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30 November, 1999

Life doesn’t always turn out the way we thought it would and we are sometimes tempted to indulge our disappointment. Paul Andrews SJ says Jesus would not want us to waste energy blaming ourselves.

Páidín and I were burying Eoin, a dear mutual friend who had died at the height of his powers. He was a devout man of strong principles. Not only that, he lived by those principles. He was a high-powered engineer, always stretching himself in his professional life, but keeping the best hours of the week free for his wife and family, a spirited lot who made constant demands on him. The tributes at the funeral were lavish, but no more than Eoin deserved.

When a dangerous heart condition finally turned fatal, Eoin fought for life every inch of the journey, panting breathlessly all the way through his last night, with his wife holding his hand, until in the end it was she who gave him permission to relax and breathe his last.

As Páidín and I threw our handfuls of earth on the coffin, he turned to me: Paul, you could say of Eoin: ‘May God be as good to him as he was to God’. I’m different. I’m in the mercy queue. Here’s what you can put on my grave: ‘Dear God, I didn’t enjoy it as much as you meant me to.’

When Páidín died in his sleep a year later, a relatively young man, I remembered his words, but they did not appear on his gravestone. He and Eoin and I were all of an age, had worked together, and watched the next generation – Eoin had six children, Páidín four – with absorbed interest. I wept for them both and still feel a pang as I recall the two deaths, thirty years ago. I feel survivor’s guilt. Why should the Lord have taken two fathers, and let me live on?

Páidín, who was a poet as well as an engineer, put his finger on it. Upright Eoin had learned the rules and kept them, and taught them to his children. He had carried out everything that God, through his parents and teachers, had taught him. The children grew up interesting, loving and lively. Though they turned out very different from the model that Eoin had in his mind, each of them in their diverse ways reflected his warmth and integrity.

In Páidín there was more of the maverick mystic than the obedient student. He tried for the priesthood – the Jesuits in fact – but the early death of his father forced him, the eldest of a large family, to become a breadwinner as soon as he could.

He had four remarkable children, and lived to enjoy grandchildren. But as his chosen epitaph hinted, he had a sense of disappointment. It was not so much disappointment with his achievements and circumstances – by any standards he had been a successful family and professional man – as disappointment with himself. In a poignant poem he spoke of himself: Inconsolable that I am I.

Look at a cross-section of middle-aged and elderly people. How many of them, like Páidín, might admit to disappointment? Are there any who do not carry some grief or wound in their heart? Last September, it became clear that even the smiling and heroic Mother Teresa had lived a life of spiritual desolation and torment. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it sharply in one of his sonnets of desolation:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me.

In St Luke’s Gospel, the Prodigal Son reaches a low point and realizes: I have sinned against heaven and disappointed my father. There are billions of people who feel that life has somehow cheated them. At a certain point they say to themselves: Is this all there is? Is this as good as it gets? They look back on a marriage that has broken or fallen short of expectations; or at a career in which they hit against a glass ceiling and failed to win the promotion they coveted; or at a religious vocation in which they often fell short of their ideals. Or they feel they somehow let down their children.

There is a moment of truth here. This is what Jesus meant when he urged us to carry our cross. It was not a call to take up special penances. The biggest cross is our own selves. In that extraordinary parable, the Prodigal Son tries to make an apology to his father, but he gets nowhere. His father will not listen to the self-blame of his son.

Jesus does not want us to waste energy blaming ourselves. He would rather we were as unsurprisable as he is, and that we would move away from the might-have-beens, and forgive ourselves our mistakes as God forgives us.

You may think that was all very well for Jesus – he was the Messiah. That is not how we see him in the Gospel, which recounts a series of rebuffs and disappointments in his life. His own townsfolk rejected him when he revisited Nazareth. Of the twelve men he chose as apostles, Judas was to betray him, Peter to deny him. James and John were still arguing over petty ambitions even after three years in Jesus’ company. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of his people, had no time for him. Idealistic people like the rich young man turned away when asked to give their money to the poor. The Jews walked away in droves when Jesus spoke of the Eucharist. He wept over his dear Jerusalem, yearning for acceptance like a mother over her children. But the holy city rejected him.

We look on the Sacred Heart as a symbol of love. It was also a heart of tough courage. Jesus was repeatedly disappointed, and like any human, he must have felt at times that he could have managed things better. But he carried his cross, which for him, as for most of us, consisted of rebuffs, failures and disappointments. He did not grow bitter, or bland, or disillusioned, but kept love flowing in his heart. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


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