My affection for sweet and sour chicken did not begin until a few years ago. In simpler times, I preferred macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, and the occasional peanut butter and cheese sandwich (yes, with cheddar cheese). Then, just as I began to increasingly discover the depths and dark crevices in my soul, I felt myself drawn to sweet and sour chicken. An inexplicable coincidence? Possibly. Or perhaps the sauce’s contrasting flavors resonated with the blend of good and evil I encountered in myself and my surroundings, and perhaps this resonance sparked craving for the food.
Chicken mysteries aside, the weight of evil I find in my soul can be lifted by the Sacrament of Confession, but I have often struggled with this sacrament. Picking apart the threads of intricate and tragic human messiness can become an exercise in stress if I am not careful. Such stress probably occurs when the sacrament becomes more about me than about God. Sometimes it is difficult to see the priest as a representation of Jesus; more often it is simply myself and my shortcomings that concern me.
A resource that recently has helped re-orient me toward confession is “Stars of Comfort,” a collection of retreat talks delivered by Father Vincent McNabb. Not surprisingly, several of the reflections focus on confession as a means of union with God, but the focus is emphatically on how good God’s love is for us, if we just muster courage to accept it. He writes that when a soul can see what is right but fails to do it (as when one should go to Confession more frequently, yet fails to do so), that soul has let its eyes wander from the goodness of the object it should desire. He says, “If we see a background of merely human anxiety, we are doomed, but seen against the background of the love of Jesus Christ, everything else becomes almost invisible.”
Almost invisible. These words stuck. Father McNabb spoke them in June of 1940, amidst the havoc of World War II. I think of that era’s turmoil and the turmoil I encounter today: political unrest, cultural concerns, interpersonal conflicts, emotional wounds, and so on. What an incredible power it would be to truly see all this as almost invisible, unable to unsettle me or cause even an ounce of fear. And it is possible, I have to admit. For didn’t John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, Thomas More, and Edith Stein, among others, live as if the turmoil surrounding them was almost invisible? Saints witness to the ordered peace borne from intensely encountering Jesus’ merciful love, the transformation possible if I don’t look away from love’s goodness.
Counting and Clear Vision
When fear dominates, my vision needs renewal. I can tend to see an examination of conscience as a reversal of Browning’s famous words, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” In my mind, the words become, “How have I lost thee? Let me count the ways,” and thinking of sin becomes counting the ways I have allowed God to be lost to me by choices to disorder my days.
And yet, as Fr. McNabb reminds me, Confession is not only about counting, but also about re-seeing the goodness of God and the mercy He desires to give, a mercy so vast it makes anxieties dissolve into near invisibility. So, I am learning to view Confession as less about my losses and more about my response to love. By surrendering my sight to the goodness of the Word, my response zooms in to the center of the cosmos.
A Sweet and Sour Soul
Relating the realities of love, loss, sweetness, and sourness to the spiritual life is not an original idea, I’ve learned. In his poem “Bitter-Sweet,” George Herbert speaks of how his experience of God ranges from anger to love, from being cast down to being lifted up. He concludes with a promise of faithfulness:
And all my sour-sweet days / I will lament and love.
Just as love and loss are intertwined, so are sweet and sour, and eating sweet and sour chicken (preferably with a friend) remains a satisfying act. That the craving stems from increased knowledge of good and evil in my soul may be whimsical speculation. But I am glad I have thought of it, for now when I dunk fried chicken into scrumptious sauce I will think of how each anxiety and hurt, however sharp, can find its proper place in relation to mercy, and how each fades into invisibility the more I accept Jesus Christ’s love as life’s truest background.
Can you relate to this desire to view all of yourself against the backdrop of Christ’s merciful love?
Savanna J. Buckner is an M.B.A. student at the Saint John Institute in Denver, Colorado. Previously, she spent two years as a missionary teacher at a junior college in Belize, followed by a year of teaching preschool and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in northern Virginia. She loves film, philosophy, and art, and especially enjoys reading Evelyn Waugh, Czeslaw Milosz, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.