DISCOURAGED BY WEAKNESS, CONFIDENT IN LOVE

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
3rd Sunday of Lent - Cycle A

We all are familiar with the complaint. People who suffer in any way, healthy individuals who suddenly get seriously sick, faith-filled persons who, otherwise, have lived observant lives, cultivating a healthy fear of the Lord, who try their best to become what God expects them to be, at a moment of intense (and undeserved) trial and pain, are heard to mutter, as the desert wanderers of old murmured: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?”

Is the Lord in our midst or not? This is the question of a heart confused by pain, the murmurings of a person hard-hit by suffering, the groans of one whose moorings of erstwhile certainty and security, are suddenly rattled and shaken by existential events not within anyone’s fondest dreams and designs.

Is the Lord in our midst or not? When I, as a priest, behold the polarized confusion even in the so many so-called communities of faith, the factionalisms even in a Church neatly divided between the “religious right” and the “religious left,” the divisions between and among peoples divided into groups called the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the “information-rich” and the “information-poor,” the “well-heeled” and the ranks of the “great unwashed,” the privileged few as against the “hoi polloi,” it is all too easy to give in to a sigh and a rebellious complaint: “Is the Lord, indeed, in our midst, or not?”

Our liturgy today opens with a reality we all could easily identify with – feelings and experiences of discouragement. “When we are discouraged by our weakness, give us confidence in your love.” (Opening Prayer)

Discouragement and confidence … could the twain ever meet at all at some point? Is the goal of confidence displacing discouragement an elusive dream? Are they not like the proverbial “two roads” of Robert Frost, “that diverged in a yellow wood” … two roads that we cannot – had better not – take both at one and the same time? Isn’t this more like Rudyard Kipling’s “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet?” How could anyone, for whom pain and suffering stare him/her in the face, ever be so Pollyannaish enough to wax confident in the midst of so much trial and tribulation?

The first reading tells us a familiar story … a disgruntled people venting out their anger against Moses who represented the God who pulled them out of a relatively comfortable cocoon in Egypt … Their bitter complaint “why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” was really designed to get at God by getting at Moses. The poor leader became a veritable punching bag for their growing frustrations!

Interestingly enough, the same account from Exodus shows us what to do with such powerful feelings of rebellion and complaint – face them squarely and deal with them fairly. God told Moses: “Go over there in front of your people … Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for people to drink,” Among other things, I would like to see this as referring to the importance of facing our own demons, and naming, claiming, and taming the ghosts that haunt us.

The famous writer Flannery O’Connor, who died at 39 after a long and crippling disease produced her best spiritual writings, we are told, when she faced her sickness bravely and dealt with it squarely. In answer to a letter from a friend who expressed his doubts about his faith, she wrote: “I think the experience of losing your faith, or of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be, or you would not have written me about this … I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.”

I have it on the authority of Carl Jung that “befriending our shadows” is the first step to take in order to deal with and integrate them in our total personhood. The first step towards resolving difficulties is to name them and claim them, to recognize the plain fact that what we reject in ourselves we tend to project onto others, and what we deny in ourselves tend to attain a life of its own, and which, therefore, can tend eventually to overpower us and control us. Something that is not named; something that is not claimed, can also never be tamed.

There is, therefore, something salutary in our being able to ventilate and express even our complaint before the Lord: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” The confession and admission of one’s inner confusion and complaint was what prompted the Lord to intervene through Moses, who said: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

A contemporary analogy we may use to illustrate this is the story portrayed by the award-winning film “Million Dollar Baby” directed by Clint Eastwood. Two people, who are drifting along in search for lost family relationships serendipitously find one another and develop a chaste but deep father-daughter intimacy only when both started facing their real issues and dealing with them squarely. The plot boils down to two people in the same predicament making bold decisions when their life situation seemed to have both of them literally and figuratively “against the ropes.” Frank, the boxer-trainer, who spent decades looking and searching for his estranged daughter, who could not forgive himself for this and one other major mistake earlier in his life, found that daughter in the person of Maggie, the 31 year-old aspiring lady boxer, who herself was trying to face her fears and doubts, and who feverishly worked for what she wanted at all cost. In the process, she found the father she herself was looking for in the person of Frank, her initially reluctant trainer.

In the three years I have been writing this series of reflections, I have had the chance to write about my own fears, my own unbeliefs and doubts, along with the times when there was but little hope that remained in my heart. My readers and friends would attest to the many ups and downs that my journey towards wholeness and holiness has undergone. It was never smooth sailing all along. I have had my low and high moments. But I can vouch for the fact that, ironically, I felt closest to the God that I sometimes practically denied, precisely during those lowest moments, during the times when the psalms of desolation made much more sense to me than the psalms of consolation.

It was when I was most thirsty for God and for meaning that the gift of “living water” of filial attachment to God in faith that today’s gospel speaks of, became most meaningful and most appreciated.

This 3rd Sunday of Lent is all about the various types of thirst we all experience some time or other in our lives. Whether it has to do with thirst for faith, or thirst for meaning, for consolation, or for divine intimacy, it all boils down to one important prerequisite. We all need to acknowledge and accept first of all that we are thirsty, and needy, and that we need the help of someone above and beyond us, to fill that thirst to satisfaction.

That profession of one’s neediness is precisely what the Samaritan woman did when she told the Lord: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” The Samaritan woman, for all her alienation, really knew where to start, and the place to start was an honest admission of her need, a sincere profession of her deepest desire.

My years of experience in the context of seminary formation work have convinced me of one important truth in relation to this topic. “The noisiest wheel gets the most grease.” It is those who admit to their weakness and need who get all the help. Those who do not even name, let alone accept, their neediness, remain fixated in their make-believe world, and maintain an external fa├žade of self-sufficiency and self-righteous contempt for those who are honest enough to admit to their pain and woundedness. Ironically, it is those who do not acknowledge their woundedness, who remain smug and cocky about themselves, who run the greater risk of acting out and thus, most likely end up wounding others in turn. Whatever is rejected in oneself, gets projected onto others, and whatever is projected, attains a life of its own, and eventually ends up controlling the very person who tries hard to deflect it from him/herself.

Today’s readings go right into the heart of the spirit of Lenten renewal, which is confession of one’s weakness and sinfulness. They challenge us, first of all, to confess to our lack – or loss – of faith. Second, they confront us with the truth about God who, while hating sin, nevertheless, continues to love the sinner: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Thirdly, they present us with a clear example of the need to embrace the truth about oneself, warts and all – an admission of need that leads to a confession: “Lord, you are truly the Savior of the world; give me living water, that I may never thirst again.”

Discouraged though we may be at times with our weakness, we are nevertheless confident in His love! Thus we pray in today’s alternative opening prayer: “God of all compassion, Father of all goodness, to heal the wounds our sins and selfishness bring upon us you bid us turn to fasting, prayer, and sharing with our brothers. We acknowledge our sinfulness, our guilt is ever before us: when our weakness causes discouragement, let your compassion fill us with hope and lead us through a Lent of repentance to the beauty of Easter joy. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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