“That’s just too Catholic for me,” she said.
Those words stung. What does “too Catholic” mean? Do people of our faith tradition give the impression to non-Catholics that we strive for something different than them? For that matter, do some so-called “lapsed Catholics” stop attending Mass and practicing the faith because they feel they have failed at something and therefore are unwelcome among the rest of us?
In paragraph 1693 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are called to become “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And in paragraph 1695, we are specifically “called to be saints.”
Those instructions are at the heart of our life in Christ. But there is nothing “too Catholic” about them. The first quote comes from the Gospel of Matthew, the second from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Last time I checked, both of those books are in Protestant Bibles, too.
Granted, they can be troubling marching orders. It is challenging enough to abide by the basic rules of society and try to live a highly ethical life. Must we have to shoulder the seemingly impossible burden to be perfect, to aim to be saints?
I have struggled against the expectation to be perfect most of my life. Good never was good enough. Being in the top five out of 150 wasn’t good enough if I could have been No. 1. Hearing people congratulate me wasn’t good enough if I fell short of my standard of excellence.
No one told me to have that attitude. It came from inside.
Beginning in March 1979, when I began to have a genuinely personal relationship with Jesus, when I began to grow my faith and take my religion more seriously, that expectation rose immeasurably higher. I wanted to live in the image and likeness of Christ.
Of course, sin was inevitable and frequent. And when I fell short of perfection, I was hard on myself. Really hard.
Now, I adore the canonized saints of our Church. I have a daily devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and St. John of the Cross, among others. It’s inspiring to have that “heavenly hall of fame” as Catholics. But I think we can do ourselves a disservice if we make their examples a recipe for what we are called to be. Thomas Merton once said, “A saint is not a person who is good. A saint is someone who has tasted the goodness of God.” That’s the kind of sainthood to which I can aspire.
In Margery Williams’ classic “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the Skin Horse talked to the Rabbit about the goal of becoming Real.
“It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
For a long time, I didn’t understand. I have fallen over and over and over. I have battled hard at times, won a few, lost a lot more. It hurts. And you wonder if it will be worth it. But it is, because the goal is to encounter “the goodness of God.”
A wise man once said: “God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars.”
The “goodness of God” … Scars and all, that’s something every Christian can embrace.