“If we achieve great things outside of ourselves, and the achieving of them does not effect any change or development in ourselves, we have done nothing. Life’s purpose is to purify us, not gratify us.”
So says Father Edward Leen reflecting on “the triumph of failure,” the way in which God’s work in the soul, and correspondingly in the world, cannot be judged on the surface (see his book In the Likeness of Christ, published in 1942 by Sheed & Ward). Judged rightly, Leen tells us that “there is nothing so sad as the sight of those who once pressed forward to the goal of perfection frittering away the days and hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial.”
Those are precisely the things that take up most of our attention! The things we seek to avoid — suffering, misunderstanding, and even failure — are precisely the tools God uses to purify us.
In judging our own lives, we need both models and cautionary tales. The life of St. Nectarios of Aegina (1846-1920), portrayed in the new film Man of God (2021), could embody the triumph of failure. He began his career as a teacher and, at the age of 30, felt the call to monastic life. The Greek Orthodox Church draws its hierarchy from the monastery and Nectarios would become a Metropolitan Archbishop for the Greeks in Egypt about the age of 43. It was a remarkable rise in just over 20 years, from teaching children to a prominent position in the Church.
And yet, two years later, the Patriarch of Alexandria, his own mentor, dismissed him from his See without any explanation, seemingly giving into the envy and slander of those around him, exiling Nectarios back to Greece. An Archbishop without a job, he lived in poverty and took an obscure position as a preacher on a Greek island. Somewhat rehabilitated as a seminary rector, he eventually resigned to live a quiet life for 12 years in Aegina, where he had founded a monastery for women. Even there, slander followed him, and he suffered continual persecution from within the Church.
The day I watched Man of God, August 22, was also the day Archbishop Rembert Weakland (1927-2022) passed away, whose life, at one point, seemed like nothing other than success. Arriving at St. Vincent Archabbey at the age of 13, he was sent to study in Rome, became a professor, was elected Archabbot of St. Vincent’s, becoming Abbot Primate of the Benedictines worldwide not long after, and then was appointed Archbishop of Milwaukee.
Yet Weakland later admitted to having homosexual affairs, using archdiocesan funds as hush money, and shredding documents related to priest abuse. Although he publicly dissented from Catholic teaching, he, too, advanced remarkably at a young age through the ranks of the Church, though without opposition or persecution.
Two monks, both who became archbishops, yet with drastically different outcomes. Although Man of God is not, in my opinion, a masterpiece of cinematography or acting, it does provide a beautiful portrait of Christ-like abandonment and charity. If he hadn’t rattled the sensibilities of his fellow clerics through his radical life, Nectarios could have been elected the Patriarch of Alexandria. Instead, he became a saint. In the film, he expresses his own aversion to promotion: “The position of power is like a cancer. It eats at you slowly and you don’t even know it. Before you realize, you can turn into something that you once despised. Many great men have fallen because of the power they were given. I would rather not fall into that trap.” In his quieter life, Nectarios gardened, cleaned toilets, spent time with the poor and willingly endured the misunderstanding that comes from contradicting worldly sensibilities.
Nectarios was a sign of contradiction to the world, not an affirmation of its values. His life reminds us that even within the Church, those who follow Christ must endure opposition. Everyone is called to the daily obedience of embracing the small sufferings of family life, work and the Christian life, taking up our crosses in those little things that shape us into the image of Christ. Jesus is the reason for accepting every hardship, humiliation, and failure.
Leen points to him as the model: “He did each day the right thing, because it was the right thing to do, and He never shirked life’s responsibility through fear of the humiliation of failure.” God judges things differently, teaching us to prioritize charity, the only thing that endures after death. Only God can judge the soul, and I pray for the repose of Archbishop Weakland. Comparing his life to St. Nectarios of Aegina, however, echoes the famous line from the novelist Leon Bloy: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”
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A beautiful commentary especially in light of a recent Gospel passage for Holy Mass that told us that we will be hated by the world when we proclaim the truth unabashedly.
