07 Nov It’s All Right to Be a Failure
by Catherine Doherty
I would like to talk about failure. In this strange world of North America, in Canada and the U.S.A., failure is seen as the end of the road. That’s a strange thing, isn’t it, for Christians.
Look at the crucifix. Can you think of any failure greater than that? The people in Christ’s time saw him as a great prophet; some of them expected him to become King of the Jews. Then they saw him crucified like a criminal. For them, that looked like the greatest failure in the world.
Has it ever occurred to you that a life without failure is a dead life? Because you learn by failing. If you don’t try things, you’ll never learn anything. You’ll never accomplish anything.
But when we fail, what happens? “Oh, my God! Oh! Oh! Oh! Give me a psychiatrist. Give me something. I’m a failure! I’m a failure! I’m a failure!”
I fervently hope that every member of Madonna House fails at least once a week—in little things and in big things. Only then will they learn what it is to live.
You know, it’s an amazing thing. It’s a totally amazing thing that the fear of failure is the fear that gnaws at the heart of people. The worst thing that can happen to an American or a Canadian is to fail, whatever it is they are in: school, exams, a job, whatever.
It starts when you are small. Parents say: “What’s the matter with you? Look at your sister; look at your brother. Look at the next-door neighbor. They made something of themselves.”
I remember when I first came to North America. I was at a train station, a small station, and there was a band there.
A crowd of people was waiting for the train. So, the train arrived and somebody got off. There was applause, the band played, and girls threw batons in the air.
I thought to myself: “This must be a very important person; he must have done something great. He must have discovered a cure for a disease or done something else to benefit mankind.”
Finally, when everybody left, I asked the station master about it.
He said, “This guy made good. He was the son of a poor farmer, and he went to the city and made a lot of money.”
“Oh?” said I. “Money? And that’s why you had the band?”
Now, to me, this man was an absolute failure. To them, he was an absolute success.
Many years ago, when I was a nurse, I had a patient who was a hypochondriac. This woman had absolutely nothing the matter with her. I said to her: “Lady, why don’t you go home and give the hospital bed to somebody who really needs it?”
She reported me. As a nurse, I never should have said that. This was a terrible failure, and after I did it, I knew that. The doctor came to me and the head nurse, and they said: “Catherine, what happened to you?”
I said, “I told her off, Sir.” The doctor said, “Bravo!” and the head nurse said, “I am going to ignore this incident.”
I said, “Thank you.” So that failure turned out all right.
But the members of Madonna House know that my name was mud until Vatican II. Well, not completely, but still …. Was I a failure? Yes. I was thrown out of Toronto; I was thrown out of Harlem. My road has been one failure after another.
Generally speaking, there is a very deep and spiritual thing that we need to talk about when we talk about failure. We really need to. We need to acknowledge who we are. We are creatures and not God.
If we think we can live without ever failing, we are committing blasphemy. Only God is perfect; so only God never fails.
What is that deep thing that I’m talking about? It’s called humility—plain and simple. Who do you think you are that you can’t fail?
Pride is one of the terrible sins, but that is what everybody wants to aim at: to be absolutely without failure. But this is absolutely impossible for human beings; so to want it is to want to be more than human.
But Christ said, Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart (Mt 11:29). And we say we are his followers! Something is utterly, terribly wrong.
So acknowledge your failures. The simplest thing is to ask forgiveness. Say, “I failed. I’m sorry.”
Acknowledging your failure is not at all anything to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of. That’s the right kind of pride, because it’s humility.
Why this fear of failure? It’s not only the fact that you might lose a job, which you usually don’t. It’s the fear of disapproval.
Yes, behind this desire to succeed lies, of course, the need for approval. And behind this need of approval lies the terrible hunger of people on this North American continent for love.
But you are never unloved and you are never alone. The person you need to go to when you have failed is Jesus Christ.
God is in our midst. Christ is with me; Christ is right here. Christ is mercy and love. This is part of our faith.
Do I really believe what I say I believe? Do I believe in the mercy of God or not?
The thing is that we don’t really believe it. This is the thing that just breaks my heart.
Why is it that we don’t believe it? It’s such a simple thing. It’s such an obvious thing. You just have to put your hand out, and you touch the garment of God. Like the woman in the Gospel.
Failure! For Pete’s sake, I’ll storm heaven for you so that, once and for all, you cry out to God: “Lord, I understand that I am human and that I will fail all my life. Please bless my failures. I don’t want to make them, but please make it so that I do not die inwardly when I fail.”
I don’t know how to explain, how to bring the Lord to your heart, so that you understand that he who appeared to be the greatest failure of all, loves failures.
The Pharisees pointed and said: “Look, he eats with sinners.” Translated into our modern English, this means, “He eats with failures.”
Nobody wants to be a failure—except when the moment comes when we can accept being a failure in men’s eyes, the moment when we can accept our imperfections. Except when the moment comes when we can say, “Oh, Lord, look at me. I am a sinner, and I am a failure. But come and have supper with me.”
Don’t try for the perfection of the world. Try for the perfection that is so imperfect. Try to love everyone, no matter how hurtful that person is to you.
They said in that conference I spoke at in New Jersey that Christ builds on our weakness. Let us begin to accept that weakness that Christ wants to build on, and that includes failure.
—Excerpted and adapted from an after-dinner spiritual reading by Catherine at Madonna House, Oct. 28, 1977