Saturday, July 4, 2015

Review: The Miracle, The Message, The Story

The ‘rich’ look upon the ‘poor’ and weak as problems
to be resolved, according to their own vision, refusing
to enter into a dialogue of trust with those who are
oppressed and in distress.  They will not listen to them.
So begins this book of Jean Vanier’s life, and his respect for people with disabilities.
In 1964 Jean began the first l’Arche (the Ark) home just north of Paris.  He invited three rejected people to leave the institution “where they had been living in disgrace and make their home with him.”  Wanting to do good, “he had no idea at the time that those people would ‘do good’ to him.”
One of the unique elements of l’Arche communities is that administrators there are not employees, working 8-hour shifts to care for those in need; the administrators live with them, becoming family with them.  In living with them, they see not just their limitations, but their value and contributions to the community.  They come not just to care for them, but to love and be loved.  Henri Nouwen spent 11 years in l’Arche; his books reflect what he learned living there:  in providing a home for the developmentally disabled, he found a home for himself.
Today, through hundreds of Faith and Light and l’Arche communities around the world, Jean noted that “thousands of mothers and fathers were beginning to dance and laugh with their children.”  These were the children who were once laughed at by their peers, and then hidden from the world’s cruelties by their parents.  They once had lived sad, lonely lives.  Now, in these communities they really come alive.  (I recently joined the board of an organization which helps the developmentally disabled live in homes, in community.  And I attended the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration, and yes, I saw the disabled and their parents laugh and sing and dance --- it was a most beautiful, blessed thing to behold.)
The Miracle, The Message, The Story goes into great depth in describing the problems Vanier faced in different cities, in different countries, in different religions, and in different cultures.  There were starts, stumbles, and even some failures.  The work of love is not an easy thing.  Some might read this book and become bored with the seemingly endless problems --- but it is not a book only celebrating success, but celebrating too of the work required to get there.
I had read and reviewed the much shorter book, Signs, which spoke to the message Vanier discerned from his life’s work:  we will find Jesus and His message more in the poor and the marginalized than we will in the rich and cultured.  In reading Signs, it seemed a hard message to accept.  This book seems to indicate that “yes, it IS a hard message --- you have to work hard to get it.”  It is a life’s work.
When I read Signs I asked myself:  “Who can live this way?”  When I read The Miracle, The Message, The Story I recalled:  “And the gate is narrow…”      

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Getting Used To Pain

There are different types of pain:  physical and spiritual, one-time and on-going, and natural or man-made.
The pain in my shoulder began a few weeks ago.  Twist my arm in a certain way and an extremely sharp pain screams from the joint and down my arm.  At first I expected it would go away, as most pains do, but last week I had it prayed over in hopes it would not prevent my playing in a charity golf outing last Monday.  It didn’t (praise God!), but I think I shall soon visit a doctor to see if he can work some healing --- or tell me that I have to get used to this pain.
Losing a loved one brings a different sort of pain.  For some, there is continuing worry about their loved one --- are they in heaven?  For some, death of a loved one creates a pain which it seems won’t ever go away.  And for some, the death of a loved one is a death to a part of themselves, and they struggle with feeling partly dead and partly alive.  I’ve lost parents, siblings, and many friends.  Each loss was a sudden pain, no matter how much you prepare for it.  In my experience, however, I’ve come to appreciate the truth and inevitableness of death; each time is not without pain, but I think each time the pain is a little less deep, and quicker to heal.  In a way, I guess, that is getting used to the pain of death.  But that pain, which comes to everyone, I wish to no one.
I recall certain painful events in my life:  divorce, rejection, and a sudden feeling of the loss of God.  I’ve come to see physical death as “natural,” albeit a painful thing, but these other painful events are not meant to be normal, and they are a pain not meant to be gotten used to.  They are spiritual pains you never get used to.  I’ve come to see that physical death is part of God’s plan, and I’ve come to accept His plans, but these other things seem to be part of man’s plans, and they can hurt more deeply.  Perhaps in some bigger picture I cannot see, God will make good out of even these pains, but I find that physical pain or even death is easier to get used to.
This week with the unfolding of the legal events in our country, I’ve felt a pain.  These are man-made events, and I’m inclined to describe the pain I feel as similar to that of divorce:  this is not normal; this was not meant to be.  I can’t see getting used to this pain.  God created man and woman, not some amorphous beings which can choose their gender.  He blessed marriage of one man and one woman.  God defined why He created man and woman.
But now some of God’s creations, like the angels cast out of heaven, have said they will be as God, putting their own definition on His creation.  And even as God felt pain at the loss of His angels --- and later Adam and Eve --- He planned on sending His Son, to make things right in all eternity.  So I am sure God has plans to make right, with justice (and mercy, we pray), these plans of men who reject His ways.
Looking back, even Sodom had a purpose in God’s plans.  There was rejection of God and His ways; then there came suffering, but ultimately there came new life to God’s people.  And He said:  “I will always be with you.” 
I’ve come to see death, the pains of loss, as part of life.  And now perhaps like Sodom, the events of this country also are part of a bigger plan for our life which we cannot yet see.  Yes, we feel pain, and perhaps we will be made of feel even more intense pains, but I trust God will make it right.
As I write this, it is Sunday after mass.  And I look up at the large crucifix above the altar.  And I see great pain there, pain that was certainly not meant to be, and yet became necessary because of the sinful will of man.  And so that pain had great purpose, in the plan of God.
Who am I to judge?  Who am I to, like Lot, demand that God explain what is happening in our country, our culture?  Is the pain I feel over recent events something normal like death, or something to never be forgotten, like divorce?  Will the hurt go away, or get worse?  I don’t know.  I shall continue to pray for humility, and I shall continue to pray:  “Jesus, I trust in You.”
I shall continue to try and mean, in my heart, what I pray.
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Do well what depends on me, and endure well what does not.  – Maximilian Kolbe
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“Be ye all of one mind.”  (1Pt 3:8-15)  St. Peter realizes that with our weakness and frailty we cannot preserve peace if we have no compassion for the faults of others, if we do not know how to be kind to those who displease us, and if we cannot bear blame with humility.  Anyone who pretends that in achieving a life of perfect harmony with others, he need never suffer any annoyance or displeasure, and that he need never be contradicted or upset, has very little experience of the reality of life and forgets that, far from being pure spirits, we are limited by matter. 
It even happens that sometimes, without wishing it and without even the shadow of a bad intention, we work against one another.  The remedy for these inevitable failures, when the limitations of our nature are the cause of mutual distress, is that suggested by St. Augustine:  “Let more room be given to charity.”  … Let us likewise practice greater humility, in order to overcome the resentments of our self-love.  Even if someone does act against us with ill will, we should know how to forgive him.
                                    -- Divine Intimacy, P649, Fifth Sunday After Pentecost 

Monday, June 22, 2015

You Can Stop Preaching

The minutes ticked by, as I continued to read my morning prayers.  Rising late --- did I have too much wine last night? --- I arrived late to church.  I knew the priest was ready behind me, and the woman at the piano was set to lead the opening hymn.  And as I continued to pray, I was somewhat distracted with the thought:  Why wasn’t the mass starting?  Then, as I completed the last words of the Morning Prayers, like someone had watched over my shoulder and waited until I was done, then I heard:  “And the opening hymn for today is ….”
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I rushed home after mass:  I have things to do this day; I need to shower, to shave, and to get ready.  But even before the mass began and I felt disquieted with the delay, I knew there was something different about this day, and my heart was open to hear. 
Strangely, as the mass finally began, my thoughts drifted to the night before, and the Father’s Day dinner and gifts from a most dear friend, a daughter.  And I specifically recalled the words she said at one point in the evening:  “You can stop preaching, now.”  She has said those same words to me before, too often I’m sure.  She says them when I get rolling on some topic that irritates me and, as she notices, my voice often becomes raised.  I was getting irritated, and it showed.
I was reminded of that irritation during mass and thought:  “But why am I thinking this now?”  Then the Gospel was read:
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.       Mt 7: 1-5
The priest said that in his 43 years he is sure that he has heard that gospel at least once each year, “but I guess it must be repeated to me, so I don’t forget it.”  He mentioned how on the way to mass this morning the car in front of him was “only going 45 in the 45 limit zone.  Can’t you go a bit faster, maybe 50?”  And he noted that he was judging that person by their actions.  “I didn’t know what was going on in their mind, what worries, what sorrows, or things they ---- and perhaps even God --- really thought more important than racing to their destination.  I was judging their actions which I could see, AND their heart, which I could not --- because I had a log in my eye.”
The priest noted that introspection is a good thing, and being thankful for graces received.  Judging is not being thankful for our gifts, any gifts.  We judge too easily external events; we cannot see hearts, often, even our own.  And we need to.
This is posting number 900 on this blog.  Like many others, I don’t write this as a preaching, to you or to me.  This one is written so that something I SHOULD remember may be written down, and perhaps read again at some date.  It’s obvious that I, like the priest, often forget important lessons.
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And then the priest led us in prayer, for many people I didn’t particularly want to pray for --- because I was judging their actions.  And then we sat down and we began to sing a hymn, with words most familiar to me:
The Prayer of St. Francis
Make me a channel of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love.
Where there is injury, Your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in You.
Make me a channel of Your peace.
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there’s doubt true faith in You.
Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of Your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all men that we receive,
And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.
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And after mass was over, I began to read the daily Bible readings I had committed to, and I read the story of the Transfiguration, and the words God the Father spoke to Jesus:  “This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.”  (Mt 17:5)
And a few verses later I read the words a woman said to Jesus:  “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic” ---- as I am.
I wrote here recently of hearing words which called for the need in our world of a “radical love”, given even to those we might hate, or those who irritate us --- those we might judge. 
I think heard them again today.

