Saturday, August 17, 2013

Peter and the Cock



I want to talk about the problem of what is meant when someone says that they cannot overcome their sin.

On the surface, this looks like it's just whining. Probably untrue. They're making excuses. But no, I don't think this is right. It is a very comforting idea, to think that we are always capable of overcoming sin in our own lives, but I don't think that it's true.


I will bring up two examples from scripture. The first is St. Peter in the courtyard of Caiphus where he thrice denies his saviour. There is a tradition of interpreting this passage in terms of cowardice. St. Peter lost his nerve. He chickened out. I don't think this narrative makes sense. Peter was not a coward. We are told in John's gospel that it is Peter alone who draws his sword in the garden of Gethsemene when there are a large group of men coming towards him armed with spears and clubs. At least two of the disciples had swords, and the others might have picked up stones from the ground, or torn limbs from the trees, but Peter is the only one who rushes forward into the fray. Peter is no coward. Nor does he lack love for Christ. His love is immediate, it is daily, it is effusive. We find it displayed over and over througout the gospel. He does not lack grace. Christ Himself, on the eve of His crucifixion, has promised to pray for Peter. If such prayers do not yeild a superabundance of grace then I can't imagine what would. Nor does he lack good intent. Peter's conscious will is properly disposed: he has this very night declared his intention to remain faithful to Christ even unto death. If we assume that all that is required in order to avoid sin is that one have the requisite virtue, that one has the requisite good will, and that one has saught after grace then we are unable to explain Peter's sin.

I will give another example. This is a broader one, an example that comes up again and again throughout the Old Testament. It is the illustration of sin that is played out in the drama of salvation history. The story goes like this: a man, or a nation, is conquered and sold into slavery. There, in bondage they sing the songs of Zion and they pray. I think there is a very important point here: it is not that they are first released from their bondage and then they pray; they pray in dungeons, in prisons, in labour camps, in chains. These prayers rise to God and are heard, and they are pleasing. The Bible tells us that such prayers cry out to heaven. But very often they don't get answered right away. Sometimes years pass, sometimes decades, sometimes generations before the people are released from their slavery.

It is very comforting to think that they could get out if they wanted to, that with enough hard work and perseverance and faith in the Lord and courage and willingness to resist they could get out. But this is not the narrative that we are shown. We are shown something much more frightening. We are shown a universe in which there is a truly terrifying possibility: God can harden a man's heart. God can turn a man over to his sins. God can send His people away in chains and leave them in their slavery. God can turn over the body to Satan in order to save the soul. We are shown a world in which it really is necessary to pray “and lead us not into temptation” because it is not a sure thing that God will always deliver us from evil.
We are told that sin is slavery. We are told also, yes, that Christ through baptism frees us from the yoke of sin but I think that it is simplistic to think that this happens immediately, in a sort of magical way as soon as a person sets out on the path towards salvation. It is like the promise that the Church will always be victorious against evil. Clearly the Church militant, the Church as we find Her in this world, is not always victorious. Evil overcomes the best attempts of Christians again and again. Again and again evil makes its way even into the heart of the Church. The promise of freedom from sin is not a promise that is of this world, it is an eschatological promise, a hope whose realization may not come until the suffering soul in purgatory is finally healed.

We are always given the grace to overcome evil in this eschatological sense, but sometimes we are not given the grace right when we would seem to need it. To understand this mystery I think it is helpful to look again at St. Peter. This is the man of courage whose courage fails him, the man of devotion who denies the one to whom he is devoted, the man of faith who suddenly becomes faithless. God allows this to happen. He allows Satan to sift Peter in this way, and He does not allow Peter to overcome the temptation. Why? I think the answer is there in the story itself. Peter sins, he makes his denial three times, and then there is a beautiful and terrible grace: the cock crows. Morning has come, the night is at an end, and the dawn of salvation is at hand. And there sits Peter with his sin still fresh on his lips. This is the moment of grace, the moment that Christ has prayed for. This is the moment when Peter understands, repents, and weeps. If Peter had been granted the grace to stand at the foot of the Cross unflinching in his devotion as St. John did I don't think Peter could have become a great Pope. A great mystic, certainly. A writer of Apocalypses, yes. I great Saint, but not a great Pastor. I think it is because the grace of courage was taken from him and the grace of repentance supplied instead that Peter was fit to become the one who would feed Christ's flock. In that moment which seems to be the moment of Peter's greatest failing God is working in him, bringing about a transformation that will resound through the entire history of the Church.

