Walking Across Hot Coals Back to Love

Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much . . . (Lk. 7:37-47).

It’s humiliating. We labor in ministry and give so much to the Church, yet we still fall flat on our faces and sin against the people we love most—even after years of prayer and service, sacramental life and spiritual reading, Bible studies and holy friendships. We fail to love when the moment is especially hard, when somebody fails to love us. Especially since they’ve failed us before! There is a gory glory in the moment we blow our pious cover, lose our cool, and return fire, guns blazing. But it is short-lived.

Cleaning up the emotional mess left behind can be a soul-chilling, terrifying ordeal. We might actually have to say, “I’m sorry,” might have to summon every ounce of character and our very hopes of heaven, unfairly (we figure) taking some of the blame. All this so our broken loved one can save face and make peace, restore the sanctuary of our home to health, and make way for those particular graces only won with blood and suffering.

It is a torment known to the sinner who suspects she actually does share the blame, and that this pain is a mysterious and beautiful pass-key to the door of heaven itself. I call this familiar exercise “walking across hot coals back to love.”

Gazing up at the Crucifix over the altar, it occurred to me at Mass this week that whenever I fail to love, Jesus is crying out from the Cross, “Why have you forsaken me? Why have you failed to love me in the guise of your husband, or your child, or (fill in the blank)?” And I honestly don’t have an answer except to acknowledge my weakness, hit the confessional, and beg for the grace to do better next time. I narrowly escape despair by the Holy Spirit’s gentle reminder that all things are used for good by God when we trust Him.

But what the heck is really going on here? When things are going well, when I pray my nightly Rosary, read a great meditation, or hear Mass, even during times of suffering, I feel close to God, and to the certainty that His love is all that matters, that I am called to that love above all else. But confront me in a moment of stress or exhaustion with a husband having a bad day or a child in the throes of testing my limits and all that matters in that moment is the blinding certainty that I am right and all must know it or die.

So here’s the question (and yes, this is a test): Should I quit ministry until I’m more holy? Move over to let somebody better take my place? Put aside forever the vexing hypocrisy of a pious exterior and a seething heart struggling with its latest cold war?

Er, no, actually.

From the beginning, this Church of ours has been packed to the rafters with sinners. You’ve heard the old saw, “I don’t go to church any more. It’s filled with hypocrites!” Well, yes. And no. We’re a mixed bag of the best and worst of humanity because we are human and we sin. The Church exists because we need it, not because we deserve it. It provides a family, a home, food for our journey, forgiveness for our sins, encouragement and instruction, a place to contribute, a place to celebrate, a place to begin again each time we fail.

If the Barque of Saint Peter’s crew had to pass a holiness test before setting to sea, it would never leave harbor. As Church we admit our weakness. We take our contradictions and our failures to the foot of the Cross in an attitude of expectation and hope. We rejoice in this holy kinship with the Savior who makes something out of nothing, and saints from people like us.

Obeying the call to serve in the name of Christ is an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus in His humble sacrifice, to receive an outpouring of graces, to set a holy example to our children and grandchildren, to play a small part in the healing of the world—in spite of our weaknesses. In fact, as St. Paul, with a marvelous humility, proudly states in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” That bold trust benefits our souls and those of our families. And when we serve the Body of Christ, we enter into the mysteries of His purpose for our lives and His plan for our salvation.

But we’re not out of the woods, yet. There are hidden dangers in our life of ministry.

Serving the Church, even with its many graces—knowledge of Christ, friendships, camaraderie, creative outlets, encouragement, and inspiration—can also be the downfall of my family life. Ministry saps my time and energy. I miss precious moments with my husband and child that will never come again. And since it’s easier to get dressed up and smile pleasantly and piously at my friends at the parish than it is to look kindly at a loved one who has failed to love, the pleasures of ministry can begin to fill the voids left by my sin in ways that hinder my journey to Christ, by hindering my progress toward my loved ones.

To truly serve God’s purpose, ministry has to take a very distinct second place to our families, the very people who most challenge our weak-kneed virtues, the very ones who intimately know our faults, who suffer daily from our sins, but who love us in their broken human fashion even when all the rest of the world gives us the cold shoulder. These are the ones we are charged to help into heaven. These are the ones charged with helping us.

If my public ministries are to bear fruit, I must tend my little family garden at home with the utmost dedication and humility. For it is in our families more than anywhere else that we find the face of Jesus Christ, vulnerable and unadorned. In the irritable spouse, the moody teenager, the querulous old parent, He asks us to forget success and embrace the sacrifice of Christ’s pure love, again and again and again.

I’d like to share an excerpt from a wonderful little book of Lenten meditations, The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God, by Gerald Vann, OP, which says it all much better than I can:

Let us try then, during this Lent, to learn this lesson from our Lord’s agony: the love of God’s will, the sacrament of the present moment. It is not a question of feelings, of never being sad at what God sends us: we are not to try to be greater than Christ himself. It is a question of learning to see all events, even the smallest, for what they most deeply are: steps in the story of God’s love for man. And if we can learn to do that, then we shall go on to play our small but important part in the unfolding of the story: we shall make all the small events of life things of value for the world as well as for ourselves, by seeing God’s love in them, and so taking them lovingly from his hands and leaving the success or the failure of what we do in his hands. So we shall enter with him into that strengthening of soul which is our need in every time of stress, and that deep and lasting and unfathomable peace of soul which is the quality of all true greatness, the quality of all those who have found the meaning of life by following in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage