Saturday, December 29, 2012

Change, Pain, and Love

We commemorate many of the happy events in our lives: anniversaries of this or that.  What we often forget, however, is the time that went before the happy event – the pain that often helped bring it about.  The recently celebrated Christmas birth of Jesus is an example.  We recall the holy scene, the shepherds and magi visits, but we forget the pains of birth that Mary suffered --- or at least the guys do, but her pains were there.  Mary knew that accepting the angel’s challenge to bear the Son of God was to expect pain.  And through her pains, her life would change, as would that of the world.  A great blessing came to the world, but later would come even more pain, a crucifixion and death, before yet more change.
Change is moving forward in life, from something familiar and comfortable, to something … else.  Moving from the baby years to the toddler years is a radical change in freedom and self-image, but it comes with the pains of limitation; we learn we can’t do all we want, or we shouldn’t.  The teen years are even more growth, and worse pains --- for parents AND teens.  All growth, physically or spiritually, comes with pain.  But there is a key point to note here:  change and pain DO go together, but if change is to be a good thing, the pain comes first.
Pain comes first, but so many of us seek only joyful changes, whether spiritual growth --- even heaven, or physical growth, such as a new life, a new spouse, or a new job.  Be aware and do not forget this important point about all life’s growth:  if it is REAL growth, you will have pain first.
There are all sorts of pain.  There is the pain of “my relative doesn’t love me.”  There is the pain of “my husband doesn’t understand me.”  There is the pain of “why can’t I understand this; why is this happening?”  There is the pain of “why doesn’t anyone love me.”  And there are the physical pains: aches, bruises, broken bones, and cancer.  And there are the pains of loving someone: the baby who won’t stop crying, the teenager who can’t speak without whining, the spouse who is suffering and needs constant attention --- CONSTANT attention, and it seems you have no time to yourself.  (Today my pain was a mother who wouldn’t go to bed before midnight, and then was hollering at 3AM “Where’s my coffee?  I want some coffee.  Etc. etc. etc. etc.”)
Pains are a part of life, some deep physical, and some deep emotional.  “With pain comes growth,” but maybe I should have qualified that: “perhaps” there comes growth.  I am sure that a baby who cries when it is hungry or needs attention does in fact grow --- it is learning how to get attention, yes, but it is also learning what love does.  And learning to love is one of the most important growth changes we ever make in our life.  An adult, however, who should act the same as that baby, crying when it needs attention, that adult does not necessarily grow.  Some adults have learned about love in a distorted way:  they think love of themselves most important, and they never get beyond that point.  But if we’ve failed to learn how to GIVE love, then we’ve failed to learn how to live life as it was meant to be. 
When I described, above, the sorts of pain there are, the examples had one thing common in their description:  they were looking for someone else to do something for US to end our pain.  Like the baby crying, the pain was all about us.  Even if we (or I) were caring for a loved one who was in pain, our reaction might be what a “pain” this was for US to do this caring.  We understand pain all too well; it is all too focused in our mind, but only on what it does to us.  This “Why me, God?” pain is one which does not precede change, nor growth.  And if pain can ever be eternal, this is the one pain which can be, if we let it.  The world and our life were created for us – all of us together, not only for us individually. 
We either need to accept the pain and look forward to the changes which will be coming as a result of it, like the athlete who constantly runs or lifts weights, even in pain, to change his body into a stronger one, or we need to accept the pain as one dying: it is unavoidable and we have faith that there is something better coming, even if we can’t understand it.  Faith is an important part of bearing pain --- and achieving the good results from the pain.  Catholics accept that pain is a participation in the cross of Christ; we suffer so that someone else, in God’s grace, might not have to.  Perhaps the person we accept the pain for does not possess the strength of will we do --- they can’t get beyond being adult babies, or perhaps the person we accept pain for is a sinner who deserves hell.   We may not be able to keep him from hell, but our suffering for him is like Christ’s, in part it is just to console our Father in heaven, and to show Him how much we love Him.
One of the most important ways we grow spiritually because of pain is when we learn to love our Father, despite the pain, because we know He never fails to love us.  Even if He permits pains to happen to us, it must be for a good reason, we believe, that somehow we might grow.  When we come to the point that we can accept pain, even if we don’t know why it is happening, we have grown mightily in faith, and learned the lesson of Christ.  He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.  He showed us how pain was part of His way, pain revealed His truth, and pain was part of all life, His and ours.      
