His frank eyes caught mine again, after the absolution. “You’re not an angel,” he said, smiling with immeasurable gentleness. “Neither is anyone around you. You mustn’t expect that of yourself, or of them – it wouldn’t be fair. You’re looking for paradise on earth, but you aren’t there yet.”
He paused, gazing at me. I was utterly exposed, and almost couldn’t bear the steady transparency of his look; yet looking away proved to be impossible. He saw right through me. “Who you are is who God loves, and everything is grace,” he finally added. He smiled at me once again, and I smiled back at him. My heart was stinging and singing like it always does when someone speaks truth into my weaknesses. “Thank you, Father,” I said, and then ambled out the doors of the dim church and onto the sun-filled campus of the university I attended.
I don’t remember the priest’s name, nor do I even remember his face, aside from his unwavering eyes; it happened nearly four years ago. What I do remember is the way his merciful bluntness brought me “back down to earth." He saw beyond my carefully confected exterior of untouchability and poise, and he put his finger right into that illusion and stirred it around. His words awoke me to the fact that God works with real people, in real circumstances, within the real context of our daily lives. I had always known God to be poetic; but that dear priest shook my head out of the clouds that day and reminded me that God is also the consummate realist.
The illusion of having everything under control – spiritually or otherwise – is a ruse under which every thinking and breathing man and woman on this side of heaven operates at some time or another. Simply put, this is because the Incarnation continues to scandalize us, just like it scandalized the people of Jesus’ time. The idea of needing God, followed by the idea of God entering into the concrete details of our human experience, is, at the very least, a shock to the system. “If God is conceived as a personal Being, as a Someone rather than a Something, and as a Someone who can speak,” wrote Josef Pieper, “then there is no safety from revelation.” Revelation – much like I experienced in the confessional that day years ago – is terrifying to us, because it implies a lack of control, a surrender, a nakedness – and it requires accepting ourselves as we are, no more and no less. Most important of all, it demands an openness to the unconditional love of God.
The Incarnation – that perfect Revelation of the inner life of the Logos – broke all of the tidy molds men had made of a distant God who they could study and define from a comfortable distance. The Person of Christ defies our laborious, mercenary piety and shows the world that God responds not to merit, but to need.
But accepting our need is hard to do. It’s easier to escape into the realm of how we’d prefer things to be – ourselves included – than it is to willingly embrace the reality of things as they actually are. The tremendous advances our society has made in the area of communication have paradoxically served to exacerbate the age-old human tendency to “put on appearances," to disconnect from the seemingly unremarkable, unlovable reality of who we are in order to grapple fecklessly after some increasingly inchoate ideal that doesn’t require too much risk on our part. Now we are freer than ever to display ourselves in the way we wish, to the people we wish, without any of the messy immediacy that comes along with genuine human interaction. There’s a lot of displaying going on, but very little true revelation. True revelation requires vulnerability, and vulnerability requires humility; and humility means being grounded in the knowledge of who you are (and who you are not).