There are times when an essay from the past feels fitting. This is one of those times. Mostly because there is one man who better understands the contradictions of sin and mercy better than any other: Karol Wojtyla. His first published work was a series of meditations prepared at the request of the then Pope Paul VI for the 1976 Lenten Retreat of the Pope and his staff. The then Cardinal called his book, The Sign of Contradiction.
I first wrote these words was in April of 2014. In some ways, that feels like a lifetime ago. Mostly because I had not yet published one novel…never mind six. And had anyone told be that I would be planning a fifth in the Lindsey McCall mystery series with the working title of Genderless, I would have laughed most heartily in reply.
Although almost forty years have passed since now St. Pope John Paul II wrote his series of reflections on Simeon’s prediction to the Mother of God when she brings the infant Jesus to the Temple, the timeless words,
Each meditation of The Sign of Contradiction, is drawn directly either from the Old Testament or from the words of Christ himself. The Polish Pope who defied all of the Polish Pope jokes of my youth writes with disarming and deceptive simplicity of this God he knows…there is no doubt he knows Him, intimately.
with words which astound, astonish and will take the willing reader to new depths of contradiction, paradox and mystery.
I am left by this first reading of The Sign Of Contradiction with thoughts about sin and mercy which are not new, yet which feel new-brand new- to me: The “story” in Genesis lives today, in each of our lives and in each of our nations. And the contradictions of sin and mercy feel ever more ubiquitous as we approach 2020.
Having read and pondered these writings, the level of insight and inspiration which is evident, I believe with our newest Saint, that the serpent is no allegory but an entity committed to the destruction of you, me and of our world. Saint John Paul speaks of the serpent as the “Anti-Word” and of “Anti-Love” of waging eternal war against the “Great Heart”, the tender and beautiful phrase he uses to describe God, the first person of the Trinity.
….The world…is a terrain for struggle between man and God, for the created being’s defiance of his Creator. This is the great drama of history, myth and civilization…might not the… temptation of man lie in precisely this, that man should believe himself alone?
Like most converts to faith, certain sins in my past have seemed insurmountable- occasionally, I look back with sorrow and even all of these years as a person of faith, am frequently embarrassed at my inability to think and behave as I would wish to…charitably.
Although I hesitate to write these words because they feel somehow arrogant, I am slowly sensing sin as different from what I have considered it to be and why CS Lewis wrote these words:
“I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Everyone there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one’s eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people’s eyes can see further than mine.”
These are almost the last words of this remarkable book by the man who would be the first non-Italian Pope of 400 years and who, many now say, brought down Communism. This woman about whom we hear less than 50 words in the Gospel but about whom we are told in the beginning:
I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.
And so I beg for grace…“in the dark clutching the garments of God.”