I’ve read many conversion stories of great spiritual leaders, men and women, who found the Truth of the Catholic Church.  Often they describe their conversion as “coming home.”  For them, the Church gave a great comfort, but in all of their stories there was pain first.  Sometimes it involved a confused or angry family which couldn’t accept their conversion; the family could not see what they saw.  For some converts, the pain was in the change from the familiar:  at first it seemed like they were leaving something very comfortable, unsure they were going to a better place.  And for very many there was the challenge of faith:  can I accept some things about this new Church that I don’t understand --- yet.  Whether it was Catholic beliefs about Mary or the pope or confession or even some trivial way something is done, almost all converts at some time reached a sticking point that hurt to accept:  “I accept that this new faith is good --- except that thing.  I can’t accept the teaching about ‘that thing.’”  The ones who converted did so with pain:  “I don’t believe that thing is true, but for now, I will ignore my unbelief, accepting what I do not understand in faith.”  (Surprised By The Truth, by Patrick Madrid, has some wonderful conversion stories.)
Some people never do become converts because they can’t accept pain in faith:  “No, I can never believe that point.”  They must know and understand every doctrine of the faith before they would convert.  They won’t accept the pain of not knowing everything.  They won’t accept that faith IS a mystery.  Not accepting the pain, they don’t accept the spiritual growth that comes with it.
Some Catholics grow away from their faith in the same way.  A point arises that they feel uncomfortable with, and they leave.  The point they don’t agree with causes them pain, in one way or another.  Often the pain is, at its heart, their ego:  I want to understand; I NEED to understand.  “The culture and my friends disagree with my Church’s teachings and I can’t answer their questions to their satisfaction, or mine.”
They forget that they did not design the Catholic Church, God did.  That’s a key point of faith.  Any understanding of why things are as they are must come from God’s viewpoint, not theirs.  He revealed, through Jesus and the prophets and saints much about why He did things, but we’ll never fully understand the mind of God in this life.  But what we can do --- but so often don’t --- is try to see things through His eyes.
“I don’t understand why this doctrine exists, or why that action is called a sin.”  It is proper for us to ask ourselves questions about our faith, for faith and reason do go together, but then we must also ask: “I wonder why God thinks this is so.”  Very often we can find answers (if we search) of why He set things as He did; the catechism explains things well.  Often, however, it is a bigger picture thing than just “what we want.”  Some things are set in all of creation; they were made that way so the beautiful painting of creation blends together, from God’s view.  If we wish to change the pattern or color of just our little corner of creation, to suit what we want or what we understand, the whole picture may suffer.  Some things, especially those which occur over long periods of time, were designed by God in ways we will never understand in this life.  We need to accept them though, as taught by the Church, in faith.
Sometimes we can look back and see where God let painful things happen, like the Jews in slavery for 400 years, so that a great good might come forth.  After the pain, the change was a blessing, but without the pain the Jews might never have accepted the blessing, and surely along the way they could never have imagined the great plans God had for them.  More recently, I think the Church’s teaching on the value of life and contraception may be an example of how we sought change and good things for ourselves, without pain.
Long taught as a sin against God, many men became confused (from their viewpoint) about the prohibition against contraception, and so in the 1930’s change came to many churches, the churches in effect saying: “We were wrong; it really isn’t a sin.  We don’t understand why ‘the Catholic Church’ said it was.”  Many churches changed (but the Catholic Church didn’t).  They thought life (and perhaps their relationship with God?) would be better “if there weren’t so many rules,” if there weren’t so many pains to go through before heaven.  “God loves us and doesn’t want us to have pain.” 
Doesn’t want?  Yes, but permits? Yes, also.
Popes have explained more vehemently since then that contraception does not fit with God’s plan of creation, and to embrace it would distort His picture, His plan of creation --- and we might expect to see evidence of this over time.  Now, many years later, we can see much of what the popes had predicted:  from contraception (for man’s convenience and pleasure, not God’s) came a decline in the value of children (and women), from which came abortion, from which came tests in order to abort man’s definition of “less than perfect” children, from which came euthanasia for less than perfect adults, all of which are flowing into a greater stream of thinking: “what I want matters foremost, not God.  My will be done, not His.” 
