“You, In Pain, Are No Closer to God”

Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Mac Svolos, whose brief bio can be found by clicking here.

Today’s liturgical readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time can be found here.

When I was working at a Catholic retreat center and not doing very well personally, one of the things that made life bearable was to go behind the greenhouse and smoke a cigarette once a day, a ritual experience that delivered a complex hit of pleasure, guilt, fear, and relief.  Though I avoided talking about this practice, everyone there certainly knew, especially my close friend Joseph.

On particularly busy days, Joseph would sometimes check in on me, and ask if I needed him to cover for me for a few minutes so I could take a smoke break.  Joseph hated smoking, but he did this for me and for the functioning of our community.  His offer filled me with both gratitude and shame.  I was overwhelmed by his mercy, which I had learned was one of God’s names. My perception of his goodness was only heightened by my own embarrassment and feeling of smallness, my fears that needing this cigarette made me a poor fit for the community and that everyone was secretly mad at me.

The more extreme my own pain and despair became, the more melodramatically abject my own image of myself, the more the smallest kindness from another person seemed like a divine gift.  These thoughtful acts were surely proof that God loved me, I thought; despite what a complete disaster I felt I was, Joseph still treated me like part of the human family.

Today’s Gospel reading finds us at the beach.  Simon, James, and John, have caught nothing all night, but when Jesus commands them to lower their nets, they catch so many fish that the boats threaten to sink.  When Simon sees this, he is amazed and overwhelmed.  He kneels before Jesus and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Many things happen in the Bible.  Implicitly, we understand some of them as being just records of events.  Some characters, in some moments, are models that we should follow.  Sometimes stories are there for us to learn from, but not because the characters’ actions are admirable.

We often read this story as if Simon’s actions are a model for us.  Awestruck by the divine, he drops everything to follow Jesus.  I want to suggest today, however, that some of us need to read Simon’s words not as a model to follow but as a simple illustration of how people sometimes react to kindness.  And this kind of reaction to a divine encounter doesn’t need to characterize our every moment in life.

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  I have spoken these words myself many times.  They are echoed in the old words of the Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.”  They might have meant something different in their time and place, but today they can often sound like a posture of self-flagellation, of refusal to believe in our essential goodness.

What follows in the story are the words of Jesus: “Do not be afraid.”  Jesus sees Simon’s fear and shame and tells him not to be afraid.

Some of us queer Catholics can get stuck in “Depart from me, Lord.”  It’s hard to make it to “Do not be afraid.”

It was hard for me to hear the words of Jesus and really believe them.

I worried that if I had known God in the depths of my shame, maybe God wouldn’t be there anymore if I didn’t feel that bad.

The poet Elle Emerson puts words to this idea in his poem “regarding the röttgen pietà,” a poem that rejects the supposed beauty of suffering:

No one is watching.

So why does it have to be beautiful?

You, in pain, are no closer to god than

You, in the drive thru or

You, checking your email or

You, holding your own hand.

Today, let us pray that we may all truly encounter a God who came to free us from a shame that separates us from others.

Mac Svolos, New Ways Ministry, February 6, 2022

3 replies
  1. Sister Rebecca White
    Sister Rebecca White says:

    This reflection is just what I needed to read today. I used to feel that shame all of the time. I still do, sometimes. I have wondered about our saying “I am not worthy” in the Mass; I don’t think Jesus would want that from us. We are his friends; yes, we are honored by his friendship but unworthy? No.
    Thank you.


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