On forgiveness and redemption

14 01 2010

I don’t really keep track of the news, so my own sense of urgency when it comes to posting about “current events” on this blog is almost non-existent. Brit Hume’s recent exhortation to the unfaithful Tiger Woods to embrace Christianity only caught my peripheral attention at first. But just like everyone else in this society, I too am a media junkie, and I finally broke down and looked up the controversial video clip on Youtube. My own reaction to it was quite mixed. On the one hand, someone becoming a Christian is a good thing in itself, I suppose. But what flavor Christianity are we talking about? That is a whole can of worms I will chose not to open here.

Mr. Hume thought that embracing Christianity would mean that Mr. Woods’ would then find “forgiveness and redemption”, and thus be a good example to the rest of the world. What this forgiveness and redemption would mean in the context of a kingdom not of this world is beyond me. I could not help but suspect the cultural Puritanism that has always been at work in American Christianity: show yourself to be among the predestined “elect”, and blessings will be showered upon you. I can’t pin such a subtext on Mr. Hume’s pithy media statements since they only have the depth of a transitory soundbite. But his words nevertheless take me back exactly ten years, to a place and a time where I lived side by side with other confused, broken people in similar circumstances.

It always makes me chuckle on the inside when I read of random impressions of the Society of St. Pius X’s faithful, since these impressions are far from what I experienced first hand. First of all, they are just as morally complicated as everyone else, and in a lot of ways, just as normal. Indeed, it has been the “good Vatican II Catholics” that have always given me the creeps in terms of exuding cultish behavior. When I moved into an SSPX retreat center exactly ten years ago now, I was surprised to find there drunks, ex-womanizers, confused young converts, and people who were unable to function in “normal society”. Indeed, coming out of Berkeley and being ready to “clean myself up”, their behaviors and attitudes put me off at first. Sure, they went to daily Mass, but that was about it. They cursed about as much as everyone else, they had their own idiosyncracies, and a host of skeletons in the closet that only little by little were revealed to me. From the outside, turning their lives around for Jesus wasn’t reaping any benefits. They were the same old people, just with scapulars on now.

There was first and foremost “J.” This man was separated from his wife, and battling alcoholism. He was also the foreman of the rag tag crew of men who kept the retreat center going. One night, a few months after I arrived, someone had to go bail him out of jail after he was taken in for drunken driving. He came back, a little ashamed, but he got back on the horse and kept working. Later, I believe he did end up returning to his wife and giving it another go. There was also “R.” who I always thought was a bit anal and insensitive, and who also clearly had a drinking problem. He lived in a small hut on the grounds with empty beer bottles on the porch as decorations. Another man, married to the housekeeper, was an ex-Dominican novice who had run off with a woman, fathered a child, and later broke up with her due to the fact that she could not tolerate her husband’s newly recovered faith. And there was B., who was a Protestant convert who came into the Church after one broken marriage, and stayed occasionally in a small hut next to the chapel.

There were those people around the chapel who were living the “American dream” and having their traditionalist Catholicism too. But none of the people closest to me were experiencing this. They had to struggle to make it. Jesus didn’t make them happy; He didn’t shower them with “blessings”. He gave them crosses, and plenty of them. He gave them humiliations and sufferings, and the occasional reasons for laughter that helped the weary heart through the lonely nights up on that mountain. But from a purely human standpoint, getting religion did not grant them forgiveness and redemption; it didn’t give them the means to become or go on being successful people. It did make their lives look more like Christ’s, especially in its hiddenness and humility.

That is why perhaps I empathized so much with the Sebastian Flyte character in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted; not just because I thought he was a well-written character, but also because I feel that I have met him at several times in my life. For like the character in the book, sometimes the greatest blessings don’t come according the world’s standards, but they do come. Grace doesn’t make life easier, but it does make it tolerable; it doesn’t make you better, but it does make you sorry. And that in the end is all we can hope for sometimes.

I lost one of my uncles in the past year. I barely knew him after the age of seven, but I do remember him vaguely. I only found out that he died when I saw a newly dug grave next to my grandmother’s in Gilroy. Later I learned that it was my father’s brother buried there according to his own request. He had gotten cancer just on the cusp of age 50, and though he had not been to church in decades, he asked to see a priest on his deathbed. Christianity perhaps did not make his life better; according to my father, he struggled with his own personal demons of alcoholism and broken marriages. But it did leave him at the gates of Paradise when he finally shed this passing mortal frame. If there is anything that we should hope for, it is indeed that.



5 responses

13 02 2010
25 01 2010

Thank you very much, Arturo. One of the reasons I really enjoy reading your blog is that you’re able to articulate those things about American religion (be it Catholic, Protestant, etc.) that turn me off at a visceral level, but that I’ve never really been able to translate out of the realm of gut-feelings, and put into clear, succinct words.

I also have to say I find a lot of truth in Mr. Phillips’ combox, too — when I was singing in the choir with an indult community back in the ’90s, I could tell you some stories! (When the FSSP took it over, my experience was the exact opposite of Mr. Phillips’, but I think that might be be situational: when the FSSP came in, they moved to a different church, and there seemed to have been some drama where a lot of the old-timers in the pews simply walked out.)

Again, thank you for putting it so succinctly.

15 01 2010
the previous anonymous

I’d just like to echo Dr. Petersen. Very nice.

14 01 2010
Dr. S. Petersen

A first-rate post: fine, sensitive, deep. Thanks.

14 01 2010
Mike Phillips

Right on, Arturo. When I was a young High Church Anglican our parish was filled with middle-class respectable people. When my wife and I became Catholics in the early 1960s, the first thing we noticed were the huge range of people going to Christmas Midnight Mass: the drunks, the least respectable people. Among are growing number of Mass-attending Catholic friends in those days, were two homosexuals, three alcoholics, a criminal, “weirdos”, and other most decidedly non-respectable people.

And then, over the next 40 years, we noticed in the variety of Novus Ordo parishes, a decided lack of those very people. Catholics had become “non-sinners”, or non-public sinners. Gone were those struggling with their public habitual sins. And those who did public sins, made a habit of justifying their sins – the great shift among Catholics to deny that they were sinning. Gone were the weirdos as well. Chesterton had made a point a long time ago that one could not leave one’s umbrella outside a Catholic church, because it might be stolen. Not now!

We are now three years in a FSSP Trad Latin Mass chaplaincy and lo and behold – there are public sinners amongst us attending Mass on Sundays. There are the alcoholics, the criminals, the weirdos, the ear-ringed tattooed, the obese. The sermons are about us trying to all become perfect saints, the huge sacrifice needed in prayer and penance – not trying to dumb it all down and reduce redemption to some kind of respectability.

A friend who attends the local SPPX also relates the same: a “fair” sprinkling of weirdos and “public sinners” attending Mass.

The one thing that Tiger Woods does not need is some kind of “moral respectability”.

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