From: Pilgrim Road
The sturdy brick houses of this newer section of Dieppe, up in the hills east of the old town, are designed to keep out the damp and chill that are to typical of Normandy. As we drive to church this Sunday morning I say to my hosts, “Well, maybe there’ll be some sunshine later today.” I’ve been staying with Bernard and Colette for almost a week, and I still haven’t seen the sun.
For me, the name Dieppe conjures up black-and-white images of smoldering ruins and beaches littered with charred invasion vehicles. In 1942, a Canadian force attempted a beach landing in German-occupied Normandy a couple of miles west of here. The operation cost a thousand lives, but the Allied commanders got what they’d hoped to get: knowledge about amphibious landings on the shores of Normandy. The lessons learned at Dieppe would pay off two years later during the historic “D-Day” invasion.
We arrive at the neighborhood church, where I am introduced to the pastor and invited to concelebrate the Sunday Eucharist with him. Since we have a few minutes before Mass starts, Bernard proudly shows me around his parish church. There’s not a whole lot to see: it’s a large brick structure with pleasant rounded arches running down both sides of the central nave. As we’re walking toward the sacristy, he points out the pillars that support the arches. “You see how the columns near the altar are perfectly smooth cylinders? Well, now look at the ones toward the back.”
When I turn around and look out into the body of the church, I see what he’s getting at: the rest of the pillars are different. They’re not smooth, cylindrical columns but rather twelve-sided pillars, with a dozen flat facets running top to bottom.
“Some people say that the original plan was for all the columns to be rounded smoothly like the ones up front here, but they ran short of cash. So to save money they didn’t round off the rest of the pillars but left them unfinished, with all those flat sides.”
Time to get vested. In a few minutes I’m walking out into the sanctuary to concelebrate Sunday Mass with the parish priest. I spot Bernard and Colette in the congregation. A few rows in front of them is the old gentleman who came by yesterday and described in vivid detail over a glass of port what it was like the day the Canadians landed. Across the aisle from him several African girls from a nearby boarding school stand stiffly in their pew. We all sit down for the readings and the sermon.
I look out toward the crowded pews, and I notice those unfinished pillars – twelve-sided, incomplete. It occurs to me that this is an unfinished church. It will always be unfinished.
Then, as I study the faces in the congregation, I realize that we’re all members of an unfinished church. We, the People of God, will never be quite perfect – at least not this side of Heaven. Ours will always be an incomplete church – always striving toward perfection, and always falling short. Just like this parish church building, the church on Earth will never be finished.
The sermon is over, and we stand and pray a litany of intentions for various needs, the whole congregation responding, “Seigneur, exaucenous!” – “Lord, hear us!” We sit again and sing an offertory hymn as two parishioners bring up the bread and wine to be used on the altar.
The main reason that the church is unfinished, of course, is that we humans are ourselves perpetually unfinished. We’ve all experienced the sense that there is always something more to learn, to accomplish, to become. It is this “incurable unfinishedness,” as one philosopher calls it, that sets us apart from other living things, because in trying to “finish” ourselves, we become creators. Our incurable unfinishedness keeps us childlike, capable of learning and growing. We may be trying to head toward perfection, but none of us will ever arrive there.
Benedict understands this, and is constantly making allowances for human weakness and frailty. For example, although he would prefer that monks abstain from wine altogether, he admits that “monks of our day cannot be convinced of this,” and so he allows for a certain amount of wine to be allotted each day. Similarly, after saying, “A monk’s life ought to be a continual Lent,” he concedes that “few have the virtue for this, so let us at least keep the forty days of Lent in a special way.”
I look again at one of the twelve-sided columns, and it occurs to me that not only is imperfection okay, it’s our unique strong point. We’re supposed to be unfinished! Humans exist in the gap between what is and what could be, between the reality and the dream, the already and the not-yet. And it is precisely in this gap that the saints are made. Virtue presumes that we are not yet at the ideal: virtue is the struggle to close the gap between what we are and what we’re called to be – we can be virtuous, we can be saints, only if we’re imperfect.
Prayer is our spirit’s response to the experience of the gap, of being “hungry for God.” The psalmist prays in Psalm 42, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” We can only pray if we are unfinished.
Imperfections, setbacks, and sins, then, are all part of the striving; they’re all grist for the mill. They’re the place where we are destined to meet God – in the gap. Wherever there is that unfinishedness, there is the call to holiness: in the kitchen, the office, the hospital room, or the supermarket. Wherever there is the sense of striving, there is a saint in the making. From this point-of-view, then, there is no such thing as an “obstacle” to sainthood. Saints may be preoccupied with raising a family and balancing the checkbook; we may be struggling with our too-crowded daily schedule, our short temper, or our jealousy; we may have to live with the memory of a painful experience in the past or a physical disability. No matter what, it is through and in the experience of our imperfections that God wants to meet us.
We stand now for the Eucharistic Prayer, the most solemn part of the Mass. The church is filled with the melody of the angelic hymn, “Saint! Saint! Saint!” – “Holy! Holy! Holy!” I look out at the people singing. Here are saints with cares and trials, problems and sins, shortcomings and fears. Here is the church.
A ray of warm, golden light bursts through a window to my left. The sun at last! It highlights a twelve-sided pillar, one of those unfinished columns in an unfinished church filled with unfinished saints.
Fasting and other forms of Lenten “self-denial” let us experience in our bodies our own unfinishedness, our incompleteness. They leave us hungry and wishing for something to fill up what is missing. These practices are not based on body-hating or on despising created reality; rather, they are reminders that we are not yet complete, that we are still on the way toward the fullness of the Kingdom.
Where do you meet your own unfinishedness most clearly in your daily life? Is there a particular fault or flow of yours that you find disheartening? How might you use Lent to work with God at closing one particular gap between the way you are and the way God intended you to be?
Sacred Scripture (Matthew 11:28)
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
Rule of Benedict (Chapter 64, “The Election of an Abbot,” v. 13)
[The abbot] is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed.