Saturday, April 06, 2024

Grace Blossoming Everywhere

For whosoever shall give you to drink a cup of water in my name, because you belong to Christ: amen I say to you, he shall not lose his reward. (Mark 9:41)

And there came a certain poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing. And calling his disciples together, he saith to them: Amen I say to you, this poor widow hath cast in more than all they who have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all she had, even her whole living. (Mark 12:42-44)

Easter is a testimony to the transformative power of God as manifest through Jesus's Resurrection. In the Resurrection of our Lord, death is transformed into life, defeat into victory, condemnation into salvation. The seed that falls to the earth and dies brings forth life in abundance. Our brokenness is transformed into restoration. Sin rages, but grace triumphs. What is sown corruptible is raised up incorruptible. 

But the reality of this transformation is easily obscured by the darkness of our intellect and our tendency to see as man sees, not as God sees. We may focus so exclusively on our failures that it prevents us from truly assessing our victories. We may think of all the times we have been to the confessional for the same fault, all the broken Lenten resolutions, all times we dozed off at Mass or neglected to pray as we ought. And to be sure, we should try to make progress on these things. It's not that our failures don't matter; it's that they are not the whole story.

We tend to measure ourselves against an imagined objective standard of holiness. This can be depressing, because judged against this standard, we will always fall short—we will always feel that we could have prayed longer, given more, suffered better, loved deeper, and so on. And it's true; we could always do better. But as I said, that's not the whole story. This side of heaven, nobody will be perfect, and to judge our progress against an imaginative perfected version of ourselves that not only does not but cannot exist in the flesh is to be perpetually frustrated. And perpetual frustration will lead us to regard our spiritual life through a lens of dark pessimism; we will become moody, spiritual depressives, ultimately deluding ourselves about our true state and eventually doubting the efficacy of grace. 

We should, of course, evaluate our spiritual state and take note of our faults. The problem is not in our judgment but our point of reference. We should judge our faults not against an imagined perfect version of ourselves, but rather against our own progress up to that point. The point of reference is not idealized perfected us, but past us. This gives us a much more accurate assessment of our true spiritual state.

Think of it this way: someone aspiring to get in shape does not compare himself to a picture of 1973 Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzeneggar; that would be a recipe for perpetual disappointment, as the flabby, unshaped body of a weightlifting newb can't begin to compare to Schwarzeneggar in his prime. It is better for him to compare his current physique to his own past physique. A man who has been lifting for three months will be depressed if he compares himself to Arnold, but if he compares himself to his physique from when he began, he will be pleased, because his progress will be discernible relative to three months ago. This is why people in weight training take before and after pictures. The same principle applies to our spiritual life. 

I am certainly not suggesting that we will always make progress; indeed, sometimes we backslide, fall off the wagon, and otherwise make no progress at all. But this only means it is that much more important to position ourselves so that we can recognize progress when we truly make it. Most of us focus obsessively over a few particular faults which we allow to define our spiritual lives; not only does this blind us from noticing our other faults, but it prevents us from recognizing where grace is truly working in our lives. It stops us from recognizing victories, It deprives us of enjoying the transformative power of grace in our lives. It dampens Easter joy.

Jesus says that he who so much gives a cup of cold water in His name will receive a reward. The servant who gained one talent was praised along with the servant who gained ten, because he made progress relative to what was entrusted to him. The servant who was entrusted with one talent did not lament that he wasn't trustworthy enough for ten; he simply focused on doing well with the one he had. Instead of focusing so much on how you don't correspond to a perfected ideal of yourself, focus on giving more cups of cold water. Shift your attention, and you may see grace blossoming everywhere.

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