Letters to Peregrinus #26 - On Mistakes

Dear Peregrinus (Saturday, 12 Noon):

Finally our Summer here has gained the confidence it lacked in June. Good!

You asked me whether we could, or dare to, attribute to Jesus “mistakes.” The possibility that He could make mistakes has unsettled you.

I had remarked to you how I had noticed in both the Gospel of Mark and Luke that Jesus, as he commenced His public life, “appears to have come on too strong and had scared people.” [1] It is a mistake for a Teacher to proceed in this way.

So much beauty pent-up in Jesus over the course of those thirty years, so much that He desired to show and say about His heavenly Father! No wonder that he emerged “white hot” – a terrible beauty bursting upon Israel, like that Bethlehem star brought uncomfortably near.

Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Thank you for asking me to explain what I meant. I will now, in reply, mostly not explain what I meant! I will offer a comment, and then make three Observations, and then be done.

I notice how you are “in play” in both your emotions and your intellect because of your worry about my imputing “mistakes” to Jesus. This “being in play” is something of great importance, which I would never want a mere answer from me to squelch.

Over my many years as a Teacher, I learned how “giving an answer” to someone is a mistake when his or her question expresses an “awakening” of their undistracted interest in something, or in Someone, which has awakened him or her. Far better for me to serve the “awakening” than to shut it down with a smart answer.

We are more alive, and are likely to be asking the questions that God wants us to ask of Him, when we find ourselves “in play” emotionally and intellectually about things to do with Jesus. My purpose here is to compel you to explore deeper into what has “unsettled” you, and for you to ask for the grace to accept being “unsettled” for a time.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

Observation #1. I found myself wondering whether you noticed how your choice of the word “unsettled” references your affect[4] – you are expressing something that you are feeling. And so instead of asking me to explain (something asked of my intellect by yours) should you not instead explore what you are feeling, getting familiar with its textures and depths in you, letting it teach you on its own terms? It is a mistake to think a feeling. Instead fully feel what you feel ... and then see what your intellect wants to understand about the reality that the feeling opened for you to notice. The French mathematician, physicist, and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal was onto this truth when he wrote: “We know the truth not only by reason [intellect], but also by the heart [affect].”[5]

Observation #2. I have learned over the years that it is a great barrier to all learning, and most certainly a barrier to experiencing the joy of learning, to be fearful of making mistakes. A good Teacher must be able to discern the presence of such a fear in his or her student, and then find courteous ways to free him or her from it. Mistakes are another name for the process through which any person must pass on the way to learning what is true ... and what is not true. Mistakes signal the presence of a person committed enough to “make” his or her way from ignorance to understanding. Consider the following:

George Bernard Shaw, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but it is also more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Oscar Wilde: “Experience is the name that everyone gives to his or her mistakes.”

Winston Churchill: “All people make mistakes ... but only the wise ones learn from their mistakes.”

A common proverb: “If you don’t make mistakes ... you don’t make anything.”

Observation #3. There is little doubt that one of the greatest joys of being a human being is not knowing things! We love a mystery, a riddle, a profoundness that beckons and activates us to seek it out. We must grow and be changed by learning, because that is how God made us. St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of my favorite ancient Christian thinkers and mystics, wrote profoundly about the progress we make from ignorance to understanding, from evil to good,[6] from human ways of acting to divine ways of acting – “on earth ... as it is in Heaven.” Our human privilege and purpose is to grow, of which learning is a central aspect!

For a person does not merely have an inclination to evil; were this so, it would be impossible for him to grow in good, if his nature possessed only an inclination towards the contrary. But in truth the finest aspect of our changeableness is the possibility of growth in good; as it changes, more and more into the divine. And so ... what appears so terrifying (I mean the changeableness of our nature) can really be a pinion in our flight towards higher things, and indeed it would be a hardship if we were not susceptible of the sort of change which is towards the better. One ought not then to be distressed when one considers this tendency in our nature; rather let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory to glory, and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation.[7]

So, Jesus Christ would hardly skip the human process of learning, the joy of being puzzled, of being really stumped by something, of having a youthful judgment corrected by his mom or dad,[8] but then figuring it out. If He would skip this, then He could not be fully human. Remember that God became human to show us how to learn, not just to tell us truths. But we have to learn how God learns, paying attention to what God attends and learning to ignore what has little interest to Him.

