The story of Emilio Sandoz, the fictional Jesuit priest of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lesson to teach us about holiness. Now, I have yet to read Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow; regardless, I believe the lesson still stands. And if you have not yet read The Sparrow, and whether you like science-fiction or not, it is an excellent book which will both challenge you and move you. I highly recommend this book!
In a previous post, At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology‘, I wrote about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and what that might mean for Christianity; Mary Doria Russell does a great job of exploring this concept in The Sparrow. Father Sandoz, along with a few friends, find life on the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system of our galaxy; he and a group of Jesuit missionaries are able to go to Rakhat. The reader experiences the positive of what holiness truly is – love for God and love for neighbor. And while these are not human beings, the Runa and Jana’ata are another species of God’s intelligent creatures; the Jesuits show them the great love that they deserve.
But in the negative of what holiness is – a lack of sin – we are forced to face perhaps our most difficult challenge in practicing the positive of what holiness is – love. I don’t mean ‘negative’ in a way that has a bad connotation; I mean ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ simply in terms of what holiness is and is not. It is just the plus side of thinking – love – and the minus side of thinking – not sinning.
Nonetheless, events happen on Rakhat which haunt Emilio to the point where he can barely speak of them. These events are so horrendous that they cause Emilio to struggle with overwhelming and crippling amounts of both shame and guilt.
When he returns to Earth, he becomes an outcast because of the public’s perception of what happened on Rakhat.
I belong to a denomination called The Church of the Nazarene, part of the Wesleyan-Arminian branch of protestant Christianity; we have a strong focus on holiness. We discuss theological doctrines like ‘Christian Perfection’ and ‘Entire Sanctification’; these are the ideas that, through God’s power in the Son and the Spirit, we are filled with God’s love so much that it is as if there is no more for sin! It is a sound doctrine, but there is a very strong focus on avoiding sin or even any perception of sin.
The great temptation and danger is to only think of holiness in terms of what it is not – not sinning – rather than what it is – fully living in God’s love! And when we only think in terms of what it is not, then we miss what it is! Inevitably, we must ask: what will we do when we are confronted with sin, whether it is in ourselves or in another’s life?
If we see sin, or even the perception of sin, in another’s life, then distance and separate ourselves from the person and offer nothing but sharp words, we miss the opportunity to show and live the positive of what holiness is – love. If we run from our own sin within us and don’t deal with it in the right way, criticizing ourselves and becoming our own worst enemy, it can weigh us down to the point that we are crippled with overwhelming guilt and shame.
Either way, we forget three of God’s most basic qualities in holiness: grace, forgiveness, and compassion. We lose sight of Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
With news of the events on Rakhat, there was the idea among Earth’s people, and even many of Emilio’s colleagues in the Society of Jesus, that Emilio must have done something horrible and sinful. In the pursuit of holiness to the point of self-righteousness, there was little grace shown to Emilio. There was a strong initial tendency to focus on the negative of holiness – not sinning – rather than a demonstration of the positive of holiness – love.
We should always be willing to understand circumstances and do the right thing in the midst of a bad situation; this is being faithful to God. But it should not be to the point where we miss the opportunity to demonstrate love with grace, forgiveness, and compassion. To love, no matter what (and it really, really, REALLY means no matter what!), is our most basic obligation as Christians; it is what separates a true Christian from the rest of the world. In the pursuit of holiness, Christian perfection, and entire sanctification, a disposition towards love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion, is where we must lean to first.
Christ, our example in holiness, came to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to the demon-possessed man running wild, the woman at the well who had been already been with so many men, the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned, the man who struggled to believe, and the tax collector who stole and cheated so many people out of money. Christ came to this world to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to even the criminals and the depraved hanging on the crosses next to him on Calvary.
Christ came to offer his love to the people that the fictional Emilio Sandoz represents – the misunderstood, the broken, and the ones struggling with crippling guilt and shame. And Christ came even to offer love to the people who would jump to conclusions and judgment about Emilio.
Christ came for you and for me. Christ came for the sinners.
Christ was beaten, suffered, and died. He slowly and painfully suffocated to death while hanging on a cross in one of the world’s most barbaric forms of execution. He came so that through this atoning sacrifice, we, the sinners, might finally be reconciled to God.
Christ came so that you and I, absolutely broken people, yet still God’s loved and created beings, might have hope in true life and love of God through the risen, living Christ. Christ came so that you and I can learn and live the positive of what holiness really is – love.
Christ came so that you and I, in being a positive example of Christ’s holiness, can show God’s love to the depraved, the criminals, the adulterers, the demon-possessed, the thieves, the frauds, the unbelieving, and the liars.
Christ died for the ones who sinned against him, the ones who beat him, clamored for his crucifixion, sentenced him to death, nailed him to a cross, spit on him and mocked him as they watched him die so that – yes – even they could receive God’s love and be a part of Christ’s family.
As I mentioned before, perhaps our most difficult challenge in holiness is not necessarily practicing the negative – not sinning – but practicing the positive – love. Christ died for all; are we willing to show the type of love that Christ showed to all?
Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D. offers us a challenging reminder to focus on what holiness is. And the lesson? With Christ as our example, and by the power of the Spirit of God working within us, the positive of what holiness is – love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion – is something that we must live out towards one another every day, no matter what, and no matter whom.