The editorial of the month
Editorial by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P
Maybe you too have been chagrined at Mass , while singing the hymn “Amazing Grace,” to discover the lyrics “that saved a wretch like me” scrapped and swapped.
Why don’t we want to sing those words? The hymn was written in 1779 by John Newton—the former captain of a slave ship. After his conversion to Christianity and ordination as an Anglican cleric, reflection on his vicious past produced those numinous words. And even though, unlike John Newton, I have never engaged in slave trade, here’s the thing: I am capable of it or of something equally heinous. And that’s what makes me a wretch. I sing about it so I won’t give in to it.
I am a wretch because…
Speaking of slavery, it is Saint Paul who has best expressed this dilemma. In the Letter to the Romans (7:14-25), he pours out his heart:
I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin…. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want…. I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me?
Who of us can honestly say he or she is not in that slave boat? Even the sophisticate Blessed John Henry Newman admits to the struggle:
But some may say, “It is so very difficult to serve God, it is so much against my own mind, such a strain upon my strength. I acknowledge his law to be most holy and true. For a little while I feel in a mind to set about imitating good people. I have begun several times, and set rules for myself; but for some reason or other, I fell back after a while, and was even worse than before. I know, but I cannot do. O wretched man that I am!”
Another reason I am a wretch is…
We sing about our wretchedness in order to remain humble. Which is to remind ourselves about our nothingness. When we do so, the result is not depression but joy, because Jesus comes for the wretched.
Pope Francis says that the etymological meaning of the Latin word for mercy—misericordia—“is miseris cor dare, o ‘give the heart to the wretched’, those in need, those who are suffering. That is what Jesus did: he opened his heart to the wretchedness of man.”
This conviction led the great spiritual master Jesuit Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade—a contemporary of John Newton—to counsel a confused soul:
I am delighted that a perception of your wretchedness and a consciousness of your nothingness are your normal preoccupation during prayer. It is thus that you gradually acquire complete distrust of self and utter trust in God. Thus, too, you are firmly established in that interior humility which is the enduring foundation of the spiritual edifice and the chief source of God’s graces to the soul.
And also I’m a wretch because…
I commit actual sins. I am a wretch because I act evilly. Anyone who needs to be forgiven is a wretch.
The author of the Book of Revelation warns us: For you say, “I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,” and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rv 3:17). For those who don’t see themselves as wretches, the upcoming extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy will be a bore and a big waste of time.
Saint Augustine, champion wretch, observes: “You would still be in a state of wretchedness had he not shown you mercy. You would not have returned to life had he not shared your death. You would have passed away had he not come to your aid. You would be lost had he not come.”
But the best thing about this, Saint Claude La Colombière
tells us, is that “the more wretched we are, the more is God honored by the confidence we have in him.”
So then, fellow wretches, let us confidently pray with Saint Thomas Aquinas to the Mother of God:
My most holy Lady, obtain for me true humility of heart so that I may recognize myself truly as a sinner wretched and weak—and powerless, without the grace and help of my Creator and without your holy prayers, to do any kind of good work or even to resist the unrelenting assaults of evil.
Or, if you prefer, with Venerable Pope John Paul I:
It is truly fortunate, Jesus, that you have come! We are wretched creatures, and full of debts towards God the Father, but between the Father and us, now there is you.