God accepts me, just as I am.
God loves me, just as I am.
God forgives me, just as I am.
Therefore, I accept myself just as I am.
I love myself just as I am.
I forgive myself, just as I am.
This was the penance the priest gave me a couple weeks ago when I went to confession. I was used to saying five Hail Marys or something like that, so I felt a bit uncomfortable with what sounded a little too, I don’t know, therapeutic.
He went on to say, “God is mercy. Those three verbs, accept, love, and forgive, are what God is like. All God does is accept, love, and forgive.”
Befuddled, I quietly completed my penance in the pew, reciting those words, and then went on with my life.
Two days later I’m at Mass in Lansing State Penitentiary, and an elderly man gets up to read the second reading. Apparently he had been gone awhile, because one of the other men said to him, “Hey, you’re back. We missed you.”
The elderly man stopped short, just for a moment, then clenched his jaw. Behind his thick glasses I saw tears welling up. Maybe he hadn’t been told he’d been missed before.
We finish Mass and break into small groups. During our conversation one of the men turns to me and says, with characteristic intensity, “I just can’t forgive myself for what I done, for murder. I just pray and pray but I can’t. I can’t forgive myself.”
The following week, I’m reading the end of Dante’s Divine Comedy, when Dante ascends the final level of Paradise, the Empyrean, and with help from the Blessed Mother, he is able to gaze directly at God.
Dante is dumbstruck, unable to describe in language what he saw, save that it propelled him into writing down the Divine Comedy:
Here my high imagining failed of power, but
already my desire and my will were turned, like
a wheel being moved evenly,
by the Love that moves the sun and other stars.
Authentic God experiences always leave us wordless, breathless, even burned. God is too much love, too much mercy, too much forgiveness. There is no equal exchange, no posturing we can manage, just an encounter with an utterly pure and powerful Love.
God’s love moves the Sun and Stars, but most importantly it moves our hardened hearts, in spite of the million little ways we try to keep it at arm’s length. Most of us are like the men in prison, we just can’t accept that God could be so loving, it just doesn’t seem fair. But life is tragically unfair, and maybe so is God. Maybe God loves all of us so much that the only real tragedy in life is that we don’t believe it.
But it’s always there: God Accepts, God Loves, God Forgives.
God willing, I won’t be ascending the spheres of Paradise any time soon, but perhaps I don’t need to gaze at God. Maybe every time I breathe and say quietly, God accepts, God loves, God forgives, a little bit of God breaks through.