Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. A few years ago in a big university in America, the actor Denzel Washington was asked to address the young people who were graduating at the end of the school year. Before him were a few hundred bright, intelligent and successfully qualified people with their whole futures and lives ahead of them. The world was at their feet. It came as something of a surprise then when Washington’s opening words to such a high powered group were not about success but failure. He said: ‘first… you will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. There is no doubt about it…If you don’t fail… you’re not even trying’.
By speaking about failure and reminding the students of their own limitations and imperfections, Denzel Washington did them a great service by telling them the truth. For to deny imperfection is to deny oneself; for to be human is to be imperfect.
This is precisely what St Paul tells us in the second reading today who shares with us his human struggle with his own imperfection. Paul begins by a frank admission which risked scandalizing those who considered him to be a holy man. He confesses that for all his life he has struggled with what he describes as a ‘thorn in the flesh’. He does not tell us exactly what this is but it certainly refers to some part of his nature that was fragile, that was weak and that left him vulnerable to failure. Elsewhere in his letter to the Romans he refers to this weakness again when he describes brilliantly the drama of his fight with temptation: ‘The good I want to do I cannot do and the wrong that I want to avoid, I end up doing’ (Rom. 7:22ff). For Paul, it was frustrating and despairing to find himself like this as he begged God to remove this thorn of flesh and to be cured. He says: ‘about this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me’. Perhaps with these words Paul thought to himself: ‘if only I could bypass this human nature of mine and be cured of all my weaknesses and struggle, then I would be free to love God and serve him as I want’. Yet as Paul grew in faith and wisdom, he comes to a shocking conclusion: God would not cure him of his weakness or remove his thorn in the flesh because it was God himself who had placed it there. It was only then that Paul realized that his path to God did not bypass his human nature but ran through his human nature in all its strengths and flaws. God astonishes Paul by saying: ‘My grace is enough for you, my power is at its best in human weakness’. Here the story turns on its head: the cracks that Paul was trying seal in the vase of his life, were placed there by God to allow his light to shine through and light up the darkness.
The witness of St Paul that is backed up by the words of Denzel Washington, offers us enormous hope. Like Paul and with Paul, we too admit that we are limited with many imperfections, but that’s alright. We all have a thorn in our flesh and maybe not just one thorn but many. This might be an area of life we struggle to deal with and control. It could be an addiction, a tendency to judge, to be jealous, to be indifferent, to be selfish, etc. But the first step to freedom is to do like Paul does – to admit they are there and to know what they are. For only in knowing what they are, can I fully know myself.
What happens when we acknowledge our imperfections? Our relationship with God and others changes.
First with God, when we acknowledge or defects, instead of driving God away, we draw him to us and satisfy his desire to be merciful. It is only then that we realise that those things for which we feel unlovable are exactly what we have to offer God to attract him and allow him to do what only God can do – to accept, heal and forgive us. Patrick Kavanagh once asked the question ‘O God can a man find you when he lies with his face downwards and his nose in the rubble of his own achievements?’ (‘From Failure Up’). In the light of the Gospel that speaks to human imperfection, the good news is ‘Yes’: a person can find God in the midst of failure or better still, God comes to meet them there.
So too with other people. If we think we have no imperfections or at least very few then we are prone to pride and self-delusion. This is the pride that judges others and separates ourselves from those in whom we see nothing but faults as we remain blind to our own. Even Jesus suffers this kind of prejudice in the Gospel where it states bluntly: ‘And they would not accept him’. When we honestly accept our own imperfections, we begin to see ourselves as being one with every sinner who becomes my brother, sister and companion along the way of human struggle. A healthy sense of others’ weakness brings them closer to us in the same family of God where I can see their imperfections in mine and where I can see my imperfections in theirs.
St Therese of Lisieux once admitted ‘I have my faults but I also have courage’. We all have our faults but we also have what is more important: courage and most of all faith in the God who loves us in our imperfection.