What’s to be learned through failure, through being humbled by our own faults? Generally that’s the only way we grow. In being humbled by our own inadequacies we learn those lessons in life that we are deaf to when we are strutting proudly and confidently. There are secrets, says John Updike, which are hidden from health. This lesson is everywhere in scripture and permeates every spirituality in every religion worthy of the name.
The biblical scholar Raymond E Brown offers an illustration of this from Scripture. Reflecting on how at one point in their history, God’s chosen people, the Israelites, betrayed their faith and were consequently humiliated and thrown into a crisis about God’s love and concern for them. Brown points out that, seen at long range, this seeming disaster ended up being a positive experience: “Israel learned more about God in the ashes of the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians than in the elegant period of the Temple under Solomon.”
What does he mean by that? Prior to being conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, Israel had experienced what, to all outside appearances, looked like the high point of her history (politically, socially and religiously). She was in possession of the Promised Land, had subdued all her enemies, had a great king ruling over her, and had a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem as a place to worship and a centre to hold all its people together.
However, inside that apparent strength, perhaps because of it, she had become complacent about her faith. That led to her downfall. In 587 BC, she was overrun by a foreign nation which, after taking the land, deported most of the people to Babylon, killed the king and knocked the Temple down to its last stone. Israel spent nearly half a century in exile, without a temple, struggling to reconcile this with her belief that God loved her.
However, in terms of the bigger picture, this turned out to be a positive. The pain of being exiled and the doubts of faith that were triggered by the destruction of her temple were ultimately offset by what she learned through this humiliation and crisis; namely, that God is faithful even when we aren’t, that our failures open our eyes to our own complacency and blindness, and that what looks like success is often its opposite, just as what looks like failure is often its opposite. As the Franciscan author Richard Rohr might phrase it, in our failures we have a chance to “fall upward”.
There’s no better image, I believe, by which to understand the humiliation the Church is going through regarding the sexual abuse crisis. To adapt Raymond E Brown’s insight: the Church can learn more about God in the ashes of this crisis than it did during its elegant periods of grand cathedrals, burgeoning growth and unquestioned acquiescence to ecclesial authority. It can also learn more about itself, its blindness to its own faults, and its need for some structural change and personal conversion. One hopes that, like the Babylonian exile for Israel, this too will be something that’s positive in the end.
Moreover, what’s true institutionally for the Church (and, no doubt, for other organisations) is also true for each of us in our personal lives. The humiliations that beset us because of our inadequacies, complacencies, failures, betrayals and blindness to our own faults can be occasions to “fall upward”, to learn in the ashes what we didn’t learn in the winner’s circle.
Almost without exception, our major successes in life, our grander achievements, and the boost in status and adulation that come with that, generally don’t deepen us in any way. To paraphrase the psychologist James Hillman, success usually doesn’t bring a shred of depth into our lives.
Conversely, if we reflect with courage and honesty on all the things that have brought depth and character into our lives, we will have to admit that, in virtually every case, it would be something that has an element of shame to it – a feeling of inadequacy about our own body, some humiliating element in our upbringing, some shameful moral failure in our life, or something in our character about which we feel some shame.
Humiliation makes for depth; it drives us into the deeper parts of our soul. Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t always make for a positive result. The pain of humiliation makes us deep. But it can make us deep in different ways: in understanding and empathy, but also in a bitterness of soul that would have us get even with the world.
The positive point is this: like Israel on the shores of Babylon, when our temple is damaged or destroyed, we will have a chance to see some deeper things to which we are normally blind in the ashes of that exile.