I do not want to be a good Catholic. Not now, not at first. It isn’t that I love my own wickedness; I’ve read enough Graham Greene to know that my sin isn’t all that spectacular: it’s the same petty, unoriginal shit that a thousand priests have heard ten thousand of us confess time and again. I want to start off as a bad Catholic to have the freedom to be the total screwup that I am and to know that I can and must fall hard upon the grace that saves me and saves me and saves me. So I’ll spend a lot of time in the confessional because God knows I need the humility in order to conquer all the certainty I thought I had.
Mary Oliver tells me in her poem Wild Geese that I “do not have to be good.” And I thank her for that because I have no actual intention of walking a goddamn desert on my knees repenting. It’s as Mary Karr, the Catholic convert and brilliant memoirist, writes: “We are sinners — we do want to eat the candy and fuck the Fedex guy and suck cocaine off each other’s chests.” That’s not defiance, it’s honesty. I’m not presumptuous, so I fear hell, but I hope with every breath that His mercy is deep enough even for me. And I’m scared of purgatory, but both less and more than I might be if I thought I didn’t need it.
At least I want the help of purgatory. I can’t always say the same about the intercession of the saints. I don’t want to need the saints but I’m increasingly finding that I do. “St. Mary of Egypt is my patron saint. I didn’t want her to be but she is.” A friend told me this one night when we’d both been drinking: “I didn’t want her to be but she is.” And I understood, because who of us really wants to see just how great our need is? “I didn’t want her to be but she is.” That one sentence taught me more about our need for the saints than all of those atrocious biographies detailing how St. So-and-So faced many trials and temptations but stood strong in the Lord.
I don’t want to hear the stories about the saints who can help me. I’m like Kristin Lavransdattar in Undset’s classic trilogy who smiles when she hears a monk tell of the mortal sins of his past. He rebukes her by saying: “But don’t you realize how badly things stand with you now? For you would rather hear about other people’s frailties than about the deeds of decent people, which might serve as an example for you.” Well, yes, I would. I want saints who sinned and were being saved, and sinned and were saved. Because when I see my own self in the mirror, it’s those stories that give me hope. So even if St. So-and-So didn’t “fuck the Fedex guy”, I want to know that she desperately wanted to, that her body craved it, that the thought of fucking left her on her knees panting with arousal, frustration, and shame.
Not incidentally, I’m writing this during Lent and, without fail, every year this is how I spend Lent. On my knees, but in that pose of desperate panting. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert: I spend a minute and then run right back to the city. The Spirit bids me return and return and return but I hate the desert and I hate being in the desert and I hate Lent. But also I love it. Because deep down, I know that it is good, yes, and good for me.
There’s something compelling to me about the whiskey priest. In Greene’s The Power and The Glory, the alcoholic priest wanders Mexico, giving himself to the people to hear their confessions and giving them the Body and the Blood, all while in a state of mortal sin that leaves him burdened and despairing. He tries to keep from getting caught by the Communist government who seeks to kill him but he wishes desperately that they’d catch him so he can just be done with it all. I love this man because this is my experience too, thirsting for God while fearing Him, thirsting for sin while fearing the death it births. Isn’t that what it means to be human in this transitory moment? It’s almost as if that poor whiskey priest is consigned to a perpetual Lent. But he hopes, my God does he hope, and he loves as best as he can, and somehow, maybe, it seems like this could be enough. Maybe this has always been the point where grace meets us.
I wonder if it’s in this tension of Lent, of trying to be good but not wanting to be, of wanting to be good but failing to be, that I learn what it means to be a Catholic who needs Easter today and every day. I wonder if this is what L’Engle is getting at in the second of her memoirs when she writes: “if I am not free to accept guilt when I do wrong, then I am not free at all. If all my mistakes are excused, if there’s an alibi, a rationalization for every blunder, then I am not free at all. I have become subhuman.” Maybe Lent, and indeed Catholicism itself, is meant to teach me that, for all my aspirations to live the divine life St. Peter writes about, I am, after all, still human. Maybe this Lenten faith of the whiskey priest is the only kind of faith I have: the kind where I offer myself as I am now and love the world as it is now, the kind of faith where the sin and the saints and the virtues and the vice are inseparably part of my worship.