One of the clearest facts of life is that the world is imperfect and that we are imperfect. Indeed, life is a mess, and yet Jesus came to lead us to perfection. This is the Good News: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes… might have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Jesus never said our earthly life would be perfect or that we had to be perfect. He did say that His way brings light, truth, and life because He IS the light, the truth, and the life. Thus, He offers us a pathway to perfection, one that requires us to embrace our imperfections as gifts, because all we have to offer is what we have at hand. Jesus said, “Give and gifts will be given to you; good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:38) If we try to visualize this, it appears to be quite a mess: that God’s gifts will be shaken down and overflowing such that they end up in our laps is anything but neat. In other words, even the gifts God gives are given in light of our imperfection and brokenness. His grace is perfect, but He knows the vessels are cracked! Therefore the first thing we learn is that we must accept our brokenness if we are to work with it, and if we desire God to work with it, too. Yes, life is chaotic, but who we are and all our ‘complicatedness’ is the raw material for our holiness. *
The gospels clearly indicate that Jesus wants to heal, and thus to free, those who are struggling with whatever hinders growth in holiness. In order to advance, we have to understand that while the path to holiness leads us to perfection, holiness itself is not perfection. Perfection takes place only after we die and enter into eternal life with Jesus. But until then, it is the path that is important, because the path leads to the destination. Therefore, instead of denying our imperfections and thus being caught in them, we need to accept them as a way to holiness and therefore, our pathway to Heaven. We can embrace our brokenness with humility, just as Jesus embraced becoming fully human while still being fully divine. If He had not ‘stooped low,’ leaving Heaven and entering into our imperfect world, we would not have a way to enter into the perfection of Heaven. We need to remember that the only way God can work in our lives is to work within our brokenness. Everything He does is designed to come to us in the midst of our reality.
Even the holiest of the Saints, (as if holiness could be quantified), had ‘feet of clay.’ They were as imperfect as anyone else, but the difference is that they became keenly aware of their faults and failings, and in their love for God, sorrow for their sins grew such that they knew they needed God’s constant help to overcome their sinful tendencies. But as they grew in holiness, they often had to contend with those around them who judged them harshly, only seeing what they wanted to see and therefore believing the worst of them, adding insult to the lives of these truly imperfect, but holy, people. A saint who dealt with this treatment was St. Margaret of Cortona, (1247-1297; feast day, February 22). Her life can teach us that judging people without knowing the root of their woundedness simply does nothing positive for anyone: it pigeonholes the one being judged so that they are never viewed as who they truly are, trapping them into a particular ‘role,’ and it fosters closed-mindedness and even hatred in the ones doing the judging. In short, it creates a barrier to the growth of all parties.
St. Margaret of Cortona was born in Laviano, Italy. When Margaret was seven her mother died and her father remarried a woman who subsequently treated Margaret harshly. The result was that while still young, Margaret ran off with a nobleman from a neighboring town. Never married to him, she bore a son, living as his mistress for nine years until he was murdered in 1274. After his death, Margaret had a conversion and publicly confessed her sins. She attempted to return to Laviano, but unwelcomed in her father’s house, she and her son sought refuge with some Franciscans in Cortona. However, even after her conversion Margaret often fell into temptation, having numerous affairs which resulted in feelings of self-loathing and deep remorse. She truly wanted to overcome her tendencies and was finally able to turn her attention outward by caring for the poor. Eventually she began a religious congregation whose ministry was to help the poor and she was also able to found a hospital in Cortona, preaching against vice when she had the opportunity. During this time Margaret also developed a deep intimacy with God through her prayer. But no matter what good she did, gossip and judgment swirled around her until her death. Instead of focusing on her good works, many judged her for her sinful past, as if to doom her to its realm. Therefore, Margaret struggled doubly: not only did she wrestle with strong temptations to sexual impropriety, but also from the sting of false accusations.
Jesus taught His disciples that mercy and forgiveness are the way to heal people. He did not condone their sins, but rather He offered freedom from the patterns that held them captive. An example of this is found in the gospel passage about the adulterous woman, (John 8:1-11). Jesus offered the woman freedom, but never berated her about the severity of her sinfulness. However, let us note that it was not the woman who sought the healing; she was dragged unwillingly by the Pharisees into the town square where Jesus happened to be. Had he not been there, they would have stoned her to death. But Jesus saw what was going on. He knew the Pharisees were attempting to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ (pardon the pun) by punishing the woman, and in the process, trapping Him. He literally disarmed the Pharisees by saying that the one who was without sin could cast the first stone, and thus the woman was left alone with Him. Remember, she did not ask to see Jesus, nor was she seeking healing or forgiveness. But to her great surprise, instead of condemning her, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” This statement must have been shocking to her because no one had ever loved her like this before. Jesus forgave her, but He also offered her the freedom to choose how to respond to this love. Indeed, He had set her free.
