Too often we are sentimental about our faith, about what it really means at its deepest level and the implications it should have for our engagement with the world. The problem with being overly sentimental is that it leads to being shallow. For instance, it is often nice and comforting to believe that Jesus Christ, by his dying on the Cross, took away our sins and the sins of the whole world. How wonderful, we sometimes think, that God will forgive me for the last time I got angry and said some regrettable things to the person at whom I was angry, or forgive the impure thought I entertained, etc. Yet, in the very next instant we might encounter something on the television news, or in the newspaper, about yet another horrible thing one person did to another, or several people, a murder, a rape, a drug addict punching and robbing an old woman on her way to Church, an off-duty police officer mercilessly beating a petite woman in a drunken rage, or another act of genocide by a stronger group of people against a weaker group, etc., etc. In other words, the kind of things that happen in the world which caused Malcolm Muggeridge to accurately observe that original sin is the most empirically verifiable fact in the world. After witnessing such depravities, we give lie to our faith, by condemning, not the merely the actions, which are deserving of condemnation and opposition, but the people who perpetrate them. One significant proof of this, in the U.S. anyway, is that two-thirds of people still support the death penalty. How does it give lie to our profession? It gives lie because a person's dignity as a human being created in the divine image is not forfeited by sin, even heinous sin. For this we should all thank God everyday.
Several years back on the Westminster Cathedral blog, Solomon, I Have Surpassed Thee, Monsignor Mark Langham, who was then administrator of the Cathedral and its resident blogger, wrote a post entitled, Praying the Gill Stations. The Gill Stations were created by a famous artist named Eric Gill. In a 1989 biography by Fiona McCarthey, it was learned that Gill, a much celebrated artistic genius and a devout believer all his life, an adult convert to the Catholic faith from the Church of England, was quite sexually depraved. "Since then," (the 1989 biography), writes Msgr. Langham, "we have had to come to terms with the fact that our greatest Cathedral artwork is the product of a man who was in many ways detestable. There were many calls for the Stations to be removed." Thankfully, "the redemptive quality of art" prevailed. Msgr. Langham continues: "As so often in the Church's history, works of great beauty and inspiration have come from those who seem less than worthy of their talents. God uses vessels of clay to perform his great works, and sometimes it is shocking to us how weak those vessels are - yet his grace shines through, and even mediated by sinful hands, allows others to experience his presence."
Given his faith, his depravity, and much of his art, certainly including the Stations of the Cross, it seems that Eric Gill knew he was a man in need of redemption. A story related by Langham indicates this much: "As [the Stations] were being installed in the Cathedral, a woman came up to Gill to say that she did not think they were very nice carvings, to which he snapped back that it was not a very nice subject!" Without romanticizing evil, or the deep harm it causes others, such stories help us overcome our tendency to domesticate and sentimentalize the deep love of God, especially during Passiontide, the time each year when we see God's love in the sacrificial suffering and emptying out of his Son for our sakes, even for the sake of the worst sinners. May this lead us to a deeper compassion- a deeper suffering with- others, both those whose sufferings are caused by others and who, in turn, often cause suffering, perpetuating the cycle that brings about the need for a Savior in the first place, as well as for those who cause suffering in the first instance. These are the dysfunctions of Adam's race, explained in a somewhat disconcerting way in the great Easter exultet: "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Are these sentimental words? In light of the faults of the world and of each of us, hardly!
grant us your forgiveness,
and set us free from our enslavement to sin.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Photos by Msgr. Mark Langham for Solomon, I Have Surpassed Thee, formerly the weblog of Westminster Cathedral, London)