Tuesday, May 11, 2010

He Tried to Do His Best

Today a line from a Neil Young song that I hadn't heard for years flitted across my mind.  The song, "Tired Eyes," is from one of Young's most despairing albums, Tonight's the Night, and is about a cocaine deal gone horribly wrong.  You can either love the song or hate it, just as you can either giggle at or take very seriously Young's delivery of it as a spoken narrative over the accompaniment of his band, rather in the style of nineteenth-century romantic melodrama. 

The line that I remembered was the recurring: "He tried to do his best, but he could not."  It struck me as a simple, sad assessment of the situation of fallen man, and at the same time a sort of mysterious tautology:  if the subject of the song tried to do his best (and it's safe to assume that, since Young suggests that he is a "loser" and a "heavy doper," his personal best was of a rather low standard), then why couldn't he even manage that much?  Well, that is the rub.

Since starting this blog, I have been lambasted, both publicly in the combox and in private communications, for exactly the pitiful dilemma of the poor loser in "Tired Eyes":  I tried to do my best, but I could not.  It seemed to me that my readers who were young orthodox Catholics faulted me particularly heavily for my failures and sins.  One woman made it clear, in a comment deploring my sinfulness and the grief that resulted, that she was in no way as sinful as I was, and it was also clear that she expected never to be.  This strikes me as a very precarious attitude.  Saint Peter wrote:  "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Those who believe that that someone is always going to be one of the losers and heavy dopers, or one of the reckless young women starved for love who lacked Catholic formation and diligent parental guidance, are often proven fearfully wrong.  Saint Paul's admonishment to the Philippians to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, after all, applies to us too, and not just to those of us who have been mercifully kept free (kept free, I might add, by the grace of God, and not by their own merits) from serious sin.

We should pray for ourselves, lest we fall into the trap that is laid for us everywhere, and also for everyone else, especially those we're quickest to condemn for trying to do their best but falling pathetically short.  Saint Ephrem the Syrian is supposed to have said, "Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a great battle."  We are fighting it everywhere, and more than we know.

29 comments:

orleannahenry.com said...

Sadly, young orthodox Catholics have just as much of a tendency towards self-righteousness and delusions of grandeur as other young folks. Possibly even more, since we're so often told that we're Different, and Special, and So Wise For One So Young (by well-meaning older Catholics).

Personally, I empathize with that line to a ridiculous extent. It pretty much sums up my semester.

Rodak said...

Bigots abound. They have forgotten for whom there is more joy in heaven.
Thanks for the Neil. Stripped down to its bare essentials, here is some more.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Rodak. I love that song.

Schultz said...

Brava! I have been told my more than one monastic that the ability to say, "I am a terrible sinner" and mean it is a gift from God. People who play the "I'm not as bad as you" game forget that being separated from God through even the seemingly smallest, most insignificant sin is just as hellish as being guilty of a multitude of sins. Being able to face what you have done and what you continue to do is part of repentance.

Rodak said...

By the way, just this morning a Catholic on another blog was kind enough to explain to me that:

"...a Protestant has precisely the same chance of being saved as does a Muslim: zero. A false religion is a false religion. Unless it is through no fault of your own that you do not know that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, you cannot be saved."

This is somewhat discouraging. But, resigned as I now am to trudging down to hell with a Muslim under each arm, I'm somewhat comforted that at least I'll be with my mom and dad.
And I've always wanted to meet Albert Schweitzer, too. And Kierkegaard. When presented with lemons, make lemonade, right?

Pentimento said...

It's true that the Catholic Church teaches that there is "no salvation outside the Church." However, to presume to know what that means for each one of us at the hour of death is folly, and to presume to predict who will go to hell is heresy.

Pentimento said...

Saint Ephrem the Syrian also wrote:
"
The soul is dead through sin. It requires sadness, weeping, tears, mourning and bitter moaning over the iniquity which has cast it down . . . Howl, weep and moan, and bring it back to God. . . . Your soul is dead through vice; shed tears and raise it up again! . . . . Behold, Mercy waits for your eyes to shed tears, to purify and renew the image of the disfigured soul. . . . Weep over your soul, sinner, shed tears and raise it up again. Its resurrection depends on your eye, and its return to life on your heart."

lissla lissar said...

Huh. SO all the good Christians I know who aren't Catholic ( yet :D) are doomed? Interesting.

Yes. There are bigots everywhere, and it's always much more comfortable to say, "Dear God, thank You that I am not like that publican over there. Thank you that I am holy.", than "Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

Rodak said...

Careful, Lissla--that Gilead is a (*GASP!*) Calvinist tome!

Orleanna Henry said...

Gah! Why do I keep showing up as a URL? Hmph...

