I find there are two types of people who attack me when they discover I’m Catholic. The first are lapsed or disgruntled Catholics who claim to be revolted by the Church but can’t stop talking about it. The second type, the Pharisees, are always trying to get me to say something bad about other (in their eyes, lukewarm) members of the Church. None of these folks can bear the hideous gap between how a follower of God should be and how a person who claims to be a follower of Christ actually is.
But you have to be somewhat nuts to sign up for something that is basically impossible to achieve. As Thomas Merton observed: “We must remember that in order to choose religious life, you must be a misfit…”
God’s son did not confine himself to politics. He didn’t say, “We need more rights.” He didn’t say, “Let’s overthrow the Romans.” He said, “We need to live in total integrity and love. In order to do so, we need a Church, and because we are never going to do so perfectly, the Church will inevitably also be imperfect.”
To avoid the scandal of the cross, which is in some sense to say the scandal of the Church, is impossible. How could a Church made up of us be anything but imperfect? What Church would take us except a Church that tolerated imperfection? Where else would we drag ourselves to pray for the people we resent at any given moment—our mothers, our spouses, our kids, our friends, our politicians, the other people in church—but to church? Where else would we go to be reminded of the perpetual death and perpetual rebirth but to Mass? In order to try resurrecting the Church we keep wrecking, we have to keep going to church—because we need God: to walk with us, to live.
Religion doesn’t mean acting better than other people; it means, if we’re lucky, getting to act a little better than we used to ourselves. As the writer Madeleine L’Engle observed: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
You can’t do that if you’re driven by anger or fear. You have to have some kind of joy. And this seems to require looking at our darkest wounds: our resentments, our seemingly hard-wired patterns, neuroses, fears. The things we’re ashamed of, the things we’re guilty about, the compulsive patterns we can’t shake free of, no matter how hard we try.
That to me is the real challenge of God, and what sets me on fire about the Gospels. We all want to learn compassion, but as we go about trying to be of service to the world, we are going to uncover some very difficult truths, about ourselves, about others.
And that’s what we have to work through. That’s the hard stuff, the hardest stuff there is. Family stuff. Sex stuff. Our identity as a person who has a certain kind of career, or a certain political leaning. Our reputation in the community, perhaps. We may decide to give up certain things, maybe many things, out of love. Money, maybe; sex for a time, maybe forever. But that’s where the joy comes in. The politicians tell us that our enemies are dangerous, terrorists are dangerous, people who don’t support the United States are dangerous, but the really dangerous idea is the Gospels.
Dangerous because you consent to be not useful, to not be productive, to not be relevant. Dangerous because you never know whether you have staked your life, or whether you’re a sham and a coward. Dangerous because you offer up your entire self and you’re no better or kinder, no less petty or more generous, no more effective, squared away, or “together” than when you began. You’re more crushed, uncertain, and vulnerable. You’re more human.
That’s the good news—but to be human is a perilous undertaking. We are all just here with our broken, shattered hearts, hoping against hope for the Second Coming and trying to not kill ourselves or each other before it arrives. Expending our entire strength to eke out the tiniest act of kindness. Rolling our rock, with Sisyphus, up a mountain whose top we’re never going to reach. Knowing that in the end we die alone and praying to be stand-up enough, just once or twice in our lives, to comfort someone else who is dying, as God comforted the Repentant Thief who was nailed to the cross beside him.
That’s faith. That’s the Resurrection. As Thérèse of Lisieux neared the end of her life, her older sister Céline, frustrated at having so much less charity than she would have liked, exclaimed, “Oh, when I think how much I have to acquire!”
“Rather,” Thérèse replied, “how much you have to lose.”