"My God, I am too ashamed and confounded to raise my face to you.” (Ezra 9:6) These words of the priest-scribe Ezra resonate with me, and I think they probably resonate with everyone at some point in his life. I don’t think there is one person among us who hasn’t said something in a moment of passion that he immediately regretted . . . or done something, whether thoughtlessly or with intent, that has left him racked with guilt. As we all know, guilt or shame in their proper place serve a purpose, have value. They push us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
The kind of shame that Ezra describes, however, goes beyond that which is healthy, whether we mean psychologically healthy or spiritually. He’s describing the shame that is soul killing, the shame that drives us away from God. I find myself wondering how many people have fallen away from the Church, not because they doubt the truth of her message, but because they suffer from this kind of shame.
I am talking about people who have committed adultery or had an abortion or are living in a relationship that can’t truly be called marriage. They have been told, correctly, that they have committed actions that are gravely wrong. This is something that people are really good at – pointing out the faults of others. That is a message that gets out loud and clear. The deeper truth that God still loves the sinner and that He is willing to forgive the sinner if he or she will just come back to Him – in other words the message that should be shouted from the housetops – that is the message that we seem to mumble our way through.
When we used to teach Fr. William O’Malley’s Meeting the Living God, somewhere in it, he said that “‘The tree comes to me’ is the most important sentence we will hear this year.” Aside from the fact that no one knew what on earth he was talking about, (Well to be fair, the sentence is kind of enigmatic, but O’Malley was making a valid point about reality.); anyway – it’s not true. Somewhere along the way, I realized that the most important sentence that we can teach to our students is not something about a hypothetical tree. The sentence is “God loves you.” That’s it. Just – “God loves you.” If you want to get more theological about it, the sentence could be expanded to “God loves you, and nothing is going to change that.” It’s basically saying the same thing, but maybe it’s clearing up some confusion. I hope you weren’t expecting something with Greek words in it.
If our students don’t leave our schools after four years (or seven years, or maybe even twelve years) of religion classes, dozens of student Masses, prayer services, retreats, evenings of recollection, and God only knows how many prayer videos, knowing these three words – “God loves you” – then we have failed them. We can’t make them believe it – that’s a question of faith, and we have to leave that in the hands of God – but we can make sure they have heard it and that they have seen and heard ample evidence from us so that believing it is a rational act.
I think one of the greatest things that Pope Francis has done for us is to keep driving home this fact: nothing we do – nothing anyone does – makes us unlovable to God. To phrase this awkwardly, God can’t not love us. It goes against God’s nature not to love His creation.
We’ve heard again and again, Pope Francis saying that God never grows tired of forgiving us; we are the ones who grow tired of seeking forgiveness. Maybe this is the thing that we can’t wrap our minds around. Maybe we find it easier to think of a God who puts limits on His love because it helps us to justify the limits we place on our love.
Maybe we would rather think of a God who is willing to forgive only after the sinner has wallowed in shame and self-loathing than the God who adopts the posture of the Prodigal’s father, who ran to his son and wouldn’t even listen to his carefully rehearsed self-debasement. Maybe we’d like the people who’ve hurt or offended us to wallow at least for a little bit.
Later in the same chapter, Ezra talks about how mercy came from the Lord. He doesn’t say how; he doesn’t say why. He doesn’t imply that it was because of something that the Israelites had done. It was just something that God did because He chose to do it. Because it is in His nature to be this way.
We needn’t be ashamed to raise our eyes to the face of God, because when we do, we will see the eyes of the One who has loved us and continues to love us, no matter what we’ve done – loves us and is immeasurably fond of us.
If only we could get that through our thick skulls.
On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,
Bro. Patrick Sarsfield