Monday, June 15, 2015

See How They Love

I attended a talk by Dan Burke last night; he has written some wonderful books.  The first hour, however, he spoke of his conversion to Catholicism, a story I had not heard before.

Dan had a very abusive childhood, and at one point in his late teens he had reached a crisis point, and saw only two alternatives:  “Either I continue my life of torture and pains, or I end it.  And I sought the courage to do just that.” 

Then Dan told of two turning points in his life.

The first occurred when, as a teen, he worked in a pizza store, and the week it was his turn to clean the public restrooms --- “more fun in my life,” Dan quipped --- and then a young co-worker said to him: “That’s all right; I’ll do it for you.”  And he did, and he did each time Dan’s turn came around.  Dan thought the man was nuts – “or a homosexual, making a play for me.”  But evidentially Dan found out that the reason for his kindness was “because I’m a Christian, and this is what we do for others.” 

“Yeh,” Dan said; “He was nuts.”

But it made Dan think of all those people who said God mattered in their lives, and so he began a search for God and truth, a long one, which took him through many religions and cults – some of which preyed on the pains he felt.  He eventually reached Christianity and the Southern Baptists, where among other things he learned how stupid Catholics were.  Later he discovered Evangelical Christians had a better view of Jesus, and eventually he joined Chuck Dobson and Focus on the Family for 15 years.  While working there he learned to enjoy ribbing the only Catholic on the staff.  He liked to spend time thinking up insults and put downs, telling her how stupid she and her religion were.  “It was great fun, and she never sniped back, which made it even better” -- until the second critical turning point in Dan’s life.

There came a day when the Catholic woman chose to leave Focus on the Family, and there was an office retirement party for her.  “I didn’t pay much attention to the gathering, but at one point someone came to me and said I was wanted at the party.  I went to the gathering, and was asked to sit on one of 5 stools at the front.  Then the woman, laughing, told those gathered how I and 4 others had often laughed at her crazy religious beliefs. 

And then she became very serious as she said:  ‘I want to thank you for that.  It made me look deep into my religion and to Jesus for comfort and answers … and I found them.’”

“And then she washed my feet.”

Dan didn’t become a Catholic until years after that incident, but he never forgot it.  “The world is a dark place now; there is even dissention within the Catholic Church.  Everyone thinks they know the answer to everything.  And Christians are laughed at --- and killed.  These days, mere words won’t convert anyone.  If we want to evangelize in this world, we need to remember the actions of Jesus and the woman who washed my feet.  Radical love: that is what will turn hearts and minds in this world.  The question is:  Can we humble ourselves THAT much, to love that much?”

The room was silent.

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Earlier yesterday, a discussion group turned to the story of St. Francis and the wolf which was killing the residents of the town of Gubbio.  Francis eventually brokered peace between the wolf and the town, and we discussed the lessons to be learned from the story.  Certainly there was a trust in God, and there was humility, but a key point of the story --- often not discussed --- was the need for both parties in the dispute to change.  The wolf was right in his behavior, as were the people; and each was confident of their needs and their justice in fulfilling them.  But with trust in God, humility, and conceding to the need to change so that they might live together, they found peace.

Peace came through a radical love: a giving up of self.

Dan Burke saw that radical love in the woman washing his feet, and he was open to change.

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At mass this morning we said “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.”  Lamb of God:  a love unto death.  Was there ever a more radical love?  His death brought justice to the Father.  It brought mercy to us sinners.  It was a most striking, humble love.  Roman historians, in speaking about Christians, wrote of the most strange and radical thing that they noticed about them:  “See how they love one another?”

The Gospel today was again on Matthew, chapter 5 (v38):  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil.”

Do not resist?  Can there be a more radical response to evil, a more striking one?  Dan Burke’s response to evil, in his youth, was to run away and contemplate suicide, but he learned a better response was as shown in Jesus’ washing of feet: a radical love, in response to hate.

“But what about justice?” the priest said after reading this Gospel this morning.  “What must be sought,” he explained, “is merciful justice.  We must pray for merciful justice in this world.  We must live with merciful justice.  Jesus died, for us, in merciful justice.”

That is how we must love, and evangelize, and hope to change this world.

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The hymn sung at the consecration today was:  I have decided to follow Jesus.

… What a radical thing to say.