October 23, 2016
“I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.” (Lk 18:12)
This parable seems designed to awaken guilt. Could I be like this Pharisee? How could this have happened without my noticing? Have people been saying this about me all along? What if I am a fraud and my whole life a sham? Needless to say, the next step is rationalization and the attempt to drown out and forget that such a thing could ever have been suggested. This is like a daily examen in which we ask ourselves if we are living a lie, and then promptly forget it and life goes on as usual.
It is natural that the guilt be there, under the surface, buried more or less deeply. I have heard that there is such a thing as false guilt, and another thing called existential guilt. And both of these are distinct from specific guilt, which is the kind we seek absolution for. False guilt is a response to feeling unloved and disapproved of, and it raises its head whenever something goes wrong or someone isn’t as nice to me as I would like. But I sense that there is something real that lies beneath the level of specific acts and omissions: an aching question about the meaning and value of my life. Who am I? What is my purpose in this world? How can I know if I am being true to this purpose? What if I am a fraud and my whole life a sham? Existential guilt doesn’t fly in confession – they are looking for real sins there. But if I can’t manage to peel these things apart, then I can, at least, kneel before you and beat my breast.
“O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Lk 18:13)
Perhaps the Pharisee knows, deep down, that his fasting and tithing don’t amount to a hill of beans before the all-seeing eye of God. His posturing may be all part of the act of not-wanting-to-acknowledge-my-secret-knowledge. This secret knowledge is that I am small, weak, naked, fallible, and mortal, that I am, in a word, a creature, a human being made from the dust of the earth, just like everyone else.
The tax collector knows something, and he can’t hold it in any more. He may be a sinner, and a public one at that. He may be carrying the load of false guilt that many of us do. But I wonder if he isn’t also in touch with that deeper level of unease, which we may call existential guilt or dread.
Have you ever found yourself yearning for Lent – to hear those words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return” as your forehead is smeared with ashes? Do you find some deep satisfaction in abasement of body before the Almighty – in going barefoot and prostrating with forehead to the ground and lips in the dust? Do you long to feel totally transcended and held, like a speck of dust in a ray of sunlight?
The monastic tradition tells us that we are penitents at heart. What lies behind an ascetic life, a life of self-denial and abasement, is not fear or hatred of the self or the body. Such a life is meaningful and desirable for this reason only – that it proceeds from and fulfils the inner longing to be a speck of dust in the sunlight of the Almighty. St Benedict takes the tax collector as the image and ideal of the mature monk, who knows at every moment that he stands in need of God’s mercy. Crucially, this monk knows not only that he needs mercy, but that he has it, abundantly. Mercy goes deeper than guilt, whether real or imagined, existential or concrete. We live under the gaze of a loving Father, who sees in us, in our humanity, the likeness of his Son.
“Look on us, O strong protector, and see the face of your Christ.” (Ps 84:9)