If the call to holiness strikes us as boring, then it’s time for an examination of conscience and imagination
By Father John Connaughton
"Few people want to be saints these days, but everyone is trying to lose weight.” When I first read these words from French Catholic thinker René Girard, it sounded like a joke. What was he talking about?
I thought about it some more and realized that Girard is, in fact, saying something important about human desire. What is life all about? What do we live for? As Catholics, we believe that the greatest aspiration of the human heart, the most noble goal we can desire for ourselves and those we love, is sanctity. We should want to be saints. But strangely, our imaginations are often so impoverished and our hearts so atrophied that we long for the greatness of sanctity less than we long to fit comfortably in our jeans.
Girard’s insight is not an original one. Jesus speaks of it in his parable about a king who gives a great wedding feast for his son (Mt 22:1-14). The king sends servants to invite guests to come to the celebration. But the guests refuse; they’re not interested. This is a very strange response. After all, this is not like getting invited to Poughkeepsie for your second cousin’s kid’s wedding. This is a royal wedding. It would be like getting invited to Buckingham Palace, all expenses paid. The invited guests, however, would prefer to get some work done at the office or in the fields rather than go to the wedding feast. Some of the invited guests even abuse and kill the messengers, as though deeply offended by the king’s invitation. Despite his graciousness to them, the invited guests reveal by their lack of interest that they have no love for the king and his son. When we read this, it should be clear that the priorities of the guests are out of order. How could anyone in his right mind pass up such an amazing opportunity?
But are we any different? I think it’s safe to say that for most people, at least where I live, the practice of religion is not valued very highly. Weekly Mass attendance is low relative to the Catholic population. Few feel the need to go to confession. Children don’t know their prayers. People don’t find the things of God relevant or interesting. We seem more interested in things like work, sports, politics, reality TV. None of these are bad in themselves, just like there’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose some weight. The problem is that we are more interested in them than what Christ is offering us through our lives with him in the Church.
A lot of it has to do with our impoverished imaginations, which make it hard for us to believe that what the Lord offers us is compelling. For a multitude of reasons, life in the Church can seem like a bad wedding, with mediocre food, an annoying DJ, and boring and unattractive guests. To understand life in the Church this way, however, reveals a lack of imagination. A seminary professor of mine who had worked with university students as a young priest once shared his frustration with their lack of interest in sacred things. When a student tried to justify not going to Mass because he thought it was boring, the priest responded: “The Mass is never boring. It’s you who’s boring.”
That is the problem with the original guests to the banquet. They’re not just rude. Their lack of imagination makes them boring. They are incapable of recognizing the great thing to which they have been invited. A banquet is about more than food. It is also about fellowship. It’s about celebrating something important with loved ones. Whereas our culture has food in superabundance (hence our obsession with weight), we are starving for fellowship. We are starving for friendship. We are starving for authentic communion with others. We long to share joy with people we love — experiences that make all other worldly pleasures pale in comparison. Except that when it’s offered to us in the Mass, we, like the invited guests in the parable, seem to reject it in favor of work, of youth sports, of sleeping in, of anything else.
This is the great tragedy of our age. There is a deep longing for connection, but we attempt to satisfy it with worldly and superficial things that leave us feeling exhausted and discontented. The king’s banquet is where we find rest, peace, joy and the loving fellowship that is the communion of believers in Christ, which we call the Church. Christ wants to make us holy through life in the Church. It is in the Church that we are shaped into saints. To be a saint is to live a tremendously full, meaningful and satisfying life.
The king’s banquet is where we find rest, peace, joy and the loving fellowship that is the communion of believers in Christ, which we call the Church. It is in the Church that we are shaped into saints.
But this demands something of us. It requires repentance and conversion, which means giving up things to which we’ve grown attached, an experience that feels like the cross. But repentance and conversion are liberating because they free us to desire the highest things and make room within us for God’s grace. Grace gives us strength to keep in check the lower desires that can knock us off the path to holiness and keep us stuck in the banality of sin. Sin, ultimately, is to say to God: “I don’t want what you are offering me. This other stuff is more interesting and more desirable than you are.” That’s what sin is. And it’s boring.
What about the man at the end of the parable who isn’t wearing the wedding garment, thus greatly offending the king? Though present at the banquet, by foregoing a garment the man has chosen to remain detached. He wants to enjoy the benefits of the banquet without accepting the fellowship of the king. He is attending on his own terms, not for the purpose of rejoicing and celebrating with his sovereign. We know this by his response to the king’s question: “Why are you not wearing a wedding garment?”
If the man had responded that it was due to his lack of means, the king surely would have provided one. But he has no excuse, and he is reduced to silence. The man is a wedding crasher, one who attempts to live in the Church without repentance or conversion. And the king has him thrown out into the darkness.
It is a sobering ending, revealing the danger of insufficient desire and the tragic end of those who aspire to too little. It brings to mind the words of another 20th-century French thinker, Léon Bloy, who wrote, “The only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.”
FATHER JOHN CONNAUGHTON is pastor of St. Cecilia-St. Gabriel Parish in Stamford, Conn., where he is a member of Father Myron Miller Council 5833.