They went forth to battle, but they always fell …
– Shaemus O’Sheel
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“We’re gonna start winning so much,” claims a current contender for the office of President of the United States, “that you’re gonna be sick and tired of winning! You’re gonna get bored of winning! But you know what? We’re gonna keep winning anyway!”
An enticing thought, perhaps, for dyed-in-the-wool patriots whose main goal in life is to “make this country great again.” But such posturing is completely foreign to the mindset of the Pilgrim. Winning may occupy a conspicuous place at the very top of the list of American values, but Pilgrims are more than content to be counted among the “losers” – one of the worst names you can pin on anyone in our current cultural climate. This is yet another detail in which the perspective of the Kingdom and that of the kosmos stand poles apart.
At the conclusion of his delightful biography of St. Francis of Assisi, God’s Fool, author Julien Green offers what appears to be a somewhat painful confession. After revealing that Francis had been his boyhood hero (“I want to be Saint Francis!” he once told the priest in charge of his religious instruction and baptism), Green goes on to explain how World War II shattered his idealism and shook his soul “the way one shakes somebody by the shoulders.” He continues:
Saint Francis kept coming back. The world at war struck me as one vast atrocity. My mind gradually came to the conclusion that the Gospel was a failure. Christ himself had wondered about the faith he would find on earth at his second coming. The souls he had touched and drawn to him seemed isolated in the storm unleashed by madmen. Almost at the midpoint between the first Christmas and the hell humanity was writhing in, a man had appeared on earth, another Christ, the Francis of my childhood, but he too had failed.[i]
Failed? Green himself isn’t altogether comfortable with this idea, and so he closes his book by suggesting that, after all, it may be too soon to pass final judgment on the “success” of the Gospel:
Failed? Apparently … He [Francis] was convinced that salvation would come through the Gospel. The Gospel was eternity, the Gospel had only just begun. What were twenty centuries in the eyes of God?[ii]
This is a perfectly legitimate observation, and entirely on-target so far as it goes. Yes, it is true that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day, and that a time is coming when truth will prevail and “every knee shall bow” to the Rightful King. But this way of resolving the present difficulty leaves out the essential point that, in a very important sense, failure – and not success – is fundamental to the message of the Gospel.
If Francis failed, it was precisely because he was determined to follow in the footsteps of a Master who was Himself an abject failure – at least in the eyes of the world; a Man who, at the moment of crisis, declined to make a grab for power and allowed Himself instead to be led away by His enemies to torture and death on a cross. If the Word preached by both Teacher and disciple seems to have had very little positive impact on the powers that be and the larger course of world events, it’s because it was never intended for such purposes. Its goal was to bring in death and defeat – both for the world and for the individual – in order that resurrection might follow:
He who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave;
He who blesses all creation became accursed;
He who is all righteousness was numbered among transgressors;
Life itself came in the appearance of death.
All this followed because the body which tasted death belonged to no other but to Him who is the Son by nature.[iii]
In the end, it’s all a matter of taking up one’s cross and dying daily. Clearly not the sort of thing that political candidates have in mind when they talk about “winning until you’re sick and tired of it.” But then strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few are those who find it.
This is the gate through which the Pilgrim seeks to enter.
[i] Julien Green, God’s Fool (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 273.