Friday, April 12, 2019 - Updated: 1:34 pm
In his book, “Descending Fire: The Journal of a Soul Aflame,” Father Jean Petit cites St. Thérèse of Lisieux as having said that she liked “to see fruits fall before they are ripe.”
He goes on to say that in “the spiritual domain, the air of death of damaged fruit bears within itself the mystery of love.” He meditates on the paradox that “the more we taste the bitterness of our apparently unsuccessful work, the more the divine fire quickens our soul and works in us what our weakness cannot accomplish.”
In a world that tries to convince us that when we do not succeed we are nothing but failures, we resist the truth proclaimed of the apostle Paul, “… God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
We do not like to appear foolish in the eyes of others. We may falsify our own conscience by compromising what is right to meet with the approval of those with whom we work. If lying makes us look wiser in public, we may place truth in a private compartment.
There is so much pressure on us to be successful that we hate to admit that, no matter how much we try, we risk falling short of our goals. In the realm of faith, we are always going to be “damaged fruit” in need of redemption.
Will we ever be ready to say with St. Paul, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me … for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
How is it possible to connect the extent of our being damaged by personal and social sin with the mystery of love? In this one thought, Father Petit summarizes the humble fact that without God we can do nothing. He echoes St. Paul’s revelation that “… God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Damaged though we are, God found us loveable enough to be saved. Scripture testifies to the truth that through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ on the cross our damaged being has been divinized by redemptive love.
By contrast, how terrible it is to conclude that a child showing “damages” in the womb would be better off aborted. Or that an elder suffering from severe memory loss and multiple organ failure ought to be euthanized.
From the richest to the poorest person in the world, being damaged fruit is a reality. When we walk in the truth of who we are, we are not alone. With Paul, we find ourselves content with “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
The dying coals of our mortal life can only be set aflame by God’s love. Amid disappointments, betrayals of the Gospel, failed plans and suffering that never seems to cease, we feel, much to our amazement, that the more we decrease, the more “the divine fire quickens our soul.” This is the story of sanctity repeated many times over in our faith and formation tradition.
Peter, who denied Jesus three times, became the rock on which Christ built his church. The early martyrs, bloodied by wild beasts, turned hardened hearts to Christ. A 24-year-old Carmelite nun, dying of tuberculosis, became a saint and Doctor of the Church, who vowed to spend her heaven casting roses on earth.
The “divine flame,” the fire and light of the Holy Spirit, “works in us what our weakness cannot accomplish.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis, wrote a book that explains for every follower of Jesus “The Cost of Discipleship.” St. Teresa of Kolkata witnessed to the truth that we are placed by God on this earth not to be successful but to be faithful.
Each of these holy people, and countless other named and unnamed saints, felt no shame in their being damaged fruit. What ripened them in time and for eternity was the humility they exuded; the detachment from power, pleasure and possession they practiced; and the charity that flowed through them to a broken world.
It is because we are not self-reliant that we acknowledge our dependence on God for everything, from the air we breathe to the good deeds we do, whether they are recognized by the world or not.
Jesus wants us to be sanctified in the truth that without him we can do nothing. The damage done to him on the cross did not result in death, but in the defeat of death. We rise with him not because we are perfect, but because in body, mind and spirit we need to be perfected.
Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He turns a merciful eye toward the damaged fruit we are so that we may “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Let us offer in thanksgiving for our faults, our frailty, our failures, Father Petit’s “Universal Prayer”:
My God, who has permitted these times of persecution, let the intensity of love replace its vast expanse, the height of flame replace the number of fires, and make its burning heat equal to the perilous dangers of the entire world.
Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.