On Being with the Blessed

By Dorsey McConnell

A few years ago, I led a conference on forgiveness for the clergy of the Diocese of Soroti in northeastern Uganda. These pastors had endured together the privations of 30 years of civil war and insurgency, had comforted the families whose children had been abducted to serve as child soldiers, and had in many instances buried those same children from the battlefield. They had seen human suffering on a scale that is hard for most of us to imagine. 

And they had also, over the years, let each other down, sometimes tragically. Under the pressures of war, they had sometimes abandoned one another, even betrayed each other, and they had never spoken about it until this day. After a few hours of teaching and prayer, the bishop stood up and asked for their forgiveness for his own failings, and then he sat down, and I opened the floor to anyone who wished to speak from their heart. A tense silence filled the room. It lasted for five minutes, then ten. I looked at the faces before me and saw so much pain and fear. I was hugely tempted to stand up and say something, but God kept me quiet and in my chair. I just waited and prayed, and the clock ticked on. 

We are accustomed to seeing in the saints of God their courageous witness and their admirable virtue. We are perhaps less accustomed to seeing their feet of clay, their shortcomings, their misguided passions, and the harm they caused along with the good. Saint Paul, I am sure, could be miserable to live with, Francis of Assisi could be uncharitable, the Blessed Virgin Mary could be downright pushy, Mother Teresa could be despondent and waspish, and Catherine of Siena was, frankly, as crazy as a hoot owl. 

It might be that the saints of God, as the children’s hymn suggests, are just like everybody else, only more so, and the purest test of that would be to think of the numbers of them who now inhabit the eternal glory of God’s presence but who opposed each other bitterly on earth. The tragedy of the saints is not the martyrdom many of them endured, and still endure, as they bear courageous witness before the rulers of this world. 

The tragedy of the saints lies in how often, in how many different contexts, and for how many absurd reasons, we have strung one another up, burned each other at the stake, and otherwise violently helped one another over the threshold of heaven, all in the name of Jesus. It is a testimony to the fallenness of human nature, and to the incredible patience and long-suffering of God himself that he did not shut the door on all of us a long time ago, at least as far as we know.

So, of whom could Jesus possibly be thinking when he teaches about the blessedness of the meek, the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for justice? To all accounts, few of those whom he had chosen as his friends manifested any of those qualities: think of the ambition and temper of James and John, the vacillation of Simon Peter, the mutual envy and suspicion of them all as they frequently discussed who was the greatest, their utter lack of spiritual aptitude in thinking, for example, they could cast out demons without actually bothering to pray. 

Most often, when the evangelists are looking for examples of faith, they reach not into the Lord’s inner circle but deep into the crowds that flocked to him: it is not in a convention of the saints they find the hungry and meek and poor in spirit, but in the woman who reaches through the mob to touch the garment of Jesus, in blind Bartimaeus who cries out, “Son of David have mercy on me!,” in the Samaritan leper who throws himself in gratitude at the Lord’s feet, in the woman at the well who tastes his mercy and from then on can’t stop talking about it.

And yet, surely the Lord is talking about us as well. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus called that particular group of 12 around him because he knew they were the hardest cases he could find. Maybe we are all in the same category, all of us together, laity and clergy, along with your bishop. 

Many of you already know my favorite story about the great Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who always had a little chat with his candidates for priesthood right before their ordination. “You might consider,” he would say, “that the only reason God may have called you to Holy Orders was as a last resort to save your soul.” 

So, I think when Jesus spoke of the meek and the hungry and the poor in spirit, and looked around at James, John, and Peter and the rest, he was thinking of them too — thinking of us, too, not of our natural virtues, which are pretty much non-existent; but rather thinking about the gift he was going to give them, give us, the gift of his life, the gift of himself. 

You see, if you were to take all of those qualities and apply them, in a sort of composite, to one person, the only identity that would come up on your screen would be Jesus. He alone has by nature all of those qualities he attributes to the blessed. And the most wonderful, most shocking, most desperately beautiful thing about the cross of Christ is that through the self-offering of Jesus, God not only forgives our sin, not only applies to us the righteousness of his Son, but also bestows upon us his innocence as well, lays his character upon us as something that can start to soak into us, so that we become more like him by degrees, until the moment when we will wake up in his likeness. 

