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         

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