Sebastian Moore, the English Benedictine writer, once wrote that we need conversion not so much from sin, as from innocence. It was a curious declaration: we need conversion not so much from sin, as from innocence. What may he have meant by this enigmatic pronouncement?
Perhaps, he was alluding to the aspect of us that wants to have everything and everyone perfect, the part of us that that expects everything about us and around us to be ideal. We demand that our relationships, our marriages and our families be ideal even as we struggle in the recognition that they are far from so. We demand that our jobs and professions be all that we expect of them though no single choice can fulfil our aspirations. We demand that the Church be spotless and blameless and we become disillusioned when its vulnerability becomes all too apparent. Like the Pharisee about whom we hear in today’s gospel, we place a demand on ourselves that we be our ideal self, that we live up to the image about ourselves that we have constructed to shield us from the fears we have about ourselves and all the inadequacies we experience in ourselves. However, this is the dimension that binds us, and binds those around us. It keeps us entrapped in a cycle of accusation. A life lived with this demand becomes accusative – accusative of those in whom we are not mirrored, and ultimately accusative of ourselves because of the inevitable contradiction, ambiguity, disappointment and failure in life.
The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was only too well aware of the destructiveness of this cycle. In his remarkable little work, “Life Together” he wrote when this logic is applied to the experience of community:
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realised by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Of course, what we actually do find around us is always something and someone that is imperfect and limited. Our partners are limited, are parents are limited, our children are limited, and our Church is limited.
Hopefully, we learn along the way that the acceptance of limitation is a key to our growth. It is not the absence of limitations in each other that makes a relationship work but the way in which these limitations enable each of us to grow that makes the difference. When we can let go of the ideal and accept the reality then we can find a freedom to make those choices and undertake those actions that are truly transformative. Our aims, then, should be about something different than what the notion of perfection will admit. In other words, in our life together as Christians we are not to seek a perfect vision but, rather, we are to enter the paradox of both limitation and possibility, never one without the other. If we applied the logic of ‘the perfect’ to ourselves as Church, then we would certainly despair because so often we are confronted with the stark reality of ours and each other’s limitations. In fact, we could go further and say that ‘the perfect parish’, ‘the perfect Church’, is never something for which to even aim. The acceptance of the presence of this paradox, not as a deficit to be overcome, but a means by which we learn the true nature of both ourselves and of God. We cannot, as it were, glory in Christian principles and ideals unless we are first prepared to accept the confronting reality of this paradox and to enter it, often confusing, ambiguous and messy as it can be.
The strength of discipleship is to let go of the ideals we superimpose on ourselves and others, to stand back, and to accept the reality of ourselves and of others ‑simple, ordinary, limited that it is. The truth is that we are vulnerable, deeply vulnerable. Life is fragile. In truth, it is never a question of whether we are or not; the question is, what happens in our fragility? This is at the heart of the gospel proclaimed to us this Sunday. Events can undo us: they can gnaw at our sense of safety, they can throw questions upon our relationships; they can subvert our trust in human nature; they can undermine our confidence in God. The questions are unavoidable. We cannot but hear them rise in our hearts. All of them, however, present us with a radical challenge: do we follow them in such a way to isolate us from one another, or do we use them to reach out yet again to those around us?
As Bonhoeffer goes on to say about the most important recognition in life together – and we could apply it in the many different contexts of our own life:
Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom, I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.
When we can enter this dawn then we can encourage the reality that is in us or before gently forward not with demand but with invitation, not with pride but with humility. We begin to recognise that it is not our ego-driven ideals that bring about peace within us but rather the embrace of God as Mercy.
 See Sebastian Moore, Jesus the Liberator of Desire, (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 37.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1954), 16.
 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 16-17.
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