Thursday, November 15, 2012

The True Story of Mankind

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father, having embraced his son of his return, gives this instruction: “Bring quickly the best robe…” (Lk 15:22). In the Greek text, it says ‘the first robe’, and that is how the Fathers read and understood it. For them, the robe is the robe in which Adam was created and which he lost after he had grasped at likeness to God. All the clothes subsequently worn by man are only a poor substitute for the light of God coming from within, which was Adam’s true ‘robe’.

Thus is reading the account of the Prodigal Son and his return, the Fathers heard the account of Adam’s fall, the fall of man (cf Gen 2:7), and interpreted Jesus’ parable as a message about the return home and reconciliation of mankind as a whole. The man who in faith returns home receives back the first robed, is clothed again in the mercy and love of God, which are his true beauty.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 219-220

Reflection – It’s always a nice sensation when you have written an entire book on a subject to find out that the Pope agrees with you! The above passage from Ratzinger could serve precisely as a thesis statement for my new book Going Home, which I just launched last night in Ottawa. (The launch seemed to go quite well, by the way… sold a few books, anyhow!).

Not to introduce a morbid note to the proceedings, but I have left instructions for my funeral Mass that, in fact, I want the Gospel to be the parable of the prodigal son, precisely because of what Ratzinger says here: it is the story of all mankind. And it is my story. It’s all about going home – everything, that is. It’s all about getting back our real clothes, and entering our real house, and being embraced by our Real Father, and taking up the real work and life of the human person, which is to be loved and to love, to receive mercy and to give it.

Well, it was a bit of a late night last night, what with the drive back from Ottawa. To be honest, I’m a wee bit tired this morning. So in the tradition of lazy authors everywhere, I’m enclosing, below the fold, an excerpt from Going Home about precisely this matter of identity, symbolized by the ‘first robe’ the father places on us:

So who am I in all this, anyway? Who are you? Who is this prodigal son – what does he have to say for himself? So far we’ve explored the path from home to the pig sty and back again, and grappled with the fact that this seems to be the only path available to us – from sin to mercy or back again to sin. We’ve looked at the awesome reality of mercy—who the Father is. We’ve explored the difficult call to repentance—what He asks of us. This is the drama we are engaged in, this story of the prodigal son. Our story, each one of us.

But who are we in all this? Who is this person – me, you, anyone – who is embroiled in this drama, beckoned down this path, struggling along the road? What are we to say about this wayward son, this mangy cur who’s had his fun, starved himself half to death, and now staggers home at the end of it all? What are we to say about ourselves – sinners who repent, sinners who don’t repent, receiving forgiveness, turning away again, and back again, and then away, maybe never quite renouncing the Father’s love, but usually struggling at least a bit to receive his embrace?

The robe, the ring, the sandals – do they fit us, really? The Father seems to think so, and keeps putting them back onto us, however many times he has to. But they hang a bit loose on us, to our eyes. They keep slipping off. They don’t seem to be quite tailored for us, not quite fitted to our measurements. We swim in them. They itch. They’re a bit too grand, a bit too good for the likes of us. But who are we, then? What’s our true place in all this drama?

Are we just miserable, loathsome, repellent creatures? Does guilt, shame, disgust with our filthy selves prevent us from receiving the Father’s gifts? Do we keep shrugging off those royal garments, sure that He’s made some mistake? ‘Oh no, sir, I’ll just wear these rags… no please, you can see I’m a bit ‘piggy’ right now. They’ll just get stained, and ermine is so hard to launder.’

Or are we oblivious to all of this? I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam, we can say with Popeye the sailor man. ‘Born that way,’ as the current cultural trope has it. No guilt, because I’m not accountable to anyone. No shame, because there’s no one to hide from, no one whose opinion matters to me, nobody whose judgment I especially care about. No need for any silly robe, ring, or sandals—my own clothes suit me just fine, thank you very much. The pride of the devil: I happen to like pig manure, and no, I am not hungry!!!

Who am I, anyway? It seems to me that I veer between these two. I go between this sense that the robe, ring, and sandals, the Father’s embrace and kiss cannot possibly be for me, cannot possibly be meant for stinky old me, and on the other hand the heedless shrug, the hardened heart, the willful thrusting away of moral responsibility. I will do as I please, and no one, no, not God Himself, has any right to say a word about it. And then, in the silence of the night, that knife thrust of guilt, that bitter poison of shame, that inner sense of carrying a deep wrong in my person, of being under judgment, of not just having done evil but of being evil, being wrong somehow in my very identity.
Guilt and the repudiation of guilt, shame and shamelessness. Such are our options, so long as we don’t have a Father. Such is the bleak picture of humanity, if there is no mercy to be had from heaven. This is the table d’hôte menu at that most exclusive restaurant Chez Humain – an all-you-can-stomach buffet of bitter choking guilt, or icy cold conscience-killing shamelessness, if God is not serving us something better from His menu at Chez Divin. Hey, could anyone else go for a bit of fatted calf right about now?..

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