Existential Confrontation with Humility
by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.
If we are honest with ourselves, we often experience the great interior mortification of coming face-to-face with our own wretchedness: our natural defects and limitations, our incompetence, perhaps rejection by family and friends, whether undeserved or, worse, deserved; our sinful past, sinful present, and quite likely sinful future; passions of lust, anger, and greed far from being domesticated; meager growth in virtue for all of our half-hearted efforts, and as a result of it all, the yawning chasm between the state of our own soul and the majestic holiness of God.
As appalling as that vision of ourselves can be, it’s actually good for us. It’s our existential confrontation with humility. But the profit we stand to gain by the grace of this vision can be thwarted when we therefore conclude that we must purify ourselves, scour our souls, vomit out the evil within us, and become fledgling saints before we come to Christ. But Jesus is true man and true God. And as God, His love for us cannot be caused by how wonderful we are, or think we are. If we are good, it is because God has first loved us.
“Jesus turned and saw [Andrew and John] following Him and said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi…where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come, and you will see.’”
Several years ago a retreat master of ours pointed out the obvious fact—though not the less unnoticed for being apparent—that Christ, even as He called them, even as He said to them, “Come and see,” knew for absolute certain that when it came for them to stand by Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, they would desert Him and flee for their lives. They would betray Him, yet He did not hesitate here to call them anyway. He didn’t tell John about his anger management issues, or upbraid Andrew for trusting God no farther than five loaves and two fish, or roll His eyes at their future defection, or skip right to His later saying, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long must I endure you?” Instead, He called them. “Come and see.”
Christ’s love for us, like His love for His Apostles, sees us at our worst and loves us. In fact, it has to. St. Paul told the Romans, “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is contrary to the nature of God that He love us for any reason not originating in Himself. Thus, we had not even the primordial goodness of existence, and He loved us into being. Then we had little else but sin, death, and damnation; and He loved us unto redemption. In short, we’re in a bad way, and He comes to our rescue. It cannot be that He foresaw how we would cooperate with His grace and so decided to redeem us, for then our goodness would have caused His, which is absurd.
Venerable Pope Pius XII wrote in his encyclical Mystici Corporis, “The knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of His Incarnation, exceed all that the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love.”
In other words, what was Christ Jesus thinking of as He hung on the cross? Us. Us as sinners, as evil, as wretched. And while if we were in His place dying for others we would be inclined to bitterness or sarcasm or latent wrath—“These people are never going to appreciate this, and then I’m going to smite them something fierce”—the Holy Father says that at that very moment Christ embraced us with love. He offered us in union with His own sacrifice to the Father to make us pleasing to Him. Yes, there was immeasurable sorrow in the soul of Christ crucified, and bitter grief that so many graces would be wasted, but that only makes sense because of the more fundamental love with which He wanted to unite every man with Himself. Far from being a coldly rational, perfunctory love, Christ’s desire for us burned all through His human affections with the fire of the Holy Spirit, and we call this love the Sacred Heart.
But if Jesus had us before His mind precisely as vile sinners and so shared God’s saving goodness with us through the greatest act of love the world has ever seen or will see, then we have every reason to believe that, now that we’ve become God’s reconciled sinners and His works of grace have made progress in and through us, His love is not so fickle a thing as to be deterred or disgusted by our continuing inner worthlessness. In other words, although we think, “I’m still so evil; He must be that close from terminating me,” His patience is far from exhausted. His mercy endures forever.
How can we not then place all our hope for salvation and sanctification in the power of a God Who wants to help us embarrassingly more than we want to be helped? If we look inside ourselves and are discouraged by the filth, then we’re hoping in ourselves to save us—a foredoomed proposition. But if our moral fetidness makes us run to the Divine Physician, then our hope will not disappoint, “because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” After all, if we’re not evil, what use do we have of a Savior?
And as if all that’s not enough, “whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated, the work of our redemption is accomplished.” Every year, we pray this over the gifts before the preface of the Mass. This theologically pregnant statement reminds us that, since the Christ Who hung on the cross is the same Christ interceding at the right hand of the Father, what He had on His mind in agony is the same thing He has on His mind in glory—us—and the effect wrought by that love for us then is no greater than the effect of His love for us at every Mass. Every morning the Mass is celebrated, and therefore “every morning His mercies are renewed.”
As our hope grows, like a tree sending out its roots near running waters, so does our confidence become immovable. Then, without turning a blind eye to our nothingness or fixing our gaze on it, we can have the courage to pursue the godliness destined for us. Even should we see no internal improvement and neither should anyone else, we can persevere with tranquil confidence. For the works of God’s grace are hidden, and His best works are most hidden—even from us. It is not for us to judge. “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” It will be a great surprise to us when, at our particular judgment, we discover all the treasures of grace God hid within the field of our souls, and how He sold Himself to buy us—a great surprise, but a joyful one.
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