One of the most publicized and overly discussed stories of the past year was the creation of “safe spaces” on certain college campuses where triggering or harmful language could not be used. Generally, the definition of what constituted such language is nebulous and the very existence of these safe spaces was confusing and disturbing for almost anyone who is not currently 18-22 years old. They are essentially zones where students could feel safe and assured that they would not encounter any speech that might make them feel uncomfortable.
Following quickly on the heels of the forming of these “safe spaces” was a fundamental discussion about speech across the Internet (because that’s what we do these days) as pundits and that guy from high school you still can’t believe you follow on Facebook alike tried to analyze and understand what would become of our great nation if this is how the rising generation acts. Certainly, the threats to free speech posed by the culture of college campuses these days are troubling and it really is hard to conceive of a world in which shoe color can be triggering, but far more interesting is the fundamental spiritual dynamic at work in these scenarios, and, most importantly: how often do we act this way with God?
Guilt and shame are some of the most powerful human emotions and because both are so uncomfortable, they tend to be sublimated and stuffed by most distracted post-moderns only to rear their heads in strange and often ugly ways. That powerful feeling of “having done wrong” or, worse, "being wrong” does not just go away simply because we tried to binge drink it into oblivion.
Each person is aware, at some level, of their own guilty-ness. It is a fundamental human trait and one of the great proofs for the existence of God. There is a moral law, and I've broken it. Those who do not relate this way, we refer to as sociopaths.
For guilt being such a common human emotion, we tend to be super disordered when it comes to handling it. When someone shines light on this guiltiness of ours, we howl with displeasure at having been exposed and hurl accusations back. Furthermore, we are hypocrites about this guilt. We pore through magazines, titillated by the stories of recent celebrity wrong-doing. “How could they,” we wonder, “I would never do something like that,” and then carry on in our myriad unhealthy behavior patterns (for example, reading celebrity magazines). We blast our horn at the guy who cuts us off in traffic and then next week hop up on the freeway’s shoulder because we are late to work. We love pointing at other’s guilt; we do everything we can to make sure no one ever sees our own.
This childish game comes unraveled when it encounters the story of salvation history. God Himself, we are told, died so that those deep pangs of wrongness can be alleviated, not just emotionally, but in truth. The clouds of shame which hang over every moment of our existence, the everything being colored by that one ugly detail that we ourselves are sinners, is wiped out by one sheerly gratuitous act accepted in the profession of faith and the waters of Baptism. If I have died with Christ, I live. I am no longer guilty. All the wrong things I did are gone forever, and God makes things even better than had I not done them in the first place.
The human tendency remains, however, to refuse to confront our guilt at all costs. We try instead to eradicate these feelings by chasing them away with our own efforts at “being good.” “I will be good enough, perfect enough, enough-enough for God so that I make up for everything I’ve done.” In doing so, we step back outside of the basic structure of God’s plan for us. We create “safe spaces” for our hearts.
You can't say the to me here. You can't look into the depths and find the evil that lurks there.
The bad cannot be confronted, lived in, and accepted. I am a sinner. I have done wrong. We chase away our own feelings of doubt in our own goodness because we believe that the moment we expose our bad-ness, we are no longer worthy of love, acceptance, intimacy. At some point, we become so lost in our own self-perfecting efforts that we have caked our souls in the bitter chill of a self-sufficient pride which puffs itself up all the while painfully aware of its own inadequacy.
The only relationship with God worth having, and the only satisfying one, is the one that refuses to create zones in our life that cannot be uncovered by God and loved back into life.
I recently was having a conversation with a newly ordained priest and the chatting turned to something St. Josemaria Escriva said. I quipped something along the lines of the idea that Escriva could have saved himself a lot of time and verbiage by instead just opening book, writing, “You suck,” and then moving on. My newly-ordained friend took this in humble stride but did not miss a chance to educate my ignorance. Escriva, he said, is actually misunderstood because of our cultural differences, much like Pope Francis. He doesn’t talk the way we do and so we don’t get him. We especially miss his whole tone because of the religious roots of our country in Puritanism. We see any mention of sinfulness or weakness as “too fire and brimstone.” To the Spaniard Escriva, all of his talk of Be a Man! is less about chastisement and more about admonition. Love for his spiritual children drives him to attempt to stir their consciences so as to save them from their mediocrity, like a father would. We are all the proverbial burnout sitting in our parents basement getting high and playing COD and Escriva just wants more than that for us. I got that, and I loved it. Perhaps God is this kind of Father, too.
These college kids, raised in a culture in which perfection is demanded at every moment by each and every social media account they possess, simply cannot function if they are not spotless. They shatter under any potential word that might expose a weakness or a flaw. If there are chinks in the armor, then they cannot live. St. Paul boasts in his weakness because Christ, and not his own ego, is glorified in it. He knows that his flaws and his sin alike are not obstacles to the saving work of God. Not at all. They are the problem which finds their solution in Christ. But no half-hearted self-salvation is going to allow real fruit to enter into our lives and so at some point, God will dispose us of the illusion that we can save ourselves by our own action. He will bring us to a place where the only remaining option is to know deeply our own wrongness, and let Him save us.