At a Healing the Whole Person conference about five years ago, I finally learned experientially the meaning of a word I had known abstractly all my life.
What I was carrying with me in particular that day was hurt, shame and anxiety about a codependent friendship I had. There was hurt that this friend was not loving me as intensely as my desperation desired, shame that I still needed the love the friend offered, fear that I would be asked to let go of the friendship, and, above all, fear that this codependency meant I was a dark, broken and loathsome person.
At the conference, Sr. Miriam James Heidland, S.O.L.T., told a story about a woman she was mentoring who was struggling with (if I recall correctly) some combination of trauma and consequent addiction. At some point in her journey, this woman wrote to Sr. Miriam, “I would be a better person if this had never happened to me.”
The interior change happened in me in perfect sync with her story as I finally realized that in spite of all the ways my codependent friendship was imperfect and broken, I actually was a better person because of it, not worse. It had certainly exposed existing weakness, wounds and sin in me, but those things were already there. What changed was that they were no longer hidden and now could finally be dealt with. In addition to that, the friend, while not loving me perfectly, had still loved me and began to reveal my worth to me — a crucial support for growth. Finally, by loving someone in that way, I had learned that I was willing to really love them, even if it meant the very painful loss of how I wanted the friendship to go.
I was stunned. God had used this complicated, messy and even sometimes sinful relationship not incidentally but as the actual instrument by which he drew me closer to him. I understood concretely how wild and beautiful it is that Christ used death itself as a means to free us from sin and death: how much it shows his power that nothing is too broken for him to redeem and restore. This happened on the cross itself, but that act of redemption also spreads out to every corner of creation and plays out concretely in each of our lives.
It is total victory, complete resurrection, reaching all the way down to the depths, restoring what was broken at the very core and reintegrating all the way back out.
It is the same pattern that allows us to say in the Exultet at Easter Vigil, “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” The psalmist also speaks of this in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.” As does St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.” All of creation belongs to the Creator, and nothing is too far from him or too broken for him to redeem.
Of course, our cooperation is required. God created us with free will. He wanted us to be able to love, and so he gave us the freedom, which also allows sin and suffering to exist. So, redemption must also happen in the context of our freedom. He never insists, but always invites. It is one of the many paradoxes that we as Catholics inhabit. God is our savior; we have no power to save ourselves. At the same time, he will act only with our permission and cooperation.
At Easter, we celebrate how God chose to redeem us. The all-powerful Creator who could have enacted our redemption with a snap of his fingers did not. He chose the path of most resistance because it was also the path of greatest love. He lived and worked and breathed and suffered and loved an ordinary life. So it is for us. Small, ordinary, gritty moments are the fabric of our lives and the way by which we follow and cooperate with him. He does not force us into redemption, and we are always free to turn aside, to live on our own terms. But when he is allowed to work in the ordinary moments of our real lives, the places of deepest pain and even sin, can become the places that most radiantly reflect his glory.
All of this is reflected in each one of our lives. It is also reflected concretely in the city of Rome. The incomprehensibly ancient city that once brutally persecuted the Christians has been “baptized,” so to speak, and become the very heart of the Catholic Church. Many churches there are built on top of or even (like the Pantheon) are simply repurposed ancient pagan temples, reflecting this reality of all creation being brought back to God. Similarly, the redemption of suffering is also tangibly reflected in the glory of the churches that are built to honor the towering witnesses of holiness. Many of the most glorious churches are built on the sites where the martyrs were brutally killed and depict their moments of death, frozen in time throughout the centuries for us to reflect on. Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is one of many. Rome reveals on a grander scale the same thing that Catholic churches throughout the world do. They make visible for us some shadow of the truth that in Christ everything — even sin and suffering — can be repurposed and redeemed, and become part of the glory he has in store for us.
The Risen Christ is the victor and, if we cooperate with his work in our lives, he can transform and redeem everything.