Near the end of one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, the main character of the story, a tattooed drifter and ne'er do well named O.E. Parker is sitting out back of a pool hall examining his soul. He concludes that despite his best effort to find unity, to become a whole person, his soul remains "a spider web of facts and lies" matching the "haphazard and botched" appearance of the tattoos on his body.
I know that sometimes that's what an exercise like the one I tried to take you through yesterday can do if you really take it seriously. "Who am I anyway? How do I explain the fact that I'm almost a different person in the classroom than I am in the hallway? In the church pew than in the locker room? With one set of friends than with another? What is this mess? Why do I so often lie to myself and to others about who I really am and what I really value when I really just want to tell the truth and be free and happy?"
I know that these things trouble you at times. They trouble me. And I hope that some of you joined me in extending the exercise throughout the day yesterday.
But I would caution you. This sort of self examination is not an end in itself. In fact, I'm not even sure there is much healthy that can come from indulging in it, from trying to find your "inner child" or discover the way to be "true to yourself." Nor do I think there is much to be gained from simply choosing from among your many masks and personas and saying, "I’m going to live that way all the time."
That is an attractive temptation, to find a short cut to the kind of integrity that would drive away the "spider web of facts and lies" that we all sometimes see when we look in the mirror. But the mask you end up choosing may not be any more true than any of the others. That's really only a quick fix, a temporary patch over a deeper problem.
You can't leave morning prayer and simply decide that you're going to be whole in your own strength or in your own wisdom. That is a dead end.
What we need is a solution that is both honest to the reality of our sometimes piecemeal lives, and yet gives us a way forward, a way of moving from brokenness towards wholeness.
It has to be honest because once you’ve faced your own "spider web of facts and lies" you know when someone is trying to cheat on that by telling you that it's not true. It has to provide a way forward, because otherwise there is nothing but despair or resignation, and you cannot live by despair or resignation.
The solution we have guys, is absolutely amazing.
Our Lord Jesus Christ
God of God
Light of Light
Very God of Very God
By whom all things were made
For us men and our salvation
Came down from heaven,
And was made a man.
Why would he do that?
He would do that so he could sympathize with us in our weakness, in our brokenness, so he knew what it felt like to be torn apart, to be tempted, to grieve over his own people's rejection of him, to be stabbed in the back by his own best friends, to feel what it felt like to be forsaken even by his own Father, and to die at the hands of angry, bitter, spiteful people.
And throughout it all, he remained a man of integrity. He remained whole. He was not broken.
Why did he do it? He did it for you. For all your confusion. For all you can't figure out about yourself, about who you are, about that "spider web of facts and lies."
He did what he had to do to make friends with sinners, prostitutes, drug addicts, losers, drop outs, people who live in busses, lawyers, lobbyists, wall street bankers and the rest of us who can't figure it out on our own any better than they can and – and – are honest enough to admit as much.
He did it because he and his Father really do love the you behind all of that other crap. They know who you really are even when you don't. And they love you for who you really are, not for what you can figure out about yourself and how straightened up you can get about who you are.
And there is nothing you have done in the last month, there is nothing you have thought in the past week, there is nothing you will do in the next year that can separate you from the Love of God in Christ. Nothing.
You can push him away, you can keep him at arms length, you can even pretend he doesn't exist. He will still love you for who you are.
But if you embrace this love, if you don't push him away and keep him at arm's lenght, then it almost stops mattering that you can't figure out who you are. You will be so secure in the confidence that you are loved by someone who knows you that well and who did that much for you and will not let go of you, that the question of who the real you is will seem almost unimportant.
What does it matter if you are 17 and still can't figure out whe the "real you" is What does it matter if I'm 35 and I still haven't quite figured out who the "real me" is? It is enough to know that I am loved by the Master of the Universe and his Son.
In the face of this, you might say with Isaiah, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts."
But God says to you, "Behold ... your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven."
You might say with the tax collector, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"
But God says to you, "He who humbles himself will be exalted."
You might say with Peter, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."
But God says to you, "Do not be afraid."
It turns out that the key to real integrity, the mystery of becoming a whole person, is not to be found in endless self-reflection or in the raw power of your own choice but in the apprehension that you are loved unconditionally and at great cost.
"Thou hast formed us for Thyself," prays Augustine, "and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee."