A Tortuous Journey
Several years ago I reviewed Paul Wilkes’ memoir, In Due Season. His long search for pious perfection brought him only pain and discouragement. Finally he was led into the kingdom of God, the land of the ordinary. My journey is less dramatic−no babes or booze−but the path is much the same.
Piety in the middle twentieth century, when I was young, was a piety of “offer it up” and striving for perfection. In Catholic circles that usually meant “embrace a religious vocation.” If one had to abandon a true love, so much the better. If it hurt−a lot−God was pleased.
In movie reruns we watched heroic Lillian Gish maintain her vows even when her lover, Ronald Colman, returned (The White Sister, 1923). Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) limped her way to holiness (1943). Lana Turner washed away her considerable makeup along with her feelings for the man who married her sister, so she could enter a far-away convent in Green Dolphin Street (1947). What Catholic girl could believe marriage, in God’s eyes, trumped religious life?
I married, but still carried some guilt that I, in a second-tier vocation, was not good enough for God. Each year Dick and I multiplied our good deed doing. We made the Ignatian Exercises−the best we lay people could do. After several years of such away-from-the-madding-crowd-of-kids retreats, nothing much changed. Each year I completed the first-week exercise of considering and appreciating the good that I was and had done with a yes-but bottom line. I was good, but . . . ; I did good things, but I never did enough.
Then during one of those retreats a wonderful and unexpected thing happened. That year we stayed in the John Carroll dorm, praying−and shivering in sleeping bag−in the chapel. The heat had been turned off for the year; the weather did not get the memo. The early part of the retreat had gone as usual: yes, but. Now, in the “third week,” I was considering the Last Supper. Within the prayer and without warning I experienced my young daughter. She came to me and hugged me. It was a gentle and unforced memory. I experienced her hug as unconditional love, as I had often in real time. The surprise was that this time I realized that she had learned to love in that way from me, from my attitude toward her. Wow! The prayer narrative was that I had done something good, no footnotes necessary.
The retreat director listened without comment and instructed me to redo the first-week meditation. This time prayer came gently and with great grace. This time there were no “yes, buts” to my recognition of intrinsic goodness and the worth of my talents and accomplishments. This insight, while still sometimes elusive, has been the basis for both realistic self-acceptance and the freedom to be thankful.
There is a scene in the movie, The Mission, of a tortuous journey up a mountain by a repentant mercenary and slave trader. A wise servant cuts away the sinful burden symbolized by the heavy armor the penitent drags with him. Conversion demands that we, too, cease to fondle the baggage of our sins or our failings.
Like Paul Wilkes, I have come to know God’s love as unconditional and enduring, and very ordinary. Unlike the Eve of Genesis 3, I do not need to be different or better−to be “like God,” as the snake promised. The quirks of my personality and the limitations of what good I do are intrinsic to why I am loved. While this important insight comes and goes, I must hold onto that realization, because the rest is dross.
Dee Christie, firstname.lastname@example.org
John Carroll University