Tragedy embraced, redeemed, Part I

The Cross left behind after the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11. Taken from werismyki.com

Re-post from 2012 [with new video added at the end]

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

…The priest told St. Bernadette to offer pen and ink to the Lady with a request that she write down what she wished of the people, or at lest tell what was her motive in coming. It happened that Our Lady appeared to Bernadette that day, the third apparition of Lourdes. Bernadette obediently offered the pen, ink and paper to the Lady. Later Bernadette offered this oral report: “The Lady laughed. Then she said, ‘There is no need for me to write what I have to say. Will you do me the kindness to come here every day for fifteen days?’ I promised, and then she said, ‘I promise you happiness not in this world, but only in the next.'”

Our culture continues to grow increasingly averse to the inexorably tragic dimensions of life. By tragic I mean that in this life not all evils, disorders and disabilities can be overcome, nor can all sufferings be taken away. Unresolvable tensions always remain a part of life, and the art of being fully human in a tragic world requires of us the capacity to discover hope when facing an insolubly tragic state of affairs. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, coined the phrase “tragic optimism,” which for him is an attitude that empowers us to say “yes” to life in spite of everything. But for Christians, as Pope Benedict reminds us, hope is not simply optimism, which is, he says, “merely the ability to look at things with good cheer and move on.” Rather, hope is the ability to see in this present darkness the coming dawn, to be at peace in your storm-tossed boat with the knowledge that Jesus sleeps serenely in the bow. Hope is to rest in confidence that our provident “God works all things for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Yet increasingly we Westerners wish to keep open all options for eliminating the tensions of tragedy by any and all means available, including the deconstruction of moral prohibitions that sustain certain tragic tensions (e.g. advocating for the moral status of same-sex sex and the legal status of same-sex marriage) or the elimination of tragic lives (e.g. in the U.S., following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, 92 percent of Down syndrome children are aborted). Someone recently captured this logic when, as we were debating the logic of aborting disabled children, she said: “Better to be dead than to suffer.”

Jesus does tragedy otherwise. The Christian Gospel proclaims that Christ came not to redefine or overlook evil, or to sanction the doing of evil to achieve good. Rather, Jesus freely chose to suffer a tragic death in obedience to the Father, trusting him to draw from it a greater good — the Resurrection! Christ invests tragedy with hope, confronts failure with mercy, suffuses pain with an infinitely redemptive power. The Paschal Mystery opens a new space for St. Siloan the Athonite to say, “place your mind and hell and despair not … for Christ descended into hell to break the chains of despair.” Pope Benedict, in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, says:

It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.

“Christ is Risen!” is our exultant song of triumph, our secure claim to invincible meaning. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Only in the Paradise Jesus has prepared for us beyond the grave is every tear wiped away. Only in the Resurrection is every unresolved tension shattered, and the the Age to Come there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Only in Paradise will there be unadulterated happiness, though in this life we can know unadulterated joy, as joy is the fruit of our hope in love (cf. John 15:11).

Many years ago, a 80+ year old Trappist monk in Spencer, Massachusetts once said to me: “When you suffer long for God, you begin to learn what distinguishes joy from contentment. Contentment passes when its immediate object is removed. Most of our young spiritual life’s about contentment; like a child darting from toy to toy, bleeding out of each all its pleasures. But joy, joy increases the more distant and inaccessible God seems. Joy comes with waiting and watching.” I said, “How’s that?” He answered, “Because God’s absence is his presence in the form of yearning, and yearning in us makes us desire him. And joy is the really the delight of yearning, of aching, of longing for a certain love that we have and don’t yet possess. We pray in our doxology that we love the ‘One who is to come.’ I am the stretching of Psalm 63. Even in heaven I believe we will infinitely long, though there every longing will be satisfied, only to awaken a new longing. ad æternum.” I looked Psalm 63 up:

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.

On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for your have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand holds me fast.

 

Taken from nd.edu

Daring Seekers

I finally finished David Hart’s high-density theological/philosophical tour de force and refutation of naturalism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It’s an extraordinary exploration of the mystery of human consciousness and of the human quest for happiness, as well as an inquest into the problem of “existence,” i.e. why there is something rather than nothing

Today, I want to share an insight from the book that really helped me see Christian apologetics in a new light. In the last chapter (pp. 327-28), Hart offers a challenge to the serious atheist or agnostic who is willing to confront the evidence for God’s existence utilizing a methodology prescribed by theists: prayer.

In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of infinite being, consciousness and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not merely in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace…no one is obliged to make such an effort; but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous, and any arguments against belief in God that one might have the temerity to make to others can be safely ignored.

That quote then reminded me of a post I had written a year and a half ago, which, for what it’s worth, I include below.

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I heard a lecture yesterday by an eastern Orthodox theologian which contained a treasure trove of fascinating insights into the “spiritual not religious” (SNR) craze in the West. Too many insights to capture in this brief post, but his main argument went something like this.

The love of spirituality, when it is set in opposition to organized religion, usually revolves around two focal points: (1) SNRs usually abstract a sanitized and idealized “spiritual core” out of the messiness and specificity of a particular religious tradition. Religion, which includes all of the elements of faith embedded in an organized human community, is always an admixture of pure and impure, ideal and real, mystical and managerial, charismatic and institutional. As such it’s always subject to critique and reform. Like the Gnostics of old, SNRs seek refuge from the hardships of organized social groups that contain wildly diverse practitioners at various stages of “buy in.” (2) SNRs often seek out the primarily individual, autonomous and self-legislating modes of fulfillment. They also often construct universes emptied of hard ethical truths, commanded by a divine Legislator, that demand from the religious practitioner an asectical life of obedience, repentance and personal/social reform.

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he said he gives to SNR “seekers” who come to him to investigate Orthodox Christianity. He said they are often attracted to Orthodoxy initially because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “mystical” to offer ample room in their quest for personal fulfillment. He went on to say that he is always willing to talk. But after years of noticing that most of those he spoke with never experienced any change of heart, he decided to make a change. He said, “One day I was speaking to a Russian starets [a venerable old monk] about this, and he said to me: ‘You cannot get someone to think themselves into God. They need to learn prayer, then He will reveal Himself to them.’ So I changed my tactic that day.” He went on to say:

When they come to me inquiring, I say: For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who God is, or if he exists. Simply say every day, in the space of five minutes of quiet, ‘O God, guide me.’ Then just listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there. Pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Just attend to what’s happening. Read from the New Testament for at least 15 minutes every day, beginning with the Gospels, and read very slowly; again, without analyzing or criticizing. If you are presently involved in sexual activities apart from marriage, stop for these six months. The same goes for alcohol abuse or drug use. Give some alms to the poor so it hurts some. After six months, we can explore your questions. But they will no longer be the same ones you have now.

He said in his experience over 50+ years of priesthood he has never once seen the successful completion of this experiment fail to effect a radical change.

However, he said the majority of those whom he confronts with this challenge “walk away sad” as they are unwilling to invest the effort. “Like Herod, they want to be titillated by a quick fix, not converted.”

“I dare you,” he once said to a young woman, “give Christ a try.” “She did, and,” he said, “she met Him.”

Orthodox priest hearing confession

The Beauty of the Time-worn Eternal Gospel

Re-post from 2013, with the addition of a 1 minute video a friend sent that relates to this post. But first, let me share with you a recording of my wife singing during yesterday’s Annunciation feast at our daughter’s all-school Mass. She is mortified when I do this, but that’s too bad. You see, I teach about God, but she sings to Him. She has the greater calling. Click here if you want to listen, and here are the words of the text:

Here am I, O God,
I come to do Your will
Here am I,
I come to do Your will

I’ve waited for you and you heard me, O God.
You have put a new song in my mouth.
A hymn of praise to the God of my salvation.

You opened my ear to your word, O God.
You take no delight in empty sacrifice.
To do your will, is my life and my delight, O God.

I sing of your justice, I sing of your peace.
I sing of your faithfulness and love.
I chant your praise in the midst of all your people.

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I have spent the last 3 years trying to complete David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. What great pleasure I take in reading his celebration of the English language that requires me to have my dictionary always at hand! I wish the book had no final chapter.

In any event, there was one quote (pp. 215-16) on the contribution of Christianity to ethical thought that I felt compelled to share here in its entirety. Brace and pace yourself for its density, but let me beg you to believe me when I say it’s worth the effort…

…In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have “invented” the human, to have bequeathed us our most basic concept of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it, and to have shaped all of us (to one degree or another) in the deepest reaches of consciousness.

All of the glories and failures of the civilizations that were born of this revolution, however, everything for which Christendom as a historical, material reality might be praised or blamed, fades in significance before the still more singular moral triumph of Christian tradition. The ultimate power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.

The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.

In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.

To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection — resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence — is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?

Watch here:

Christo-logical

Re-post from 2011.

Here’s a fragment of an idea that came to me a week ago. I jotted it down in haste on a wrinkled piece of paper as I waited for my oil to be changed. I had recently taught a workshop on Catholic social teaching, reflecting on the practical import of Francis Cardinal George’s call to renounce the partisan “liberal-conservative” labels that severely constrict rich, nuanced, complex understandings of reality. George challenges us to experiment by completely removing those ideological labels from our faith vocabulary and instead engaging in reasoned arguments.

Nothing new or sophisticated. Just intriguing to me as I thought of it all.

…we need now to move past that strange ideological hybrid concocted in the 20th century: Justice advocacy defends and promotes the rights of weak, voiceless, powerless and poor humanity. Yet how has this noble cause entered into a sinister covenant with those advocates who defend and promote the right to extinguish the life of weak, voiceless, powerless and poor humanity still in the womb? If this is a war between radical conceptions of autonomy (this is my body given to me) and equally radical commitments to solidarity (this is my body given up for you) — and I believe that is the war — solidarity has been dealt a mortal wound. Only a suspension of logic, or a capitulation to the very arguments that give rise to so many injustices decried by justice advocates, could transform champions of helpless victims into victimizers of the helpless.

We Catholics must don again our Christo-logic, re-claim the “word of the cross” and “cry out full-throated and unsparingly” (Isaiah 58:1) to give voice to the silent children of our age. We must nail to the cross of Jesus tropes the culture of death uses to justify unspeakable crimes. The cross is the world as seen through the lens of divine mercy, revealing beauty in deformity, ability in disability, power in weakness, redemption in suffering, sheer grace in uselessness, riches in poverty, trust in fear and hope in hopelessness. We must apply this logic from womb to tomb, proclaiming in word and deed the Christ who sanctified every nanosecond of human life from his conception in the womb of Mary, to his agonizing death, to the burial of his butchered corpse that would be swept up into the deathless glory of the eternal God. In Christ, everything of human life, whether comely or grotesque,  weak or strong, has been rendered capax Dei, capable of revealing the wisdom and folly, strength and weakness of our merciful God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25).

Kyrie eleison

Today I will share with you a loosely strung set of quotes that came to mind as I prayed over this morning’s Gospel…

Taken from classicalchristianity.com

Today’s Mass readings turn our minds to Lenten almsgiving. Etymologically, the word “alms” comes from the Greek word eleos, which means “pity, mercy.” So, to give alms is to give mercy to those who need mercy — and mercy, simply put, is love encountering human misery and overcoming it. Think of the Latin word for mercy, misericordiamiser, “misery,” and cordia, “of the heart.”   Mercy is both a response to human misery and the compassionate empathy of one’s heart toward the suffering of another. As St. Thomas Aquinas would say, mercy, to be fully virtuous, must be affective and effective, moving me with emotive empathy and toward effective action.

We also know what Jesus says in the Beatitudes about mercy-givers:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Today’s Gospel reveals the shocking truth that our salvation, the gift of God’s undeserved mercy, is itself dependent on the quality of our mercy-giving to the deserving and undeserving (cf Luke 6:35).

On the “undeserving” recipients of alms, St. John Chrysostom famously said,

You must not demand an audit of a person’s life – just correct the poverty and supply the need (Homilies on 1 Corinthians 21.5).

Shakespeare says of mercy in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

St. John Bosco captures this saving dynamic when he says,

An effective but often neglected means of gaining Paradise is almsgiving. By almsgiving I mean any work of mercy exercised toward one’s neighbor for the love of God.

Along those same lines Dr. Nathan Eubank, a biblical scholar and colleague of mine at the seminary, once made this comment to me:

If one were to do even a cursory read of the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke], one would get the immediate impression that we are saved by giving alms.

Saving alms. The hands of the needy are the gift-receiving altar of God.

We are not saved by mere faith, but saved by merciful faith that stoops down to the needy and suffering. St. James says it with sharp clarity:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Clearly for James saving works=almsgiving, good Jew that he is. Sounds like a Hebrew prophet or some such:

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. — Isaiah 58:7-8

Or maybe a Hebrew sage:

Give to God as he gives to you with a good eye and a large hand; for he who gives to the poor, lends to God; for who is a repayer if not he? For he is God who repays and he will repay you ten thousand times the thousand.” — Sirach 35:10–11

Again, St. Augustine comments on almsgiving,

Study the money lender’s methods. He wants to give modestly and get back with profit; you do the same. Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest is mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give the earth and gain heaven. ‘Whom shall I give it to?’ did you ask? The Lord himself comes forward (in the form of the poor person) to ask you for a loan, he who forbade you to be a usurer. Listen to the Scripture telling you how to make the Lord your debtor: ‘Anyone who gives alms to the poor is lending to the Lord.’

A moral theology professor I had in grad school once said on our Catholic social ethics class,

In Scripture, those are most like God who choose to override the natural slouch of fallen humanity toward self-interest in order to lift up the fallen; or who resist the sloth that prevents us from exiting our comfort zones and attending with mercy to the more unpleasant realities of human suffering and need. God is most at home among the homeless, building them homes; among orphans, adopting them; among widows, taking them into his care. And he’s always looking for laborers to join his cause.

St. John of the Cross says that one who is possessed with divine charity senses the sweet aroma of Christ in the stench of the sick or the poor, while those who are attached to pleasant odors are incapable of allowing the love of God to fully enter and free them to love as God loves, i.e. with a merciful love.

Mercy, which Aquinas argues is God’s greatest attribute, is therefore the supreme manner for human beings to image God. As such, being merciful is the truest use of human freedom and the greatest sign that we are truly free. I think here of the words of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:

There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread… Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

A volunteer at Good News Ministries, an ecumenical outreach to the poor and needy in Tallahassee, once said to me:

I’m always asking God questions about the suffering I encounter every day. But there’s one question you will never find me asking Him: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

Amen.

Samuel Aranda‘s winning image of a woman in a niqab comforting an injured man in Yemen. Taken from dvafoto.com

Saved by Hope

St. Thérèse on her sickbed, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

An old post dusted off.

I was speaking with someone recently who had attempted suicide several years ago, and she gave me permission to share her insights. Everyone’s experience of depression and suicide is different, but it seems there are here some universal themes. I will offer just a few of those insights she shared.

She was and is a woman of deep Catholic faith.

Just love me

This woman had a number of catastrophic life crises happen to her in a fairly short amount of time and, as a result of the profound trauma, found herself withdrawing from her typically active life and self-isolating. She said it was a protective measure, as she could not talk about her pain with the many people who pressed her with well-intentioned questions and unsolicited advice. She said what she needed more than anything else early on was just silent, consistent, compassionate and non-verbal support. But, she said, most people found that too uncomfortable and maybe even too scary, as her inner world had grown so dark. Everyone wanted to fix her right away, tried to push her to verbalize everything. “I really get the purpose of mourning rituals now,” she said, “because they are pre-scripted ways to express your grief and hurt so you don’t have to talk; just do the rituals. But I had none of those then.” She said she wasn’t ready for fixing, or talking much. She just needed to know she was loved and supported, regardless. “And when I was ready to talk, I’d talk. It was hard for people to get.” The extreme pain was beyond words for her.

I thought to myself, what she really wanted was the “first response” of Job’s friends:

Now when three of Job’s friends heard of all the misfortune that had come upon him, they set out each one from his own place: Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuh, and Zophar from Naamath. They met and journeyed together to give him sympathy and comfort. But when, at a distance, they lifted up their eyes and did not recognize him, they began to weep aloud; they tore their cloaks and threw dust into the air over their heads. Then they sat down upon the ground with him seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him; for they saw how great was his suffering. — Job 2:11-13

Her flight into isolation, she said, included God. She was always woman of daily prayer, but found herself unable to pray. She was numb. Angry. Confused. And soon, she said, she began to lose a sense of hope. “Hope,” she said, “for me, hope is my God anchor. God was always my rock. But God when seemed silent, absent, distant it was scary. When I lost sight of Him I lost my compass, my firm footing. My pain had no meaning without Him. Only He can make it all make sense in the end.” It was in this stretch of hopelessness that she first seriously contemplated suicide, simply as a way to end the pain. And were it not for a fortuitous encounter with a man of faith that helped her turn the corner, she said, she may very well have killed herself. A Christian co-worker gave her some passages from the Bible to read that related to her darkness. They pulled her back from the edge of the cliff. “I read them one day when I was alone in my apartment, and when I got to Romans 8:28, something in me opened; a light turned on.”

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

She was sure she’d heard these words before, but now they spoke to her, she said. “Jesus said them to me. I knew it was Him and that I wasn’t ever alone.” The message for her was clear: give me your pain, let me love you and I’ll restore your hope in my purpose for your life.

Saved by Hope

This made me think of Pope Benedict’s words in Spe Salvi,

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.

In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever. The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me…I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”.

This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

This woman added one last point that powerfully punctuated her witness: “Without faith in God, who’s love is never not there, it’s very hard to keep hope when life grows bleak. My message to all who struggle with these thoughts is: even while you get help from other people, cling to God and to His Word. He’ll never leave you.”

La Petit Fleur

To end, I’d like to share, without additional commentary, the words of St. Thérèse. Her sister, Mother Agnes, mentioned to her a week before she died how terribly she had suffered. Thérèse replied,

Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation (Last Conversations 22.9.6).

About a month earlier she said to her sister, Agnes:

Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one could easily poison oneself.

Again, another young sister who was helping to nurse Thérèse — Sr. Marie of the Trinity — later shared:

Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.

Words of St. Silouan the Athonite to a young priest who asked him how he might be saved, from keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

 

“His mercy endures for ever” — Psalm 136:1

From “The Passion of the Christ,” taken from bp.blogspot.com

One of the greatest and most awesome privileges that comes with working within the institutional Church is being made privy to countless stories of the human encounter with God, and on occasion I am given permission by some of those I meet to share their stories with others through my writing and my teaching. As yesterday was a day dedicated to overcoming the culture of death with prayer, penance and the witness of lived proclamations of the Gospel of life, I thought I would share the very personal and powerful story of a woman whom I also count as a friend. Though she will remain anonymous, her voice is clear and real and powerful and I have the honor of sharing it with you today. May it bear abundant fruit.

I had two abortions. I was young and unmarried. Though my boyfriend and I had taken every care with contraceptives, something went amiss. We didn’t really want the abortion but we didn’t want to move from our single life into the complexities of family life. We were fortunate to live in a state where abortion was legal. I remembered vividly my high school health class textbook. The section on abortion was illustrated with a shocking photo of a dead, naked woman lying in a pool of blood. That was what happened when abortion was illegal.

My fears were only about myself: that it might hurt, that I might be endangered by the surgery, that it would be embarrassing. I told no one besides my boyfriend. I went to the clinic alone. It hurt terribly and I cried in fear and pain. The woman assisting the doctor chastised me impatiently. “You wanted this, right? So what are you crying for? Settle down.”  I hated her. When the doctor was finished she held a dish by my head, so I could see that they had done the job. The fetus was too small or too damaged for me to recognize, but I nodded anyway.

The second time was like a bad dream revisited. Same boyfriend, same mysterious failure of contraceptives (now used with even more care, since that first accident). Same tears. Impatient words from the assistant: “You’re upsetting the other girls. Calm down. What are you crying for?” I hated her, too.

I did feel relieved after. The problem was solved. It was not unlike finally getting the mouse or bird out of your house: it’s not that you want to harm it. But it just can’t stay. The only way to get rid of it is to keep whacking at it with a broom or towel or call the cat in. Then it’s dead and it’s kind of gross and you feel bad, but at least the problem is solved.

I assumed I’d forget about it. I certainly tried to avoid thinking about it. I skipped any articles about abortion in the news and crossed the street if anti-abortion protestors were out. Though I eventually married I never had children.

Decades later I discovered that God existed. Through His gentle nudges I entered the Catholic Church. I was initially happy to be “mostly Catholic.” I turned my eyes and ears away from the harder words about the dignity of life. After all, lots of Catholics didn’t really buy into all the details. There was room to keep my own opinions, especially about my rights as a modern woman.

The problem was God didn’t share my agenda. I wanted Him. I loved Him with all my heart. I wanted to give Him every breath, every heartbeat, every ounce of my body and soul and mind. I still thought some of it was mine to give. But slowly I realized that it wasn’t. It was all His to begin with. I had no claim to my own life whatsoever. And as that sank in, the ghastly awfulness of what I had done so many years ago became clear.

The most profound expression of God’s love is His creativity. He cares for every hair on our heads, He draws each flower from its bud, He lifts each nestling from its egg, He brings each worm out of its mud-puddle. He loves his Creation. He made me. He loves me. I began to see that the ugliness in what I had done was not in the fact that it left me sad, or hurt, or was unpleasant and a bit shameful. The ugliness was that God had drawn life into my womb and I had spit in His face. He had given me a treasure crafted with the greatest care and I had thrown it in the trash.

My excuses were immaturity, ignorance, self-interest, financial woes, shame, anxiety. My excuses were a defensive maneuver. My excuses were a way of trying to protect myself from the pain of the truth. The truth was I had sinned so enormously that forgiveness was unimaginable. That was terrifying. I deserved an eternity in hell. God had given me my very own existence and the beautiful awakening awareness of His real presence in my heart. And I had despised Him. I was absolutely horrified. That newly recognized truth burned through me like invisible fire. I wept and prayed.

I finally found the courage to tell my confessor. I did not do the clever trick of going to a big city cathedral where the priest wouldn’t know me. I told the priest who knew me. He had heard my many piddling confessions in the past.  I went to him for spiritual direction regularly.  He took confessions in his office, face to face. I got straight to the point, already in tears, hand over my face in shame. He cut me off after the kind and number so I wouldn’t have to go into painful details. I wasn’t the first woman to confess this in his many years of priesthood. We prayed together. God heals.

The fullness of the healing was not instantaneous, but it started that day. It is one thing to know that God forgives, and another to accept His tender touch.  My heart is still wounded. I expect it will be forever, and that seems right and just, as does any reparation my Lord deems fit to require of me. Other women I know who had abortions carry wounds in their hearts, too. I have never met a woman (or man) who found abortion forgettable. Even in old age they remember and regret. What seems possible, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is a healing of the relationship with God, so that in honest acknowledgement of our sin and pain we are brought closer to Him instead of driven away from Him.

In hindsight – after the dust settled and I saw with clearer eyes – I realized there was something unexpectedly beautiful that came out of that difficult confession. We don’t often let ourselves be so broken down. I’m sure it must be similar for those struggling with any mortal sin. It’s so very frightening to drop the justifications and admit how deeply we have offended God. That, truly, must be the transformative moment: not the fear that Father Smith might cringe inside and think poorly of us, but the horror at having offended our Lord and Savior. That is, I think, the acceptance of God’s judgment. God’s agenda, recognized as superior to our own, means a raw reassessment of all our values and priorities. Especially the ones we’d rather not sacrifice.

When we surrender our defenses, give up our pride and throw ourselves in desperation and shame upon His mercy, I think He must weep with joy. My conversion opened the door to go into a terrible darkness I had avoided for many years. Once graced with the courage to go in, the way out was illuminated, and led to the discovery of such an in-pouring of mercy and forgiveness and love that words hardly do it justice. I am so very grateful for that. It has been a few years since that confession, and I am still moved to awe and wonder when I reflect on it.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.