I’d often heard that Fr. Miceli, the seminary’s Dean of Men, had a kind heart when dealing with men who had run afoul of the house rules but had never experienced it for myself. My encounters with him were limited to the occasional meal conversation and committee meetings. That changed the morning I knocked on his door to apologize for arriving back at the seminary at 11am on Friday morning rather than 10pm Thursday night.
Brian and I had left early the previous day hoping to summit 7 peaks on a big loop that included the Bond Mountains in New Hampshire. As we found out, we tried to do too much in one day and ended up spending the night along the trail before finishing the route at first light. While understandable, we had nonetheless managed to worry Fr. Miceli and others when we didn’t show up for Morning Prayer.
I don’t know what his reaction would have been if I had launched into an explanation of what had happened. Instead, I knocked on the door asking, “Do you have 5 minutes for an apology?” He fairly jumped out of his chair, gave me a big bear hug, and replied, “Oh, no apology needed. We’re just glad you’re safe.”
Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Lk. 5:31).
Up until that moment, I had had no need of Fr. Miceli’s understanding and forgiveness and so never received it. Jesus’ comment to Pharisees and scribes points to this same reality. Sinners have need of God’s grace. The righteous – or perhaps more accurately, those who think themselves righteous – don’t. We can’t apologize unless we’ve wronged someone. We can’t ask forgiveness of God unless we’ve sinned in some way.
While that seems an obvious point, I think we ignore it all too regularly. Take, for example, something like, “I’ve lied – just little white lies. I’d never lie about something big.” Or, “I gossip but no more than others. I wouldn’t hurt anyone by what I say.” Or, consider the explanations we give to make our faults seem reasonable or how we compare our sins to those of others, arguing that we’ve not as bad as they are.
When we make statements or think like this we effectively cover up our sin. If we’re really good at it, we can convince ourselves that we’re not sinners at all. This may make us feel better in the short term and it may make confession easier but there’s a huge flaw to it. Since we aren’t willing to expose the entirety of our sin we can’t receive the entirety of God’s mercy.
This isn’t to say that we need to approach confession with an I’m-a-wicked-wretch attitude, wearing sack cloth and ashes. We’re still made in the image and likeness of God. We’re still children of God. Jesus, I think, is simply calling us to be honest with ourselves and with him. While context can be important we need to be careful. My experience tells me that it is way too easy to use context and explanation as an eraser and we need to remember that God’s eraser is infinitely better than ours.
I’ll always be grateful for Fr. Miceli’s eraser. Aside from asking us to leave better itineraries with a classmate he never asked us to restrict our hikes. In fact, he never mentioned the incident again and that will forever serve as a tangible example of how God wants to forgive us.