12 February 2012
Today’s Mass opens with a great cry asking God to wake up. The prayer is one of a people that feels forgotten, of a people that fears being rejected. God seems to be asleep, or far away, or on holiday , or occupied with other things. “Why turnest Thou Thy face away, and forgettest our trouble?” When God looks away, dreadful things happen: we fall low, so very low that our belly cleaves to the earth.
The psalmist is expressing what he, from his perspective, feels. He is doing what we so often do in our relationship with others. We blame the other person for the very thing that we ourselves are doing. It is not, in fact, God who needs the wake-up call. We do. It is not God who has forgotten us but, rather, we who have forgotten God. It is not God who has turned His face away from us, but we who have turned our faces away from Him. It is not God who would cast us off, but we who would throw off the yoke that binds us to Him.
It is perfectly right that we should express ourselves honestly to God in prayer, even if this means asking questions, railing against Him, and bemoaning the disgust we may, at times, feel against ourselves, against others, and against life in general. The entire Psalter teaches us to do this. At the same time, the very act of praying honestly, of “getting it all out” in the presence of God, softens our hearts, changes them, and allows us to begin to see things from God’s perspective, which, if we persevere in prayer, we are obliged to admit is the only right one.
The Collect demonstrates that praying honestly changes our point of view. We begin by saying, “O God, who seest that we put not our trust in anything that we do.” The somewhat self-righteous lament of the psalmist in the Introit, who is convinced that God is being inattentive and distant, becomes the prayer of one who admits that, ultimately, nothing he does or acquires is, as it were, money in the bank . It is not a question of striving and achieving, but rather, of becoming utterly poor, and of learning to receive all things from God.
La petite Thérèse
Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, our 24 year old Doctor of the Church, wrote:
It is true I am not always faithful, but I never lose courage. I leave myself in the Arms of Our Lord. He teaches me to draw profit from everything, from the good and from the bad which He finds in me. He teaches me to speculate in the Bank of Love, or rather it is He Who speculates for me, without telling me how He does it–that is His affair, not mine. I have but to surrender myself wholly to Him, to do so without reserve, without even the satisfaction of knowing what it is all bringing to me.
And again, in her prayer of self-offering to the Merciful Love of God, she wrote:
When comes the evening of life, I shall stand before Thee with empty hands, because I do not ask Thee, my God, to take account of my works. All our works of justice are blemished in Thine Eyes.
The Collect also asks God to grant us the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles, that is, of Saint Paul, who in the Epistle, speaks to us candidly of his own sufferings, weaknesses, and glory. Saint Thérèse had read her Saint Paul well. I can see her endorsing enthusiastically all that he says to us today.
Challenged by those who see themselves as super-apostles, Saint Paul is obliged to present his own defense. He glories not in heroic deeds, not in the working of miracles, not in honourable accomplishments, and not even in mystical experiences of the highest order but, rather, in his sufferings and in his infirmities. Why? The things we perceive as heroic — our pathetic attempts at playing the splendid Christian — risk filling us up with ourselves to the point of leaving no room for mercy, no room for grace, no room for the power of Christ. Our infirmities, on the other hand, our failures, our dodgy escapades, and even our sins, empty us of any pretext for glorying in ourselves. For some of us, God Himself will see to it that we never become inflated by the gifts we have received from Him, by giving us, at the same time, “a sting of the flesh” to buffet us into the humility without which we cannot be saved.
The Grace of Christ
That weakness in yourself that you so detest, the chronic failure that leaves you sitting in the gutter, the sin that spoils the imaginary portrait of yourself as nearly perfect, all of these things may be permitted by God, and this because the grace of Christ penetrates us most easily through our wounds, through the chinks in our armour, through cracks in our systems of defense.
Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to each one of us today the very words that He spoke to Saint Paul. “My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity.”
The Seed of the Word
Will we hear these words of Our Lord? Will we take them to heart? Or will they fall upon the wayside to be trodden down and stolen away by wicked birds of prey? Or will they fall upon the rock of our hearts grown hard in pride and self-sufficiency? Will we receive them with a superficial thrill of spiritual enthusiasm, and then forget them to go on with business as usual? Or will they be choked by the cares of this life, by the drive to have, to control, and to enjoy? Or will these words of Our Lord find in our hearts a good ground, receptive and open, ready to hear them, to keep them, and to bring forth fruit in patience?
Should we receive Our Lord’s words in this last way, we will find ourselves capable of saying with complete honesty, together with Saint Paul, and with Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, who so assimilated his doctrine: “Gladly, will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Mercy, Grace, and Copious Redemption
I am who I am, and you are who you are, and this with all the ugly bits, with the untidiness, the shameful secrets, the chronic weaknesses, and the falls from grace. None of this is terminal, provided that we confess and believe that Our Lord Jesus is who He is, that with Him there is mercy and copious redemption, and that His grace is sufficient for us today, as it will be tomorrow. To whom be all glory and praise, now and always, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.