Monday, October 28, 2013

What Is Heaven?

On the way to Sunday mass, I recalled some moments when I had opportunities to do for others, but chose to do for myself first.  Trivial, I mused.  God will understand my weaknesses.  Then, entering the church the peripheral vision of my right eye caught sight of a light going on --- the small Confessional Room had lit up.  And the one person sitting outside it got up, and went inside.  And I stood there, thinking for a moment of the coincidence with my earlier thoughts, and then I sat down, next in line.  Trivial sin, I had thought earlier --- but just how well do I REALLY know the mind of God, and what HE deems important, or trivial. 
It is so easy for us to put our judgments of life and things important first, assuming we know best.  I thought that way on Sunday morning --- until the light went on.
After confession, I went over and lit a candle next to the statue of Mary, as I like to do each Sunday.  It’s a reminder to me, and her, of a lot of things:  how little I am, how alone (mine is usually the first candle lit on a Sunday morn), and how much I need prayers for me.  And so I ask her, mother, to pray for me.  And a little later as I sat in the nearby pew, a mother and her little son came over to the same statue.  She picked up a stick from the small sandbox, and using my candle lit it, as her son excitedly pointed to another as being the one he wanted her to light.  And I was reminded of one other thing by my candle:  I am but a small light in this world, yet I am there to light others.  With our life, we burn, we dwindle down, yet even as we do, we spread light and warmth.  That’s just what candles do.
Enkindle in my heart, the fire of Your love.  Send forth Your spirit, and You shall renew the face of the earth.
My recent thoughts and meditations have considered who I am, and what I am to do with my life.  This morning I read an interesting article on the back page of the Wall Street Journal; it was a retiree noting how they felt useless in their retirement, and how their work had defined so much of their value.  I certainly understand that.  But what I also understand, intellectually and spiritually, is that man is not created for work alone, or the earthly benefits that work may bring.  Man is meant for eternal life; it is what Jesus came here to make possible for us ---- possible, but not inevitable.  For we have a role in making it happen.  St. Augustine said that we are restless until we rest in Thee.  He was not speaking of heaven, but of earthly life.  One thing this very wise man discovered, after quite a while of not even looking, was that he WAS restless, until he turned his eyes and life toward God.  Interestingly, he first had to turn them away from himself, from the mirror which focused only on himself. 
Then he began to find heaven.
We pray in the Our Father that Thy kingdom come.  We are not praying, there, that we die and go to heaven.  No, we are praying that God’s kingdom come to earth.  Heaven, eternal life with God, begins here on earth.  In my youth I always thought of heaven as “somewhere else.”  Oh, I never really thought of it as a place with people sitting around on clouds, but I did think of it as “another place.”  Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard … so I thought it as being kind of a strange place compared to earth.  I thought in terms of black and white, totally different things.  I thought of dying as leaving all the familiar things of earth and waking up to a totally strange place:  “Where am I?”  That was my concept of this place we could not conceive of. 
And I was wrong.
It’s taken many years, many books, and much grace for me to grow closer to the truth of heaven.  That book I referenced last time, which I am still reading, does a very good job of explaining things.  Heaven, eternal life with God, begins here on earth.  Our life is a continuum, not a radically changing thing, as from black to white.  We grow physically during our life, and we were made to grow spiritually also.  And Jesus’ coming to earth help orient the path of our spiritual growth.  He came to earth, never to leave.  Know that I am with you always, even to the end of time.  Heaven isn’t entering some strange place where we are confused, rather it is part of the continuum of our life. 
I know; I know.  Some of you are saying right now: “Well if my life is heaven, I want no part of it.”  I’m sure Augustine said that at one point also --- I know I did.  And you will NOT understand what I am saying right now, just by reading these words.  Better if you would read Augustine’s words in his book Confessions, he went through more pain and mental torture that you or I ever will.  And, he probably went through more physical pleasures than you or I will either.  In man’s judgments, Augustine had it made; he had all the pleasures and prestige life could offer --- yet in his mind he suffered.  You can understand that, I am sure.  We read about it all the time, the Hollywood multi-zillionaire who dies of a drug overdose or suicide.  The things of this earth don’t really satisfy; you can never have enough to satisfy that longing, that yearning within you.  That ache that says: “Is this all there is?”  Jesus came to answer that question, and say: “No, there is much more, starting with Me.  I am the Way, the Truth, and THE LIFE.”
Augustine eventually found the path, so did I.  It’s not straight-forward, and it’s not simple.  It begins with human life, our life.  But the path, the way we should grow, began with Jesus.  I am the Vine, and you are the branches.  We grow throughout our life, and bear fruit.  And must be pruned sometimes.  And as we branch off, we grow, and others branch off from us, getting life (and light) from us.  And as we grow, we move forward toward heaven, even as we are attached to a part of heaven, the Vine, Jesus, here on earth, giving us nourishment.  And growing forward, we cannot go back.
