Sufjan Stevens, C.S. Lewis, and the Synod

I went to a Sufjan Stevens concert in Philadelphia about ten years ago. It was his tour for The Age of Adz but he played some of his older stuff as well. True to the modern convention that all artists perform at least one encore, after the applause died down, Stevens walked alone to the piano. He started playing and I thought, “Are you kidding? THIS is the song you want us to walk out of here thinking about?” It was “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” a song about the serial killer who raped and murdered at least thirty-three young men. Gacy buried them in the crawl space under his house. He was known as the “Killer Clown” because he committed crimes in a clown costume and makeup.

It’s not a normal topic for a song. But even more jarring, perhaps, is how the song ends. Sufjan sings:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid

The song trails off there. It just… ends. I am sure that the crowd at the concert clapped at the end, but I don’t actually remember that. I remember the silence that immediately followed the dying out of the final chord. And I remember wondering how many people in the Kimmel Center that night really heard those lyrics.

There but for the grace of God go I.

Stevens’s song resonates with a saying that is something of a Catholic platitude: “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s easy to apply to some situations—homelessness, for example. I will probably never be homeless because by the grace of God I was born into a family that has always been able to provide a safety net for me. I did not earn that; it was given to me. But it has always been difficult for me to apply that saying to situations that involve agency. Surely, I am not like John Wayne Gacy, Jr. at all, and that’s simply because I would never choose to do such horrible things… Right?

The synod on synodality

The synod that the Catholic Church is engaged in right now is a chance for all Catholics to confront this question in order to understand what it is that the Church offers to the world today. What does it mean to offer salvation to the world through an institution that is deeply flawed itself? We know that the Church is both divine and human, and that we are the flawed, human part. The abuse crisis has shown, all too clearly, that our priests are not without grievous sin. Nor are the leaders of the Church immune to caring too much about her reputation and not enough about her children. But how often do I recognize that my sin is also a part of that picture? The grace that I rely on, that I seek through confession and the Eucharist, is the same grace that is offered to the most grievous sinner. That grace is free, and I didn’t earn it.

If this truth about grace is my starting point, it becomes much easier to listen to others without fear or judgment. We recognize that we are all capable of both beautiful, selfless things and base, sinful things. Sin doesn’t surprise us, and grace can be found anywhere. Thus, I expect that in discussions for the synod, both of these things show up—grace and sin. That’s why we have to trust in the Holy Spirit as the true protagonist of the synod: the wheat and the chaff will be allowed to grow up together in the process—but in the end, we will harvest the one and throw away the other (c.f. Mt 13:24-30).

What do we offer?

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote about how it is easy and tempting to compare selfish, wretched Christians to noble atheists, and thus conclude that Christianity is not real or powerful. Instead, he wrote, you would have to compare the selfish, wretched Christian to what he or she would be like if he or she were not Christian. We are being asked in the synod process to consider how our communities are proclaiming the Gospel today, and where we are failing to do so. Can anyone tell the difference between who I am today—with a living relationship with Jesus Christ—and who I would be without that relationship? And the answer is no, if I don’t show or tell how important that relationship is to me. Because I’m not any “nicer” than the noble atheist, that’s for sure. My “niceness” can’t be the measure of whether I have faith or not, or, more importantly, whether what I believe in is true. And yet how are people to know that I have this treasure of faith if I do what everyone else does today: roll my eyes about anything I disagree with?

Come and see

We are starting the synod process at Catholic University at the end of this month with a conversation between the papal nuncio, Archbishop Pierre, and President John Garvey. Stephen White will be moderating the discussion, and if I know Stephen, he will be asking some hard questions. One of the goals for this opening conversation is to establish for students, faculty, and staff at the university a clear answer as to why we should engage with one another in this synod process. Before we sit down in small groups together, we must be able to recognize that listening with equanimity is a spiritual capacity. It requires self-regulation and humility. It requires fortitude—fortitude being the virtue that allows a person to suffer patiently! For there will likely be some suffering involved in listening to others’ experiences and perceptions, especially if we think that those experiences challenge our deeply-held convictions. We should pray before we listen. But we are on this journey together, in the Church and at this university, so listening is a spiritual capacity that we sorely need, and the best way to get it is by doing.