Never underestimate the walking-wounded. Great men and women have as many flaws and spar with as many demons as those who achieve very little. Their greatness lies in their learning to wrestle with their weakness. Often, their gifts would be lost to history without someone, in a moment of grace, seeing the soul, struggling with the shortcoming.
In 1854, although he had graduated in the top quarter of West Point’s class of ’43 and had served valiantly and with distinction in the Mexican War, Ulysses S. Grant resigned his commission in the United States Army. The truth is that his commanding officer at California’s Fort Humboldt, Colonel Robert C. Buchanan, had given Grant the option of either resigning or facing court-martial. The demon was drinking. Far away from his beloved wife Julia and his young family, Grant periodically escaped his distant posting by way of the bottle.
Never underestimate the walking-wounded.
Odd thing was, Grant was a failure at everything except fighting. Lacking other options, when the Civil War erupted, he reenlisted. His West Point pedigree ensured him command of troops but in the less significant, western theater of the war.
Already at Belmont, Mo., Grant had shown that he was willing to fight. At first, his victories were not major ones—Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers—but they were almost the only ones the Union had. Grant was caught off guard at Shiloh, yet his bloody victory there effectively concluded Confederate hopes in the west.
Shortly after Shiloh, Grant was removed from command. He had been unjustly accused of being intoxicated during the battle. That is the problem with fatal flaws. They need be only partially true. One’s foes can do the rest through hearsay and judgment.
History records many great men and women who would have been set aside without the aid of someone able to see past their faults.
Christ tells us that each of us has a guardian angel, and history records many great men and women who would have been set aside without the aid of someone able to see past their faults. For Grant, it was Abraham Lincoln, who insisted, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Returned to command, Grant’s forces eventually, yet brilliantly, took the unconquerable fortress city of Vicksburg so that on July 4, 1863, the Mississippi River was reopened to Union traffic. Nevertheless, on Sept. 18, 1863, The New York Herald could report:
After the failure of his first experimental explorations around Vicksburg, a committee of abolition war managers waited upon the President and demanded the General’s removal, on the false charge that he was a whiskey drinker, and little better than a common drunkard. “Ah!” exclaimed Honest Old Abe, “you surprise me, gentlemen. But can you tell me where he gets his whiskey?” “We cannot, Mr. President. But why do you desire to know?” “Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.”
Ulysses S. Grant passed the vast majority of his life and career in perfect sobriety. He used his Methodist faith to good advantage, and the essential duty of his adjutant, John Rawlins, was to keep the general away from liquor. But, sadly, the world always see the stain, not the vast, untouched soul that bears it or the fearful struggles it wages to contain it. Yet this much is clear. There would be no United States of America today save for Ulysses S. Grant.
We can also ask if there would be a Catholic Church today without St. Paul, the apostle who first set forth his understanding of Christ even before the Gospels were composed. Yet we read in Acts:
When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples,
but they were all afraid of him,
not believing that he was a disciple (9:26).
We can only speculate about the nature of what Paul once called his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7). For the most part, his problem was his perfectionism. In Saul of Tarsus, the church had faced a truly effective and fearful foe. No wonder its leaders would not approach this would-be convert until Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles.
Whom have we excluded because we know their weakness?
Here’s the question that we must ponder as parish and as church: Whom have we excluded because we know their weakness? They may have angrily slammed a door, but who of us walked them to it? If so, to what extent have we arrogated to ourselves the right that Christ claims belongs to his Father?
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit...
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:1-2, 5).
Lincoln was the first to admit that he was no soldier. And Barnabas was no preacher. They were not guardian angels, either, but they were men who kept their eyes focused on the mission that the Almighty had given to them. That allowed them to see past the weakness and into the deep strength of the souls that God had chosen to be his instruments.
Pray that God make each of us into something of a Lincoln or a Barnabas, that God grant us to recognize, in those alienated from us, branches that will yet bear great fruit. And, as you pray, if someone’s face already imposes itself upon your mind, ask God to give you the strength to be the arm outstretched.
Readings: Acts 9:26-31 1 John 3:18-24 John 15:1-8