JDecember 30, 2018–The Holy Family
My kids used to go into the living room and move things around a little. They’d move a vase an inch to the left. A photograph an inch to the right. Then they’d wait for me to come into the room and put everything back. I’d move the vase back to where it belonged. The photo back to where it belonged. I didn’t even know I was doing this. It was unconscious. I didn’t know the kids were tricking me—they just told me recently.
They laughed and laughed.
Just an inch.
I’m a little OCD, a bit of a perfectionist, as a lot of us are, I think.
It’s interesting to track that word—perfection or imperfection, perfect or imperfect—in the writing of Pope Francis. It’s really his central theme, that we have to accept the fact that we’re imperfect and forgive others for their imperfections–especially, he says in The Joy of Love, in our families. “At times,” he says, “we have proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.” “Our excessive idealization,” Francis says, “especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive but quite the opposite.”
The Pope isn’t on the side of perfection, he’s on the side of imperfection, and in a way this is the teaching of the gospel today, on the Feast of the Holy Family. Mary was made immaculate from birth, not from anything she achieved herself. Her achievement was to be true to this gift, radically open. Joseph was given the gift of a dream, and he honored it. He answered it. In this sense both Mary and Joseph are exactly like us, completely dependent on grace, completely in need of Christ—they are saved by their son even before he came into the world–and their family life day-to-day was just as full of “anxiety” as ours is, just as full of struggle and stress, as Luke makes clear in this story of the Finding in the Temple. Even Jesus had to slog through the days. He was fully human, too, not just fully divine, and so he, too, must have been anxious sometimes, and distracted, and disappointed.
The point of taking the Holy Family as our model isn’t to make us rigid and self-righteous but to teach us humility and teach us compassion and most of all to teach us patience, the capacity to live with people the way they really are.
I’ve just finally read Father Gregory Boyle’s, Tattoos on the Heart, the famous story of his work with gangs in Los Angeles, and what’s most remarkable about this work isn’t his success but his repeated, constant failure. Father Boyle started Homeboy Industries, and he’s made a big difference in the lives of many people, but he doesn’t like to talk about success and he resists measuring success, because to talk about success is to obscure the fact that this is all up to God, who loves us first, tattoos and all, addictions and all. Boyle’s theme is the “no-matter-whatness” of God. His motto, he says, should be “You Can Never Disappoint Us Enough,” because people do, again and again. He keeps saying mass in prison because his gang members keep going to prison, and going back to prison, making the same mistakes over and over. He’s buried hundreds of people, teenagers, most of them, victims of shootings or overdoses. But he never stops loving them, or trying to.
At the funeral of a gang member named Jason, Boyle preaches this:
Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” He doesn’t say, “One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.” He doesn’t say “If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.” No. He says, straight out, “You are light.” It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it. So, for God’s sake, don’t move. No need to contort yourself to be anything other than who you are. Jason was who he was. He made a lot of mistakes, he was not perfect. And he was the light of the world.
God’s love is first, and it’s endless. This is what Boyle tries to get the gang members to understand, their own goodness, and this is what they just can’t believe, they’ve been so abused and tortured and neglected by their addicted parents.
And abuse like this is different from imperfection—let me be clear about this. It’s sin, deep sin, it has to change, and it’s not something limited to the ganglands of LA. It’s right here, in Corvallis, behind the closed doors of our nice, middle-class houses. You have no idea, the spousal abuse and the elder abuse and the child abuse, and for this there can be no tolerance. Forgiveness, but no tolerance. This is not the Gospel. This is fundamentally wrong.
But for everything else: patience. Compassion.
As parents so many of us are saddened that our kids don’t go to mass—I am—I feel it very deeply—but I take heart from Boyle. If he can keep loving those gang members, not lecturing, not preaching, just being with them, we can love our kids anyway and believe in them and in the infinite love of God. “We encounter problems,” Pope Francis says inThe Joy of the Family, “whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect . . . . Other people also have a right to live in this world, just as they are.”
All we can do is pray, and not just for the conversion of our children or even mostly for that but for our own conversion. We have to be selfish in a way. Nothing is as persuasive as joy, and we can’t have joy unless we pray, unless we put ourselves in contact with God, and when we are, when we are in relationship with Jesus, our kids will feel it, they will know it, whatever we say. We keep inviting them to Church, gently, and then we let it go. If we have to suffer in the meantime, in a smaller church, a misunderstood church, that’s a small price to pay, and it shouldn’t bother us anyway. The Lord is here, among us, and he’ll take care of the rest. Let us do him the courtesy of actually believing in him.
We wait. We trust. And we do the best we can.
The biggest problem with trying to be perfect is that we can’t be. So we give up. We don’t do anything. But that’s arrogant on the one hand and lazy on the other. It lets us off the hook when the challenge, and the achievable challenge, it to respond to what comes to us each day. We have to strive to be saints and we have to strive to be heroes and we can do that right now. By holding our temper. By saying, “I love you.” By laughing. By trying to be a little less focused on whatever we’re too focused on.
It’s what Pope Francis calls “the miracle of being a little bit better.”
We don’t have to move very far, and we can’t. We just have to move an inch.
Just an inch.