Pope Francis has said that we should reflect on this. “I think so many times of St. Peter: he committed one of the worst sins, which is to deny Christ, and with this sin he was made Pope. We must give it much thought.” We should reflect on it specifically in relation to the judgements that we make about other people's sins. I think he is pointing us towards a realization that we do not ever know whether a person is seeking repentance with good will – even if that repentance has not yet been granted – that we do not ever know whether a person sins because they have turned their back on God or sins because they are in slavery, secretly thirsting for the day when God will set them free. To look on another person and say, “This person is a sinner,” to look on their actions with disgust, is not really any different than the snobbery of the freeborn looking down on the ignoble servitude of the slave. Nor is it a safe thing to do, for the valleys shall be exalted and the mountains made low, the humble shall be raised and the mighty cast down, and the prostitues and the tax collectors, the sinners, shall be welcomed into the Kingdom ahead of the righteous men.

9 comments:

  1. Your post reminds me of Tommy,a man I know who has been living on the streets for most of his life and is a severe alcoholic. I live and work at a soup kitchen that he frequents and so I see him often enough. About half the time I see him he is drunk to the point of complete incoherency and the other half of the time he cheerfuly informs me that he's quit drinking, in fact, that it has been three entire days since he's had a drop. Just yesterday, as I was going out, I bashed Tommy with the door, since, unbeknownst to me, he had been lying in a stupor directly in front of it. As he struggled to regain consciousnesses, I (sort of) apologized: "Oh, Tommy, I'm sorry I hit you with the door... of course... you were lying right in front of it..." His eyes lit up and with a fierce conviction he declared "Tommy's alright! Tommy's alright!" "Oh, good, I'm glad you weren't hurt." "Tommy's alright! Tommy's alright!... C'n I've a drag off yer smoke?"

    It's funny, but I didn't get the sense that he was talking about getting hit with the door (I really didn't hit him very hard...), but was making some kind of more existential statement. I hope that Tommy sobers up one day, but I doubt he ever will. I won't romanticize the very hard life he's had, and, no matter how much I try to "identify with the poor" I wouldn't trade places with him in a million years. And yet I think that he is profoundly beloved of God and in that some strange way I don't understand Tommy's alright.

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  2. It is very easy not to take into account the principle that guilt is imputed, even when there is grave matter, only to the extent a person acts in freedom, with full consent of the will (as well as with knowledge of the gravity of the act).

    You show very clearly how a person may be seemingly free, but still acting under an internal compulsion.

    This post also reminds us very well that we must not be impatient with God for acting in his own time — which is what we do when we insist that someone stop his behavior at once as the condition of continued communion with us.

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  3. Beautiful...all these thoughts. Many thanks.

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  4. Melinda,

    I came upon your book while researching better ways to answer the "Why the Church 'hates' gays" question I often get in high school classrooms... and I have to say, you're quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Thank you so much for this!

    Mike

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  5. Good stuff. It makes me think of Cordelia talking about Sebastian near the end of Brideshead Revisited: a broken man, unable to become a monk or even a respectable layman because of his persistent drunkenness, and yet she insists upon his holiness. I take it that holiness means being close to God; we're apt to think of holiness as virtue, but they aren't at all the same thing -- the Pharisees were virtuous but not holy. Words fail me.

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  6. The stuff about God hardening a man's heart, turning him over to satan etc in the Gospels really disturbs me - on the face of it, it seems to suggest that God simply doesn't care about some people. Like, "I could save this person, but I choose not to."
    Your reflection on this mystery has eased my mind a bit - certainly in my own life I can think of people quite deep in sin who nonetheless seem to be living by a strange kind of grace - you know, displaying genuine kindness, loyalty and so on.

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  7. Replies
    1. I question one of your points regarding st. peter. you seem to make the assumption that people are necessarily one thing or the other. namely, in his case a courageous man or a coward. that is before Pentecost. inconsistency is more often the rule than not with regard to our fallen natures. one example: sometimes I feel generous, sometimes not. this is just speculation: - but peter could have experienced himself as being alone without any support which might have undermined his resolve to speak the truth about his true relationship with jesus. so he gave in to the temptation and denied jesus 3 times. then in the garden he is resolved to not be a coward again. plus he is with the other apostles, and perhaps he is buoyed up by their presence(I can easily see myself in this scenario). motivation is incredibly complex. however, I agree that god may have allowed peter to fail as preparation for his great task of leading the church in humility knowing that he is no better than any other sinner. and peter would not have known or understand at the time the place of grace or the absence thereof in his soul. only jesus would have known that. I don't read your posts a lot, but when I do I appreciate the depth and scope of your understanding. caio.

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