Saturday, March 19, 2011

"We're sinners, but God loves us anyway." (III)

An altar server has a moment of inattentiveness during liturgy and makes an important distinction about repentance:
The point I want to make is this. If repentance is seen primarily as an event, causally related to other events we might call sins, then what happened to me in my thoughts at the altar last night was a simple intellectual tussle with a temptation to doubt. From a forensic point of view I was not doing anything wrong in performing my ministry at the altar. Nor is it a spiritual crime to have a moment of doubt (if that is what it was), provided one immediately makes an act of religious assent to the truth of faith under question.

Thinking of sin and repentance as discrete moments, means that nothing terribly interesting happened to me at all last night. I've had confessors who would have told me this. "Don't beat yourself up." "Where's the sin in that?" In one sense they'd be right. Yet in another....well they'd have missed the very force at work in me that is sending me to hell, that is in fact making life hellish for me at this very moment by killing all sense of God's presence. The very force that sends God away, hiding in the bread.

Anaisthesis, like many of the passions cannot be reduced to events. You don't "commit" insensitivity. It takes root in you and grows. It's fed by a thousand, a hundred thousand little acts and omissions. A sarcastic word here, an angry silence there, hypocritical gestures, a mind open to theories of charity while despising people in need of it. Insensitivity metastasizes until you stand at an altar one day and, by God's mercy, realize that you have no idea what you're touching.

This is a spiritual cancer. And like any such disease it cannot just be wished or legislated away; it can only be treated, cut out or at least shrunk by powerful, and sometimes painful, medicines.

This is a spiritual cancer, and it's widespread. How else can people not see God in the poor, the unborn, the aged, the unlovely? We live in an age full of righteous anger fuelled by theories and ideologies, philosophies and policies. But it's all talk and no action, because the talk deadens and does not enliven. This is spiritual cancer, and treating the symptoms--abortion, pollution, violence, prejudice, whatever--will not make the cancer go away. We need to repent more deeply than that if we are ever to see God in the other, God in the ordinary, God in the bread.

Repentance is not worthy of the name unless it really gets to the heart of the disease. Repentance is nothing unless it touches every part of life, not just the sinful events, but above all the diseased motivations, the darkened sight, the hardened heart.

This is not a "east vs west" issue. It's basic Christianity. But I do think that the Eastern Churches have been able to preserve in their liturgical and spiritual praxis a clear reminder of this most basic of all Christ's words, "repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). Repent and believe that He is here in the ordinary, that He washes us in water, strengthens us in oil, feeds us in bread, comforts us in wine. That He is the face that asks for help in hunger, prison, sickness, pain and grief. Repent and believe; repent so that you can believe, and trust what you believe. Repent so that you can come to life inside, raised up from the tomb of your deadened, anesthetized, numbed heart.

The forensic attitude to sin and repentance can get in the way of this deep, fundamental notion of sin and repentance not as different moments in life, but as different modes of life. Repentance is nothing if it is not a way of being, a lifestyle choice at its most urgent. It is not something you endure for a time so that you can get on with the business of changing the world, ending abortion or social inequity or environmental degradation or whatever the agenda must be. Repentance isn't the thing you do before you move on, it is how you move at all, its your motive force.
~Anastasis Dialogue
I've been searching for words to describe my discomfort with the popular adage: "We're just imperfect sinners, but God loves us anyway," besides the easy superficial point that it's not Biblical or Patristic and more Protestant than Catholic. This post above gets me closer. Climacus' chapter on "anaisthesis" is particularly damning of how our erroneous theological certitudes and presumptuousness with God deadens us.

The lesson of my failures is not that I'm imperfect and God loves me regardless, which is so obvious and redundant even a secularist like Obama believes that. It's what our failures and flaws tell us about who we really are before the Father who seeks perfect righteousness in us precisely because He seeks the real us, not who we think we are (personality tests, idiosyncracies, quirks, pet peeves, etc.), but Christ in us, and not just some objective, static “presence” but His living, active, flesh-transforming Spirit. Any god that "accepts me for who I am" on my own terms is not worth my time.