This is an example of two men – one hated within his own Church and one who was (even in death) applauded by some within his own Church. One spoke the truth; the other commerced in lies.
I was certainly looking forward to reading about St. Nectarios, but bringing in Archbishop Weakland in order to heap more shame on him left a bad taste in my mouth. It was not necessary to do that in order to highlight St. Nectarios, or to inspire us with his life. The most important question, which you seem to have missed, is “how does your life and character come off, next to a great man like St. Nectarios?”
Weakland rightfully earned any shame he brought upon himself. When cause for his beatification is brought forth, I’ll eat my words–if written small on a small piece of paper–then proclaim their good taste.
Meanwhile, may I suggest Matthew 5:48 for our mutual edification?
1 Corinthians 10, 12: “Let anyone who thinks he is standing upright watch out lest he fall.”
Man oh man. I’m sitting down, but if you insist on standing, you take care now, hear?
Weakland is a modern version of the Fall of the House of Eli. Eli’s worthless sons were adulterers and treated the offerings to God with contempt. The Church is the Bride of Christ, not the personal, private plaything of the Church hierarchy to do with as they please. Too many in the Church hierarchy seem to have forgotten this.
We read: “[Weakland] advanced remarkably at a young age through the ranks of the Church, though without opposition…”
In the secular world I’m reminded of two years arming a public agency policy-board member with the information needed to question and maybe challenge some of what percolated up through the bureaucracy. No results. Then the lights went on, and he confided: “Oh, I thought my job was just to move things along.”
Brainstem management. It’s all about emptying the in-basket by 4:00, and thinking that by managing people we’re actually seeing and solving problems. It’s all about the 80/20 rule, spending most of our energy on internal stuff without really scrutinizing the big stuff, like the Marx/Batzing/ Hollerich & Co. end-game in Rome (2023) for continental synodality—“aggregated, compiled, and synthesized…” (the Vademecum).
The Successors of the Apostles, reduced to “facilitators”—moving things along.
Perhaps it was not an issue of outcomes due to personal moral predilections as was the permissive posture of Catholic hierarchy toward each other, for Gk Orthodox envious intolerance.
Rembert Weakland was a child of his age ascending 1963, 64, 67 during that promiscuous moment in Church history when talent, personal secrets and not so secret predilections were cherished. Individualism, the glorification of self thought, the glorification of divine creativity. Homosexual personalities were lauded by many. A seminary professor, ‘straight’ Catholic, married, was ecstatic of a fellow prof who exhibited an ‘intelligent gay affectation’. It was a strange period. I don’t believe we’ve gotten over it. Benedictines were certainly not immune to the trend, as were other religious communities. Many prelates today are products of that deceptively evil history.
This pontificate rather than continuing the healthy trend taken by predecessors John Paul and Benedict has reverted to that past. Which is why he surrounds himself with Weakland types.
The battle for the true faith continues in earnest the major battleground within the Church itself. While a Nectarios is a blessing we need a regiment of Paul the Apostle types.
Nectarios of Aegina isn’t a canonized saint. He has never been canonized by the Catholic Church.
Saint Nektarios of Aegina was a true wonder worker in life and after death. On the way to Constantinople as a boy, his cross fell out of his hands in a violent storm, the chain catching on the hull of the ship, banging against the hull audibly BUT immediately calming the waves and the wind. When arriving the captain delivered him back his cross.
Interesting, Jesus calmed the compressible wind with his voice then the waves, while Nektarios cross calmed the incompressible water and then the wind.
One of the boys in Saint Nektarios school would later become the Coptic Pope and turn the Coptics from a Monophysite (heretical) to Miaphysite (Orthodox) position.
Perhaps that is why, in 1968, the greatest Marion miracle became the visibke, televised apparitions at Zitoun Egypt.
That is but two of many stories which followed Saint Nektarios all throughout his life of crucifixion where he voluntarily suffered for the good of others.
He is a super Saint.