by Fr. Jack McArdle
A source of some of our problems is a failure to make a clear distinction between God and ourselves. God made us in his image, but we run the risk of returning the compliment, and making God in our image! It would be a disaster to confuse the Creator with the creature. A sister of mine bought a new computer some time ago, and, by the nature of things, she is quite dependent on it, and makes good and constant use of it. Unfortunately, her computer is proving to be a 'lemon'. It seems to be 'crashing' on a regular basis. Immediately this happens, she is on the phone to the suppliers. There is no way she would attempt to open it up, check out the cards or the mother board, or use cello tape or superglue! When you and I are in need of renewal, we must always return to the Creator, who alone can do for us what we never could do for ourselves.
It is important to make a few clear distinctions early on here. When I speak of us being damaged, I speak of sin. However, when I speak of sin, I am not thinking of anything we do. Sin is something that was committed against us. We are the victims of sin, Original Sin. Because of this we are fundamentally damaged, with a hole in the ozone layer of our souls that only the Creator can recreate. "Behold I make all things new". This is not a question of cello tape or superglue. The result of this damage is that we are left with some sort of basic rebelliousness, and, no matter how much God loves us; no matter how often we are reminded of that, or no matter in how many and varied ways God expresses his love for us, there is a tendency in us to do things our way. If I hold a bunch of keys in my hand, hold out my hand, and open it, I can be sure that the keys will fall to the ground. There is a force of gravity at work, and it is the stuff of magicians to give the illusion that the keys are suspended in the air, and even begin to rise higher!
"I did it my way", "Going my way" are more than just the titles of a movie or a song. Original sin is no longer original. In our different ways we have inherited the pride and stubbornness of Adam and Eve, and it can go against the grain to obey. It really does come down to a question of obedience. Jesus was clear and constant in describing his own mission as 'doing the will of Him who sent me'. "If you love me, you will obey me" he tells us. Original sin was caused by a refusal to obey, and obedience is the only antidote or antibiotic for such a sin. The problem really arises out of the fact that we know what to do. God's law is written in our hearts. No matter how much some people try to hide it, or deny it, each of us has a conscience. One look at a child of three, and you know he's been 'up to something'!
A stone cannot change its substance and become a flower. Similarly, we cannot lift ourselves out of the quicksand of our own selfishness. We are in a human condition, subject to the law of gravity, which will prevent us, of our own accord, from rising above that condition. We are 'infected' with the three evils of sin, sickness, and death, none of which was part of God's original creation. These are the weeds in the field of good wheat that Jesus speaks about, and it was not the farmer or his workforce who sowed them.
A man went to his doctor one time, and he was really worried. He told the doctor that every part of his body that he touched was really sore. The doctor gave him a thorough examination, and an e-ray. He returned the following day for the results, and was dreading the news he might receive. He asked the doctor if he had found out what was wrong with him, and the doctor said he had. When he asked what it was, the doctor told him "Your finger's broken"! Once the man discovered what was wrong with him, he realised that the rest of him was ok!
It's very important for us to know, and to understand 'what's wrong with us'. This is not any kind of put-down or guilt trip. It's simply a question of knowing the truth, and accepting that truth. "The truth will set you free". One of my earliest memories of growing up was watching my mother make bread. Practice had brought it to a fine art, and she never had to measure anything. I was one of a large family, so the bowl she used was the largest she had. In went the flour, the baking soda, the baking powder, and the buttermilk. What excited me most was when she got to the raisins. She was generous with these, and, after the stirring was over, the dough was turned out on a large timber block. Her hands worked vigorously, as she kneaded that dough into a soft pliable ball. Out came the rolling pin, and the dough was then levelled out flat, about an inch or two in depth. She then took a large tumbler, turned it upside down, and, dipping it in dry flour, she proceeded to make scones.
Let us stop the process here for a moment. If that ball of dough represented human nature, it should have a health warning on it! The raisins represent the weaknesses that are inherent in our nature; they are part of what we are. Then each of the scones represents each one of us, each of us with our own unique collection of weaknesses. No two scones possess the same raisins, nor would the number in each be the same. Identical twins could have completely different human weaknesses. One could become a chronic alcoholic, while the other could still have his Confirmation pledge, and, who knows, but he may still have his First Communion money!
Let us take the example of alcohol. A man could take his first drink on his seventieth birthday, and be hospitalised for severe alcoholism on his seventy-first. The chemistry or metabolism of his body is such that alcohol becomes an allergy that breaks down the whole fibre of his being. Alcoholism is a physical allergy, and a mental addiction. His brother could get sick at the very smell of alcohol. The point I am trying to make here is that we all have our own unique personal collection of weaknesses, and none of us can throw a stone at another. "There, but for the Grace of God, go I". Being convinced of my human condition is essential for salvation. Not much point in speaking about a Saviour to those who do not accept that they need one! There are two things that can help clarify this for us. The first is that the gospels are NOW; they are not a history of something that happened in the past.
The second point is that I am every person in the gospel. I have my own blindness, my own dumbness, and my own demons. There are many forms of blindness and many kinds of demons. Physical blindness is very obvious to the blind person, and to those around. The other forms of blindness are much more difficult to detect, and, indeed, the person effected is probably the last one to be aware of it. One of the problems with alcoholism, for example, is that it is the only sickness known to medicine that, by its nature, denies its own existence. In other words, the alcoholic himself is the last person to become aware of his problem. The secret is to be able and willing to name, claim, and tame my demons. To throw the doors and windows of my heart wide open, and invite the Spirit to enter and reveal the truth to me. "He will convict you of sin", says Jesus.
