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If knowing I’m a sinner is a grace, I’m in good shape


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Elizabeth Scalia - published on 10/06/17

Vice and victory spin me around, and throw me for a loop, on a regular basis.

Toward the end of the 1989 film Parenthood, a cheerful grandmother, dismissed throughout the movie as being a bit ditzy, tells her harried children, “You know, when I was 19, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.”

“Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”

In the practice of my faith, pondering that scene has sometimes brought me a measure of reassurance, and some spiritual relief, too, because even with all the devotions and feast days I love — all the ways the Church infuses my day-to-day with instruction and anticipation (June is the month of the Sacred Heart! October, the month of the Rosary and a month chock full of favorite saints! Advent is coming! Christus factus est!) — I too often find myself struggling for interior balance.

If I feel good about going to confession and being (however briefly) in a state of grace, I feel lousy when I wound charity by barking thoughtlessly, needlessly, at family members who simply want a bit of my attention. Unable to regain my equilibrium with sincerely rendered apologies and a resolve to “do better next time,” I instead have an unusual need to beat myself up and let my small impatience set a miserable tone for the whole day. On other occasions, I permit myself excesses, as with small treats, with a blithe recklessness, even though, deep down, I knew I should not.

Read more:
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This sounds like nothing, I know. Common stuff! A few snippy turns at selfishness; a few indulgences. But both my inability to accept forgiveness (and to forgive myself) on the one hand and my unwillingness to be called out on bad practices (or to discipline myself) on the other can give me a kind of spiritual whiplash born of pride. I become impatient because I have work to do — more “important” than a family member’s actual, worthy needs; I make a big deal of feeling bad about it because, golly! I’m a Benedictine and should be “better” than that! I indulge the sweet tooth because, well, don’t tell me what to do; and, anyway, if God wants me to resist it, his grace would be enough! The fat is my thorn in the flesh by God’s own design!

The hubris is almost palpable, and it all becomes a real-time experience of vice and of distorted focus that misses the center of all things, which is Christ.

Here I am — a woman swinging between excesses and defects of pride with pit stops at vanity, gluttony and sloth. Here I am — someone excessive over “work” gifts and defective in appreciation of familial ones. Here I am — a person deciding that while God and family may offer forgiveness, I know better and must deny it to myself.

Here is the pride of someone so caught up in flesh and matter, so dizzy from extreme swoops and swerves into viciousness and then piety that she presumes to know the mind of God and the measure of His grace. Oh, pray for this lady!

When I express self-loathing over my selfishness and my propensity for “missing the mark,” someone will usually say, “admitting all this is a grace from God.”

I know that, of course, and I also know that God’s assistance in doing better is mine for the asking, although His methods may also, sometimes, leave me reeling.

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But if I am having ups and downs, if my metaphorical stomach is a bit queasy, I am grateful for it. It means I am at least on the roller coaster, and not on the carousel. Instead of simply going round and round unto stultifying stagnation, I am in the spiritual thick of things, now resisting; now tumbling forward; now climbing and striving against all sense; now being thrown for a loop; now screaming and letting go of the bars, in faith; now clinging to them again as the next turn approaches.

Living within a formed Catholic conscience is not for wimps. But the wild ride is worth it.

Adapted from a piece previously published in 2011.

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