This article was originally published as part of Ad Cenam Agni, a 2023 virtual Lenten Retreat hosted by the Abbot's Circle.
There is more to conversion and repentance than breaking a bad habit and building a virtue. The whole process of breaking away from sin—and addictions, for that matter—means transferring our dependence from sin to God. Sin is certainly a kind of crutch that props up lack of self-esteem, allows pride to assert itself, and gives questionable pleasures free reign. In practice, this conversion means turning into the little children whom Jesus says we must become if we want a place beside him in the kingdom (cf. Mt 18:1–4).
This is exactly where we need to imitate the resilience featured in the Psalms and in the lives of the saints. The easiest thing for fallen people to do is, not surprisingly, to stay down after a fall. And what keeps us down is the oppressive thought that getting up again won’t make any difference. We’ve been down before, gotten up again and again with wobbly legs, and ended up back where we started.
God’s goodness accommodates a generous margin of error. Our clumsy missteps, our sour notes, can be incorporated into a harmony that only the divine mind can foresee and orchestrate. Like a virtuoso’s intentional mistake that displays an unexpected expertise, the glory comes not from the error but from the one who reworks it into a fitting piece. At the end of the day, tolerating weaknesses, failures, and mistakes is more valuable than we may think, as St. Josemaría Escrivá explains: "As we walk along it is inevitable that we will raise dust; we are creatures and full of defects. I would almost say that we will always need defects. They are the shadow which shows up the light of God’s grace and our resolve to respond to God’s kindness."
God does not bless human sin, but he is more than willing to pick up children who try and fail. In fact, the psalmist shows us in a particularly tender image where we arrive at the end of this journey of conversion:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and for evermore. (Ps 131)
To be as little children—who know how to fail, stand up, and carry on—is so essential to our salvation that the Lord leaves us with defects, even with the ability to sin, so that we will learn to accept our more important need for dependence: to trust in God both for forgiveness and strength. If St. Paul astounds us with his paradox, “when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10), he also emboldens us to claim as daringly: “And when I am most childlike, then am I most mature.”