If there was a sucker born every minute, I took up my apportioned time and more. The homeless guys that live on the streets where I work look out for me. I swear, I could claim some of these guys on my tax return as dependents.
One fellow always gave a heartfelt “God bless!” in return when I gave him a buck. I was always good for it. He spotted me, just about daily. He knew my haunts; he knew my schedule.
So every time I saw him, I would pony up a buck. And the next time. And the time after that.
One day he saw me, lumbered over and draped an arm over my shoulder. I already had my wallet out, but he stopped me.
“Don’t want any money today. Don’t want a thing. I just want to tell you what a swell guy you are.” And he went on like that for a couple of minutes. Talking about what a swell guy I was. I really should have been flattered.
But there was one catch. He was drunk as a skunk. At 9 in the morning. And I got a pretty clear understanding then of where my donations had gone those many months.
Fortunately, a guy had spotted me with him that knew how to get him some real help. Because of that guy — not me — my charity case now has a roof over his head, three-squares a day, and a job prospect. I don’t know if he’s sober. But it has been ages since I’ve seen him on the streets.
I like to think of myself as a swell guy. And right there is about half the problem.
We live in a universe now that is just about filled with swell guys.
A recent survey noted that about 45 percent of people receiving the Eucharist at Sunday Mass had never taken part in the Sacrament of Penance in their adult lives. Never.
That’s one of those figures of contemporary life that really jumped out at me when I first read it. Back when I was a kid, it was the rare bird that would think of receiving the Eucharist on Sunday without confession on Saturday.
What happened to confession? How did it move out of our spiritual lives in such a short period of time?
I think it is because a lot of us became swell guys at some point. Swell is easy; great is too much work. When given the option for greatness in life, it’s easy to opt out time and time again. Until it becomes a swell guy’s favorite option — benign mediocrity.
Benign mediocrity is what tells me not to worry. It preaches that it is more comfortable to be ordinary than a saint. Or at least, that’s what it is comfortable to believe. Good seems too hard. Mediocrity seems too easy. It tells me that I’m a swell guy.
I think that is the most pervasive sin of our times, and perhaps the most insidious. More than anything else, benign mediocrity steals our sense of personal sin.
Benign mediocrity tells us that the only sins are great sins; and that any sin — great or small — can be talked around and through with a healthy dose of rationalization.
In fact, benign mediocrity tells us that there is essentially no sin at all, just swell guys like me trying to get by.
Benign mediocrity undermines any thought that a swell guy needs to encounter the forgiveness of God and the call to constant conversion through the Sacrament of Penance.
Back in the day, I was taught that the Sacrament of Penance was our way of encountering the forgiveness of God. And God’s way of showing us forgiveness.
I grew out of confession when I didn’t think I needed forgiveness. I came back when I learned that forgiveness is everything.
Especially for a swell guy.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.