The Whiplash of Vice and Victory

Toward the end of the 1989 film “Parenthood,” a cheerful grandmother, dismissed throughout the movie as being a bit ditzy, tells her harried children, “You know, when I was 19, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.”

“Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.” 

As a parent, pondering that scene has sometimes brought me a measure of reassurance, but during the holidays and holy days that closed out 2012, it offered a kind of spiritual relief, too. Even with the hopeful promise of Advent and the triumph and tenderness of the Nativity of Our Lord, and all of the lessons and promises to be found within the boundless depths of the Incarnation — Christus Factus Est! — I had too often found myself struggling for interior balance. If I felt good about going to confession and being (however briefly) in a state of grace, I felt lousy when I wounded charity by barking thoughtlessly (and needlessly) at family members who simply wanted a bit of my attention. Unable to regain my equilibrium with sincerely rendered apologies and a resolve to “do better next time,” I instead had an unusual need to beat myself up and let my small impatience set a miserable tone for the whole day. On other occasions, I permitted myself excesses, as with holiday treats, with a blithe recklessness, even though, deep down, I knew I should not. 

This sounds like nothing, I know. Common stuff! A few snippy turns at selfishness; a few indulgences. But both my inability to accept forgiveness (and to forgive myself) on the one hand and my unwillingness to be called out on bad practices (or to discipline myself) on the other, were giving me a kind of spiritual whiplash born of pride. I was impatient because I had work to do, and that was more “important” than a family member’s actual, worthy needs; I made a big deal of feeling bad about it because, golly! I’m a Benedictine and should be “better” than that! I indulged the sweet tooth because, well, don’t tell me what to do; and, anyway, if God wanted me to resist it, his grace would be enough! The fat is my thorn in the flesh by God’s own design! 

The hubris was almost palpable.  

In fact, the recent weeks have been a real-time experience of what Msgr. William King describes in his essay on vice and missing the mark.

Here was a woman swinging between excesses and defects of pride with pit stops at vanity, gluttony and sloth; here was someone excessive over “work” gifts and defective in appreciation of familial ones; a person deciding that while God and family may offer forgiveness, she knew better and must deny it to herself; here was the pride of someone so caught up in flesh and matter, so dizzy from her extreme swoops and swerves into viciousness that she presumed to know the mind of God and the measure of His grace. Oh, pray for that lady! 

When I expressed self-loathing over my selfishness and my propensity for “missing the mark,” someone said, “admitting all of this is a grace from God.” I know that, of course, and I also know that God’s assistance in doing better is mine for the asking, although His methods may also, sometimes, leave me dizzy. 

But if I am having ups and downs, if my metaphorical stomach is a bit queasy, I am grateful for it.  

It means I am at least on the roller coaster and not on the carousel. Instead of simply going round and round unto stultifying stagnation, I am in the spiritual thick of things, now resisting; now tumbling forward; now climbing and striving against all sense; now being thrown for a loop; now screaming and letting go of the bars, in faith; now clinging to them again as the next turn approaches. The wild ride is worth it. TCA 

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, and the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com