If you are anything like me, I often feel very despondent of the sin in my life. As the years go on, I do note some spiritual growth. But I am constantly struggling with sins that troubled me from my youth. And as years turn into decades, I sometimes wonder if I will ever be free of my life-long vices. And if I am not, what does that mean for my salvation? How could God use a worthless hypocrite like me?
This brings me to the story of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang.
In the late 1800’s, Mark was a doctor in China who used his gifts to serve the people of God. But then when he became very ill, he needed to use opium for the pain. After he recovered, Mark found that he could not kick the habit and lived the life of an opium addict. He kept trying to quit, but the addiction became too much. When he would fall, he would go to confess to a priest. But because Mark kept confessing this serious sin over and over again, his priest did not believe he was truly sorry and so told him that he would not give him absolution until he kicked his opium habit.
He never did.
So for three decades, Mark lived in what he believed was mortal sin. In this state he could not receive the Eucharist. But he went to mass every Sunday until his martyrdom during the Boxer Rebellion.
There are so many things that St. Mark taught us by his life, but here are only a few points I would like to make.
Forgiving the Church.
While the Catholic Church is the body of Christ, we are made up of fallible, fallen people. How many people do we know who have been turned off of the faith because of the abuse, neglect, scorn, or disrespect (real or perceived) of Her members? Perhaps someone in authority does serious injury to the life of the faithful. That is what appears to be the case for Mark Ji Tianxing. His priest caused a real separation between St. Mark and the sacraments. And yet St. Mark did not throw up his hands and slander the Church. Instead, he humbled himself and obeyed, trusting in God. Could you imagine longing for the Eucharist week after week only to know that you were no closer to receiving Him than you had been for the previous few decades? Mark, it appears, did not blame the Church for his state.
When we are wronged by those in the Church, we may be tempted to turn our back on Her. But St. Mark teaches us that even in these cases, we have an opportunity to show saintly patience and virtue. This is in no way easy and would take heroic effort from anyone. But that is our calling.
Granted we have the advantage of historical hindsight, but the priest did not understand how addiction works. Sometimes people are addicted to things that are seriously sinful. In order for a mortal sin to be a mortal sin, you must have three components present: serious matter, full knowledge, and full consent of the will. Because addiction cripples the will, it may not be able to give its full consent. In that case, the person engaging in the serious sin may not be in mortal sin. It is important to be cautious on this point, however. Addiction is not an excuse for bad behavior, nor is every bad behavior the result of addiction. Someone can, for example, drink too much too often without actually being an addict. Every effort must be made to avoid the sin. But if you are like St. Mark, it is possible that the addiction robs your ability to freely consent to the sin.
Never Give Up
St. Mark never kicked his opium addiction. What makes him a saint is not that he overcame substance abuse. Part of what makes him holy is that he never gave up. He never settled for where he was. He lost all of his battles with opium but he never surrendered. CS Lewis once said, “We need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.” Giving up is the only sure way to lose Heaven. Judas Iscariot should have been St. Judas. All he would have had to do was repent and Christ would have taken him back. But he gave up. I could not imagine being in that state of perceived mortal sin for 30 years the way St. Mark Ji Tianxing was. But he always tried.
I must make one more cautious aside. It can be tempting to see St. Mark’s life of addiction and take from it the lesson that we can saints and engage in objectively wrong behavior. But that misses the point. We have the highest moral obligation to fight against sin in our lives. We cannot accept or vices in some sort of spiritual detente. We are constantly at war and we must battle to eradicate sin from every part of our soul. St. Mark knew this and he fought, though he so often lost. To raise the white flag and embrace our vices would lead to destruction. St. Mark always lived in hope.
We don’t save ourselves. Christ saves us.
The biggest lesson I can take from St. Mark is that it isn’t about me. If my salvation was dependant on my own personal holiness and my own goodness alone, then I don’t know how I shouldn’t slide into despair.
But I don’t save myself. Christ saves me.
St. Mark looked at his sins and knew that he couldn’t save himself. So he went to Church every Sunday, despite the disdain of those around him, and he focused on Christ. I’m sure he didn’t know how, but I’m sure that he believed that somehow Christ could take this burned-out addict and make him fit perfectly into the unique contours of Heaven.
And Christ did.
When I am tempted to look at my own sinfulness and despair, may I be like St. Mark and look not to myself, but to Christ. I will give my all, but that is not what saves me. It is the the undeserved and overwhelming love of God and the infinite ocean of His mercy that will drown out the fiery sins in my soul.
St. Mark Ji Tianxing, Pray for us!
Copyright 2017, WL Grayson