I spoke to a friend recently.  She was concerned about past mistakes of her life, and of a deep loss with the death of her mother.  She ached, and living in the pleasures of her memories, while realizing they were past, regretted she didn’t relish them more in the past, even while not appreciating there are even more in the future.  It’s not hard for us to wonder, and perhaps regret, over “what might have been.”  But all those events of our life, those things which have changed, are in our past.  They are branches sprouted off the vine, and now we grow in different directions, gaining nourishment from our past --- even the bad times --- so that we can grow in the future.  If we focus on the past too much, especially that of others who were part of our lives, then we may not reach OUR futures, the ones meant for us, where WE are growing towards.  A who mother died, like even mine, is a branch which served its purpose and falls to the ground.  But I know that she has not disappeared forever, but only has changed in appearance.  She had become part of the soil, now nourishing and becoming part of the root of the Vine.  She is in heaven.  Looking back, I will not see her any more, no matter how much my searching, or regret.  But looking forward, growing towards heaven myself, I WILL see her again, not in the past but in the future, when I become part of the root of that Vine also.  And I eagerly look forward to it.
We are, and are meant to be part of the Body of Christ, part of His living Church, wherein He is with us, always.  At mass we pray: I confess, I believe, and then we pray OUR Father, … Thy kingdom come.  This part of the Catholic mass where we pray, together, and receive Jesus in the Eucharist, together, is the visible sign He gave us: I will be with you always.  The people of the Church, together, are where He is, part of His kingdom, even today.  He told His apostles, What I say, you say, and what you say, I say.  They speak for Him, as do their successor bishops in the Church.  The Church is always growing, but anchored to the Vine, not changing at its root.  And we, fulfilling our role in the Church, the Body of Christ, help others to be who they should be, to help them grow.  That should be the focus of our lives, others, not ourselves and our worries and our earthly needs.  Our growth is not something we can will, but accept.  And we cannot nourish ourselves; it comes from others. 
On Sunday morning I read the hymn at the start of the Morning Prayer.  It said many words which my heart was feeling:
Sing with all the sons of glory,
Sing the resurrection song!
Death and sorrow, earth’s dark story,
To the former days belong
O what glory, far exceeding
All that eye has yet perceived!
Holiest hearts for ages pleading,
Never that full joy conceived.
Life eternal! Heaven rejoices:
Jesus lives who once was dead;
Join, O man, the deathless voices;
Child of God, lift us thy head!
O to enter that bright portal,
See that glowing firmament,
Know with thee, O God immortal,
“Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent!”
And then I read the words I had written in the margin of the prayer book next to that hymn:  “I don’t know what it is; how can I want it so much?”  It is a mystery.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: Why The Church?

I had previously noted there were three different yet unifying things which occurred to me this past week.  This is the third (see my posts:  Does God Love Me and The Rich Man’s Reward, for the first two.)
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Msgr. Luigi Guissani, professor emeritus at the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, is the founder of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, which flourishes in Italy and 60 other countries.  A number of his books were recently translated into English.  One is a series titled:  Is It Possible to Live This Way, with books about Faith, Hope, and Charity.  A second series is on religious faith, with books titled: The Religious Sense, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, and Why the Church. 
None of these books are easily summarized.  Were I to attempt my typical book review, I’d generalize the topic and point to some of the more striking words which touched my heart, but these books are truly different.  Msgr. Guissani writes his books as a teacher, and indeed some of his words are talks he had with students on the nature of faith and its existence in the very being of their life.  In some ways, his words remind me of the encyclicals of Blessed JPII; he comes at the topic of discussion from many angles, intending to remove all doubts and answer all questions.  Unlike JPII’s words, however, I rarely found myself skipping ahead over Guissani’s, thinking “Okay, I got that.  Let’s move on.”  No, Msgr. Guissani discusses alternate views or questions not to dismiss them, but rather to point out why they are good questions, containing some germ of truth, and are in fact important questions to raise.  He seems to say to those who would question the Christian faith that: “Yes, you are spot on in your thoughts.  That is so true, ---- but …”
To the youth, to the unbeliever, to the skeptic, he gives some measure of value, of inclusion in OUR search for the truth.  And, in truth, that is the heart of the Christian experience and the Catholic Church in particular.  And so in reading his works you come along on the journey, together with him.  And you grow in faith and understanding.  I view Msgr. Guissani as one of the great teachers of our faith in this age, similar to my feelings about Fr. Jacques Philippe --- who is giving a retreat to the women of my parish next month.  All their books are worth reading, and reading again.  They get to the heart of the faith.  And now I shall summarize just one section from “Why The Church,” for in this past week it touched the heart of MY faith.
The second chapter of the books is titled:  “The First Premise: How to Attain Certainty About the Fact of Christianity Today.”  Guissani asks: How can I come to know the truth about Christ?  In response he notes that “Three cultural attitudes give rise to different answers to this question: one view is rational --- it sees Jesus as a fact of the past; the other judges the presence of Jesus through feelings, through enlightenment; while the third one is the Orthodox-Catholic view.”
