His frank eyes caught mine again, after the absolution. “You’re not an angel,” he said, smiling with immeasurable gentleness. “Neither is anyone around you. You mustn’t expect that of yourself, or of them – it wouldn’t be fair. You’re looking for paradise on earth, but you aren’t there yet.” He paused, gazing at me. I was utterly exposed, and almost couldn’t bear the steady transparency of his look; yet looking away proved to be impossible. He saw right through me. “Who you are is who God loves, and everything is grace,” he finally added. He smiled at me once again, and I smiled back at him. My heart was stinging and singing like it always does when someone speaks truth into my weaknesses. “Thank you, Father,” I said, and then ambled out the doors of the dim church and onto the sun-filled campus of the university I attended.
I don’t remember the priest’s name, nor do I even remember his face, aside from his unwavering eyes; it happened nearly four years ago. What I do remember is the way his merciful bluntness brought me “back down to earth”. He saw beyond my carefully confected exterior of untouchability and poise, and he put his finger right into that illusion and stirred it around. His words awoke me to the fact that God works with real people, in real circumstances, within the real context of our daily lives. I had always known God to be poetic; but that dear priest shook my head out of the clouds that day and reminded me that God is also the consummate realist.
The illusion of having everything under control – spiritually or otherwise – is a ruse under which every thinking and breathing man and woman on this side of heaven operates at some time or another. Simply put, this is because the Incarnation continues to scandalize us, just like it scandalized the people of Jesus’ time. The idea of needing God, followed by the idea of God entering into the concrete details of our human experience, is, at the very least, a shock to the system. “If God is conceived as a personal Being, as a Someone rather than a Something, and as a Someone who can speak,” wrote Josef Pieper, “then there is no safety from revelation.” Revelation – much like I experienced in the confessional that day years ago – is terrifying to us, because it implies a lack of control, a surrender, a nakedness – and it requires accepting ourselves as we are, no more and no less. Most important of all, it demands an openness to the unconditional love of God.
The Incarnation – that perfect Revelation of the inner life of the Logos – broke all of the tidy molds men had made of a distant God who they could study and define from a comfortable distance. The Person of Christ defies our laborious, mercenary piety and shows the world that God responds not to merit, but to need.
But accepting our need is hard to do. It’s easier to escape into the realm of how we’d prefer things to be – ourselves included – then it is to willingly embrace the reality of things as they actually are. The tremendous advances our society has made in the area of communication have paradoxically served to exacerbate the age-old human tendency to “put on appearances”, to disconnect from the seemingly unremarkable, unlovable reality of who we are in order to grapple fecklessly after some increasingly inchoate ideal that doesn’t require too much risk on our part. Now we are freer than ever to display ourselves in the way we wish, to the people we wish, without any of the messy immediacy that comes along with genuine human interaction. There’s a lot of displaying going on, but very little true revelation. True revelation requires vulnerability, and vulnerability requires humility; and humility means being grounded in the knowledge of who you are (and who you are not).
The current zeitgeist of facades and false connectedness has deeply affected our collective sense of spirituality and religion. Putting “spiritual spins” on our interactions with others (whilst carefully holding them at arm’s length) makes us look good, which makes us feel good. Sending out face-melting group text quotations from St. Faustina on embracing the will of God might just fool people (yourself included) into thinking that you’re not the impatient, affirmation-hungry, God-hounded soul that you actually are. It’s easier to read an inspiring quote on patience and surrender, than it is to bite your tongue and give thanks to God when your intelligence has been insulted or your life-agenda suddenly starts unraveling. It’s more attractive to say you’ll pray for someone at the close of a conversation than it is to actually kneel down and do it when nobody’s watching or aware. It’s tidier and more romantic – and certainly safer – to write letters to your future spouse about your unwavering commitment to chastity (and then to post them online) than it is to actually love, and be loved by, a flesh-and-blood human being whose brain, drives, body and soul are much different than your own, and who presents another universe that is surely much more beautiful and painful than your previous hopes and dreams and lists could have imagined. It’s cooler to quip, “I’m an INFP who identifies with the Franciscan rubrics of prayer, with some Dominican flavor thrown in” (whatever the hell that means) than it is to constantly face and embrace the arduous task of becoming who God created you to be, with its continual dynamism and constant invitation to rise above mediocrity and self-satisfaction.
Even when it comes to sharing our sufferings with trusted friends – perhaps especially so – we find ourselves defaulting to ambiguous phrases like, “God’s just really stretching me right now”; “I’m good”; “So blessed”; “The Lord is just showing me all sorts of stuff, you know?” rather than being frank and upfront about the fact that we’re at odds with a loved one, or we’re struggling majorly with forgiveness, or we’re not making ends meet financially, or we’re wrestling with mental anguish or physical pain.
We want control, precision, and cute packaging, to boot. God-forbid that anyone should know that we actually need Him; and God-forbid that we should actually find Him in the embrace of a friend, or in the naked solitude of prayer. We like the idea of God, and the idea of love, and the idea of prayer, but the reality of these things demands a willingness to be revealed for who and what we are, and most of us find that thought a bit daunting. Even more alarming than the idea of self-revelation is the idea of God-revelation, because we know that God has revealed himself most fully to us in cruciform.
God addresses us as we actually are: not as we prefer to present ourselves. He speaks into our heart, not to our facade. And if we genuinely desire to live according to God’s invitation, we need to be ready to be seen and embraced on that kind of level, as well as to embrace others in that same unflinchingly honest and realistic manner. Only when we unfurl our fingers from around our contrived personalities and spiritualities will God really get a hold of us, and we will become involved with Him “in spite of ourselves”, right in the middle of our fierce struggle against accepting ourselves as we are, good and bad.
It is crucial that we accept our own weaknesses – that we accept the fact that we are not angels, but rather fragile, dusty frames beloved by an Immediate God who reveals Himself to us in the miraculous and the mundane. Acceptance of our weakness (and our lovableness!) opens us up to accept the action of God’s grace in our lives.
We need to say Yes to who we are and to who God places in our lives. This is because, as Jacques Philippe says, “God is ‘realistic.’ His grace does not operate on our imaginings, ideals, or dreams. It works on reality, the specific, concrete elements of our lives. Even if the fabric of our everyday lives doesn’t look very glorious to us, only there can we be touched by God’s grace. The person God loves with the tenderness of a Father, the person he wants to touch and transform with his love, is not the person we’d have liked to be or ought to be. It’s the person we are. God doesn’t love ‘ideal persons’ or ‘virtual beings’. He loves actual, real people. He is not interested in saintly figures in stained glass windows, but in us sinners. A great deal of time can be wasted in the spiritual life complaining that we are not like this or not like that, lamenting this defect or that limitation, imagining all the good we could do if, instead of being the way we are, we were less defective, more gifted with this or that quality or virtue, and so on. Here is a waste of time and energy that merely impedes the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.”
Be patient with yourself. Who you are is who God loves. The reality he entered into is the one you’re in.