Coping with Failure



by Father Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.

A Presentation to the Parent Network of Catholic High Schools, November 7, 2012

In one of the greatest scenes of Western literature, the enraged warrior, Achilles, unbeaten and unbeatable, stands outside his tent on the beach of Troy, while three ambassadors beg him to rejoin the battle. Achilles, unmoved by their appeals and their tears, answers, “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart. So I will say it straight. Will Agamemnon win me over? Not for all the world…Not now that he has torn my honor from my hands.” It is a shockingly powerful passage—shocking and heart-wrenching—but also somewhat confusing. After all, we moderns have to ask ourselves, how could anyone steal another man’s honor? Well, scholars have written volumes on the topic, but the long and short of it is this: The Greeks of the Bronze Age measured their honor in stuff and in reputation: time´ and kleos were the words they used—sometimes you hear it translated “honor and glory”. Time´ was measured in stuff. The more stuff you had, the more honor. And if someone took your stuff, they literally took your honor. If someone stole a Greek hero’s cow, they stole one cow’s worth of honor. Similarly kleos (or glory) was determined by popular opinion. So if someone insulted a Greek warrior in public, he literally damaged that man’s glory. So when Agamemnon, the general of the Greeks, steals Achilles’ slave-girl, he literally steals one slave worth of honor, and Achilles never gets over it. Because honor is a zero-sum game in the Greek world. The more of it you get, the less I have. Now the reason I tell you this story is because I think Achilles has begun to make a comeback. I think, as a culture, we’ve begun once more to measure our honor in material, external things. And our kids have begun to feel the stress of it. Of course, my purpose here tonight, is not to whine about how lousy the world has become for our kids, but rather to propose solutions—to offer antidotes. And I offer them in the form of four stories—five people; five saints, four stories. And as I move from one story to the next, I want you to keep Homer’s invincible hero, Achilles in the back of your mind.


He ate bugs [I could stop there, actually, and I think I would have made a pretty good point, but I’ll continue], wore uncomfortable unattractive home-made clothes, died young, and was, by his own admission, unworthy to unfasten the sandals of the man who came after him. When his own followers decided to abandon him to follow Jesus, he actually encouraged them to do so, saying: “Well, I must decrease so he can increase.” What a sad thing to say. Can you imagine any politician, movie star, superhero, CEO, or even any of our favorite televangelists saying something like that today: “I must fail so someone else can succeed.” Like most of the prophets, John was murdered by the very people he was trying to help. Furthermore, he was preparing them for a man they would eventually reject, humiliate, and execute. And yet…Jesus himself said of this failure that he was “the greatest man born of woman.” He’s one of the few saints in the Roman calendar who has two feast days devoted exclusively to him (One is his birth, the other is, ironically, his beheading).

STORY #2: SAINTS SIMON AND JUDE Here are two men who owned nothing and about whom we know very little. Saint Jude was confused with Judas so often that he eventually became the patron of lost causes. What’s more, the gospel writers themselves couldn’t seem to keep his name straight: John calls him “Judas – but not the Iscariot!” Luke calls him “Jude the brother of James,” and Matthew calls him “Thaddeus.” Nothing is said about him in any of the gospels except that he asked one question, and not a very good one. He says, “Lord, what’s this?” (Jn 14:22). And that’s it. There’s a New Testament letter that bears his name, but most scholars agree that someone else probably wrote it for him. We know even less about Simon. Mostly, he goes by “not Simon Peter”. Luke calls him “Simon the Zealot,” Matthew and Mark call him “Simon the Canaanite.”

And that’s pretty much it for Simon and Jude. They even have to share a feast day. And yet…they were chosen by Jesus himself to lead his church.


Here we come upon a refreshing change of pace. Edward was a king. By the standards of the time, he was obscenely rich and singularly influential. However… He was one of the worst politicians in the history of Britain. King Edward, son of Etherlred the Unready (an unauspicious beginning if ever there was one), was a weak, impotent, timid, and famously ugly man. In worldly terms, a complete disappointment. During the course of his reign, Edward lost all his money without accumulating any political power. In fact, he allowed himself to be used as puppet by—of all people—his in-laws. Then when they were done with him, a pack of foreign con men took over. Furthermore despite his marriage to an intelligent and beautiful woman, he never managed to produced an heir, which is the one thing even an incompetent monarch can usually pull off. Some claim that this was his choice because he secretly wanted to be a monk. Others claim that his wife just could not force herself to sleep with him. Indeed, King Edward the Confessor left to history a reputation for weakness, indecision, and financial incompetence.

And yet…he remains England’s most popular saint. He built one of the world’s greatest abbeys at Westminster, and over a million people come every year to visit his tomb.

STORY #4: ROSE PHILIPINE DUSCHENEI’ll just read you a paragraph from her biography by Marian T. Horvat: “The first order she entered closed; she did not feel realized in the second institution until she came to America to convert the Indians. Then, instead of carrying out this long-desired mission, she was ordered to teach girls and found convents. The work was more difficult because she never learned to speak English. She founded one convent that failed, then another that foundered. The girls there were ungrateful and worldly, and the Sisters chaffed under her governance and wanted to relax the Rule. When she finally was permitted to go to work in an Indian mission, she was already seventy two years old, too old to work or learn the native language. But after only one year, she was denied even that great consolation - she was ordered to leave the Indian mission and return to Florissant….” where she died, having converted exactly one Indian, who apostacised three months later. And yet…she was utterly faithful to her call as a missionary, and a century after her death, the Pottawatomie Indians still remembered her as “That Woman Who Prayed.”

Saints like these would have baffled Achilles. Simon and Jude died without time´ or kleos. Edward squandered his political influence. John the Baptist had his head cut off. Rose Philipine Duschene died penniless and disappointed. No honor or glory here—not by Ancient Greek standards. In fact, these folks come up pretty short by our modern standards as well. You kind of have to wonder at the Church’s logic when it holds them up as role models.

And yet, that is the logic of the Cross—a logic which redefines success and turns human wisdom on its head. In the light of the cross, failure becomes promise, weakness becomes strength, the meek and humble inherit the earth.

This is why Nietzche ridiculed Christianity as a religion of the weak. We come from a long line of failures. Sometimes, we actually seem to take pride in that. Mother Teresa was asked once if she could possibly hope to succeed in India when the poverty was so overwhelming. Her answer was simply: “God does not expect us to be successful. He expects us to be faithful.”

This quotation has come to mean a lot to me in my work—especially in my work in our high school because, in addition to my teaching and praying, I also coach a rugby team which has not had a winning season in over ten years. Indeed, we only broke even once (we were four and four), and that year, my players tore down the goal posts because it marked the end of a twenty-year losing streak.

Now, some might argue that a losing streak of that magnitude may have had something to do with my coaching, but I prefer to look at it in biblical terms. You see, god has a special affection for losers. Look at all the losers, for example, in the long, baffling history of our salvation, starting with the Israelites themselves (whose finest king seemed to have a thing for other men’s wives) and continuing right through the age of the apostles (whose first unanimous decision was to run away when their leader got arrested), to our own age, and people like Saint Philipine Duchesne . So when it comes to losing, I sometimes convince myself that it is a sign of God’s special affection for my team; for every failure reminds us that Our beauty, our value, our integrity, lie not in our accomplishments, but simply in our existence as sons of God.

That said, I want to make one thing clear: failure is bad. Like all forms of suffering, it is a consequence of Original Sin, and it is natural—even wise—to avoid failure whenever possible.

But just as there is a tendency to romanticize suffering as though it were a thing to be sought out—or worse yet, enjoyed; so there can be a tendency to romanticize failure, as though it were just an alternative form of success. Like suffering, however, failure can be transfigured, enriched, elevated in the light of the cross, which was, in its unique way, the fusion of humanity’s greatest failure with its greatest victory.

So…just as it was Christ’s vocation to die on the cross, so our sons and daughters may be called by God to fail from time to time. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that they will all inevitably be called to fail on some level. But the Good News (with a capital G and a capital N) is that, if we can teach them to unite that failure with Christ’s own suffering, it transforms into a tremendous good—not just an opportunity to grow, but a participation in the redemptive sufferings of Christ.

Secondly, I’d like to distinguish between failing and being a failure. A parallel can be drawn, I think, between sinning and being a sinner. When we say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner,” we do not mean by that to define ourselves by our sins. We are sinners, but our identity is in Christ. Martin Luther used the analogy of a dunghill covered by snow to illustrate his theology of humanity’s utter depravity. We’re all basically manure, he said, but Jesus hides this fact from God beneath the snow of his grace. That is wrong. It’s wrong because it does not acknowledging the fundamental goodness of God’s creation. Our identity, in other words, is in our goodness—NOT in our sinfulness. We may fail in our endeavors, but we are not failures at heart. Not while we remain united to Jesus and his Church. Which is why we can rejoice even when the hour looks darkest.

My best friend in grad school was a self-professed “bitter ex-Catholic,” and he used to say, “The problem with you Catholics is that when you’re happy, you’re happy; but when you’re miserable, then you’re really happy.”

Well, that’s true. There’s something really beautiful about the way Christianity can transform suffering into joy. Which is why we look to saints like Edward and Philipine for inspiration; and why it is such a disappointment to hear people recite platitudes like, “You can do anything, so long as you put your mind to it.” That’s just not true. No one is omnipotent but God.

And just once — just once, I’d like to hear a valedictorian say to his class, ‘You are all going to fail. You will all, inevitably, have your hearts broken, experience loneliness, miss a major opportunity, lose a game, lose a job, lose some money, be abandoned and ridiculed, be humiliated and scorned. You are destined for failure. And that is very, very sad. But it’s also ok because your God had his heart broken and was ridiculed by his friends. Your God was humiliated and scorned and abandoned. And that means that your dignity is not bound up with your success. You are a child of God. You have been divinized. And in the end, when you lie on your deathbed as we all inevitably do, without trophies or diplomas or accolades or even your bodily health to comfort you, ALL that will matter is your existence as a child of God, and it will be enough. That will be more than enough. That will be everything.