We can struggle and fight with him as much as we like, but if we have said yes to his hand upon us, we’re captive to mercy and doomed to Heaven, I’m afraid, destined by sovereign election and grace to become as like him as possible. And the question he implicitly puts forward to us all the time, in every word of his, is this: If that is what you will look like in Heaven, why not start acting like it now? 

Of course, the reason we don’t is that we are afraid: afraid of God, afraid of judgment, afraid of each other, afraid of others’ judgments about us, afraid of ourselves, afraid of just about everything, quite frankly. It’s very sad: we really want to do our best and to become our best selves, and when I imagine what I look like at my best, it still doesn’t look a lot like Jesus, but more like me, only a lot bigger, and then I’m afraid the Church doesn’t look like that, which it doesn’t, and won’t and can’t, and that makes me even more afraid. But after I read the list of the Beatitudes a few hundred times, I begin to see that the Lord isn’t talking about any particular saint, even in a perfected state, but only about all of us together. Our growing up into the likeness of Christ is not each of us doing so, but only all of us doing so, together, as he shapes us into his body, the body of Christ. 

So if we are going to become like this, in this diocese, I think that means that we are going to have to develop the habit of thinking and acting and loving like Jesus — forgiving one another and helping one another, developing the habit of giving up power, and yielding control, and making room for the one we don’t trust, and sitting with the one whose very principles we find reprehensible. We will need to confess without warning and forgive without being asked and develop the habit of finding the enemy in our midst and holding onto them for dear life — I mean our life, not theirs. 

We will have to do it tonight, and do it again tomorrow, and begin to do it all over again on Sunday, and do it again one hour, one day, one year at a time, for years, if we want to be actually useful to God, if we wish to have now a taste of the joy he intends for us in eternity. If all that seems impossible for you, you are right. It is. For you, just as it is for me. But all things are possible for God, and if we really want it, he will make it happen. Once we see this impossible mercy break out before our eyes, I believe we will never settle for anything less.

In that tense room in Soroti, the silence was finally broken by a priest who stood up and began a faltering confession. Immediately some people began to smirk, while others rolled their eyes, and then some snapped angrily, and others made to leave the room until the bishop’s wife stood up and called everyone to account, called them back to the cross, and they all sat down, and after a few moments the brother continued his confession. It took several minutes. At the end he began to weep, until he could not go on, and then he sat down. No one comforted him. All just looked at the floor. Then a man at the back began to sing an old song: 

Ituritete ijo Yesu
Irai ijo okoku ka Edeke.

It was an old salvation song from the days of the missionaries, a song about the Cross, a child’s song of trust in the utter mercy of God. And the whole room took up the rest of the verse. And then there was quiet again, until someone else stood up and confessed, and wept and sat, and the whole room sang again, and on it went for hours, until, by the middle of the afternoon, people were looking at each other and comforting one another, and laughing at their foolishness and their sin, until you could feel something had shifted for good in the lives of God’s Church, in the lives of the blessed. And as we went out, the bishop grabbed my hand and grinned and wept and said through his tears: “It is going to work! It is going to work!” And, years later, it is still working in Teso.

And I believe it is working here, in Pittsburgh. I don’t know if it will (in the end) help our numbers, or solve our budget problems, but I do know it is what Jesus wants: our full reconciliation with God and each other, and what Jesus wants, Jesus gets. So if you want that also, try something this evening. Imagine the person in this room who most troubles you. As you come up to Communion, call them to mind; but see them in this way: imagine that you have been found worthy, by the blood of the Lamb, to come to the gate of Heaven; and imagine it is that troublesome one who opens the door for you and welcomes you. 

Imagine they are the one who washes your feet, and clothes you in the wedding garment. And remember that, since it is Jesus who has already done this for you, you might do the same for them. Think what it would be like, at the threshold of the throne room, what joy to greet them, wash them, clothe them. Then receive here the Body and Blood, and ask how you can begin to do that for them now. 

And if you think this is all a pointless exercise, that we don’t owe such love to our enemies, or even if we did we could never come up with it, that we should be about other things, then just think for a moment what your life would have been like had you never met Jesus, think how far God has brought you since the time you first knew God is real and that he loves you. And think, if God could have brought you so far in a few years of this life, then surely he will bring us together all the way to him in the next. On the way, if we will only say yes, he will genuinely teach us to love one another as do the truly meek, the rightly hungry, the deeply poor in spirit, and he will use us to welcome many others into the company of the blessed.

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell was the 8th Bishop of Pittsburgh.


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