Many years ago, while serving as a priest in a parish back East, I would regularly visit a much -beloved parishioner who had been afflicted with a debilitating cancer that left her with only months to live. This woman was one of the "pillars of the church," always present every Sunday, active in all the activities of the church; and now that she was dying, her fellow parishioners came to think of this "holy woman" as a "living saint" - at the threshold of meeting God face-to-face.
While I enjoyed our regular conversations when I would visit and pray with this "living saint," there was always something missing- she always seemed somewhat aloof and distant, like she was holding something back.
One day as we sat and talked she suddenly burst into tears and cried out, "I am such a fraud, people think of me as a saint but I'm not even close to being that. I am so filled with doubts, so many fears, so many regrets over my life and I am filled with rage at God because I don't want to die yet."
With tears running down both our checks I held her hand and assured her that as far as I was concerned, this was the first meeting I ever had with her where she wasn't being a fraud. This was the first time I had ever spoken to that person who had been hiding behind a carefully constructed veneer. I think we were both crying more out of joy than sorrow at that moment - she had finally found her soul.
Of course this dying woman had doubts, rage and fear, who wouldn't in a situation like hers? None of us is a living saint, in fact, it's exhausting to try to live up to that moniker. We are all broken human beings and it is precisely this brokenness that makes us all so beautiful.
This morning I came across some of the homespun wisdom of author Anne Lamott as she recently recounted what she has learned about life now that she has moved into her later years. She made me think about that parishioner of so many years ago:
Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared,
even people who seem to have it more or less together.
They are much more like you than you would believe.
So try not to compare your insides to their outsides.
Many people see other people who seem to "have it all together" and then look at themselves in shame over how messed up they are - this is especially true in churches and in religious organizations where the standard of moral excellence seems to be set so high.
Over my many years in the ministry I can't begin to recount the times parishioners would come to me confessing their feelings of guilt and failure as they sat in a pew next to their fellow upstanding church-going citizens: "If they only knew the truth..if they could look deep into my soul they wouldn't even want to be sitting here next to me."
But the "truth" is that each and every one of us is indeed "screwed up, broken, clingy and scared" --that's the real truth. The successful neighbor, the role-model mother, the student athlete, the priest, rabbi, imam, even the bishop with a pointy hat standing up in front of a congregation preaching a sermon - everyone of us of are broken and flawed, and it is only when we hide behind the veneer of our own perfection that we are really being a fraud.
The psychologist Carl Rogers once observed;
That which is most personal is most general.
There is so much wisdom in this - at the most intimate and personal places deep at the core of our life we are imperfect and messed up; and our "warts" are the marks of our shared humanity.
When we are vulnerable enough to admit and even share that most personal and yet most common place in us, we find deep peace and great beauty.
Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"