It is difficult, if not impossible for us to comprehend just how weak our human condition is. My weaknesses are part of who I am, and I could cut off a leg sooner than remove a weakness. Even if I did sever a leg, my weaknesses are still there, because they are more part of me than my leg. St. Paul had a good grasp of his condition, and it is worth listening to him at some length to help us understand. "We know that the law is spiritual, but I am full of human weaknesses, sold as a slave to sin. I cannot explain what is happening to me, because I do not do what I want, but, on the contrary, the very things I hate. Well then, if I do the evil I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good; but in this case, I am not the one striving towards evil, but it is sin, living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, I mean, in my flesh. I can want to do what is right, but I cannot do it. In fact I do not do the good I want, but the evil I hate. Therefore, if I do the evil I do not want to do, I am not the one striving towards evil, but sin which is within me. I discover then this reality: though I wish to do something good, the evil within me asserts itself first. My inmost self agrees and rejoices with the law of God, but I notice in my body another law challenging the law of the spirit, and delivering me as a slave to the law of sin written in my members. Alas for me! Who will free me from this condition linked to death?"(Rom. 7: 14-24). Paul then goes on to thank Jesus for changing everything for him. Paul captures very well that basic rebelliousness that is within all of us.
People caught in addictions to drugs, or sexual perversions are only too well aware of just how impossible it is for us to fight and conquer our human weaknesses. "Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change". When it comes to dealing with our human condition, the first thing we have to do is stop playing God. God becomes God in my life the moment I get out of the way, and let him take over. The secret of gaining human freedom is through surrender. Pure Religion won't do it. Religion is what we do, it has to do with rules and regulations, it is external, and it is about control. Spirituality, on the other hand, is internal, it is about what God does in us, and it is about surrender.
If a Religious person is typified by the Pharisees, then a Religious person is perfect, and has no need of God to do anything for him. The Pharisee in the Temple stood up, and told God all the great and good things he was doing, and, instead of saying "Praise the Lord", he might have said "Praise me, Lord". In the meantime, there is another man, a Publican, a person of much lower rank in the social and religious scale, and he knelt at the back of the Temple, lowered his head, and whispered "Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner". "That man", said Jesus, "is the one who went home justified". One simple understanding and definition of holiness is to become convinced that I am a greater sinner than I ever thought I was. The virtue in this is, that, once that happens, I drop that stone from my fist, I stop looking down on others, and I leave all judgements to God. Have you ever noticed that, in the Mass, we use the word 'I' three times in all….."I confess……that I have sinned…Lord, I am not worthy." All the rest is plural, but, when it comes to sin, you speak for yourself, and leave the rest of us alone!
There are two conditions for getting to heaven: first, to be a sinner, and second, to admit that fact! The blind, the lame, and the lepers didn't pretend to be anything other than what they were, and Jesus could work miracles for them. We cannot fail to be struck by the fact that, after all Jesus said about becoming like little children, he should discover that his apostles were arguing about which of them was the greatest. Indeed, his apostles had their weaknesses, and Jesus accepted them as they were. All he asked was that they be prepared to admit to those weaknesses, and not allow them destroy love, or damage relationships. "Peter, do you love me more than these?", which could be paraphrased as "Peter, do you still think that you are better than any of these?". Jesus was betrayed, denied, and deserted by his apostles, but Judas was the only one who considered himself as being beyond redemption, and outside the pale of Jesus' love and acceptance. Jesus would never want Judas to die by suicide, but, because of free-will, he couldn't stop him.
One final word. My weaknesses play a very important role in my spiritual growth. If God offered me perfection right now, I would turn it down completely. There is nobody perfect but God, and, without my weaknesses, and the struggles they present to me, I would be deprived of compassion, empathy, and all kinds of human understanding of other people. Without my weaknesses there would be no need, or no evidence of God's power working in me. The Pharisees were convinced that God needed them more than they needed him. St. Paul, having spoken of some wonderful spiritual experiences he had, goes on to tell us "Lest I become proud after so many and extraordinary revelations, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a true messenger of Satan, to slap me in the face. Three times I prayed to the Lord that it leave me, but he answered 'My grace is enough for you; my great strength is revealed in weakness.' Gladly, then, will I boast of my weakness, that the strength of Christ may be mine. For when I am weak, then I am strong".
The miracle of salvation is how God can 'turn all things into good'. I can be a much more compassionate person today because of my failures, and the only value the past has are the lessons it taught me. If my weaknesses convince me that I need a Saviour, then they are a direct source of goodness, and a forceful influence in my salvation. Referring back to the dough in my mother's baking, Jesus took on ALL of the raisins, and he showed that the power of the Spirit within was much more powerful than all of the weaknesses put together. He then gives us the Spirit that was within him, plus the scone with whatever weaknesses each one of us has. He just asks us to believe that his Spirit is more than enough to overcome whatever weaknesses we have. St. John says "Little children, there is a Spirit within you that will overcome any evil spirit you meet on the road of life."
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