So, old friend, I hope that I have “answered” you well enough to keep you “unsettled”! At the root of this that you have shared with me is, I think, a mark of favor being shown you by God, inviting you to enter into a time of deeper wondering about Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine.

But let me know, OK, whether what I have written does help? And please do not forget to tell me what your explorations teach you, so that I might in that become your student.

I am always your friend in Christ, Peregrinus,

Rick, SJ


[1] Consider Luke 4:16-30. Jesus comes into the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and takes up the scroll and reads from Isaiah. At first the listeners were inspired and moved by what He said to them. But then, and in so short a time, He had enflamed in them a fury at Him so intense that they wanted to murder Him. As I see it, He made a mistake in the way He taught. He had come on too strong and scared them. Or, He was more critical of them that evening in the synagogue than was helpful. Jesus, like any Teacher, has to learn how to teach by teaching, learning from his mistakes, and getting better at it ... as Carpenters learn to get better at what they do.

[2] W.B. Yeats, “Easter, 1916” – my emphasis. A great poem, in which one of my favorite lines is: “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.” David Barber, a one-time Assistant Poetry editor at The Atlantic Monthly wrote concerning this poem: “[I]ts authority has less to do with how it enlists our sympathies than with how it infiltrates our nervous system, an effect that calls to mind Keats’s axiom that great poetry ‘proves itself upon the pulses.’ Crews of scholars have girdled the poem with a bristling scaffolding of annotation, diligently demonstrating how the structural integrity of its expressive design holds up brick by brick. Yet one of the durable marvels of ‘Easter 1916’ is that all this critical armature is not imperative; the general reader can immediately appreciate the architecture of its orchestration with little or no grounding in Yeatsian arcana or the ‘Irish question’.... The momentousness of the poem as a meditation on vain hopes and unvanquished ideals is all there in the rhythmic momentum – a stately tempo of articulate anguish that in the same breath carries a murmurous undertow of prophetic admonition. Few modern poems can be said to sustain such a pitch, or hazard such a reach.”

[3] The opening stanza of a famous prayer from Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1881-1955), Jesuit paleontologist and mystic.

[4] I use the word “affect” here instead of “emotion.” Why? Because unfortunately western culture has had a long and complicated relation to affect, or to emotion. We hear this in the expression, “Oh, you are just being emotional right now,” as if being emotional has no explanatory significance, as if it means “non-rational”, which suggests that true reason expects of itself to be affect-free. Such nonsense that is!

[5] The child prodigy, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a student of the Jesuit educational system. He put the above quote in a similar, and more famous way, when he wrote: “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” He also wrote, “People despise religion. They hate it, afraid that it may be true.”

[6] Just to be clear, Jesus Christ never made progress from evil to good. In this He was unique, utterly distinctive from even the best of us human beings who have born and lived and died in human history.

[7] Jean Daniélou, SJ, a French Jesuit working in the 20th century, and a man of extraordinary breadth of knowledge of the ancient Christian tradition, published a book called From Glory to Glory, which was his thematic collection of quotations from the mystical writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 CE). I found this text inside this magnificent book.

[8] If Jesus’ earthly dad, Joseph, was indeed a carpenter, and Jesus was at home for thirty years of his life (!), then Jesus almost certainly learned carpentry from his dad, and I assume got really good at it. Can you imagine the absurdity of Jesus never making a mistake in the process of becoming a Master Carpenter? How boring for Jesus, and to profoundest degree, if he had been exempted from ever making a mistake, never having had to be taught by Joseph who loved him, and who delighted to watch his son make those mistakes on His way to becoming a Master!


#10 - On Your Name "Peregrinus" November 29, 2015 In "Dear Peregrinus"
#8 - On Questions Asked by a 15-Year Old Girl August 30, 2015 In "Dear Peregrinus"
The Fifth Sunday of Lent: Troubled April 2, 2017 In "Meditations"

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