With life no longer sacred, then the fall of the sanctity and purpose of marriage (focused on life) almost seems natural, from marriage being of a man and a woman, to ANY person I want, and then in the future likely to any PEOPLE I want, and then perhaps even to animals.  “I define the value and use of life, MY LIFE, not God,” seems to be the growing claim of many people.
I want pleasure and happiness now --- without any pain. 
But this is not the picture of creation God made.  Avoiding pain, seeking pleasure without it, is a major rejection of God’s plan.  He could have just PUT us in heaven if we were not meant to have any pain.  Athletes summarize how much they value pain: “No pain; no gain.”
So many people have forgotten we are all in a race, like athletes, to heaven.  They think heaven can either be had now, here on earth, or be literally handed to us later “because we want it.”  And should God tell them at the end of their lives that they were mistaken in their choices for happiness on earth above all else, I don’t believe that their response to God of “Gee, I didn’t know that” will be an acceptable answer.  God Himself became man and chose pain, at all costs.  I don’t think He will be happy with our avoiding it at all costs.
These eight days after Christmas, in the Church we celebrate what is called the Octave of Christmas, and the feast days of many of the first martyrs, starting with St. Stephen’s feast day on December 26.  Some say St. Stephen got his revenge on Saul, who helped stone him, because as he lay dying Stephen prayed to God for Saul’s forgiveness.  Eventually, after he was thrown off a horse and blinded (pain), Saul did change. 
Jesus came to bring life, eternal life, through His chosen pains.  These days of The Octave of Christmas serve to remind us:  before eternal happiness, there will be pain.  And this is a part of the life He created, and it was good.
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“One of the most important things in the spiritual life is to understand well the close relationship between love and sacrifice.  … Frequently one has an inexact concept of love.  It (the soul) does not understand that in this life, to love is to suffer, that on this earth, the eternal symbol of love is the cross of Christ…. When we come to understand that perfection consists in love, and that this love is attained, conserved, and consummated only by sacrifice, then we have found the path of sanctity.
There is one difference between the heaven of time and the heaven of eternity.  No one will suffer in the latter.  Here, suffering abounds.  Is the value of suffering understood?  Is its excellence esteemed?  Is its beauty known?  The only thing that the angels would envy us, if they were capable of envy, would be suffering.  God fell in love with this precious pearl hidden among life’s miseries.  He loved it, came and died from it.  The angels cannot say to God: ‘I love you even to sacrifice, even to death.’  Only human beings can taste the delicacy of that phrase.”
        --- Secrets of the Spirit, by Luis Martinez pp 19-22         

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Presents Given --- And Received

Christmas Day really started the week before, because planning was required.  The caregiver who comes twice a week to bathe mom agreed she would come Christmas Eve night and then Christmas night to stay with mom, while I went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and did my usual midnight adoration hour on Tuesday.  I paid her in advance last Friday so she could do any last minute shopping --- or in her case, since I know money is tight for her, shopping. 
She arrived Christmas Eve at 10, so I could go home, change and get to church to beat the rush.  My early arrival gave me time before mass to read the Christmas readings and, as I sat in the little adoration chapel behind the altar, listen to the choir singing carols.  It was heavenly.  Mass, as expected was very crowded, and I had the rare treat of listening to one of Fr. John Riccardo’s homilies.  He is a blessing for his parish, our Church, and me personally.  I see and listen to him often during the year, still, I know what a Christmas blessing he is, as is my knowing him.  After mass a friend I haven’t seen in months stopped me on the way out.  “The book you gave us is wonderful,” he said.  “Wonderful!” I replied.  “You mean you opened your presents before Christmas Day!!  Next year: Coal!!” I scolded him, and we laughed. 
A friendship not thought of often, or not often enough: another Christmas blessing.
At home, a glass of wine, a piece of chocolate or two ( --- What?  You know red wine and chocolate go together, don’t you?  And besides, it’s Christmas!), and sitting on the couch to watch the end of Miracle on 34th Street on television.  “There is one; there is one!”  A fitting end to the day.
