Who am I to say whether God exists? Sermon for the I Sunday of Advent, A.D. MMXXIII
Graham Greene was, in his day, the most famous and successful novelist in the English-speaking world. In addition to his tragic and comic writings, he had intrigued the British public particularly by his conversion to Catholicism. Many of Greene’s works explore the nature of faith amidst the ambiguities of the modern world. They are serious works of literature that touch on profound themes of faith – very different than today’s “Christian fiction,” which is almost universally of absolutely no literary merit.
What most people did not know, though, is that the very publically Catholic Greene led a very different private life. He was a drunk and a philanderer. “If I have a soul at all,” Greene once wrote to his wife, “it is a small, dirty beast.” He made no attempt to hide his affair with his mistress from his wife. They remained married on principle, and little more.
In 1949, Greene and his mistress went to meet someone just as famous as himself, and even more mysterious: Padre Pio. At the time, the man we now know as a saint, through extremely famous and the subject of incredible popular devotion, was believed by the Vatican to be a fraud. Padre Pio claimed to be the first man since Saint Francis six hundred years before to have the stigmata – the wounds of Christ’s passion on his hands, feet, and side. The doubters, including the Vatican investigators, thought they were self-inflicted. (And although Padre Pio was canonized as a saint in 2002, no definitive judgement about the supernatural nature (or lack thereof) of his wounds has even been made.)
Greene was always one to support the underdog, and from several years spent in Mexico had developed a love and admiration for the popular devotion of simple people. He also had depicted rogue and morally complicated priests in his own fiction. So he and Catherine Walston, his mistress, went to see Padre Pio. But since Padre Pio had been banned from offering Mass publically, they awoke at five a.m. to witness his simple, private Mass at a small side altar, nestled in an alcove, in which Greene and Walston stood only six feet away. Greene watched as Padre Pio struggled to hide the mysterious wounds, seeing the blood “start up, dry, and then start up again, on his hands and feet.”
After the Mass, Padre Pio sent a messenger to invite Greene and Walston to his room to talk. He was known to have the ability to read souls, so maybe he sensed the morally complicated nature of the people so close to him as he made the Lord present on the altar. Greene declined. Decades later he told his biographer, “I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint.”
This sad story illustrates perfectly the sin of despair. To see the possibility of conversion, to recognize the invitation and reject it – this is the deadly sin against the virtue of hope. We often think of despair as a feeling. But, as with many other sins, we have to distinguish between a passion and a sin. The passion or feeling of despair is morally neutral. Despair is sinful when it is the result of a choice, like Greene and Walston preferring their adultery to a life-changing encounter with a saint.
Where does despair come from? In large part, both as a passion and as a true sin, despair comes from looking at yourself. Think about Greene and Walston. They despaired of the greater happiness that could come from conversion, from repentance, from fidelity to their marriage vows. And why? Because they were looking at themselves, at the pleasure they derived from their illicit liaison, and they didn’t want to give it up.
Despair is a struggle for many of us. We feel overwhelmed, like giving up, like it’s not worth it anymore. The solution to despair is to look less at yourself, and more at God. On the first Sunday of Advent, Holy Mother Church sets the theme for this entire season with the very first chant we hear at the first Mass of Advent, in today’s entrance antiphon, the beautiful and ancient Ad Te Levavi: “To You I lift up my soul: in You, O my God, I trust.”
(This is why it is so important for us to sing these antiphons given to us by Holy Mother Church rather than merely your or my favorite Advent hymn. In fact, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the entrance, offertory, and communion antiphons are all the same text – the only time in the entire year when this happens. It’s as if someone is trying to send a message about what Advent is all about!)
Advent is a time to focus less on yourself, and more on God. But how? More specifically, it is a time to pay attention to what God is doing. What is God doing in your life right now? Who are the people He has recently brought into your life? Who are the people you have a desire to spend more time with? What are the opportunities He’s recently opened up? What is changing? What is different? What is God doing?
St. Paul reassures us today: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift … He will keep you firm to the end.” What are the challenges that have recently presented themselves that seem daunting? Where am I afraid of what is new? Go there. That is where God will keep you firm. Looking at what God is doing is the solution to the cycle of despair, when you start to despair about not being able not to despair. Stop looking at yourself, and start looking at Him.
