Repentance is difficult when we confront a sinful lifestyle or attitude we have been rooted in for a number of years. The difficulty with persisting in error is we begin to be wrapped up in our own accomplishments and understand our identity in the decisions we have made for our families, our Church, and our world. But what happens when we confront the voice of Christ who tells us that for much of our life what we have offered was nothing more than a weed rather than wheat? Imagine a priest who spent his time with a pastoral aspiration to bring others back to the faith and yet is confronted with a declining faith in a culture that has been inundated with his own philosophy. Imagine a child saying to their parents, “You didn’t raise me well, you made many mistakes, and I will never raise my children like you did.”
The hurt and bitterness that might overcome such a person would likely be the result of error fortified (if error is in fact there). No one would like to think that the vast majority of their life was a complete waste. Of course, with grace, that whole life of error and sin can be transformed into a testimony of the power of God in a repentant soul! The bigger the sinner, the more glory that goes towards God in his forgiveness being authentically received. Yet, so few have the habit of welcoming the humiliation of coming to terms with having “done it all wrong”. If we were to be constantly open to correction from our Lord, the signs of the times, the Gospel and the Church, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to try to save face by defending“my own ideas and ways.” Rather, we would have a heart that is obsessed with God’s ways, and although they are often shrouded in mystery, that hunger for knowing them and abiding in His ways would be sufficient to free the soul to follow Him and to reform our ways when the path is made clear to us.
I am thinking of the passage from scripture where Jesus speaks to Nicodemus. He comes to Christ at night, representing his own spiritual blindness. Yet he is right in approaching Light itself in the midst of his blindness. The question we might ask ourselves, nonetheless is: does Nicodemus realize he is blind? There are two types of spiritual blindness: first, there is the type that is proud and fortified, a double blindness, an utter corruption within man, where he is entirely unaware that he is blind: he thinks he knows everything; second, there is the man who has enough spiritual light to realize he has none at all. Such a man is searching, recognizing that he is lost, and in need of saving. Such a man is both ignorant and humble.
Christ came to save, not the doubly blind, but the lost, not the “righteous” but the unrighteous. Christ hopes to provoke those who are doubly blind into the realization that they “hear while not understanding.” He wants them to come to terms with the fact that spiritual matters are entirely foreign to them because they have yet to be “born from above.” So often I have received attempts to clarify my point here, but nothing I could say could ever shine light on that darkness. I must leave them in their confusion so they might come to terms with a curiosity that leads them to admit, “I don’t know what truth I can’t comprehend here.” There has not yet been a spiritual awakening within the soul to spiritual realities, and there is little that can be said to unhinge them from that pride or double-ignorance.
Nicodemus must have approached Christ because he recognized on some level that he was in the darkness of ignorance. Yet despite that darkness he still misses the meaning in Christ’s own words and takes them literally, thinking it to be impossible to enter a mother’s womb a second time. How often does the meaning of scripture fail to be heard by those whose spirit is in the dark. It could be the result of a spiritual amnesia (caused by sin/failure to find recollection), or it could be the result of never truly having had an experience of Christ. They understand spiritual statements in an earthly application – they become literalists, not of historical facts, but in the sense that they can only grasp the façade of the faith and not the depth found in such facts or in the symbol of faith.
Imagine for a moment that you were a priest or a nun or a practicing lay-person, and yet this spiritual blindness existed within you. Perhaps you had built yourself up or had been flattered in all your accomplishments throughout the years. Perhaps you worked very hard. To be told that you were spirituality blind would cripple and deflate you. Being told this would likely evoke a defensive spirit, one which would immediately refute the accusation/judgment. Whereas, laughably, the saints would state: “Show me my blindness that it might be cured.” For, to some degree, we are all in the dark. This isn’t offensive to discover, because it is a gift. But for those, like the Pharisees who wrapped up their identity in righteousness, they could not ever dare to realize that their many efforts were in vain. Their righteousness only appealed to the liberal or conservative sensibilities of the crowd they sought acceptance. But it was all in vain. They served themselves when preaching tolerance or justice, mercy or wrath. They preached truth, but out of arrogance. They preached error, because they convinced themselves it was a path to their own happiness (concupiscence, in reality).
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You are a teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.” (John 3: 10-11). Wow! Imagine being a leader and a teacher of a Church and to be told you know nothing of God! But I suppose the question might arise in our own hearts, “Am I more concerned with defending my own wisdom and faith, how I’m perceived by myself and others, or am I more eager to discover where growth is needed?”
This question really comes down to: “Am I humble enough to admit I need conversion, that I need radical reform and change?”
Often times when we convey this type of “change” or “conversion” in the New Evangelization what comes about is not the inner-change of the various Nicodemus-like people, be they priests, religious, or lay-leaders. Rather what comes about is a change in “structures,” “programs,” new means of communicating the gospel. We might reorganize the administration of parishes to deal with the decline in vocations and attendance; we might involve the laity in administrative roles. We might introduce new committees where we can discuss these changes. And as essential and necessary as all of these things are, they are entirely nothing without the central focus being on interior conversion – a Church willing to admit it has been doing things wrongly. They amount to turning a rock into bread, and to live by bread alone! Rather, we need a much more profound transformation, one that doesn’t involve worldly structures and strategies (as important as they are), but first we need to deal with the inner-man, who hungers for the bread of obedience, the Bread from heaven.
Is this a fair criticism? Absolutely; every generation isn’t perfect, but the one that never concretely admits of its particular errors is one who acts as if she were perfect. She may say, “I’m not perfect” but only in admitting this general truth, she never admits of the concrete realities that need to be confessed. She acts humble and pounds her chest in the socially acceptable way, but does not do it in spirit. She is the unrepentant town that does not place ash over her head and put on sackcloth, because such practices are archaic, uncomfortable and humiliating. Her apology is never directed towards God, and when she does apologize it is a PR-stunt. God is still pushed to the side of His Church and continues to allow it to reap wild-grapes.
Every generation will have a collection of sinners, and every generation will therefore need to repent – especially the one that cries out for repentance! But woe to the generation that places itself above this call, such a one has no humility.
To date, in this Lenten season, might I suggest that we all ask God for forgiveness for the way things are in the Church today and in the past. We should begin by asking God for forgiveness for the sins of others, and end with our own particular sins. We should not mourn that church buildings are closing down, but that the people who should be filling them are not present. That is, we should mourn sin before anything else. Let us mourn unfaithfulness and not the façade of the faithful. Let us mourn happy-talk that avoids the negative feelings of dealing with a crisis of faith that would otherwise force us to look inward! Let us plunge into this year of mercy, begging the saviour, without presumption or despair, for forgiveness for the sexual abuse crisis. Let us beg for forgiveness for camp-fire like liturgies that convey the Eucharist is mere bread, and not the very moment of Jesus’ passion for the whole world! Let us apologize to God for placing the liberation of people’s material goods ahead of liberation of the soul from sin! Let us apologize for not being obedient to the rubrics and the legitimate authorities reigning over us (secular and ecclesial) where sin is not ordered. Let us apologize for our double-blindness that even now we still struggle to admit.
If we do this, God will bless the Church so abundantly that the structures will flourish, even if they aren’t perfect. The programs will draw more and more people in; not because they are programs, but because those who deliver them love the Lord in humility and not a Christ of their own making.