Daytime prayer from the Divine Office for today had a phrase in one of the psalm prayers that caught my attention: “Come, examine your Church and wash her clean of sin.” When I read that phrase it hit me like a ton of bricks, effecting an instant paradigm change.
You see, when I read the first part my first reaction was one of fear. I recoiled. I don’t want to be examined. For some reason I have always had a fear of anyone looking at me too closely, especially people I care about; most especially God. I am afraid of what they will see. There is a lot about me that I don’t like. I expect others to dislike it as much as I do. I expect rejection, or condemnation. Especially from God, I feel like if someone else sees how unworthy I am, I will stand condemned.
The more I read and talk to other people, the more convinced I am that this is not an unusual feeling. In fact, I have come to believe that everyone in the world feels this deep seated sense of unworthiness. As in my case, growing up as I did with incredibly supportive parents who take immeasurable pride in every good thing I have ever done and never hesitate to tell me so, you would think if anyone would be free of it, I ought to be but that is not the case, because that is not the source. It is not a product of upbringing or childhood neglect or an insufficient education. All of these can compound or mitigate it, but the thing itself is much deeper. It is, quite simply, Original Sin.
It takes so many shapes, this existential shame. Every human being experiences it, because every human being, deep down at his core, is in fact unworthy. No one can be worthy of what we were created for. It is sheer gift, unearned and unasked for. In the beginning, in Eden, this unworthiness was not a source of shame, but of joy. Adam and Eve delighted to receive the gifts they had not earned, and joyfully accepted being eternally in His debt. That is our nature. We were created to be cheerful beggars.
Perhaps it was rejection of that joy, and seeking to be self sufficient, equal with God, that was the core of their sin. Certainly the first thing that they did after sinning was to hide. First they hid from each other by making clothes, and then they hid from God. Why? Their hiding was the root of our fear of being examined. We desperately want to be seen intimately and loved totally, and we desperately fear being seen intimately and found unworthy, rejected, or treated as an object. And because each human being is born with that deep seated awareness of unworthiness, we assume on some level that anyone who does really see us will see our unworthiness.
It takes many forms. The husband who can’t understand why, no matter how many times he tells his wife that she is beautiful, that she is precious to him, she brushes him off or doesn’t seem to believe him, but she gets upset with him if he never says it. This is because she deeply needs to be told that she is worthy but only one voice is strong enough to tell her permanently, and that is God’s voice. That is why she needs to hear it from her husband, but his voice alone will never fully convince her. However, if his love is true love, meaning that God is teaching him how to love, then his voice will become more and more convincing, because more and more it will be God’s voice speaking through his. The same is true for the husband who never believes he is good enough, or makes enough money, or whatever. He needs to trust that when his wife speaks to him out of true love, it is a way in which God speaks to him.
But when I read the second half of that phrase, “And wash her clean of sin,” something shifted in my head and my eyes opened. I was willing to allow God to examine me, endure it as a necessity, but the prayer of the Church invites me to look forward to His examination and welcome it with joy and even eagerness. Why? Because the purpose of that examination is precisely to heal me of my sin. God wants to heal that deep, fundamental skew that makes me so afraid. The purpose of the examination makes all the difference, and His purpose is not to condemn. It has never been to condemn. It is to heal.
It is as if we said to the doctor, “No! Don’t look at me! I am sick!” “Well of course you are sick, you dunce! And if I do not look at you, you will stay that way.” In her daily prayer the Church is inviting me to trust in God’s desire and ability to make me clean, and to be so eager for that cleansing that I accept, and invite, and welcome with open arms that vulnerabilityof being seen in all my naked unworthiness.
I wonder if that isn’t what life is all about. Certain parts of it do seem to be in preparation for that vulnerability. Opening up and allowing friends to see into your heart a little bit; the nakedness of husband and wife, (physical and emotional); most especially the sacrament of Confession; heck, even the decrepitude of old age, and allowing someone else to wipe your but for you, if accepted graciously and joyfully, even that is a preparation for meeting God.
There is much to be learned from just that one phrase, but mostly I guess it can be summed up by saying, “Be not afraid.”
He loves us.