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'I Was in Exactly the Right Place'

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It wasn't even 8:30 in the morning, on Saturday, Feb. 3, and I had spoken to no more than two or three people since I had woken up. And yet just in the moments between leaving my car and finding my seat in the auditorium of Archbishop Stepinac High School, I had already committed three of my fallen soul's favorite sins.

First, I had entertained prideful thoughts. (This is an old story for me. Any confessor I ever visit can count on hearing about the latest of these thoughts.) Second, I had gotten snippy with someone I'm close to: my fiancé Matt, who had made the long drive that morning from Waterbury, Conn., to White Plains, N.Y., to attend this Divine Mercy conference with me. Finally, as a result of both the pride and the snippiness, I had spent my first few minutes in the auditorium pouting.

Even after the apologies and hugs that made things feel normal again between Matt and me, I was still ruffled. I knew I had started the morning on the wrong foot. In fact, I was tempted to think that I really didn't belong in an assembly of faithful Christians. Deep down, however, I knew that wasn't true. We had all come to learn about Divine Mercy out of our need, not our goodness. As someone seeking mercy, I was in exactly the right place. The question of whether I deserved the gift of this day was beside the point, except as it helped me to feel God's great generosity.

Monsignor James Lisante, one of the conference speakers, observed in his talk, "God's Love for Every Soul," that Jesus knows we don't deserve the Eucharist but we need it. How awesome to know that we have a God who gives us what we need, not what we deserve. How impossible to imagine approaching that God with anything less than complete trust.

In my own heart, however, I know that trust is not always there, not because I am afraid of God, but because I want to be able to fix myself without His help. While I keep trying to do that, I hit walls; it is only when I admit that I can't improve myself and ask God to take over that I make real progress.

Father Benedict Groeschel spoke on the topic "Divine Mercy: Now More Than Ever," and called Divine Mercy "perhaps the most mysterious attribute of God." When we begin to contemplate this mysterious attribute, especially through the revelations in Saint Faustina's Diary, we come to understand that while forgiveness pardons a sin, mercy changes a soul. The final aim of The Divine Mercy is not to give us a clean record so that we can get into heaven but to transform us so that we actually fit in there. And if we think we can turn ourselves into worthy citizens of heaven, we are deluded.

Joley Billa, in her talk "The Joy of Suffering," remarked that Jesus does for us the one thing that we cannot do for ourselves — make us right again — and that God can do more for us in one second than we can do for ourselves in all of our life's efforts. As the Methodist minister L. L. Nash wrote, "A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." But it is a hospital in which any willing sinner can be made over into a saint. She just has to put herself entirely in the hands of the Physician.

When I first read Saint Faustina's Diary, I felt small: not in the joyful way of the really humble, but in the restless way of someone who has been outdone and doesn't like it. I belittled myself while reading the Diary because I was comparing myself with Saint Faustina on the level of intimacy with Christ, which of course is not a contest at all.

Now, as I read the Diary for the second time, I see her differently: not as a paragon whom I am tempted to envy almost to the point of resentment, but as a beloved child whose Father had high hopes for her and gave her everything she needed to fulfill her worth. Her sanctity was a gift from God, not a personal achievement. If it had been up to the young Helen Kowalska (the name that St. Faustina was given at baptism), she would have given up her wish to enter into religious life after her parents' disapproval.

She writes, "I turned myself over to the vain things of life, paying no attention to the call of grace" (Diary, 8). After mystical conversations with Jesus that she could not ignore, she did take the veil, but even in the convent, Sr. Faustina tried more than once to stifle the voice of God in her soul. She even asked her confessor to dispense her from the obligation to obey Jesus in painting the Divine Mercy image. But God did not let His future saint fall so short of what she was capable of being and doing. We, who continue to benefit from her writings and prayers, can testify how much poorer we would be if she had not decided, at last, to do everything His way.

Because, like St. Faustina, without God we can do nothing but sin, freedom from sin is a gift we must ask Him for, not a quality we can develop in ourselves through nothing but our own will and self-discipline. On the afternoon of the conference, God offered the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which I eagerly received. I believed my repentance and my resolution to "sin no more," as I prayed in the Act of Contrition, were real, but my mind began to indulge in more of those prideful thoughts even before I made it back to my seat in the auditorium. Actually, it happened before I even made it to the back of the chapel. When I found Matt, I had to smile as I told him that within two minutes of being absolved from my sins, I had committed one of them again. I did not, however, feel as upset as I had that morning.

I was remembering the comments of James White, who had come from Covenant House in New York City to speak to us about "Rescuing Today's Homeless Youth." White asked all of the 21-year-olds in the crowd to raise their hands, and when no one did, he explained that they were not there because "they still think it works," meaning they still think that the world works and that they can fix anything that seems wrong.

We, on the other hand, were there because we know that the world doesn't work and we can't fix it. Only God's mercy gives us any reason to hope. I considered his words after my confession because when White described the world, he could have been describing the human soul as well: my soul. It doesn't work, and I can't fix it. Not on my own. Why, then, should I be surprised and distraught when I sin over and over again? In the spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God, Br. Lawrence writes that he does not become discouraged by his sins and imperfections because "when I recognize that I have failed, I confess my failure and I say, 'This is my ordinary, my usual behavior; I do not know how to do anything else.' If I have not failed, I give thanks to God and confess that success comes from Him."

Those who practice the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous understand what Br. Lawrence understood: that only God can free us from our own shortcomings. Our part is simple: first, to do what we can to prepare to be helped; and second, to ask for that help. The Steps begin with an admission of personal powerlessness, a recognition of the power of God and a willingness to turn one's entire life over to Him. Then, after the work of looking at one's faults, confessing them out loud, and learning to be ready to let them go, the person in recovery humbly asks God to remove them. None of the Steps mention rooting out one's own flaws through grit and determination. There is no call to put one's nose to the grindstone. There is only the suggestion to get down on one's knees and ask.

That's a very good suggestion when we recall Jesus' promise that if we ask, we will receive.

And He told St. Faustina that He longs to give many graces to a soul who trusts Him. Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, in a talk entitled "Divine Mercy: What It Means to Trust," reminded us that if we say something without any doubt in our hearts, we have God's assurance that our faith will make those words reality. Therefore, knowing that we have never been able to grow any holier on our own, no matter how hard we have tried, can we ask Jesus to make us saints and trust that He will do it?

The Father of Lies wants us to believe that we can't be saints and that it's arrogant to think we could, but the truth is that a request for sanctity is the most humble of all prayers. It means that we are giving God permission to empty us of every trace of self-interest so that there is nothing in us except His Holy Spirit. It means that we step aside and let Christ take over our lives completely. Saint Therese of Lisieux once said, "If you want to be a saint, it will be easy. Simply try to please Jesus in all things." Nothing pleases Jesus more than when we give up trying to be little gods and willingly let Him do what He does best: make all things new. Especially us.

Marian Tascio is a middle school teacher and a freelance writer who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.

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