Why carry rocks around?

By 
  • March 5, 2010
Long ago, I let a friend down. It’s still vivid in my memory. I’d promised, but at the last minute I phoned up and cancelled, leaving her in the lurch. She was cold and angry on the phone; we hung up quickly. I couldn’t blame her; I’d hurt her. Though I’d apologized, the effects remained.

I don’t know what happened with her, because she stopped speaking to me. But for me, a burden was created which I long carried: guilt. A paralysing burden. Perhaps part of me was reluctant to put it down, as though staggering under it would gain me points, and enough collected points would earn me forgiveness. This type of guilt, someone observed to me, is like a knapsack full of rocks strapped to one’s back: a dead weight that gradually, increasingly wearies the bearer.

In the movie The Mission, Rodrigo kills his brother. Assisted by Fr. Gabriel, he turns to Christ and accompanies the Jesuits in their mission work. Rodrigo undertakes a penance: he climbs with the Jesuits up the rock cliff of Iguazu Falls, dragging a sack filled with his armour and weapons. A strong man, he suffers immensely bearing the weighted sack. Finally one of the others tells Fr. Gabriel he believes it’s time to let him stop carrying that. “I’m not the one who’s deciding when he can cut it loose,” replies the priest:  “He is.”

How many of us carry a sackful of rocks, weapons or armour? Do we feel it’s God’s will we suffer, that a fitting punishment will somehow earn us salvation? Such thinking is a subtle inversion of the truth of mercy and repentance. Repentance, indeed, brings about real change, inner and outer; it’s a response to the experience of God’s love, drawing us away from sin into life. Guilt, carried as a dead weight, can convince us we must change in order to be welcomed by God.

Truth without mercy is like that. It shows us ourselves, sinful, weak, deserving nothing, needing everything. It seems just and accurate, and in a sense it is. But it’s a partial truth which becomes a lie, for there can be no truth without mercy. 

We’re never asked to see our own sin except in light of God’s mercy; never asked to see ourselves, except as God’s beloved, created in His image, however tattered and torn that image may be. One of the great Christian tragedies is the prevalence of the idea that we must earn love and forgiveness.

Accompanying it is the loss of a sense of mercy, the healing oil that flows through our lives. Guilt may be powerful; mercy is deeper, stronger, eternal.

Mercy isn’t orderly, though. It can mess up our neat categories of “good” and “bad,” “righteous” and “unworthy.” The Pharisee thought he was right with God and the publican sinful; he didn’t know the publican was at that very moment, at the other end of the temple, opening himself to God’s mercy. On another occasion, the assembled crowd was sure Zacchaeus was a bad man; they didn’t know that even as he climbed a tree to see over them, his heart was turned to repentance and his home ready to receive God’s mercy in the person of Christ. 

Likely we are indeed guilty, each of us. Guilt without mercy can keep us stuck, paralysed, packed with dead-weight rocks, blinded, misled. As we move more deeply into Lent, we may not find our churches filled to the rafters. Sometimes it’s hard for people to turn to Lent. Perhaps we associate it with guilt and punishment, and who wants that? Maybe Lent seems boring, rote and meaningless, as we really don’t understand what it’s about. Or maybe it’s just hard to face ourselves.

Whatever the reason, if we stay away from Lent we’re choosing the harder path. Lent, after all, is easier than Easter. Easter, resurrection, life to the full, eternity: these are transcendent realities that humble our understanding. How can we possibly cross over into them? Lent, that’s how. The secret of Lent is to discover the resurrection in it — to begin today to receive the Resurrection.

Christ is risen now; we’re not awaiting a future event. Lent is not a matter of collecting merit points by punishing ourselves, but an invitation to drink from the well of God’s love for us. Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century monk, said we can break away from sin only in the measure that we experience the love of God. Lent gives a way to experience that limitless love without, in our littleness, being destroyed by it.

None of us undertakes Lent alone, yet none can decide for another how to live it. Instead of debating whether Easter could possibly be real, or if Christ really rose from the dead, we can taste resurrection for ourselves this Lent.

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