But that is just part of the story. Advent is every bit just as much a time of action, a time to recognize just how little time we have to prepare. A brother priest told me that he thinks that Advent should be extended to be as long as Lent. I respectfully disagree. The relative brevity of Advent (especially this year, when the Fourth Week of Advent will only last one day, and that one day will already be Christmas Eve!) reminds us that time is short.
This is why we begin Advent with the earnest admonition of the Lord: “You do not know when the time will come. … May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” God’s patience is never exhausted. But in His providence, He has arranged discrete opportunities for conversion. Gregory the Great tells us: “He who has promised pardon to penitents, has not promised tomorrow to sinners.” God has arranged for all of the opportunities for conversion that you need, but you can never know when you will receive your last invitation. If you decide that you don’t want to change your life by meeting a saint, there is no way of knowing if such a moment of conversion will ever present itself again.
Reflecting upon the same reality, the prophet Isaiah seems ready to despair: “There is none who calls upon your name,” there are seemingly none who have been faithful to the Lord. But he turns his gaze from himself to the Lord and chooses to act: “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; … we are all the work of your hands.”
Okay, we understand what we need to do. But we all know that knowing what you need to do and actually doing it are two different things. Where’s the Padre Pio who’s going to give me that life changing invitation? Father Gregerson and Father Florin don’t have the stigmata! I saw that story about Graham Greene and Padre Pio played out in front of my eyes in another Catholic convert, albeit much less famous: a close friend from college. He was struggling to go to Mass every Sunday. I thought it was the difficulty in giving up the old party lifestyle, of dragging himself out of bed in the morning, or having to pass on boozy brunch with his friends on late Sunday mornings.
The real reason was very different. The real reason that going to Mass was so difficult, was that Christ was so obviously and palpably present. I never thought of my friend as a mystic. He was witty, sarcastic, arrogant, snazily dressed and too smart for everything and everyone except for the lucky few who got to laugh along as he mocked the world. But that man became someone almost entirely different before Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, and the purgative fire was too much. When he went to Mass, he knew his life had to be different, and it was really tough.
While their moral lives might not be exemplary, to put it rather mildly, when it comes to what’s really at stake in this life, in some sense, both my friend and Graham Greene get it more than I do, more than you probably do. They understand what is in play. They understand the risk that comes from coming into contact with God, that something powerfully other and awesomely different is before them. Some one is before us Who is much greater than any saint.
If we want to become saints, to become great saints, when we are faced with that place of despair, instead of running away from it, we actually need to draw closer, to see what is really happening, to understand what is really at stake. There’s an agnostic contemporary public intellectual who is quite admired by many people of faith for joining their side in the culture wars. When asked whether God exists, he likes to respond, “Who am I to say whether God exists?” It’s a funny retort, but it’s woefully insufficient, not just because it’s not yet faith, but because it runs away rather than drawing near. “Who am I to say whether God exists?” These are words of despair, not words of faith, as witty as they might seem.
“The last three words of Jordan Peterson’s retort, “Who am I to say whether God exists?” are not the only question contained in that locution. For “Who am I?” is also a question, and one the [modern world] has never managed to answer. What is our final purpose? Why are human beings so different from other animals? Who are we?” This is one of the big reasons why the contemporary world has such a problem with despair, because despite our incessant navel gazing, we have little idea of who we actually are.
“The Church has an answer: Man is a rational, social being, drawn to the transcendent, [capable of knowing God] finding his fulfillment in self-giving. Made in the image of God, he is designed through Christ to share God’s nature, and in consequence every single human being has an inherent, sacred dignity, however marred by sin or misfortune. The Church has never claimed to know everything, or else she would not value faith and hope so highly, but she knows where she is going.”
In this season of Advent, as the counter example to the man and woman who did not want to change their lives by meeting a saint, the Church will show us a young woman full of hope – hope in God’s promise, and trust in God’s plan. She will not be afraid to draw near to the sufferings of the Son whom She is to bring into the world. Mary’s example inspires us to look not on ourselves and the pleasures we might leave behind, but instead to cry out with our whole heart, “Ad te levavi! To YOU, oh Lord, I lift up my soul.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
I Sunday of Advent, A.D. MMXXIII