May 23, 2006

Limit Cases

I enjoy the character of the jailer from today's first reading. To me he illustrates two opposing limits of human freedom.

When he realizes that Paul and Silas have been freed from their chains, he decides that it is his duty to fall on his sword and kill himself. This is one way of looking at ourselves and the world; we can see ourselves in all of our failure to live up to the expectations of ourselves and others. We can see how we have failed in the very things we were meant to have done. We can dwell on how much we have not been the people we are meant to be. We may not take this attitude to logical conclusion of suicide, but we will commit many little acts of suicide, self-hate, and self-sabotage.

This is one limit of human freedom. On the other hand, when the jailer realizes that Paul and Silas haven't gone anywhere he asks, "What must I do to be saved?" This act of vulnerability, of admitting that he lacks something, leads him to baptism. This is the other limit of human freedom.

He goes from preparing to commit suicide to having a baptismal party with his whole household in one paragraph. Quite a turnaround!

We can look at our failure to be perfect, even our failure to be good or what we are meant to be, in two ways. We can hate ourselves because we're imperfect. In the end this kind of self-hate is a form of inverted pride; it assumes that we are supposed to be a genius or a saint.

On the other hand, we can look at our imperfection and accept our vulnerability and humiliation. And when we do this we can enter a school of prayer, and come to the right dependence of a creature on God.

So there are the choices for the broken and imperfect creature. Hate yourself because of it and tend toward suicide, or learn vulnerability and humility from it and tend toward God.


Don said...

I've been thinking a lot about perfection. It just doesn't exist in the world. God is perfect but nothing else is. One of our own Native American tribes deliberately knit an imperfection into each blanket they made. This imperfection was the mark of the Creator. Perhaps our obsession with perfection is more a sin than sin and imperfection in themselves.

Brother Charles said...

It did a lot for me one day when a spiritual director pointed out to me that perfection can be an idol. That is to say that perfection can become our God all too easily.

Thanks for writing in!