Posted September 02, 2010:
A Most Abhorrent Word

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

A few years ago, I did a little job for the Madonna House librarians. The scripture section of our library was a bit old and shabby, and I went through those shelves, culling them of unwanted books.

Never having culled books before, I decided on one simple principle: if a book had been on our shelves since "the year one" and had not been read since "the year two," out it went. This worked well, mostly, but I was brought up short by one book.

It had been on our shelf since the 1960s and, as far as I could tell, had never been signed out. But on the basis of the title alone, I just couldn’t cull it. In fact, on the basis of the title alone, it should be required reading for every member of Madonna House, perhaps every member of the human race! And so it sits to this day on our library shelves, a slender volume, still unread.

The title of the book is A Theology of Failure. That title has haunted my thoughts ever since. I really must read the book one of these days. But whether I read it or not, if I ever get around to swiping the title and writing my own book on the subject, this is what I might say:

To start with, failure is a most abhorrent, repulsive word to us. "Failure!" "You’re a failure!" "Your life is a failure!"

Eeeeek! To have that word flung at us horrifies us on some deep level. We want to succeed. North Americans in particular have made success a core value of our culture. That’s what the word "pragmatism" connotes.

"Failure is not an option," we say. We laud the "can-do" attitude, the man or woman of action who gets the job done, who makes the grade.

The sweet, sweet smell of success is the enticing aroma that lures us on in ceaseless activity, endless days and years of labor without rest. Upward mobility, grabbing the brass ring, "making good"—all of this is the secular form of salvation to which we give so much of our lives.

And yet… failure haunts us. The odor coming from the Gulf of Mexico, from Washington D.C., from Wall Street, from Afghanistan, and from the chancery offices and bishop’s palaces of the Church—well, it’s not quite the sweet smell of success these days, is it?

The stench of failure, of futility, of defeat hangs heavily over the world in this year of 2010. Maybe things will get better in a few months, we tell ourselves. Maybe not.

Failure—it horrifies us. It is abhorrent. And yet it is so much part of the human story.

We look back at sacred history, and the whole Old Testament is rife with failure. The history of Israel and its kings, for example, is a dire tale of cataclysmic failure: idolatry, exploitation, partisan power struggles, palace politics, and off to exile they all go. They come back, but not much changes.

By the end of the Old Testament, a humbled people of God seek the elusive path of individual Wisdom and yearn for the apocalyptic intervention of God who alone can repair the world’s failure.

And the new people of God, the new Israel, the Church—have we done any better? We have preserved and preached the truth of the Gospel and kept the sacramental channels of grace open to the world, but what have we lived?

We could well adopt as our motto "The Roman Catholic Church: Failing to Live the Gospel for 2000 Years!" And this failure is not just the failure of the pope or the bishops and priests. How many of us, in 2000 years, have loved as Christ loved, trusted God utterly, abandoned our lives to him?

Failure comes to us in many other guises. Failure in work, in relationships, loss of face, illness. Even if a person somehow passes through life succeeding at everything, in the end comes the final failure. At the end, our bodies fail us. Our very hearts fail us. Death: the last and inevitable failure.

We are failures, one and all. Even the great ones, the saints, are merely failures who never stopped getting up and trying again.

This word failure, so hateful, so shaming, so abhorrent to us, is one which we have to take on our lips, taste in our mouths. It is at the heart of the human story, and we have to face this squarely if the theology of failure is to open itself up to us.

Theology of failure! What could that mean? "Theology" is, roughly, making sense of God and of all things in the light of God’s revealed truth. What sense does failure have, in light of God’s revealed truth? What could God possibly do with human failure that "theologizes" it—gives it a new divine meaning?

God failed, that’s what! The death of Christ on the Cross was failure. Death itself is the deepest failure. And by any standard of human judgment, Jesus dying on the Cross was a total failure.

Abandoned by his followers, rejected by his people, humiliated in the eyes of the world, naked and in agony, mocked and reviled, the Son of God drained the bitter abhorrent draught of failure to its dregs. God the Son, God himself, entered into the depths of human failure and saved the world thereby. And he meets us there, and bids us follow him, right there.

Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. But the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few that find it (Matt 7:13).

What is this narrow gate and hard road to life that so few find? It is the way of poverty of spirit—the way of total dependence, of total childlike knowledge that without God we can do nothing, that our whole life is held in his care. It is the way of rejoicing in that knowledge and turning to him at every moment for strength and direction.

And failure, our failure, the failure that so often is connected with sin or stupidity in us, the failure that is so humiliating and painful to us—this failure is the "on-ramp," so to speak to this narrow way.

We don’t need to fail to get there: Mary never failed at all (our one success story!), and she walked this narrow way her whole life. But we are proud creatures, inclined to the easy broad road of self-sufficiency. We need to fall on our faces in the mud, to be humiliated and brought low by life, to be reduced to almost nothing. Ultimately we need to die to get there.

But when we do, if we let God come to us and "theologize" our failure, oh what joy is ours! Out of the depths of whatever shame and pain our failure has put us, in comes a new song of littleness, of trust, of resting in the knowledge of our total need for God. This is the narrow way and the hard road.

Usually after we have failed, we stay on this road for a little while, and then scurry back to the broad road of self-sufficiency. So God in his infinite tender mercy and compassion lets us fail again, be humiliated again, die again.

And back we go a-narrowing our life to the joyful truth of our poverty. And so it goes—repeat as necessary—until our life of failure paradoxically succeeds, that is, until it bears the fruit of love and holiness that is our only proper goal.

Is the world failing? Is the Church failing? Are you failing? Am I? Rejoice and be glad, hold your head high, for salvation comes on the heels of human failure. Wisdom comes. The heavens open and God comes. At the very point of human failure, the victory of God meets us, and Christ is risen again.


If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!


Restoration Contents

Next article:
The Importance of Being

Previous article:
One Man's Scrap, Another Man's Gold (July-August 2010)



RSS 2.0RSS feed

Madonna House - A Training Centre for the Lay Apostolate