According to the Need of Each
Published: May 1, 2011 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
Thomas Sunday. So often referred to as Doubting Thomas, as if Thomas’s doubt was an unworthy failure of faith on his part. Fortunately, today’s sermon steered clear of such shoddy interpretation. Even better, some observations were made that I think should be repeated far more often than they are in Orthodox churches.
The first observation is that the saints are not always faithful. The second is that God reveals Godself differently to different individuals, in a way that corresponds to the kind of revelation needed by that particular person. The first observation is important because of what it says about the saints as models of faith, exemplars and encouragers of our lives today. The second observation is important because of what it says about God.
The not-so-faithful Saints:
One would think, given the actual stories of Saints, that it is obvious that saints are not always holy, they are not always perfect. But too often, their imperfection and failures are attributed to their life before their conversion, as if somehow, upon conversion, they just ‘got it’ and all activity thereafter was appropriately ‘spiritual.’ I hear this all the time in our church, and few things make me feel more sickeningly hopeless. Why? Because I simply cannot relate to someone who is so perfect, and I cannot imagine that they might even remotely understand my own struggles as a person of faith (”Ah, but what of Jesus?” you ask. Another post, another time. Maybe.). I am confident of the presence of God in my life. I am confident that I am growing, changing, becoming a better lover of God and neighbor. But I am hardly doing so at speed. My life is full of fits and starts, of slips and stubborn resistance. Perfect stories of perfect saints perfectly responding to a perfect God make me cringe, and then roll my eyes. Perhaps I am just not pious enough, but let’s be honest, what in the world does such a person have to do with me?
I am not being falsely humble here. There are things that I do well, and ways that I see real growth in faith on my part, real change. I really do see the fruits of the Spirit in my life and through my relationships. But I also see bad fruit. Luscious berries and rotten apples seem to coexist in my life, my actions, and my words, sometimes in the same sentence (there is nothing like children and impatience to highlight the discrepancy). Think raspberry shake with poorly fermented apple juice.
And yet the truth is that not every decision arrived at, statement made, or action taken by a saint exemplifies faith, hope, love, kindness, compassion, mercy, discernment, or wisdom. Saints fail. Sometimes, they fail terribly (Women in Theology has a very interesting recent post entitled “When Saints do Evil”). The disciples absented themselves during Jesus’ trial, and Peter rather famously denied any association with his friend and teacher three times. While John recognized the empty tomb for what it was, Peter did not. Mary Magdalene, the first preacher of the resurrection, wept at the empty tomb until (I hope gently) scolded by the angel: “Why do you weep? The one you are seeking is among the living.” The Gospel of Mark is all about the fear and lack of faith exemplified by the disciples, a story which presses the hearers of the story (that is, us) to rise to the same challenge the disciples failed to rise to so often: have faith, do not be afraid.
Why is it important to remember that the saints failed, repeatedly? First, because holiness is often quite sporadic. I suspect the disciples or apostles did not regard their own actions as all that great. Remember, Peter wept at his behavior. Saints portray for us failure as much as success, and we need to be gentle to ourselves in our struggles. Becoming bearers of fruit takes a long time and much pruning. There is no shame in this. According to an Orthodox interpretation of Paradise, humankind was created imperfect, immature, and life as growth into holiness was always God’s intent. We just grabbed at the fruit of maturity and discernment a bit too soon.
Secondly, the struggle of the saints reminds us that holiness is not just sporadic, it is often quite mundane. It is a daily event, a daily struggle, and its presence is often quite difficult to see, a “hidden holiness” according to Fr. Michael Plekon:1
Holiness is of God, a gift of God, given to all his children. Holiness transcends not only the historically specific categories created for it—apostles, prophets, spiritual mothers and fathers, teachers, martyrs. Holiness, or holy people are found everywhere, as a poem says. And as [Paul] Evdokimov notes, in our time, since holiness would be more ordinary, everyday, part of the fabric of our lives, it would be less noticeable—hidden—yet none the less significant. We must honor the forms and ways of holiness God has given us in our time and place.2
The Forms and Ways
Fr. Michael’s last sentence points to the importance of the second observation of today’s sermon, that God reveals Godself “according to the needs of each” (to borrow a bit from a litany of the liturgy). Holiness is a gift of God, it is a shared work between God in the world, and our work with God, synergia. But this work is different for different people. We are not the same. We are each unique and irreducible creations of a God who cannot be fully contained in any one person (no, not even Jesus though all of whom he was was fully God and fully human). As unique persons, we have unique needs, different learning patterns. What persuades one person fails to persuade another, a difference that cannot be reduced to the greater reasoning of one person over another. God recognizes this and engages with us appropriately. Sometimes, God is a still small voice, sometimes a pillar of flame. At other times, God must cook us dinner on a beach and gently remind us that despite our painful and humiliating denial, we really do love God, and God’s people. And sometimes, God knows that we must touch. Thomas was not bad. The Resurrection was extraordinary, outrageous, beyond reason, completely ridiculous and unfeasible. Thomas simply wanted to know that his friend and teacher really was alive. And he wanted to know in the way that he needed to know, by touching. And so Jesus accommodated his need without condemnation or shame.
The persistent presence of failure, doubt, and questioning on the part of God’s people is not primarily about people, but about God. The point is not our failure, the point is God’s response. Because I think that making text bold, italic, and surrounding it with flashing and blinking lights is just tacky, let me type that again. The point is God’s response (okay, maybe it is just the blinking part that is really gauche). It is God who is faithful to us. It is God who sees us for who we are. It is God who responds as we need. It is not a matter of whether we are getting it right, but how and where God is working in our lives, through the most mundane of things, situations, people, and relationships.
As I am wont to do, I came home and chattered quite excitedly about today’s sermon. After (far more briefly) summarizing the points above, the 14-year old dweller of my home asked the following: Why is it then that they all say that I am going to hell because I don’t believe, when the apostles didn’t believe until they saw him, and I haven’t touched Jesus?
Blinking for a moment, registering both the (perhaps hypothetical) “I don’t believe” and the remarkable insight of an otherwise morose teenage boy, I responded: “Well, I am not sure who ‘they’ are, but I don’t think Jesus necessarily says that quite so adamantly. Besides, there is a quiet strand of thought in Orthodoxy, a strand gaining considerable volume in recent years, that says that all of us, in this life or the eternal one, will see God. And, once confronted with the love, joy, kindness and peace that is the creator of all, how can any of us, even the most reprobate, respond with anything other than love and delight?”
I mention this not to bring up the possibility of universal salvation (though I might do so in another post), nor to point out to Ross Douthat that not all Christians need hell in quite the way he does, but because the question highlights an underlying problem of Christian certainty: we are so certain that belief comes through the forms and practices we have established, or that are persuasive to us, that when confronted with unbelief, we condemn it. Wouldn’t it be better to at least consider that like the God who meets each of us according to our need, perhaps we too should simply seek to meet the needs of those around us and curb our judgment?
- 1. Plekon, Michael. Hidden Holiness. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. I cannot recommend this book enough, I thoroughly enjoyed Living Icons, and I eagerly await Saints as they Really Are.
- 2. This text is from Fr. Michael’s summary of his plenary presentation at the 2010 Pilgrimage Day of the Communities of New Skete. See their newsletter, p. 9.