Thursday, June 26, 2008

lord, I believe. help thou my unbelief

warning: slight grossness

A friend of mine once commented, "If you want to understand me, start with Emilio Sandoz." That's a horrifying comment since, in the novel The Sparrow Emilio has the flesh forcibly removed from his hands, sees all his friends die horrifically, and then is raped by an alien race.

Yet, in thinking about it, Emilio is something of a kindred spirit. He is a Jesuit priest and has been for most of his life. He is a brilliant linguist and a devoted priest, yet he admits that he has never really had the feeling of the presence of God. He knows in an intellectual way that God is present and watching and participating, but has never felt God's action or love. It's all theoretical until he journeys to the planet Rakhat where the divine lamp is turned on and he is suffused with joy and peace. I have had moments in my life where the presence of God was evident, where I felt warm and full and right, but they are few and far between. It sometimes feels like I'm forcing something to be a God-moment because I want it to be.

And lately, I have noticed a great fear of being useless, of not being able to work, to do, to earn my way. Emilio's useless hands struck me powerfully throughout the book as I wondered what that might be like practically and spiritually. One day, I will grow old and be "useless" in the conventional sense. Right now, I have absorbed the world's ideas of success and beat myself up when I don't achieve them. I, alone, am responsible for the spiritual growth of the youth in my care, I think. I, alone, can change their lives concretely. And when something comes by (illness, normal human imperfection, whatever) that challenges those assumptions, I am crushed. My ego is so firm that I don't really know what to do with failure.

Failure is not only normal but expected. And we don't really believe it. The prophet Isaiah was called to a failing ministry, all the prophets lived in disgrace, Jesus died. Living with faithfulness and righteousness means suffering and failure. I want to be okay with "enough" and with imperfection but it is really difficult to let go of a culture's assumptions.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters would say that perfection is not about being right but being righteous. Christian mystics have said that our journeys are not about success but about being faithful. I believe that. I really do. Lord, help my unbelief.


Fr. Christian Mathis said...

In my experience, it is many times the useless things that are the most important, think about the sunday comics (at least how they are seen by the world!)

Thanks for the posting. I too love the character of Emilio. He is a very human character and I can easily relate.

aliceatredeemer said...

So true, brother Christian. I, at times, also consider myself and artist and many would say that the arts are themselves useless--they don't fight wars nor feed the hungry. They just sit there and look pretty. Yet paintings, musical and dramatic performances, etc. can be the most life-altering things there are.