Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavor end?
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
If success in this world, never mind the numerous and noisy proponents of the health and wealth gospel, is not a condition for salvation in the next, on what basis will our happiness in heaven depend? How will we be judged?
The answer is fidelity.
I thought of that the other day while watching “Person of Interest,” a weekly detective thriller staring the soulful looking Jim Caviezel. Do you know him? He’s the hero with the deep-set blue eyes and soft-spoken voice, who barely breaks a sweat, or wrinkles his shirt, while faultlessly dispatching a dozen or so villains in each and every action-packed episode.
More importantly, however, he was the fellow whose stunning portrayal of Christ back in 2004 in the Mel Gibson movie, Passion of the Christ, riveted audiences everywhere. His performance proved so compelling, in fact, that in suspending disbelief the viewer could easily imagine the actual horror of crucifixion exactly as depicted on the screen. But no sooner had the film been made, the poor fellow couldn’t seem to get a job making movies. At the time something seemed seriously wrong with that picture.
On the other hand, why should he have been treated any differently than the character he played in the film? (Now he’s back, of course, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad career move after all.)
Meanwhile, in an interview around the same time but before he became Pope Benedict XVI, the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was asked if he didn’t think it a bit off-putting to find that much of what he had worked so hard to accomplish as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had seemingly come to grief. All those warnings unheeded, appeals unheard. So much effort, so little return. His response? “I never imagined that I could, so to speak, redirect the rudder of history. And if our Lord himself ends up on the Cross, one sees that God’s ways do not lead immediately to measurable success.”
Success, as someone once said, is not a biblical category. Donald Trump continues to be a success. Mother Teresa never was. And for a while there Jim Caviezel ceased to be one.
“For most of us,” the poet Eliot writes in lines taken from Four Quartets, “this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying.
How tempting it is to become discouraged when we see how paltry the results of the work we actually do for God. Or any work, for that matter, undertaken for good and honorable ends. In looking over the account books, is it not dismaying to realize the little we have to show for the job? One thinks of the wretched Whiskey Priest in Graham Greene’s moving novel, The Power and the Glory, who realizes at the very end of a bleak and broken life, “only an immense disappointment,” spent amid the detritus of a failed priesthood. “What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody. I might just as well have never lived.” It is the day of his death and the bitter tears pour down his face as he contemplates the prospect of going home to God with empty hands. And so tormenting himself with thoughts of how different the world and his life could have been had he only tried a little harder to be a saint, he goes to his death seared with the certainty of knowing “that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.” Indeed, not to be a saint is the only real sadness.
And yet, for all the arrant weakness and dereliction shown by Greene’s character, it is not the conclusion intended by the author. Nor the reader, for that matter, who comes away wholly convinced that, at the final trumps, the grace of God carries the priest triumphantly into paradise. It will not be the stain of defeat and dishonor that we remember; it will be the sweet odor of sanctity that survives his passing. In this, of course, Greene’s protagonist will resemble the young curate dying of consumption in the Bernanos novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, whose entries read like a confession of recurrent failure spoken before God himself. Yet whose very last words will faithfully and uncannily reproduce the mysterious and prophetic sentence spoken by Therese of Lisieux, Saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church, as she too lay dying from consumption: Tout est grace (Everything is grace).
In the end it will be the saints who, despite all worldly appearance, leave the deepest mark of all. And can anyone tell me the name of a single saint who thought well of himself, or herself? Whose self-assessment, in short, would suggest something of that Rotarian optimism and good cheer we associate with the well-adjusted? They were all, I suspect, fairly pitiless on the subject of their own status and prospects; it was only toward others, especially the poor and unloved, that they exercised a forbearance not to be found among mere mortals. And, yes, they were the very last on the block to learn how holy they truly were; it was always someone else who, sniffing the air, detected the unmistakable scent of sanctity.
The story is told of St. Philip Neri, who, instructed to interview an alleged saint living in the neighborhood, knocks at the front door of the convent where “her holiness” lives. And when the answer is given, “I am she,” Philip at once ends the interview and walks resolutely away.
As I write this I note that it will soon be the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga (June 21), a young man from a princely family who, no sooner having renounced wealth and power to join the Society of Jesus, fell victim to the plague then raging in the city of Rome; indeed, he contracted the pestilence while ministering to its many victims. His death, at age twenty-three, strikes the modern reader as a horrible waste. Why even the holiness of his own ambition, which was to become a missionary sent to a distant land, there to suffer heroic martyrdom, was likewise cruelly thwarted by antic circumstance.
Perhaps so but it is foolish to speculate about such things. Because the call of God is for us to be faithful at this moment in whatever place or capacity it may please him to put us. It is not our business to question the worth of what we’re called to do; only to try our best in doing it for him, leaving it all to God to determine the outcome of the effort. Isaiah long ago had the sense of it when, transcribing the prophecy of the Lord, wrote: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God” (49:4).
So let the One who knows the score—keep score.
Editor’s note: The above photograph depicts the 1927 execution of Francisco Vera, priest-martyr of the Mexican Cristero war.