Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Repulsive Truth

From The Habit of Being, by Flannery O'Connor:

I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man Is Hard to Find brutal and sarcastic. These stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing larder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported on the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

(Quoted in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, pp. 267-68)

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally . . . there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.

(Elie, The Life You Save, p. 269)

Recently, when I came across these words by Flannery O'Connor, my mind turned spontaneously to the not only recent scandals in the Orthodox Church, but also my own failures and the trails I have undergone as an Orthodox priest.

We, alright, I, easily fall into a pattern of thinking about the Church and the Christian life that is sentimental and thus untrue. There is something about the Gospel that lends itself with surprising ease to being twisted into a sentimental fantasy. I say this not to implicate the Gospel, but simply to establish the human fact that we, that is to say, I, prefer warm feelings about Christ and the Gospel to the hard truth of Christ and the Gospel. As O'Connor says it so directly, because I am a sinner, and more often than not an unrepentant sinner, I at times find the Gospel hideous, disturbing and "downright repulsive." And in finding the Gospel like this I do implicate not Christ in wrongdoing, but myself.

The response that many of us make in this situation is to try and soften, sentimentalize, the Gospel. Think for example of how Christian iconography of angels as sword wielding warriors has been transformed into something all together different. Our cultural images of angels are no longer that of heavenly warriors, but of plump, toe-headed, apple checked children. Popular and precious though these new angels are, they are not the angels of the Old Testament or of classical Christian hymnography and iconography.

They are, in a word, sentimental.

While there is much to criticize in Luther's famous, or maybe infamous, characterization of the Christian as manure covered by snow, there is no denying the psychological fitness of his words. If I do not at times see myself as "manure covered by snow," or a rough beast "slouching toward Bethlehem to be born," I am just not paying attention.

The fact that there are scandals in the Church, while always unacceptable, ought never to be surprising. Whether we like it or not (and quite frequently our irritation suggests, we do not like it) the treasure of the Gospel has been entrusted to earthen vessels (as the Apostle Paul reminds us). The life of the Church, the life of the Christian, my life, is the work of God's grace transforming, sinful, and morally and emotionally frail humanity, evermore into the likeness of the Trice Holy God.

And while this work goes on around us and in us all the time, I easily can lose sight of it because I have chosen not to look at myself with the hard eyes of Christian realism.

Recounting her habit of reading the Summa Theologica by St Thomas Aquinas before bed, O'Connor writes that "if my mother were to come in during the process and say 'Turn off that light. It's late,' I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression would reply, 'On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turn off. Shut your eyes." (Elie, p. 268) Sentimentality, romanticism, these are the ways in which I close my eyes to the eternal and limitless divine light.

Refusing however to close my eyes to the light of the Gospel means that I cannot help but see the real imperfections and limitations that afflict not only Church leaders, but each human being, and (most uncomfortably of all), myself. As I said at the beginning of this essay, O'Connor's words cause me to think about the scandals in the Church and my own failures and trails as a priest. While not universal in its explanatory power, sentimentality seems to be a common theme throughout.

There are times when the Gospel and a life committed to following Christ will have the feeling of being brutal and sarcastic. It may be how I feel about myself or other people or my situation. Or, and just as likely, it may be how others perceive me. And yes, to follow Christ might very well mean I find myself in situations that I find "hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive." But how could it be otherwise? Christ is Divine Light in the darkness of human sinfulness.

Christ pours out His grace, and life, and love, and light, into lives that are marred darkness, indifference and decay. If it were otherwise, it would not be redemption that we received. And so we might ask ourselves as we encounter the sinfulness of others, and for that matter our own, of what use is a god who almost, but never quite, redeems us? Of what use is a church is almost, but not quite, filled sinners? Of what use is a believer who almost, but not quite, believes and is faithful to Christ in the face of his own and other people's sinfulness?

O'Conner has expressed well the real and only scandal in the Church: the Gospel. For all that in my better moments, the Gospel attracts me, in my weaker moments, this same Gospel is a repulsive truth. But it is precisely to me in my weaker moments that the Gospel call is spoken:

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Rm 8:6-11).

The real scandal in the Church is not that bishops and priests fail. We all of us fail.

Nor is it a scandal that we are surprised when they, and we, fail.

No the real scandal in the Church is the Gospel. The real scandal, a scandal we seem to work to keep at arm's length, is that Jesus Christ, has by His own death on the Cross has reconciled His enemies, His killers, to Himself and entrusted His Gospel to us who are only newly reconciled and only weakly established in grace.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory