“Hello, this is Mrs. Wagner.” I said in my most convincing forty-three year-old maternal voice. At fourteen years of age, my mother and I possessed roughly the same quantity of underarm, and facial hair: nada. These fact, taken together along with one or two other pieces of evidence, led me to the conclusion that I could leverage my usually embarrassing lack of puberty to a momentary advantage.
I confidently informed the Dean of Discipline, Mr. Belz, that my Freshman son, Tom Wagner, would not be attending school that day due to an unfortunate illness. “Yes. I think it’s the flu…stomach flu. Oh yes…a temperature. …one hundred and…three… …probably take him to the doctor later. Yes. Thank you for your concern.”
After a day of wandering around seeking the clandestine entertainments of a truant outlaw, and more or less being bored out of my mind, I rendezvoused, books in hand, at the usual bus stop for a ride home. I could tell that my eggs were cooked from the minute I stepped into the car. “How was school?” My mom queried with the voice of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady.” “Oh, okay.” I answered in an impossibly nonchalant tone. “How were your classes?” The squirmy questions continued flowing.
I knew that mom knew. And mom knew that I knew that she knew. But in moments like these, it is the cat’s prerogative to play with the mouse until she is good and ready to pounce. And pounce she did. The very next day I was to learn that as soon as Mr. Belz said good-bye to the pretend Mrs. Wagner, he immediately called the real Mrs. Wagner. Together they collaborated and constructed a truly artistic consequence.
Mr. Belz accompanied me to my first several classes. There he graciously, and ceremoniously introduced my teachers and classmates to a familiar looking, but nonetheless, brand-spanking-new transfer student. “Good morning class, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Mrs. Wagner, a new student here. Be sure to show her around and make her comfortable in her new school.” My class was able to make good on only the first half of Mr. Belz’ directive.
I would like to say that Mr. Belz creative, “Mrs. Wagner Punishment” was so effective, that this episode was my one and only brush with playing fast and loose with the truth. It wasn’t. Like a furrow made ever-deeper by the repeated strokes of a garden hoe, it took an accumulation of many negative consequences to eventually make a permanent impression on me. I eventually learned that there is no such thing as a successful lie. The moment a lie exits out of the front door, its consequences come knocking immediately at the backdoor.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, the author of John recorded Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6). If Jesus is the “truth,” then whenever someone is doing his or her best to live in truth, with real integrity, he or she is affirmatively responding to an invitation from Christ. Even when a person does not consciously know Christ, they are assenting to him in an anonymous way when they are whole-heartedly living in truth and integrity. Our souls were handmade by God. They were built with an inborn attraction and hunger for what is true.
At the same time, each one of us, at one time or another, to some extent or another, fails to live in complete integrity. When we fail to acknowledge the truth to ourselves or others, we fail to acknowledge Christ, since “Truth” is a synonym for “Christ.”
What is the current state of your integrity? Living in truth and integrity involves so much more than the avoidance of a lie. Each maneuver that we perform to preserve another person’s fragile ego, or to avoid an uncomfortable moment, places a certain amount of distance in a marriage or close friendship. Each time that we fail to give honest feedback to a friend, we place an arm’s length between ourselves and them. When we pretend that something that is troubling is okay with us, we limit the transformative power of that relationship. When we consciously or unconsciously sell a false image of ourselves to others, we undermine our own heart’s desire to be accepted and loved for who we are. We short-circuit our capacity to get our deepest needs met.
The ways to wiggle out of integrity are many. Whenever you notice that you’ve gotten a little slippery when it comes to your integrity, the first step is to allow yourself to humbly feel the embracing love of God who maintains a room for you in his house (Jn 14). The pathway back to your integrity is very near to you. It is knit into the fiber of your being.