“Magnificat” by Ben Wildflower (buy yours here)
Hail Mary, Full of Grace
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
As we approach Christmas, I keep thinking about all the virtues that have been attributed to Mary over the centuries: eternal virginity, obedience, receptivity, and a docility that makes me think they didn't know the Magnificat. I love Mary and how fierce and beautiful she is. I love her. I mean, not that it’s a competition, but I do have 4 tattoos of her on my very own body. And while I am devoted to her, I wonder if perhaps Mary wasn’t chosen because she was filled with virtue.
Nowhere does it say that the angel Gabriel just waited and waited until he found a girl who had diligently worked on her virtues until she had made herself worthy to be the Godbearer.
Hail Mary full of virtue, the Lord is with thee?
No. Hail Mary, full of GRACE, the Lord is with thee, the prayer goes.
Grace. The one thing you simply cannot earn.
There is a reason I am obsessed with grace. There is a reason I’ve spoken and written and preached about it more than any other thing and here it is: because everything else in this bankrupt world feels like it’s about worthiness…it’s about proving ourselves, and knowing who we are better than. Everything else is about making judgments and hording wealth and being best and OPTIMIZATION.
Everything that is not rooted in grace that I have been offered in life - be it from social media or the wellness industry or higher education or religion feels like it’s all about just trying harder. But I’ve tried trying harder and it doesn't make me free – it just makes me tired.
Maybe I’m not alone in that. Maybe you too vow each morning to try harder so you can finally feel like you are enough. So you can finally feel your worth. Maybe you too start each day with some self-talk like I do, today I won't eat compulsively or today i'll not yell at my kids or I’ll not spend money I don't have on things I don't need. Today I will for sure start that Keto diet. Today I will start meditating and become a vegan and start training for a marathon and go back to college and go to the container store so I can organize my life and be in control. But we're not. We're not in control. That would be the point. We’re addicted to people, and praise and possessions and power.
And we so easily put our hope in poison as if it’s medicine.
We are imprisoned in the human worthiness competition extravaganza. In other words, perhaps we still lay in sin and error pining.
I know I do. Which simply means that I, like everyone else, need some help. I need a power greater than just myself – greater than the power of just trying harder. My soul needs to feel its worth---- and that worth simply cannot be attached to cultivating virtue and trying harder to finally be enough.
I think that this is exactly what Mary understood: That what qualifies us for God’s grace isn’t our goodness – what qualifies us for God’s grace is nothing more than our need for God’s grace.
When Mary sings of God in the Magnificat, she didn’t say that God looked with favor on her virtue. She didn’t say that God looked with favor on the fact that she had tried so hard that she finally had become the ideal version of herself. No. God looked with favor on her lowliness.
And yet then what do I do but constantly curse my own lowliness. Obsess about my flaws. Berate myself for my failings; for not trying hard enough to become my ideal self.
But our failings and weakness and mistakes are God’s favorite entry points. It is Our lowliness and our humility, not our strength and our so-called virtues where God does God’s very best work.
Which makes me wonder if perhaps our obsession with self-improvement is really just a form of atheism disguised as spirituality.
Because for some, to be in right relationship with God is to make ourselves so righteous or good or woke that we never need to bother God for help – meaning if we progressively sanctify ourselves through super duper good discipleship, the good news is that we won't even really need grace!
But for others, for those who suffer from addiction and mental illness, for those with unprocessed trauma, for the poor and the poor of spirit who live in a desperation that precludes the delusion of self-sufficiency – we know that right relationship with God is actually knowing just how in need of grace we are.
Which means, if you struggle with your flaws - the things that make you weak, the mistakes you keep making, that’s good news friends. As St Paul wrote, God’s strength is perfected in human weakness.
Which brings me to the second reason that my favorite Christmas song is O Holy Night.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Hear the angel’s voices.
Fall on your knees before a God who Mary bore into this world as delicate unprotected, unarmed, defenseless flesh. Fall on your knees before the one who loves without caution, without measure, without concern for pre-existing conditions. Fall on your knees before a God in whose presence you can relax and try less hard and know that your flawed, imperfect, lumpy self is so totally loved and worthy to be loved. Fall on your knees before a God who looks with favor on your lowliness and calls you blessed.
In other words, Bend the knee, fellow wildlings.
And may your soul feel its very real worth.
STUFF I’M UP TO:
I recently realized that, for the first time in 8 years, I am not under contract to write a book. To be clear: this is a choice I’ve made for now – not forever. But let me tell you, I LOVE not writing a book. I love the freedom it affords me. So for now I plan to write what I want, and explore ways of speaking about grace and trying to tell the truth about shit that is not connected to a NY publishing house (although my publishers are wonderful and have been very good to me) . I guess, in a way, I’d rather write and produce stuff for and with YOU right now. I want to engage with my readers and explore ideas with you. I want to create a community of conversion and conversation - a place that is set apart from the toxic clamor of internet ideology - where grace is the center of gravity.
I also want to never be on 90 airplanes in one year again, so I am being creative about how to support my work moving forward.
So I’ve moved this newsletter over to Substack and starting in a month or two, I will also have additional writing and engagement available for paid subscribers who want to support my work. I will include writing not published anywhere else, subscriber threads hosted by me each week so we can be in conversation, and exclusive extra content from my upcoming podcast. But to be clear, this monthly newsletter will of course continue to be free for all who want it!
Speaking of which….guys, I’m so excited about the podcast. I have the best partners you can imagine: PRX and The Moth- to help me create The Confessional, with Nadia Bolz-Weber. It is set to debut in April some time.
Here’s the image – and next month I’ll tell you more about it - including ways for you to be involved!
One of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain, offered this amazing episode on envy:
“They best way to fight the power of envy is to admit we have it”
Vox’s show on Netflix, EXPLAINED, had a very helpful episode where Congressman Cory Booker lays out the history of the racial wealth gap in America.
For my money you cannot beat WATCHMEN on HBO. The storytelling, acting, cinematography, writing and social commentary has all set a new standard. It’s weird. But commit to it and I promise it pays off. I suggest reading the comic first, but if not, you can quickly find out what you need to know here.
Ok, that’s all for now.
Thanks for reading and I hope this holiday season is, if not joyous, at least get-through-able. Pax,