing.” Instead, Fr. Scalia highlights the fact that “to practice” is only the road by which we seek perfection.

 

NY castle-12
Not dead yet (taken in seminary, not high school)

When I think of practice, I think back to my time playing soccer in high school, particularly that dreaded time before school or the season had begun when we had two-a-day practices. For those of you not blessed to experience such a time of pain allow me to explain. Since school had not started yet, our coaches were able to gather us in the morning for the first practice of the day. They ran us through various drills and exercises, attempting to kill us. Having failed to do so in the morning, they would gather us together in the afternoon with the same goal. Of course, this was not their real intent. In reality, they recognized most of us were not in the physical condition necessary for the upcoming season, and that they had a finite amount of time to correct this lest we embarrass ourselves during the season.

In many ways, this is what the season of Lent is all about. None of us are as fully prepared to meet Christ as we ought to be, and, while the whole of our lives will be spent in this mission, Lent provides a special opportunity to focus on the mission, especially as we prepare for the Triduum: Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. By our Lenten practices, we are better able to participate in the Triduum and Easter Seasons.  

Our faith requires such practice, a fact that the lives of so many before us have made abundantly clear. St. Peter is possibly my favorite example of this practice. It took him the entirety of his life to be perfected as Christ desired, despite the intimacy with which he knew Christ and the zeal he had to follow our Lord. St. Peter left his whole life and livelihood to follow Jesus. He was able to get out of the boat and, at least momentarily, walk on water. He saw our Lord transfigured upon the mountain, standing with Moses and Elijah. He proclaimed Jesus as Son of the living God and was given the Keys of the Kingdom

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Annibale Carracci: Domine, quo vadis?

Even at the end, as tradition tells us, St. Peter initially attempted to leave Rome to avoid martyrdom, and only in encountering Christ, who was carrying his cross to Rome to be crucified again, was Peter given the strength to return and face crucifixion. What strength it was, for in that strength was the humility to seek to be crucified upside down lest he die in the same way as our Lord.

caravagios crucifixion of peter

Caravaggio: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter

Allow me to finish by returning to Fr. Scalia:

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

In the mess of our day-to-day lives, in the business of the world, it is easy to forget why we are here and what we are doing. Lent calls us back to the recognition that we are all here for one man: Jesus of Nazareth. It is only in the practice of the faith that that man, Jesus, can be perfected in us and that we will one day be called to celebrate eternally with him the feast he has prepared for us.

Fail Better

try again

Passing the midway point of lent has always raised mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, it is a striking relief to know that I am on the downhill slope to Easter, that there is light at the end of the tunnel… And on the other hand, I cannot help but look back and realize how amazingly I have failed to live up to my hopes for this year’s Lenten practices.

Every year seems to follow a similar pattern, great and lofty hopes for change and renewal in my spiritual life, quickly dashed upon the rocks of my own frail humanity. It is utterly frustrating at times to see the goal and know how to achieve it but fail again and again to actually succeed. It is, in some ways, the most infuriating consequence of the our fallen humanity that we can see the good and know how to achieve it, yet again and again find ourselves utterly incapable of actually doing so. This is true of faith, of friendship, of physical health; indeed, it is true of every aspect of our human life.

All of which brings me the title of this, my first blog post: “Fail Better.” As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” This might very well be the quote that summarizes my spiritual life. For every step I take seems to lead to another stumble, another fall. Yet, the only way I know to avoid this cycle is to stop moving forward. That is, to quit. To quit, though, is to leave the way. To leave the way is to leave Christ. To leave Christ is to leave love, happiness, and meaning lying at the side of the road right next to my cross.

And so onward I go, “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more” knowing that I’m not far from my next stumble, my next fall. The alternative I cannot bear, and fortunately I know that I am not alone on this path. I follow behind Him who goes before me. It is to Him I return when I stumble and fall and He is the one who picks me up again. Though Christ does not know failure, he does what it is to fall. Christ too, stumbled and fell on his own way to Calvary, and so I, too, shall follow, to try again, fail again, but hopefully fail better.