|1 Corinthian 9:24-25|
Among the many blessings I am finding in my new parish is the ability to reconnect with a handful of college (and slightly post-college) men and women from Spearfish with whom I have had various forms of interaction over the past several years. Some were confreres in World Youth Day adventures, others I have known through the diocesan Duc in Altum program, and still others have been volunteers at Totus Tuus camps and the like.
A few nights ago, I had the opportunity to share a lengthy conversation with one of these young men. It was deeply refreshing. The dialogue was adult, intelligent (especially my portion of it), concerned with significant matters, and imbued with the perspective of faith. It was like drinking cold water on a hot day. By the end of the night we had moved from speculation about the association between poverty and joy to the nature of human dignity to discernment of ones vocation to health care in the United States to the nature of dysfunction in families, and finally to the question of how one must at the same time learn to be satisfied with oneself while simultaneously desiring to become saintly. I have been thinking about that final question a great deal.
We are endowed with profound dignity. First and foremost, we have been created in God's image and likeness. This fact alone bestows upon us worth beyond any other part of creation. God, however, is not satisfied that we should just be like Him as a result of our creation. Thus, through Jesus Christ, at the time of our baptism, we are adopted as the Sons of God. In Baptism, we are made sharers in His passion, death, and resurrection. It is given to our souls to bear the imprint of Christ. From these, we become citizens of Heaven, and what is more, we become princes of the Kingdom of God. Because we have become members of a royal court, our dignity demands that we receive nothing less than the very best life has to offer. Thus, we are able to say with great impunity that sin is beneath our dignity; it is less than what we have come to deserve as a result of the action of grace in our lives.
Recognizing God's mercy in having elevated us to such great dignity, we are likewise forced to confront our wretchedness. I cannot know God's love for me unless I first confront how little I deserve it. I commit a thousand little acts every day that bespeak my own pitiable state. In coming to recognize the poor state of affairs in which I find myself, I am left with two options: I might choose to abandon hope, knowing my own miserableness. I might choose to give myself over to a life of wretchedness and sin, believing I deserve no better. Each of us knows someone in whom this despair exists or has existed. In an alternative scenario, though, to see my own sin clearly and in light of God's love for me might also move me to a profound experience of gratitude. I might discover that I deserve the very best in life precisely because God has determined that I deserve the very best in life. It has nothing to do with my capacity to be good. It has nothing to do with my ability to accomplish this task or that. It has nothing to do with my human faculties at all. I have nothing to prove. I am good because God has deigned to call me good, and to choose me for himself. I deserve good because he suffered and died that I might have it.
This is a dangerous proposition on the Lord's part. If I choose despair, He must, in justice, allow me to pursue the ill that will follow as a result. But, if I choose His love in freedom, I become free to be the person He has made me to be, and He has won the victory for me.
Given each of these facts, we arrive at the question at hand. How do I deal with the fact that though I know who I have been made to be, I continue to exist in the reality of my own brokenness, my sinfulness, my weakness, and my folly. How do I deal with the fact that I am imperfect without returning to the possibility of despair or becoming neurotic? How to address my humanness? To my mind, at least in theory, the answer is relatively simple: God has given everything to me. Nothing I have to offer is sufficient for repayment. As a result, I must offer everything that I have. That means that even though I am sinful, even though I am broken, even though I am a fool, I cannot cling to these things. I must make an offering of my entire self in return to the Lord. If I am doing this, if I am not intentionally grasping after those things that prevent me from becoming the man God has created me to be, I am giving as I should. Perhaps another way to say this is that while I admit my sinfulness and strive continually to overcome it, I do not allow myself to be defined by it. I recognize that I am more than the sum of my faults, and I have the patience and wisdom to admit that I am a work in progress. I do not simply submit to my sin, surrendering to the assumption that it will always be with me, but I am also gentle enough to know that to become holy takes time.
The balance is delicate. I fight myself daily on the one hand, while consoling myself daily on the other. This is what virtue is, after all - to pursue excellence, understanding that excellence is the mean between two extremes, but never mediocrity. Thus, I do not give up. As St. Paul encourages, I run so as to win.