I was driving home from Boston and listening to the news on WBZ when I heard it for the first time. It so shocked me that I almost wrecked my car! It was not, however, a bad thing. It was a good thing, a very good thing! It was five words that absolutely took my breath away: “Who am I to judge?’ Pope Francis’ words stood in stark contrast to the ugly, judgmental religion that garners most of the forever babbling, talking heads’ attention. I pulled over to the berm as the traffic whizzed by and Googled Pope Francis” to make sure that he actually said such benevolent words. He did and, from that moment on, I have had a crush on the Bishop of Rome.
The Pope’s five simple words were like a fresh breeze blowing into our mucked-up universe, or, as it says in the Hebrew Bible’s creation story, it was as if the “ruah,” the wind or the Spirit of the Divine, moved over the chaos of our troubled world, calling it and us from death to life. That’s how powerful such humility is, not to mention how astounding the true nature of the Divine is. The Spiritual reality is that grace trumps judgment, love overcomes hatred, hope dissipates despair, and peace soothes anxiety. Pope Francis’ five words reinvigorated the words spoken in the creative moment: “Let there be light!” His words prove, once again, that darkness cannot ultimately overcome the light.
For years, I lived in the shadow of judgment. For reasons I do not now remember, I learned from a very early age to hate myself. Maybe it was because I grew up within a religion that I believed cast me as a dirty, rotten sinner…forever. The best I could do was to beg for mercy. There was no way I was ever going to get on God’s good side. I spent years beating myself up, filled with guilt and convinced that my chances for eternal survival were “slim to none.” Perhaps one of the reasons I decided to make a career of “church” was because it might mitigate the Divine anger that seethed at me, or at least give me ONE chance rather than NO chance in hell of getting cut some slack on the day of my reckoning (although in my most truthful moments, I still thought the “slack” would be a noose). But just as Pope Francis’ five words almost caused me to wreck my car, some words spoken to me by Father Henri Nouwen brought light to my darkness; a fresh breeze blew away my self-hatred and rehabilitated my tattered soul.
I went with a couple of other guys to visit Henri at the Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. For those who know nothing about Father Nouwen, he was a Dutch priest, a brilliant scholar and probably one of the greatest spiritual lights of the 20th century. Henri gave up a very successful career in academia to become priest to the people of Daybreak. They were not ordinary people. Those who lived at Daybreak were some of the most seriously disabled people I have ever seen. They were so disabled and deformed physically that they were very hard to look at. Our culture prefers to keep such people from disturbing our view: “Out of sight, Out of mind!” But Henri not only saw them, he also cared for them, every single one of them, with a remarkable love that absolutely defies description! By the end of the day, I was so moved by what I had seen as Henri cared for his flock that I was unusually speechless. As we stood in the parking lot getting ready to leave, all I could do was to stammer out a question: “How do you do this, Henri? How can you do this all day?”
Henri looked at me like I was nuts before he answered me, “Don’t you know, John, that we are all God’s beloved children?”
As he looked into my eyes, Henri knew that I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that anybody was God’s beloved. I certainly didn’t know that I was God’s beloved, so Henri narrowed the focus: “John, you are God’s beloved child. Nobody can take that away from you. It is not yours to lose. It is pure gift. Hasn’t anybody ever told you that?”
I had grown up in the church. I had served the church as a pastor for 15 years before I met Henri, but NOBODY had ever told me that! Instantly, that incredible Divine truth lifted a heavy weight off my soul. Could it be that I was Divinely loved? If so, then it certainly must be OK to love myself. This new truth was so liberating that I promised that I would never, ever miss the opportunity to remind myself and everybody else I had the chance to meet of it, just in case they had been walking around under a shadow of dark guilt cast over them by one religion or another. This is why I am sharing this deeply personal experience on my blog today. Maybe somebody reading this has only heard, and therefore come to believe, the judgmental condemnations of a perverse religion. I truly hope you are not driving your car when this astounding truth sinks in or you might almost wreck your car like I almost wrecked mine when I heard Pope Francis’s five life-giving, life-transforming words. Nevertheless, let me add my five words to the mix: “YOU are God’s beloved…PERIOD!”
Postscript: Far too many times over the last 15 years, I have had people walk out of my spiritual community because I refuse to judge anybody. I categorically refuse to declare anybody “OUT” of the good graces of the Divine. I don’t care if they have “got” religion or no religion, what their sexual identity is, what they have done, or what they have failed to do. Even those who angrily walk out on me are still “IN.” They are as much God’s beloved as I am. After all, “who am I to judge?” I hope, however, that someday, rather than walking away from this incredibly liberating truth, they will walk toward it.
John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts