In 2014, I’m reading and blogging through Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus. Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next meditation in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.
In this week’s reading, Pope Francis discusses a prideful kind of hope, that redirects and tarnishes our natural desire to serve:
We are permeated with vanities of every sort, but the most common type of vainglory among us is defeatism. Vainglorious is the person who prefers to be the general of defeated armies rather than a simple soldier in a squadron that continues to fight on even when it has been devastated. How often we dream of expansionist apostolic plans that are really those of defeated generals Curiously, in such cases, we deny the history of our Church, which is glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifices, of hopes, of daily struggles.
This passage spoke to a certain kind of vainglory I’ve indulged in my heart more times than I care to admit. When I am in the midst of conflict with other people, I like to imagine being nice to them and being rebuffed, so I feel like the bigger person, especially good since my goodness wasn’t recognized or valued. But this does cast me as the defeated general. When I sally forth, my goal is not just to do the right thing for myself, but to heal the wound between myself and my antagonist, so we can both love each other as we ought. If I walk away, having technically performed charitable acts, but without reconciliation or even the desire for it, I’ve gained nothing for either of us in the battle.
I see this error repeated in the Church, at least in America, where there seems to be a positive delight, in some quarters, at being turned back. No one should really be quoting Cardinal Francis George’s prediction “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square” with relish. Being willing to suffer humiliation or persecution for the sake of Christ is different from desiring that these miseries be visited upon you.
If you want to experience some kind of redemptive suffering, walk in the wind without a muffler. The wind isn’t harmed by causing you harm. But persecution requires a persecutor, and Christians should never hope to see their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ cast in that role. Even if it would make us feel really cool and badass for resisting.
When we’re engaged in a fight for a good cause, it’s natural to expect pain, or even feel discomfited if it isn’t present. After all, in physical exertions, a reasonable amount of pain and discomfort is the signal that you’re actually exerting yourself. But, just as it would do no good for your muscles to slam your hand in a door, even if it really hurt, there are a lot of ways to suffer that do nothing for us and for our enemies–or rather, estranged friends.
Sometimes, the thing that’s required in the fight is a very small, foot-soldier kind of service, that doesn’t make us feel important or impressive, or that our full strength was required. I have to remember that the pain of humility is also a signal that I’m putting in effort, and strengthening my moral fibers. It’s not as exciting sounding as showy, self-focused acts of put-upon charity, but it’s the service that’s required and the strength that I need.