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Embracing the Imperfect

Written by Tom Murphy, S.J.
February 27, 2012

At the request of The Commons, Tom Murphy, S.J., right, graciously recreated the homily he delivered (from an outline form) at last week's Ash Wednesday Masses in the Chapel of St. Ignatius.

If you have spent any time around professors, you know that one of the favorite sayings in academia is "Publish or Perish." A few years ago The New Yorker magazine put this saying into perspective by publishing a cartoon showing a tombstone which read, "He published, but he perished anyway." Yes, we are all going to die, no matter what.  That is what we remember on Ash Wednesday. Even Jeremy Lin, no matter how long he manages to stay in the NBA, will one day fade and die! 

For a long time I have been looking for an opportunity to bring my favorite rock band, Coldplay, into one of my homilies. The lyrics to "Viva La Vida" give me my chance, as they speak to the meaning of this day: "One minute I held the key, Next the walls were closed on me. And I discovered that my castles stand upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand." Yes, our best efforts can turn to ashes in seconds, as anyone who has ever been involved in a failed search for a new hire can tell you. And later in the same song we hear "For some reason I can't explain, I know Saint Peter will call my name." It is a reminder of the ancient tradition that Peter guards the gate of heaven and will be one of the first people we encounter after our passing. 

Hearing the name of St. Peter in the song reminded me that when February 22 is not Ash Wednesday, it is the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. While that feast is not being celebrated this year, Peter remains a good figure for unlocking the Gospel of Ash Wednesday. We heard the line in Matthew's text, "Beware of performing religious acts for people to see." Peter got in constant trouble for doing just that. He tried to walk on water himself, only to sink; he loudly cried out before a courtyard crowd that he would defend Jesus to the death, then just hours later denied three times that he even knew Jesus. Even after the resurrection of Jesus, when Peter had already received Christ's commission to tend the sheep, he fretted about whether John would live until the second coming instead of Peter and what this signified to others about whether Jesus loved him. Yes the early Peter worried about how people perceived him and this ruined many religious acts on his part.

Contrast this with the Peter of Acts 10. Now he has the Holy Spirit and leads the Church. He has to make two decisions: should the Christian people follow the Jewish dietary laws, even if they had not been born Jewish? Should the Gentiles be allowed in the Church on an equal basis to the first, Jewish Christians? The earlier Peter would have wrecked his handling of these matters but now he only sought God's will. Thus he began to perform his religious acts for God to see, not primarily for other people to see.  He had learned the lesson of Ash Wednesday.

There is an old heresy in the Church, Pelagianism, much condemned but still much practiced unconsciously by all of us in our daily lives. It says that we can bring about our own salvation if we practice our religion perfectly. During Lent we can easily fall for this tempting conviction. When I was a child in Catholic school I learned to make lists of what I was doing for the three traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It was always intriguing to imagine how I could do each more perfectly each year. So, we must be warned each Ash Wednesday that we do these things during Lent not to perfect ourselves but to let the Lord, who alone can perfect us, into our lives.

Pope Paul VI faced the temptation of Pelagianism as Pope. He was a very conscientious leader who agonized about his responsibilities and strove to perform them well. After about 10 years, however, he wrote in his diary that he had come to the conclusion that perhaps the Lord had made him pope not so that he could serve well but so that he could suffer through the troubles of his office and so make it clear to all that it is the Lord, and no one else, who guides us as Church.

One final person who faced this issue was our first President, George Washington. Today, February 22, is his actual birthday. Catholics in the United States used to make much of the fact that George and St. Peter had feasts on the same day: it seemed to vindicate a certain American Catholic nationalism of the days before JFK's election as President made it clear that one could be both American and Catholic. Be that as it may, Washington made a list of over 100 rules of good conduct that he set for himself. But by #110 he realized that he needed help, and simply wrote as his final rule "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience." George felt grateful that this fire was guiding him through his struggles with the other 109.

As we begin our Lenten conversation with that little spark of celestial fire in our own lives, we begin with such gratitude. While Lent is indeed about repentance, we can only feel moved to repent when we reflect upon what God has done for us and feel gratitude for the care. So, whether you are a Coldplay fan, a follower of Peter, an admirer of Paul VI or a student of George Washington, find the gratitude they all found at realizing that God is the one really in charge and then get on with your Lent.