The Irish rock band, The Pogues, sing a ballad entitled “If I Should Fall from Grace with God.” To a Christian, the words might suggest that when we do things contrary to our faith commitments or unbecoming to our nature as God’s children–the kind of sins that are public and therefore shameful–we ought to remember that we can be redeemed. Jesus knows about falling. In fact, his first act, in obedience to the Father, was to fall from heaven to take human form. His final act was to fall with the cross as he carried the weight of the world.
In my years as a priest, I have spoken with many people who fell from grace through the embarrassing shame of public sins: priests who had affairs, spouses who were unfaithful, businessmen who entered illicit or immoral schemes, adults who abused children… They were devastating incidents that destroyed relationships, if not lives. In actions like these that defame our dignity, some people get caught and others don’t. But whether our faults are exposed or kept secret, the fall from grace is real. I am not saying that all of us will fail or fall—publicly or privately—but I do acknowledge that we each can; so we need to understand what the falling means from a religious perspective.
When Father Richard Rohr, OFM, wrote his book “Falling Upward” he wanted readers and spiritual seekers to know that those who fall, i.e., those who have gone down and face the crises of their bad behavior, and the shame that accompanies it, will understand “up” in an entirely new way. Christians call it redemption; it comes to us through mercy. Maybe the Church had not spoken about redemption and mercy enough and perhaps that’s why Pope Francis emphasizes them now. He wants to remind us that we’re not alone—even when we fall from grace.
Though innocent, Jesus fell. And in God’s time, he was lifted up. When contemplating the image of his face buried in the dusty road to Calvary, pressed upon by the weight of the wood, the crown of thorns piercing into his skull, the weakness of his tortured body, and when we imagine him lifted up on the cross, and lifted into heaven, we gain insight into falling upward. Though Simon helped to carry the weight of the wood, Christ, alone, had to bear the weight of the world’s suffering. Though others may reach down when we fall from grace, we are alone in dealing with our shame.
Nobody wants to fall into such a dark abyss. And it is wrong to think that God leads us there. The Pope recently challenged the English-speaking world to adjust one phrase of The Lord’s Prayer to be in concert with other languages and Christ’s language: rather than saying “…lead us not into temptation…” say “…do not let us fall into temptation…” The Lord is a good shepherd who leads us on the paths of goodness. He doesn’t lead us into temptation but sometimes we go there; we walk through the dark valley of the shadow. When we do, he’ll search for us and lift us up.
After the fall, we may never again be viewed publically in an honorable way because we wear a scarlet letter; those of us that fall are forced to deal with being down. We can either lay there under the weight of our shame or we can get back up and re-calculate our course. The course for Christians always involves walking with, or holding onto, the Lord; our destination is always heaven. But rather than relying on ourselves to chart the course, from the fall onward we rely more on God. Our disposition will be more humble, more human, and probably more salvific because we can no longer hide from the fact that we fell. So we keep falling—but in a different direction. Like a free-fall from the sky, we fall from grace with God because there’s no other way. And in the hand of God, we realize that it is possible to fall upward.
Let us pray for those who fall—even ourselves—that we will know God’s mercy and experience his redemptive grace to lift us up.