A Joyful Paradox

Douglas McManaman
January 30, 2022
Homily: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

There's an interesting paradox that I'd like to focus on in order to shed some light on these readings (Is 6:1-2a, 3-8; Lk 5:1-11). The paradox I am referring to has to do specifically with the knowledge and appreciation of art. If we've watched any of the popular talent shows that are current (American Idol; Britain's Got Talent, etc.), we likely would have seen at least one person, who has no sense of how bad a singer he or she really is, get up and make somewhat of a fool of themselves. Something similar happens in painting and even music composition. When we start out, we tend to think that what we painted is actually very good, but a few years down the road, with more experience and skill, we look back and are surprised to discover how deficient it really was. Why didn't we see it then?

There's a certain blindness at the start, because we are not well disposed, that is, have not acquired the skill to paint, sing, or compose music. The more skilled we become, the more we see from within that our earlier works were not that good at all. But what happens is that as we improve, we begin to appreciate works of greater quality, and so our ability to enjoy great works of art or musical composition increases as we become more adept. But this experience involves a bit of a paradox. I'm an amateur artist, nothing more. I don't have artistic genius, but I notice and appreciate artistic genius when I see it. Many times, while visiting the art gallery, I'll stand before a work and be captivated by it; I'd marvel at it. It's an experience of beholding something much larger and much more magnificent than anything I could produce. At the same time, however, I realize how deficient an artist I really am, next to these masterpieces. And so, it is a positive and rich experience, but it is made possible by a willingness to accept a negative experience, namely, an acute awareness of my own lack of artistic genius and skill. If I was closed to that negative experience, I would not be able to enjoy or appreciate great masterpieces; I would subconsciously refuse to notice the grandeur of the work, only because I refuse to see my own incompetence.

Something analogous happens in the spiritual life. In the first reading, Isaiah has a vision:

I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above. They cried one to the other, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!" At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips,

In the presence of this other worldly holiness, Isaiah becomes acutely aware of his own "uncleanness". And in the gospel of today, in the presence of Jesus who works a miracle that reveals his dominion over nature, Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." John the Baptist experienced the same thing when he said: "I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals". The Roman Centurion also said something similar: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed".

All these people experienced something extraordinary, much larger than their own lives; they encountered the divine holiness, and it was against this background that they felt their own profound unworthiness. It was a negative experience, but it was a necessary condition that made possible the magnificent and awe-inspiring experience of the divine. That's what purgatory is going to be like, according to St. Catherine of Genoa. The pain of purgatory, she says, will be greater than the greatest pain on earth, but that pain will be more joyful than the greatest joys that this world can offer. It is a joyful pain, the experience of a delightful unworthiness.

But this experience of deep unworthiness or uncleanness is also a necessary preamble to a mission. Isaiah is given a prophetic mission, but before he can be sent out on that mission, to carry it out, he needed that painful experience, and after that purification, he was given a power, from above, for the sake of that mission.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it, and said, "See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" "Here I am," I said; "send me!"

Isaiah was not acting on the basis of egotistical self-confidence. He knew from within that he is nothing, that his lips are unclean. But that experience and the acceptance of it allowed him to be open to empowerment from above. From then on, he will act on the strength the Lord provides, not on his own resources.

It is the same with Peter and the rest of the 12; they knew their own sinfulness to the core. They abandoned Jesus on Holy Thursday night. Peter spoke with great confidence, completely blind to his own fragility: "Even if all fall away on account of You, I never will," only to be told that "before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times". And that was a horribly painful experience for him when it actually happened. But only then can he carry out the mission on which Christ sent him, because only then will he rely completely on the strength that God provides. He had to be convinced that from himself, he could expect nothing. But as St. Paul said: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me". We won't rely on the Lord if we are under illusions about our own abilities.

Years ago, a priest I know said to me: "I need you to pray for me. I'm going off to New York to visit my own spiritual director, and I'm going through a very difficult period. The Lord is revealing to me my sinfulness, my superficiality, my pride, and I need your prayers". I was troubled somewhat, for this man is so far ahead of me in the spiritual life; he has a tremendous charism when hearing confessions, he's a great preacher and does so much good for the faithful every day--and he tells me this? It seems we never really arrive.

As we approach our death, I believe these experiences become more frequent. They prepare us for a deeper union with God. The more that light shines through a window, the more we are able to see the dirt, and it is the same for the soul. The more the Lord draws closer to us, the more we can see our own uncleanness. We must remember to be open to that and embrace the experience, regardless of how difficult it is at first. The sooner we empty ourselves of the illusions we have about ourselves, the more fitting an instrument we will be in God's hands and the sooner we will begin to experience the joy and peace of being permeated with the divine light.