Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Church of Saints, Sinners, and Hypocrites

"See, it's all there. Everything's fine."
The great French poet Charles Peguy wrote that the Christian people are always made up of "saints and sinners." It would be useful to introduce a third category: hypocrites.

The difference between the latter two is that the sinners appear just as they are, whereas the hypocrites -- while not usually trying to pass themselves off as saints (this would hardly look humble) -- spend a great deal of energy trying to convince others and themselves that they are not in the "sinner" category.

The hypocrite scrubs the outside of the cup forcefully and energetically. The world is not going to think it sees a saint, but the hope is that it will see a "good person," an admirable person, perhaps even a person who is "making progress in spiritual growth" and who therefore deserves some credit. Indeed, most hypocrites like to see themselves this way.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about (obsessing over?) hypocrisy, by which I mean above all my own lifelong pervasive hypocrisy in particular. I've been blessed to a great extent, however, by the fact that so often people are not fooled by me (even though I'm a master at fooling myself). They see the wildly incoherent mess that I am as a human being, but also the good that is mixed into it (often in qualities and actions that are not the focus of my attention, that I don't particularly nurture in my efforts to construct my outward appearance). They see it better than I do, because I'm desperately intent on fooling myself and I always at least partially believe the self-image that I try (or feel compelled) to construct.

Thank God, there are some people who love me anyway; they love the whole "package," and put up with my blindness as they try, gently, to lead me in the right direction. For me, there's no question that my wife ranks number one on the list of these people.

It's a patient and slow and long-suffering process for these people, to chip away at this hypocrisy that pains them because they can see how much it obscures the real beauty of the one they love. It's a great work of mercy.

Of course, I know I'm not the world's only hypocrite. Of the "saints, sinners, and hypocrites," the third category is probably the largest by far. Hypocrisy can be a complex thing. There are of course those who just plain fake exterior goodness because it gives them a disguise; it allows them greater freedom to rip people off and do all kinds of bad things without incurring suspicion.

But then there are very many of us who really want to be true heroes and saints. We see that it's good, it's beautiful, it's "what the world needs from us," but a subtle discouragement has worked its way into some deep places in our souls. We realize that we can't make ourselves be really, truly holy. And yet, that's the way we're "supposed" to be, and the way we really want to be.

So we try to do it on the cheap. We try to construct ourselves into the people we think we should look like. So many of us are building houses of wood with stone facades. There is real goodness in us, real aspirations, real gifts, but we try to use them to decorate the outside. And we are afraid to look any deeper than this exterior, this facade, because we want to believe in our strength; we don't want to see the naked, cold, hungry, lonely person inside that house. We are afraid of that person -- that unsolved riddle that is at the deepest core of ourselves -- because we don't know what to do that person, and we can't imagine that anyone else would want to love that person.

I know I'm being hypocritical in this way all the time, but I presume to use "we" in this context because I'm sure my experience is not uncommon. Who among us is not, in some way, in some respect, cheating (just a little bit?) in the project of building themselves? We're fibbing or we're faking or at the very least we're hiding the messy stuff. We're hypocrites.

Woe unto us?

What can we do? After all, the New Evangelization is all about witnessing with our lives, and so if our lives are a mess, shouldn't we at least have a strategy to try to make them look good, y'know so as to "attract people..."?

There is a place to start. There is that cold, hungry, sorrowful person inside us, that poor person. Let's not suffocate that person entirely. Let that person cry out to God. Let that place inside us where there are no illusions be a place that begs for mercy. There is that place where we recognize that we are a total need for Him, and from that place let us cry out and give the whole mess and the hypocrisy and everything else to Him.

He will build us up.