Anyway, on the "no salvation outside the Church" issue, I always think of Emeth, the young Calormene (sp?) from The Last Battle. Basically, he thought he was a worshiper of Tash the demon/pagan god, but discovers that Aslan has been the object of his devotion all along. Aslan says something like "Nothing good can be done in service to Tash, and nothing bad can be done in service to me." That's always struck me as a healthy way to think about it.

Pentimento said...

That's a good point, Orleanna. The truth is, of course (though a lot of self-righteous Trads will tell you otherwise) that you just can't know. But you can hope, and pray.

Rodak said...

I can't speak for all of the allegedly damned, of course; but I do have a modicum of hope that the claims of some to have placed a guard with a guest list before the only door into heaven is just so much bushwah.

Pentimento said...

Well, you know the old joke. A Presbyterian (or Jew, or what have you) dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter shows him around: there are the Lutherans clinking beer steins, there are the Episcopalians playing tennis and drinking gin-and-tonics, etc. They come up against a high brick wall, and St. Peter whispers, "That's for the Catholics. They think they're the only ones in here."

I had a very wise spiritual director once who said that he believes everyone in heaven is Catholic, which is not the same as believing only Catholics go to heaven.

Rodak said...

I place my faith in the statement of Jesus: Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am with you.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Pentimento, the quote from your spiritual director reminds me of something Dale Ahlquist (a Chesterton fan to end all Chesterton fans) once said.

He is a convert (*grin*) and someone asked him whether anyone from his family had followed him into the Church. He replied (and I paraphrase, though the gist is there), "Well, my parents have passed away . . . so they're Catholic now."

NB said...

The first thing that came to mind when reading this post was another by the Orthodox Fr. Stephen Freeman-- http: http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/the-mystery-of-love/

Pentimento said...

Enbrethiliel, that is very much what I understood Father B (my former spiritual director) to mean, too.

NB, thank you for the link to Fr. Freeman's beautiful post. I think too many people use their faith as a shield to protect their own hearts, rather than what it should be, a lever to break our hearts open in love and co-suffering with all our brothers, as the example of the saints (and, no less, of Christ) demonstrates. (Of course, to want to avoid this is human nature.)

mrsdarwin said...

One woman made it clear, in a comment deploring my sinfulness and the grief that resulted, that she was in no way as sinful as I was, and it was also clear that she expected never to be.

I love your blog and the way that you honestly share your journey, although it doesn't reflect my own life (perhaps I love it even more for that reason). After I read the above I had a heart-stopping moment of worrying that I might have commented insensitively while trying to appreciate something you've said. Those of us who have been "mercifully kept free (kept free, I might add, by the grace of God, and not by their own merits) from serious sin" need -- NEED -- to hear what you have to say, to teach us what real holiness looks like. Please keep writing.

Pentimento said...

Oh no, Mrs. Darwin, absolutely not -- you have NEVER done this! Banish the thought.

As for real holiness, I'm hardly the poster girl, but I really just try to remember to ask God to open my heart to the suffering of all, instead of using my faith to shut me off from it. And to remember an Orthodox Lenten prayer I read recently: "I am not as holy as the Pharisee, and yet I boast. I am more sinful than the publican, and yet I do not repent."

Rodak said...

I think I detect just a soupçon of resonance.

Pentimento said...

Resonance? with what/whom?

Rodak said...

Never mind. Your reponse to Mrs. Darwin would indicate that it must have been the faint rumble of a truck gearing down in the far distance. My bad.

Pentimento said...

No worries.

lissla lissar said...

I think the main character in Gilead is Congregationalist, not Calvinist, although I admit I don't know much about Congregationalist theology. His best friend is Presbyterian.

Still one of my favourite books. Probably it and Brideshead Revisited are my favourite novels about faith.

Rodak said...

Lissla--
Be that as it may, the author of Gilead also wrote this non-fiction book, with the stated intention of reviving an interest in Calvinist thought. It's good book, too. I recommend it.

lissla lissar said...

Oh, I've read that one, too. I liked it. Great writing.

Rodak said...

Agreed. Have you read the novels of Ron Hansen?

mrsdarwin said...

I've very much enjoyed almost every one of the Ron Hansen novels I've read, but his attempt at a comic screwball novel, Isn't It Romantic?, fell oddly flat. It was as if one were reading the screenplay or the director's notes for what had the potential to be a very funny movie. As a series of images or comic scenes acted out, it would have been delightful; alas, as a novel it simply didn't "go".

(On a tangential note: my brothers went to college with Ron Hansen's nephew, so I can play six degrees of famous authors!)

Rodak said...

Mrs. Darwin--
I'm glad to get your report on Isn't It Romantic? That's the only one of his novels I haven't read, precisely because I feared what you confirm to be the case. The last thing I read by Hansen was his fairly recent novel Exiles, which I didn't feel was among his best, although it had his moments. Prior to that, however, I read his short story collection, Nebraska. It's as good as the Bruce Springsteen album by the same name.