Christmas morning at home I didn’t set the alarm, and amazingly slept until after 8AM.  That was heavenly too.  A quick morning routine, picking up the packaged presents delivered by the front door and the gift “hidden” on the back deck under the bench, and the mail which contained some papers and magazines I would enjoy this week, and then I was off to the 7-11 store down the road for coffee.  Ron, the store owner, was staying open Christmas Day, managing the store while he gave his employees the day off.  I know things are very tight for Ron, and I know how he cares for his daughter in college now, and his aged parents who have problems I am only too well aware of.  The store was closed, though, when I arrived; up through the night Ron was napping for an hour.  Standing there a moment looking at the “Closed” sign, trying to decide if I should go home and make a pot of coffee, Sam arrived on the scene.  I often see him there in the early morning hours on my way to mass each day; Sam lives with and cares for his elderly parents.  His morning walk and coffee are often the highlight of his day.
“Knock on the door,” Sam said.  “Ron’s in there; let’s wake him up.”  But we didn’t have to, because shortly he came, yawning, to the door and opened it.  “Merry Christmas,” was said in unison.  The coffee was already made, and as we got our cups, out of the blue Sam mentioned that his dad was in the hospital.  “He fell two days ago and bruised himself; and they wanted to do some tests.  Then, in the hospital, he fell out of bed, and they did some more tests.  He has Alzheimer’s,” Sam quietly said. 
I spoke a bit of my knowledge of the disease, gained from my reading, from others in my monthly caregiver’s support group meeting, and from Maryellen, who cares for her husband with Alzheimer’s, and has so beautifully written of how she supports him, in love.  I told Sam I will print out all my references and notes (and will buy him a book or two from Amazon) and will get them to him one day next week.  “And Sam,” I said.  “You need to tell your siblings how things really are, and get some support for yourself.  As I found in the support group and through even the internet, you are not alone in your trials.”
The discussion then drifted to Christmas dinner, and Sam said he’d find something in the freezer for himself; “mom and dad have things they like, it will be no problem finding something for them.”  I told him I was having Cornish hen, and how easy it was to prepare --- any idiot could do it in an hour.  “Even you,” I said. “But wait, the package I bought has two hens in it; I’ll run home and get you one.” 
At home, my mind revved on the coffee I’d had.  I got the Cornish hen for Sam, and then also got a package of my chili from the freezer and another of my spaghetti sauce.  And in case he lacked the supporting cast, I threw in some Lowry’s Seasoning Salt for the hen, and a package of angel hair pasta for the sauce.  Heading out the door, I paused.  I remembered how boastful Ron was of my chili, and so I got him a frozen container also, and I pulled out one of the Christmas-gift books which had been in the bag on the deck; I’d not only read the book, Amazing Nearness (on the Eucharist), I had given away seven copies of the book to friends this Christmas (it was good!) --- so I took the book and threw it in the bag with the rest of the stuff.  I know Ron’s a Catholic and always asks me to pray for him, but “I don’t get to church too much” --- and I knew he certainly wasn’t going to mass this Christmas Day.  But perhaps another day.  Ron said the chili would be his Christmas dinner, there at the store.
They both appreciated the presents, and, I think, being remembered --- by some guy in the 7-11 store.
By 10AM I was back at mom’s; she was still sleeping, and the caregiver and I exchanged “Merry Christmas” wishes, as I told her to be careful driving home.  It had snowed Christmas Eve, and the roads were very slippery in places.  But outside, the white and the quiet were beautiful.
When mom finally woke at eleven, I gave her breakfast and coffee, and she settled in to watch her favorite television shows --- AMC was running cowboy movies all day Christmas Day.  Looking at the TV Guide for the TCM channel, I saw Going My Way, The Miracle of Fatima, The Nun’s Story, The Song of Bernadette, and the King of Kings were playing at the same time.  Oh well, perhaps mom would take a nap and I would catch a glimpse of those wonderful oldies.  But no matter, I had brought my CD player and a pile of Christmas CDs which I had not listened to in years.  Another internet friend had reminded me of the lovely peace that Christmas music brings, and since mom can’t hear anymore, while she watched cowboys shooting the Indians (and each other) I listened to great voices, like Nat King Cole. 
