Come, come, whoever you are
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
It doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come
In his recent reflection on St. Augustine, who he calls the "poster-boy for bad behavior," Father Timothy Heines reminds Christians that seeking perfection can be a fatal form of pride.
Today is a good day to reflect on the notion of grace. We are a people who are graceless which means that we can neither act with humility nor with gratitude. We are born on third base, living in a time and place unrivaled in the history of the world, and yet we think we are masters of our own fate and that we have accomplished so many things. Augustine reminds us always that everything we have comes from God and that our lives are completely contingent on his will and his love. Even devout Christians can forget this and can beat themselves up seeking a form of perfection which is more about their own arrogance and pride than it is about the truth. We are broken and we are sinners. But God's grace is transformative and powerful and we should rejoice in it with gratitude and praise!
This past week, I stumbled across, in an external backup hard drive, a twelve year-old "log" of an instant messenger "conversation" between me and a former friend. The content of it isn't as critical as the fact that it completely refuted an internal narrative that I had subsequently created of the relationship between my former friend and myself at that time. Due to what I can only assume was my self-love and pride, I had created "memories" of false attitudes of both myself and my friend that were absolutely refuted by our contemporaneous conversation.
As we say in the practice of law, "The facts can be a bitch."
I did what I thought was proper, which was to pass along my discovery to my former friend, admit that I was completely wrong, and apologize. There's really nothing more that I can do at this point. As much as my former friend may wish me to do so, I have yet figured out how to do that thing to myself that is physically impossible and, then, also do it to the horse upon which in I rode.
While I am still attempting to digest the lessons of this discovery, one of them is, I hope, the desire for actual humility. Not the false humility that I have occasionally displayed, but a basic acceptance of my own limitations. In turn, I hope that this acceptance leads me to accept the limitations of others. A person can be dead-set certain that he or she is correct and yet can be absolutely wrong, not merely as to another person's thoughts and motivations, but as to his or her own. Obviously, some of us bend our recollections to fit a desired outcome, which is nothing new for most people, but for someone like me, who is second only to the Pope in his infallibility, it is a humbling experience.
Accepting the limitations of yourself and others means, as Fr. Heines asserts, that you forgive yourself and others for those limitations. I do not think that means that you stop trying to overcome them, or that you do not call out yourself and others you love for bad actions. However, it does mean that you accept the fact that perfection is impossible, and that holding yourself and others to a standard that only God embodies evidences a sinful sense of pride. As Father Heines notes, we all need God's grace.
I think that a corollary is that none of us are too bad for redemption. The thought that you're too much of a bad-ass for God also evidences pride. As St. Augustine also observed, "There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future." The next moment, hour, and day always holds hope as long as you surrender your pride and learn to love, humbly and with gratitude.
Another consequence of this recent experience is a reexamination of my attitudes toward forgiveness. Obviously, forgiveness is a basic tenet of the Christian faith. It was recently so well displayed by the family members of the congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who were gunned down by a white racist mass murderer during Bible study. Reporters on cable news channels looked positively shocked and amazed to hear those family members publicly forgive the alleged killer to his face. The reporters were shocked and amazed because too many people like me talk the talk but don't walk the walk. I too often have no forgiveness in my heart for those who I think have transgressed against me. As experience has taught me, they may not have, in fact, "transgressed" at all, and even if they did, forgiveness is not an option, it is absolutely required.
I understand that, as with most of life, these principles are fraught with nuance when it comes to applying them to specific circumstances. Nevertheless, when you don't even have the basic principles in mind, you haven't got a "prayer" of acting rightly in any given situation.
One more thing. When Christ tells Peter that he must forgive his brother who has wronged him not just seven times, but seventy times seven times, I understand how revolutionary that idea was then as it continues to be today. Not as revolutionary as a man having only one wife, for life, but darn near! I also understand how difficult repeatedly forgiving another can be. It is contrary to every natural inclination that I possess. Which, I think, speaks forcefully in its favor.
As easy as it is to have these moments of clarity, and to realize what it is that I must do, we'll see how I do when it comes to practicing what I preach. One thing is certain: I won't be pridefully seeking any impossible standard of perfection.