We would do well to learn from the lessons of Jesus and the adulterous woman, and from the life of St. Margaret of Cortona, now considered the patron saint of falsely accused people, people ridiculed for their piety, the homeless, reformed prostitutes, the mentally ill, and those prone to sexual temptation (and temptation in general). ** Her experience teaches that the grace of God is more powerful than our sin and that it is more powerful than the accusations of those who judge us according to what they think they know. Margaret also teaches us not to let the weight of our sins, no matter how great, distress us so much that they keep us from God: there is always hope because there is always forgiveness. We can also turn to Margaret for inspiration as we struggle with what others may say about us, but also to ask her help in keeping us from falling into the same sins against others, as well. The grace needed for this is of paramount importance today, as we have greater ways to perpetuate these sins through the usage of social media and the instantaneous way we can make ‘news’ travel. The temptation to give in to this sort of sin gets greater all the time, and so we must resist, remembering that when we are weakest, God is the most powerful. We must pray for the grace of self-control and for the wisdom to learn how to respond in love. The way of the Gospel is always the way of mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love: the way of Jesus always brings life and light.
It is time to turn our attention toward Lent, remembering that a return to the Lord via adopting His way of mercy and forgiveness is truly at the season’s heart. It would be good for us to accept Jesus’ invitation to greater freedom by receiving His forgiveness and mercy so that we can offer these same gifts to others. And perhaps we will see that our imperfection is actually a gift insofar as it offers us the opportunity to seek God and to grow in humility and love before Him. Let us try to surrender our sinfulness, even if we do so imperfectly, so that we might take to heart Jesus’ words: “Give and gifts will be given to you; good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.”
May we learn to embrace our imperfection as a pathway to holiness! May we be strengthened against all behaviors that tear down and destroy, instead choosing those which build up and bring life! May we ask the intercession of St. Margaret of Cortona when we are slandered so that we can respond in love rather than to react with anger! May we be freed from patterns of self-destruction and despair if we fail in our attempts to overcome sin, turning to the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus which is lavishly and freely given! And with the eyes of Jesus may we learn to see others as beloved children of God who are loved sinners just as we are! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I know ‘complicatedness’ is not a real word. However, ‘complexity’ did not have the impact or precision I sought here. Let’s face it: we are complicated!
** One article I read suggests that St. Margaret suffered from bi-polar disorder. Perhaps her story can assist our understanding of how people might struggle with issues that are beyond their control, encouraging us to have more understanding and compassion. Click here for the article: https://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/st-margaret-of-cortona-1247-97-penitent/
Next post: March 11.
1. I took this photo outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It is Adams' Falls. I chose it to open this post because it is a somewhat messy waterfall. The water was rushing all over the place, logs were down, and to top it all, this was taken during the mud season. Trust me, it was a mess.
2. This is another of my photos. It was taken at Lost Maples Natural Area, in Texas. I chose it because of the brokenness of the stones in the drying stream bed. As imperfect as this dying stream seems to be, it actually has a beauty of its own. Not only that, but it was part of the path through this wooded area.
3. Again, this is part of a photo I took while in Rome, just outside the basilica of St. John Lateran. I believe that is Moses. I chose it because of his right foot which caught my eye immediately. Moses definitely had feet of clay; he was not perfect, as holy as he was. But it was the stone (once clay?) statue with the big foot which spoke most here. With a bit of whimsy, one could say he is pointing at it.
4. This painting of St. Margaret of Cortona was done by an Italian artist named Vittore Crivelli. (1440-1501). I liked the posture of prayer with which he depicted Margaret, but also one can see the pain of being misunderstood in her face.
5. This icon is called Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This icon fits perfectly with the passage about the adulterous woman. The eyes of Jesus truly draw the viewer in with a look of infinite mercy and love. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness-040-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. I had to use a painting by Vincent van Gogh here. This one is called Olive Grove (1889). I chose this particular painting because olives must be crushed if we want delicious olive oil for cooking. But my main reason was that van Gogh was one of the most ridiculed artists of his day. He was considered mad, especially after he cut off his own ear. He painted this while in the St. Rèmy asylum, suffering from mental illness. Even while ill and suffering, he painted incredible beauty.
7. This is a close up from a photo I took while at the first Mass of a priest-friend. I wanted to highlight the chalice and the water being added to the wine. Again the grapes had to be crushed to become the wine, which at Mass becomes the Blood of Christ at the consecration by the priest. It was a fitting photo for the end of the post.
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Heart Speaks to Heart