Friday, August 31, 2007

Faith seeking understanding, or turning failure into success

It was a cloudy morning here along the Wasatch Front. The week before this week it seemed that fall was lurking. There is something about the slight northward drift of the sun in late summer that causes colors to change to brighter, crisper hues, a contrast to the kind of washed up and worn out colors of July and August, and morning begins to linger a bit. Then, this week, at least until today, it seemed summer again, with temperatures rising back up to and remaining in the 90s. It is my prayer that we receive some much needed rain today and over the holiday weekend.

I love the change of seasons. My two favorite times of the year are late spring and early fall. Of these two, I like early fall best. It really does remind me that to live is to change, no matter how much I resist. Our faith certainly changes as we move through the seasons of our lives. Like all change, these changes can be for the better or for the worse. I awoke this morning thinking of and praying for people who seem to be struggling both in life and with their faith. It dawned on me that most Christians, having had the need to be perfect, or to at least the need to appear to be perfect, both to others and to ourselves, taught to us from a very young age, often push God away when we are struggling and/or hurting. We seem to think that we have to get over this before we can return to God's good graces. This is not a Christian mode of living. It is no way to live; it is no way to love, or to allow ourselves to be loved.

God, to paraphrase St. Augustine, is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God is present to us always. I freely admit that discerning the divine presence in our lives usually requires us to look for it, to probe more deeply, to learn how God works, which is usually in quiet whispers and through other people. Very often we react to what happens to us; especially we are disturbed by sudden, unexpected disappointments. After our reaction, instead of owning it, we expend a lot of effort in seeking to justify, mostly to ourselves, that our course of action is what God would have us do, or, perhaps more often, by insisting, not without some justification, that we were incapable of any other response. In extreme cases our reactions can do a lot of damage to our relationships and, hence, to our ability to relate to others.

Solitude, by Marc Chagall

We must root ourselves in God by frequent reception of the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation when needed, which, if we are honest, is probably more regularly than we now seek it. Prayer and scripture study, along with seeking counsel from wise people are also components of rooting our lives in God. Often the answers to our many queries are clear enough; it is just that we often do not like the answers. So, we go our own way, into great peril. However, even in such cases God does not abandon us. On the other hand, it is precisely because God loves us that we are not spared the pain and anguish of life.

Brain researchers have discovered that, paradoxically, or at least counter-intuitively (I have probably been trying to get too much mileage out of the word paradox lately), failure leads to success. Failure, which forces us to figure out what went wrong and to consider different courses of action, different responses, is a very good way for the brain to map new information. The ancient practice of examen, or, as I like to call it, praying backward through the day, the week, the month, the specific encounter, exists for this very reason. The sacrament of penance allows us to acknowledge our failures and shortcomings, receive forgiveness and the grace, which is our strength, to be better. After all in our Act of Contrition we say to God: "I firmly intend, with your help, to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin." Still, failure can be crushing and it is always disappointing. In God's eyes we may fail, but we are never failures. In life we never really fail until we give up, which is to lose hope, which is to fall into despair.

St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8,28). A better translation from the Greek is that all things "intermingle" for the good of those who love God. Note the qualification "for those who love God". This is not because God plays favorites in the mode of You love me. So, I will make sunshine out of rain for you. But for those who do not love me, watch out! What a petty, tin-pot, dime store God that would be!

Those who love God learn to look beyond the darkness of the present moment. Those who love God learn to find God in all people and in all events. Those who love God live in the hope, in the belief, which eventually becomes the knowledge, that God is never absent, even in the midst of great evil. Those who love God are humble enough to acknowledge their failures, to turn to God and to repent, which, in its original Greek is μετανοῖα (metanoia). Metanoia literally means a change of mind, or, even more precisely, a change of perception. It is useful to explore the Greek a bit more, with acknowledgement up-front that I am no scholar of koine Greek. μετανοῖα is a compound word consisting of the preposition, which transliterates into meta, meaning after, beyond, with, and the verb νοέω, which means to perceive, to think, or what results from perception and observation. In the context of our Christian faith, this change of mind/change of perception results in conversion. Conversion means to change from one state to another. In the English versions of the New Testament, μετανοῖα is normally translated as repent.

A look at The Gospel According to St. Mark is instructive:

"This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."

καὶ λέγων ὅτι πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ: μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.

(Mk. 1,15)

Seeing how all things intermingle for the good of those who love God results from two things: God's love for us ("In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins" 1 Jn 4,10) and from our love for God. This perception, which leads to a dramatic change in the way we perceive the world, our lives in this world, and other people, allows us to grow and to change. One sure way to get off on the wrong track with this insight is to merely believe that seeing the world through the eyes of faith is a mental trick, at the root of which is a refusal to grasp or deal with reality.

Let's face it, even for a Christian, life sucks at times. We are not required to give a phony smile and insist to others, to God, or to ourselves, that everything is great. Avoid this dangerous, dysfunctional trap! Our faith, this change in our perception that converts us, results in our seeing things as they really are and our grappling with reality in the confidence of knowing God loves us and that we love God. Our change in perception results from the shift in our perspective. This shift occurs when we acknowledge, not only the transitory nature of this life, but also our eternal destiny, which is the cause of our longing. Our longing, in turn, is the cause of our sense of incompleteness. It is to perceive things from this perspective that allows us to be the ones who point others toward the light of the world, Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be an apostolic Church. Nonetheless, this is no guarantee that we will not make a mess of things, or act in ways that are sinful, or even to fail to act at times. This brings us back to failure leads to success.

St. Paul draws these strands together beautifully a bit further on in his letter to the Christian community of Rome:

"Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. For by the grace given to me I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think, but to think soberly, each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned. For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another" (Rom. 12,2-5)- emboldening and underlining mine

On this Friday, a day of abstinence and penance, our little Good Friday, which is followed by our little Easter, Sunday, let us each take some time and reflect on our lives before God and seek God especially in those parts of our lives and in those relationships from which He seems most absent. Then, let us reflect on how we might make God more present to these people and situations. Let us also ask ourselves two questions:

Is there someone I need to forgive?
Is there someone from whom I need to humbly seek forgiveness?
In light of those people for whom I awoke praying this morning, I urge married couples to ask these questions to themselves with their spouse in mind.

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