The other day I was walking up the stairs and joking with a young colleague, and she said, laughing, “O, I was raised Catholic, I know all about guilt,” which is something I hear a lot and that always bothers me, and it bothered me then.
I don’t think faith is about guilt. I think faith is about joy.
Of course, my colleague was joking, too, and her experience is her experience, but what’s funny about that moment was that I was feeling discouraged and down just then, lacking confidence, unsure, and I knew that as a Christian I am called to confidence and to courage, I am called to optimism, not in some naïve or simple sense but as a discipline, a choice, in the midst of all the complexities of things—that the voice I was hearing, of self-doubt and anxiety, is never the voice of God.
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete,” Jesus says in the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John–not “so that you will feel guilt,” but “so that you will feel joy.” Pope Francis didn’t write The Guilt of the Gospel, he wrote The Joy of the Gospel, and that’s a call, a pattern to conform to, a tool to use to interpret the shape of our lives even when we can’t quite see the whole design. It’s the pattern of joy: not just crucifixion, but resurrection, always, the two in relation.
“I was thinking,” Dorothy Day writes in her journal, “how as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.”
Me, too, as I grow older. And for me, too, this is my duty as I get older, as a Christian, as a Catholic, what Day calls here “the Duty of Delight.”
And besides, there’s something to be said for guilt. We all should feel guiltier and more often, because some things are wrong and some things are right, and though we can hide from this or fool ourselves about this or cover this up, and we do, all the time, it’s simply true that we’re flawed and finite and limited people, and that all our problems and mistakes and injustices and social problems come from assuming that we’re right and special and privileged, and until we give that up, let all that pride and greed and gluttony go, we can’t be happy and we can’t be free.
Guilt, if it’s authentic, if it’s real guilt, is always temporary. It’s the first stage in liberation. It’s the trigger. It’s the jumping off the cliff, and then we fall, and fly. Float. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says, blessed are the humble, not forever guilty are they, forever miserable are they, because there is a sequence here, a blessed sequence–because first we humble ourselves, or admit we’re already humble and always have been and have just been deceiving ourselves, and then suddenly our burden lightens and we realize we’re loved, we are forgiven, we can just live in the world, in reality, free and easy and at home along with everyone else who is intimately and infinitely loved.
Permanent guilt is unsuccessful guilt. Interrupted guilt.
We don’t go to confession to be condemned but to be forgiven. We go for mercy. All we have to do is admit our need for grace, and it’s there, pouring down on us.
As it was on the stairs in that little moment of persecution, that tiny, easy, merely social persecution—blessed are you when you are persecuted, Jesus always says—though this wasn’t really a persecution anyway, not really, though it stung. because after the sting I was able through grace to look inside me for just a split second and glimpse my pride and my need to be seen and understood a certain way, to see my usual patterns of self-centeredness, and at just that moment my anger and my pride dissolved, they faded, or they were there but I was distant from them, they didn’t matter, there were just there, and I laughed some more and looked up at the January sun streaming through the window, and the students were flowing up the stairs all around us to their classes, and I had my work to do that day, and I was able to see this new young colleague as the smart, dedicated, committed young woman she is, with her life and career all before her, loved by God though she doesn’t claim to believe in him anymore. Her doubt doesn’t matter. None of these things matter. All is well. Reality is lovely, as Anthony De Mello says. Absolutely lovely.