I filled the bird feeder hanging from the front room window with seed; the birds got a Christmas present too.  And a short while later I saw mom excitedly point to the window:  “Look at all the birds.  There’s sure a mess of them.”  And I watched for a while also, looking at the flock patiently waiting on the hedge at the base of the window, pecking at the snow covering for a quick drink.  There’s blessings here, too.

After breakfast, I gave mom her presents from under the little artificial tree.  I gave her six new gowns which I had a seamstress make, patterned on her favorite one.  Naturally, many were in her color, purple, and she loved them all.  She looked at most of the other gifts, smiling at some, saying “that’s nice” at others, and confused at some, like the CDs I gave her of animal movies (and of the picture -- above -- she thought was her grandchild, but was her great-grandchild).  But I know she will appreciate them all.  And at dinner time we shared a Christmas wafer.  She didn’t remember what it was, but it was an old tradition in our family, to take the Christmas wafers and share a piece with each member of the family, as we wished one another blessings and thanked each other for being family.  Mom didn’t understand when I gave her a piece, but the pieces I sent to each of her granddaughters were also shared this day, with us, and with their families.  The tradition continues.
My Christmas Day was largely spent alone with mom, yet look at how many other people were part of the day.  Look at how many people we were able to give presents to --- some of who are enjoying the present of these pictures of mom right now --- and having pleasant memories.  And look at how many people gave presents to us, from close friends to ones far away, and ones from the internet who we never have even met face to face.  All these things were blessings.
How many blessings happen in your day which you don’t even notice; opportunities for you to receive a blessing --- or to give one?  For many of us, our days are filled with trials and frustrations, perhaps even anger and pain.  But always, there are people around us, people God has put there for us, who are His blessing --- if we will just look at them and accept the little they offer.  A gift – perhaps, but more often a smile, a “good morning,” or even a “Merry Christmas.”  These are God’s gifts to us, the blessings He brings to make our day better, and to tell us that He loves us.  Little things --- not great, huge miracles; love comes in small packages.  And it is given that way also.  Listening to Christmas carols, mass and a heart-warming homily, meeting friends --- some close and some virtual strangers, sharing the knowledge I had that some others desperately needed, some chili out of the freezer, a book I’d already read, some spaghetti nearing its expiration date, and some simple dresses that most women wouldn’t consider wearing, and a flock of ordinary blackbirds.  And a picture of an old grandma. 
These are the gifts that matter; these are Christmas blessings. 
But they come every day, if we let them, if we are open to God in our life, not in prayers answered or great miracles, but in the little things, the things that Someone who loves you does.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

And Peace Came

It was Joyful
It was Luminous
It was Sorrowful
And in the end,
It was Glorious
Some saw it
Some heard it
Some touched it
Some smelled it in the air
And some tasted it --- and still do
Some spoke confidently of how it once was
Some proclaimed loudly its re-coming
And some touched the hem of its garment.
But they didn’t begin to comprehend,
What was, and is, and ever more will be.
Some today try to understand it
Some think they do, but they’re confused.
And sadly, some don’t even try.
For there are no words
There is no sense
And for all man’s self-proclaimed wisdom,
There is no understanding.
There is nothing a human can choose to do.
It is all a gift.
Being Itself came
And our own being either accepts the Peace given it
Or it doesn’t exist at all --- and never will.
Peace …

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I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  (Mt 10:34)  Yet He is proclaimed to be the Prince of Peace.  He is the peace that comes to those who open themselves every day more and more to His will.  My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. (Jn 14:27) 
These things --- a decent home, a pleasant neighborhood, tranquil family relationships --- are all good.  They remain blessings as long as they do not become our final goal, our ultimate happiness.  Then they would become lies because they cannot last.  They will all come to an end.  If we let Him, the Prince of Peace will teach us to seek in His will the peace that the world can neither give nor take away.
Lord, give me Your peace.  Give me the grace to place in Your hands all the good things I have in life, even my loved ones.  They are, after all, Your gifts.  And prepare me for that one great gift which cannot be taken away --- Your Peace.  May we love one another in Your Peace, never be separated again, because Your Peace is our everlasting life.  Amen. 
    ---- Behold He Comes, Meditations on the Incarnation, pp 49-50, by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.