'Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner'

by Michael Sean Winters

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Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. It is the foundational Christian prayer and, for most of us, it might and even should be the last prayer we speak before crossing the abyss. Lent is an invitation to take this prayer to heart, to sit with it in all its comprehensiveness and depth and endurance.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. This is a comprehensive plea because sin manifests itself in our human hearts all the time and in so many different ways. It is not wrong to be upset, even resentful, when a person is slow to pay us back money that we loaned to them, but it is sinful to sit with that resentment, or to neglect how lucky we are to be in a position to be able to help someone whose finances are insecure. It is not wrong to give money to a beggar on the street, but it is sinful to forget that while it is truly Christian to give to the poor, it is the beggar who is Christlike.

It is understandable that we watch the news and wonder at all the evil that is perpetrated -- beheadings, starvation, war -- but when we grow indifferent to that evil, when we snuggle up in our middle-class comforts and act aggrieved over petty things -- the slow person in the checkout lane, the bad driver, the less-than-attentive waiter -- we are deeply sinful. Here, Pope Francis struck a chord (I hope!) when he expressed his dismay that it is news that the stock market goes up a point or two, but it is not news when a human being dies in the streets.

A couple of months ago, I was boarding a flight here in Washington. The plane was half-filled when one of the attendants announced that we all needed to deplane because a crack had developed in the windshield. I knew this would mean that I would be unable to make a lunch appointment I was looking forward to -- in Chicago, deep-dish pizza! -- and I was disappointed. But the anger that exploded around me was stunning. People were furious. I finally looked at someone and said, "Gee, I don't know. I am kinda glad the crack in the windshield happened while we were at the gate and not at 33,000 feet." The effort to rebook us all only stoked the anger. Frustration is understandable. But really, whence this sense of entitlement? We live at a time when it is relatively easy to get on a plane and fly to see friends or conduct business. One hundred years ago, such a thing was impossible, and 50 years ago, it was still quite rare. Planes are complicated things with lots of mechanical parts, any one of which could malfunction. And why visit the frustration on the poor agent trying to help you get on another flight? Sin.

Thirty-odd years ago, my best friend asked if I could let a mutual friend of ours take the extra room in my house. This mutual friend was in recovery from both drug and alcohol addiction, and I agreed. He was somewhat irresponsible, and I was young and impatient. But most of all, I did not enjoy his company. He did not read books, he did not care about politics or religion, and I did not care about movie stars, which was the thing he cared about. I found his concerns superficial and uninteresting. One day, I expressed my frustration to my best friend, the one who had arranged this. He said to me, "Michael, remember that for him, getting through the day is an accomplishment." I rushed to the nearest confessional.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. The depth of sin is different from the comprehensiveness of sin. The depth of sin is discerned only when we get really honest, when we admit that it is not the sins of the flesh or the momentary flashes of anger that really keep us from God, at least not for very long. We know they are wrong and quickly seek the Lord's pardon. No, the sins that really keep us from the Lord's mercy are the sins that abide in our good deeds, the pride we take in our accomplishments, the judgmentalism that accompanies our desire for and articulation of the truth (guilty here!), the secret envy in the success of others, the ambition for more power and more influence that marches with us as we set out to do the Lord's work. There is no part of our lives that is beyond the shadow of the Cross. We should thank God for this, for whatever lies beyond that shadow of the Cross also lies beyond the salvation of that Cross. This is what the great anti-Semites of the past misunderstood. They took as their Ur-text "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children" and turned that into a warrant to harass and to hate Jews, forgetting that we want that blood upon us and upon our children, for that is the blood that saves.

The deadliest of the seven deadly sins is pride, and you can find that among the people who tend to the homeless as well as among the cloistered as well as among the denizens of secular life. Here, too, is the root of my problem with dissent. It is one thing to struggle with a teaching of the Church or to recognize that in one's own life it does not seem to work or even to apply. In this sense, all of us are cafeteria Catholics. But dissent is not cafeteria Catholicism. It does not say, "I am doing my best, but I can't bring myself to eat the broccoli." It says, "The broccoli has no place on the cafeteria menu because I do not happen to like it."

Dissent is not an affront to "authority" in the abstract so much as it is a prideful claim to be the only person with the right to design the menu. That is my problem with dissent. Disagreement, sure. Falling short, absolutely. Even the private conviction of conscience that a teaching may not be true, rare but conceivable. But dissent as a stance, claiming the mantle of prophecy, in a culture that lionizes dissent? No. Too much pride. Remember that the prophets were always a bit reluctant, conscious of the fact that the call they received was not generated from their will but came from God and was, strictly speaking, an awesome thing.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Sin endures. It is not final. God's verdict on Jesus of Nazareth was not man's verdict on Jesus of Nazareth and, in His victory, we know that sin and death are not the last words on Jesus and, consequently, are not the last words on those of us who invoke His holy name. But sin is penultimate. We think we should get better as we age, grow less slothful, less envious, less gluttonous, less prideful, but we don't. We still want to be in control of our lives -- and of as much of other people's lives as we can manage! The Holy Father has warned against worldliness, and it is truly ugly in a churchman. One of my great blessings in life is that I have come to know churchmen who actually do exercise responsibility and, yes, power in the Church, and they are not worldly, they are not "political," they really have surrendered their lives to the Church. I am sure, too, they have their temptations and frustrations, but there is a holiness there.

Holiness, for the Christian, does not consist in living an upright moral life. Holiness, for the Christian, resides in the sure hope that our sins can be forgiven, not that they can be avoided. This is why an exorcist must be a holy man, because the devil will tempt him to despair, will hold up his own sins and try to get the priest to believe that his sins cannot be forgiven. That is the power that warrants the name satanic, the power to inculcate despair. The antidote to despair is faith, hope and love, all three. They come in a package, and when that package took on flesh, it was called Jesus. Faith, hope and love are still called Jesus. He is the "Lord" to whom we speak when we say "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." The remedy for sinfulness is not morality. The remedy is Jesus and His mercy. One of my favorite hymns is "Rock of Ages" in which we sing, "In my hand no price I bring, only to Thy Cross I cling." 

This Lent, it is my prayer that all of us in the Church, with an eye toward the autumn synod on the family, will not get bogged down in the fine print about whether or not the divorced and remarried should be offered a path to Communion or whether gays and lesbians should be "welcomed" or "provided for." (Why not both?) No, my prayer is that we will see in these precise issues the larger issue that is at the heart of the Christian drama, the issue of mercy. I pray we will undertake the theological work of restoring mercy to its central place among the attributes of God, a centrality that has for too long been neglected. I pray we will searchingly examine all of our practices and disciplines and preaching and ask if they disclose a merciful God or an anthropocentric idol, and develop the Church that she may more closely witness God's mercy. I pray that I will always be more grateful and less prideful. I pray, in sum, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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