Our felix culpa – happy fault

For over a decade he sat watching poplar trees through a front window. And for seven of those years he was part of a little gathering that met each Wednesday—seeking light. Now he lives with me. A gift from a friend.

He is carved out of dark hard wood. I don’t know what kind. He has bold features, a broad forehead, sad eyes and a soft mouth. The dark lines around his eyes show years of toil. I imagine him to have been a hunter or a farmer. Perhaps he was a warrior but I believe this would not have been his choice.

A distinguishing thing about the bust is that it has a crack in it. It runs from the top of the African’s head down through his right eye, stops, and then proceeds from the base of his neck to the middle of his sternum, where the carving stops. The crack happened, I assume, as a result of the wood drying too quickly, or because over time the Alberta climate was just too dry for it. In any case, while there wasn’t an original flaw in the wood, there was a seam, a fault line, that was vulnerable and gave way to certain environmental forces.

Even with this gash in his skull he looks very much alive. To my eye, he has seen more pain than he’d have liked. But there is wisdom etched into the creases of his face and I believe him to be at peace.

african bustThe first time I saw him, and now, every time I see him, I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s lovely line: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I believe this is why my African friend is serene and wise. I like to believe that through this fault line, light—and therefore love, hope and charity—has gotten into his wooden skull and he has taken on a life that his sculptor had always desired.

Well, after years of internal tremors, and through a thousand failed attempts at patching myself up, I am more able, having come to a slow awakening of my own fault line, to sit alongside my wooden friend.

The crack in me, and I suspect I’m not alone, has to do with failing, or passing, the interminable tests of comparison that determine self-acceptance. When worth is weighed in “likes” on our latest Facebook status (and haven’t we checked?), or gained by admission to that inner-circle above all such pedestrian and puerile disclosures, or more subtly, to a group or congregation that claims to receive their purpose from a loving transcendent being, yet remains a self-determining ghetto conceived and coronated by dogma, well, then, we are hardly liberated.

What I’m digging at here has to do with desire: the good and life-giving desire to belong, and to share through that belonging the unique gift of ourselves; and desire’s dark side, best described as resentment (which is another word for jealousy). From being ignored by a high-school clique, to being overlooked for a promotion in favour a colleague, to the inability to be genuinely happy at the success of a peer, to the mania and despair, hinging on the slightest sign of approval or rejection, seen in the pathology of a mass murderer.

The inestimable difficulty, joy, danger, beauty, pathos, wonder of being human is that we are intrinsically relational. As Rene Girard says, “We are interdividual.” Therefore, we are mimetically formed. This, mimetic desire, might be identified as our original fault line.

From first breath, we are given our “selves,” brought into being, formed, humanized, through the eyes of others. The gift of human desire is that it turns us toward one another. The pathos of desire is that our desires can collide. Your desire of some “thing” awakens my desire for the same, which escalates your desire, then mine, reciprocally, until the object effectively disappears and is replaced by envy and the supposed prestige of victory, locking us into rivalry. Witnessed from the outside, it’s oh-so obvious what’s happening here. We see it, read about it every day. But when we are personally involved, we seem blind to it.

It’s slippery. We need to be valued, validated by one another. This is natural, precious, right and good. But if we receive our ultimate value through the eyes of others, we are run by, captive by the “social other.” If however, we consent to the irresistible power of a transcendent Love, a love that is not separate from human love and yet is entirely gratuitous, always moving toward us—the love that enters through our fault line—and whispers, “You are accepted, accept your acceptance,” well, then, we become free.

Perhaps this is how the original crack in us, through which light enters, becomes our felix culpa, our happy fault. I will take a risk here, and call it God’s grace.


  1. Stephen, Your wisdom knows no boundaries. The idea of a “crack in me” – of wanting to belong, of not failing describes one of my greatest flaws. I had always viewed it as wanting to be accepted by others, but as I read this, I wonder if I have not learned to accept who I am and be comfortable with it. I have a strong need to be validated by others and yet admire my family members who don’t seem to give a darn what others think! Definitely a fault, but I am not sure I can label it as a happy one.

  2. You’re an evangelist, Steve. I enjoyed the comment about the “self-determining ghetto coronated by dogma”. And truly, the pre-condition of grace is the recognition of our brokenness, the cracks.

  3. Diane, I assure you, my “wisdom” knows many bounds. But I do thank you for your hyperbole. It’s funny how some of us, perhaps most of us, struggle with self-acceptance all our lives. How we continue to look for it in all the wrong places. But then, at least knowing this about ourselves offers the possibility of breakthroughs. And on this note, thank you, as always for your thoughtfulness and candor.

  4. Well Sam, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been called an evangelist, but I’ll take it in the spirit in which it was meant. For of course we are all “evangelists” of our passions. As for grace, experiencing our brokenness is also the precondition for an intuition of grace, an awareness that it exists. Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  5. Eloquent, insightful and observant. You have provided courage to allow – accept Light in a crack that I have regarded as repugnant. Thank you.

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