Catholics With a Past

"The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?" says Rabbi Abraham Herschel. He may be onto something. When we look for insight and understanding, we go to someone who has been wronged, and who has come out stronger and wiser: survivors of wars, genocide, concentration camps; people who have overcome massive disabilities; people who have been abused and outcast, and who have responded with love, gentleness, generosity, and wisdom.

But what about the man who caused his own suffering? The man who has been selfish, foolish, ugly, cruel, and who has suffered because of his own willful sins?  What can he possibly know, anyway?

This past weekend, I was honored to deliver the keynote address at the Mary's Shelter soiree in Fredericksburg, VA, and I spoke a little bit about what it feels like to be a someone in a "crisis pregnancy." I lost track of how many women approached me, or sent me messages, confiding that they "had a past," and didn't feel like they fit in with the other Catholics in their community because of it.

So many women said this, in fact, that I'm starting to suspect that Catholics with a past -- men and women -- are the majority, not the minority.

Maybe you've heard of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery? The broken edges are rejoined, laquered, dusted with gold powder and then burnished. This process not only repairs the breakage, but it turns the broken part into something beautiful, enhancing, rather than depreciating, the original piece.

Lovely, eh? But maybe you've also heard of the inevitable fad that came about: wherein enterprising cynics deliberately smashed perfectly good ceramics and then repaired them, because the public had developed such a taste for the metaphorically rich "golden seam" in their otherwise standard pottery. 

So, it's a bad idea to cultivate that "angels with dirty faces" image. It's not something to revel in, when we have done wrong, messed up our lives, hurt other people. We should never boast of our past sins, or flaunt them as if they're glamorous. (This type is skewered in this Onion piece, Recovering Alcoholic Clearly Kind of Proud of Once Being an Alcoholic. Caution: R-rated language.)  

But we do have a past we regret, it's not something that should make us feel second-rate, either. First of all, if we've lived a sinful life and have turned away from that life, remembering our shameful past should give us all the more reason to give glory to God.  When we repent and confess our sins, God doesn't just cover them over with leaves and hope nobody notices them. He washes them away entirely, and to think that He is still holds them against us is to make him petty. Which He is not! So a shameful past that is truly in the past? This is a cause for rejoicing, because God is good and we know it first hand.

Second of all, "having a past" means that we have something extremely valuable to contribute -- something which other people may not have in their spiritual and social arsenals, if the path of their lives followed a straighter, cleaner route.  When we know we're capable of terrible sins, and when we know that we've conquered them with the help of the Holy Spirit, what can we learn in our deepest hearts? Humility.

Humility doesn't mean walking around with our heads hung low, constantly sighing over what wretches we are. Humility means knowing ourselves well -- knowing what good and bad we have done, and knowing what good and bad we are doing now. It means knowing that we are still capable of doing terrible things, and knowing that we depend daily on the mercy of God to keep us from messing everything up again. And it means knowing that God loves us, wants a lot from us. It means that God -- God! Who knows everything! -- thinks that we are worth rescuing. 

There is nobody more compassionate and generous than a truly humble person. Humble people make patient and insightful teachers, because they understand that there is more to a person than his sin. Humble people are quick to forgive, because they remember how easy it is to go astray, and how valuable it is to be given a second chance. And humble people are experts at doing the most basic thing that every human being needs to know how to do: asking God for mercy.

A shameful past is not intrinsically, automatically useful, but it can be made so. Like all the other parts of the buffalo, it can be a gift from God, if only we remember to ask Him to help us use it well. You don't have to go around proclaiming your past sins to anyone who will listen. But you don't have to hide them from yourself, either.