February 23, 2020
Jesus says “be perfect as your Father is perfect,” and my heart sinks. I panic. Because I can’t do that. I’m incapable of doing that.
I could say the obvious and point out how terrible our public discourse is and how we’re all striking cheeks, not turning them: Republicans hate Democrats and Democrats hate Republicans, and Democrats hate Democrats, and Republicans hate Republicans, and we’re always saying so, outright and without any filter, in public, online–and it’s even worse in our hearts, interiorly, where we’re always judging and blaming and dismissing.
But that’s just the point. Whenever I get fixated on what’s wrong with the world, whenever I find myself obsessively reading The Washington Post and The New York Times, looking for something else to get upset about, it’s because I don’t want to face my own inner politician, my own personal hypocrisy.
The other day I saw someone texting and driving, and I swear if my car had had missiles, like in a James Bond movie, I would have blown her to kingdom come. We had some people over recently and when I wasn’t bored I was infuriated. They drove me crazy. I had to make up an excuse and leave the room, and I thought, why can’t I rise above this? Why can’t I feel compassion for these people? Why don’t I have any patience?
Because I don’t. Because I can’t. And this is the key. Because it’s only when we realize our own lack of love, it’s only when we accept our own limited capacities, that we can turn to God and ask for his grace to flow through us.
It’s only when we admit that we’re not perfect, when we acknowledge who we really are, that we feel our solidarity with all the other imperfect people in the world. We’re all in this together.
“In this is love,” the First Letter of John says,” not that we have loved God, but that he loved us.” And later: “We love because he first loved us”
And we have to keep this in mind when things are going well, too, when we get the compliment or the raise and we’re feeling good about ourselves, as if we’re pretty special, which in a way we are but in another way we’re not. “The sun rises on the bad and the good,” Jesus says, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust,” which is as good a rebuttal to the Gospel of Prosperity as I can think of, a rebuke to anyone who thinks the people who are suffering deserve to, that we’ve earned what we have by being so holy. True holiness never makes us feel set apart. True holiness begins in humility.
There’s this wonderful advice from the poet William Stafford, “when in doubt, lower your standards.” Just write. Do what you can and stop trying to win the Nobel Prize, and this is just as true in the spiritual life. “When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness,” Pope Francis says, “raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better.” This is wonderfully freeing, and it’s also very challenging. For one thing, I don’t have any excuses anymore. I have to get going. For another, to be holy doesn’t mean making grand and noble gestures that will get me a lot of attention. It means slogging along day-to-day.
The Pope talks, for example, about the holiness of our next-door neighbors, those he calls “the saints next door,” people quietly taking care of their families and doing their jobs as best they can. Trying not to gossip. Trying not to get mad. Being open to the stranger. Generous. Kind. Being the best parents they can be or the best programmers or the best salespeople. “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love,” the Pope says, “and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”
The other day when I brought my car in for an oil change, they found that I needed a new seal on the right front axle. But when I picked it up and drove it for a while, the brakes were soft and there was this humming, like I was driving on studded tires. So I brought it back, and they checked it out again, and they said, well, you need a new wheel bearing now, on the right side, and that’s going to cost you, hundreds of dollars.
I thought this was odd—I hadn’t had this problem before—but I don’t know much about cars and so I said, OK. Go ahead.
But here’s the thing. The woman who was helping me at the desk, who could have let this go—I was ready to pay, I wouldn’t have known—this woman went back to the mechanics and asked around and found out that it was their fault, that in replacing the seal they’d set the brakes wrong, and this had caused the problem with the bearing. Or something.
All I know is that this woman called me back, and said it was their fault, and said they wouldn’t charge me for the work.
I don’t know if this woman was a Christian. All I know is that she saved me a lot of money. All I know is that it was easy to love my neighbor as myself that day, because she first loved me. All I know is that this woman was a model of what it means to be a Christian in the world, of how we do the work of the Spirit by doing our jobs well and with integrity, of how being Christian isn’t just a matter of how we act in church but also of how we act when we leave it.
We need the Eucharist, it’s our life and our hope, but then we have to go out and be the Eucharist, in the world. The mass is never ended.
“The truth is devastatingly simple,” Sister Ruth Burrows says, and “we are tempted to shirk it”:
the stark, overwhelming reality is that God is giving himself to us in the stream of the ordinary, mundane events of our ordinary, mundane life. This is where he is for us, here and not elsewhere. Here, precisely here, must we hallow his name.
And later Burrows goes on to make an even more striking statement—that though we long to be “masters of our lives, in control, strong and beautiful,” though we long in effect to be God, the Gospel message is just the opposite. We must be human. We must be small. “Our poverty is blessed,” she says, “because it opens us to God and makes us realize our need for a Savior.”
This is the work. There is no other. And it’s heroic work, and it’s hard work, harder than any work we will ever do: to continually strive to be loving and compassionate, and to continually admit that we can’t be, and to continually be open to grace, to goodness, to the saving action of the Lord Our God.
For He is always present. He is always with us. All is grace. Everything.