Blessed (soon to be Saint) Teresa of Calcutta is oft-quoted, “It is better to be faithful than successful.” Of course she’s right. Fidelity allows us to sleep peacefully at night and brings about [ultimately] the “success” of reaching heaven. Earthly success, however grand, is fleeting. Sic transit gloria mundi. That which is earthly must inevitably die. So, fidelity is preferable to success. But this truth… true as it may be… probably comes as small comfort to anyone in the throes of failure.
Lately I’ve been exploring some of these themes in my own life/ministry. Two classes of failure emerge… I’m calling them “surface” and “deep.”
Surface failures are things I can shrug off with relative ease… quotidian crashes that don’t knock me down for good. A few examples: (a) I spent several weeks worth of preparation, promotion etc. trying to promote a new effort to directly serve the poor in my parish. The idea got killed in committee… not by any ill will, but by questions and complications. (b) One of my favorite parts of daily priesthood is working with altar servers. The kids are so wonderful and preparing them for masses / ceremonies offers opportunities for great catechesis. Kids here, I’m discovering, are so busy with other things, that volunteering to serve and be trained for serving usually falls to the bottom of their list. Add to this the cumbersome scheduling software given us from our central office that folks are reluctant to learn how to use… well the long and the short is that after eight months there’s still a glaring lack of altar servers at a great parish. Have I failed to inspire, failed to communicate? (c) Education – I had several great brainstorming sessions with a respected and wonderful Catholic organization here in DC trying to bring a new educational opportunity to the Hill. It all seemed to be going so positively… then digital silence… the emails halted. I finally wrangled the info out of a colleague: “We’ve been talking big picture here at the office and think we need to shelve this idea for the moment.” Failure.
These are surface failures… some are more or less disappointing than others, but I’ll live to fight another day and keep trying to do good. But then there is deep failure. This is related to the others, but much more fearsome in its obscurity… it’s off in the future, yet to happen. Maybe it’s just another word for fear; I’m not quite sure: “Do my failures contribute to a future failure of the Church?” “Am I failing my bride, the Church?” It might seem melodramatic… It’s not a messiah complex… I’m certainly not taking the whole future of Christendom on my shoulders… but I look at data: falling contributions, generations of uncatechized, increasingly hostile state forces, falling numbers of marriages, baptisms, etc. And while I have no pretensions about turning everything around, don’t I have a mission to turn things around my tiny corner of the Church?
I know that families face similar surface/deep failure dynamics. Job loss, sickness, spousal relations. When the lives of your spouse and children are depending on you monetarily, morally, emotionally, etc. it’s hard to say, “fidelity is better than success.” Where does that leave us?
For me, this seeming impasse becomes a place of enlightenment. When I have nothing left, no answer to the problem… all that remains is the Love of the Father. Humanity underwent the ultimate failure when our first parents sinned in the Garden of Eden… Over and over again, he reaches out to us… Over and over again, we fail. But the Father’s love and fidelity are greater than our failures and infidelities.
“…for Christ while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly… God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (from Romans 5:1-2, 5-8)
Because He is faithful to us… even our failures will somehow become opportunities for His ultimate victory… and so I take some small pleasure even in my failures confident no longer in my own actions, but in God’s providence. By way of a literary take on the same theme, consider the following conclusion (emphasis added) to Evelyn Waugh’s great work, “Brideshead Revisited”.
The chapel showed no ill effects of its long neglect. The paint was as fresh and bright as ever. And the lamp burned once more before the altar. I knelt and said a prayer – an ancient, newly-learned form of words. I thought that the builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend. They made a new house with the stones of the old castle. Year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness, until, in sudden frost, came the Age of Hooper. The place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing. Quomodo sedet sola civitas – vanity of vanities, all is vanity. And yet, I thought, that is not the last word. It is not even an apt word – it is a dead word from ten years back.A small red flame, a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design, re-lit before the beaten copper doors of a tabernacle. This flame, which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out: the flame burns again for *other* soldiers far from home – farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians. And there I found it that morning, burning anew among the old stones.
Take hope… God is greater than our failures.