When I finally faced the truth that my father had physically and emotionally abused my mother, I was liberated from my deep need for his approval.
For decades I had labored—mostly unwittingly—to win his attention and his respect. My sense of worth hinged on getting the applause that I assumed would surely come with the next achievement or award or promotion.
A light came on as I read my stepsister’s account of his abusive relationship with her mother. It finally dawned on me that this was a man from whom I could expect only manipulation and condescension.
Facing reality changed who I am. My sense of self-worth derives from understanding that I am a child of God.
But you know, that whole facing-reality thing doesn’t happen in a single instant. Reality, as it turns out, is too big and complex and textured to grasp all at once. And every time we face reality, we get stretched in ways that we didn’t anticipate.
A couple of years ago, I connected with my half-brother’s daughter and my half-sister’s daughter.
(Yes, this is a very complex family system. My father was married three times. Just roll with me.)
My father was, of course, their grandfather. The man they knew was kind and generous. Doting and supportive.
The very same man who had paid no child support for me, paid for braces and the like for them. That kindness toward his granddaughters is the sort of thing I would like to do if I get to be a grandfather some day. It really is admirable and generous.
Facing reality changed who I am. Again. My heart was uncomfortably stretched.
I realize that I don’t get to reduce anyone to the story I can tell about the rotten things they’ve done to me and to people I love. Okay, I’m still struggling with this, but at least I pull myself back from the brink when I start to think the worst of another person.
Each person’s story begins and ends with this truth: he or she is a child of God. Even my father.
Maybe someday no one I meet will stretch my ability to recognize the dignity of every human being. My heart is not yet that expansive. Some people still press my buttons, get on my last nerve, and make me reach for an extra dose of blood pressure medication. And in each of these encounters God seeks to expand my soul just a bit more.
God apparently recognizes that our souls can only take so much stretching at one time. Too much reality blows your mind. Explodes your heart. Scorches your soul. God’s ultimate goal is to share the fullness of the divine self with us. That’s as real as it gets. And that dose of reality is way more than any of us can handle all at once.
That’s what the writer of Hebrews is getting at when he says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29) God is perfect, infinite, unrelenting love and beauty and goodness.
Think of the “Wow!” you utter at a sunset and magnify that by a gazillion times. It would be like touching your eyeball to the surface of the sun. Paradoxically, we yearn for that vision even though we’re not yet ready to take it in.
You may remember that Moses asked to see God. Moses got his wish, but only in a way that God figured he could handle. God instructed Moses to hide in a cleft of a rock. And even then, God gave Moses only the briefest glimpse of his backside. (Exodus 33:18-34:9)
In the life after this life, we will be in God’s nearer presence. Great theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas teach us that we will enjoy the beatific vision: the direct self-communication of God to our souls.
The beatific vision is our ultimate happiness. God created each of us to yearn for this perfect, uninterrupted union with our Maker. But as we are right now, a direct encounter with the fullness of God would be a massive overload for our souls. It would be more than we could bear. We need lots of stretching before we’re ready for such an intimate encounter with the holy.
As it turns out, God is relentlessly stretching us in a myriad of ways. For instance, in the Blessed Sacrament we receive the very Body of Christ. We are becoming what we receive. Natural and human-made beautiful things are finite. But our encounter with earthly beauty expands our hearts and imaginations in preparation for God’s infinite Beauty.
Most challenging and tender of all is other people. Everyone we meet was created in the image of God. Every human walking this planet is a child of God. When we respect the dignity of those who most tempt us to flee or to strike out, to judge or to ignore, our souls grow in their capacity to receive the gift of God’s own presence.
God created us to face reality. You don’t get any more real than God. And that’s what God has in store for us. We’ll be ready when it happens. God is making sure of it.