Guissani explains that the rationalistic attitude gathers facts and analyzes them --- much as I approach business problems.  Unfortunately, “what emerges are hundreds of interpretations.”  The rationalistic attitude “implies projecting dimensions onto reality, and whatever goes beyond these measures does not exist by an a priori definition.”  Rationally, miracles cannot exist, based on my knowledge of things and events.  This is the problem with rational thinking when applied to spiritual matters; it is limited by me and my experiences.  Guissani takes pains to point out, however, that the truth of an object exists in ITS being, not OURS.  It may be our objective to discover that truth, but rational assumptions may limit what we can discover.  “Rationalism denies the possible existence of something whose nature goes beyond the bounds of the limited horizons man can reach … the rationalistic attitude diminishes the content of the Christian message even before taking it into consideration.”  The Christian message is that God made Himself present: Emmanuel – God is Present.  The rational hypothesis ASSUMES that is impossible.
You cannot understand God with this manner of thinking or cultural background.
The second attitude toward understanding Christ accepts the underlying definition of God:  with God everything is possible.  Therefore man’s rational experiences do not limit understanding, but how can man become certain of God’s presence?  The Protestant attitude is that this is possible through an inner experience, a direct relationship with the Spirit of God.  This was the experience of the prophets; they heard a message others did not.  This attitude of “feeling” Jesus is easy to comprehend, even for Catholics, however it makes us the judge of Christ’s presence.  In both the rationalistic and experience/feeling understanding of God there is subjectivism.  “Protestant subjectivism provokes two questions.  First, how can one determine whether what one “feels” is the result of the Spirit’s influence or the idealization of one’s own thoughts?  If every man were his own prophet, how could a distinction be drawn between an enlightenment by the Spirit and the codification of one’s own concept, … the expression of a personal opinion?”  And this brings up the second question:  Would the Spirit choose such a method of communication which heightens confusion?  “What (Jesus) said changed people within, but they were words that came from without.  This is to say, the Christian message is a wholly human fact according to all the factors of human reality, factors interior and exterior, subjective and objective.  The Protestant attitude annuls this wholeness, reducing the Christian experience to merely interior experience and, assumes an a priori position to which it has no right.”  Guissani seems to explain that the Protestant explanation of Christ steps up from the rationalistic understanding because the Protestant explanation accepts that God’s presence on earth is possible, but it prioritizes each person’s experience to understand Him.  God is who each person understands Him to be; the true essence of His Being may be understood differently in each person.  Guissani says that this isn’t really understanding Him; it’s understanding Him merely as much as we can or want to.  We restrict God’s ability to reveal Himself to us.
The third attitude, the Orthodox-Catholic view, “is consistent with the structure of the Christian event as it presented in history.”  It accepts that the original acceptance of Jesus was an encounter which moved the heart of believers, but Guissani asks how can we know this encounter 2000 years later?  “Jesus told (His disciples):  Anyone who listens to you listens to me.” (Luke 10:16)  “The so-named Orthodox-Catholic approach shows us this method for reaching Jesus Christ even today. This method is the chance encounter with a reality comprised of those who believe in Him.  For the presence of Christ in history visibly abides in the unity of believers, which is the encounterable form of His presence.  Historically speaking, this reality is called church, sociologically the people of God, and ontologically, in the profound sense of the word, the mysterious Body of Christ.  As noted in First Corinthians 10:17, “Though there are many of us we form a single body.”  This is the teaching of the parable of the vine and the branches.  This is “a God made presence, who even after 70, 100, or 2,000 years reaches you through a reality that you can see, touch, and feel.  This is the company of believers in Him.” 
I like this quote which Guissani cited from Karl Adam:  “We Catholics acknowledge readily, without any shame, nay with pride, that Catholicism cannot be identified simply and wholly with primitive Christianity, nor even with the Gospel of Christ, in the same way that the great oak cannot be identified with the tiny acorn.  There is no mechanical identity, but an organic identity … and the continual emergence of new forms.  The Gospel of Christ would have been no living Gospel, and the seed which he scattered no living seed, if it had remained ever the tiny seed of A.D. 33, and had not struck root, and had not assimilated foreign matter, and had not by the help of this foreign matter grown up into a tree, so that the birds of the air dwell in its branches.”
Guissani presented an analogy which I liked.  He told the story of a Japanese girl and an American boy who meet, fall in love, and over time learn and accept each other’s unique cultural background.  The son’s parents, reading a letter from the girl who is back home in Japan thinks something is wrong with her.  “Patiently, the son tries to explain what his mother finds so disconcerting is the fruit of a different logic, an imaginative structure distinct from what we Westerners are accustomed.  However, his mother does not really understand him.”  Guissani points out that the mother’s literal reading of the letter appears very objective, “however, from the perspective of understanding the contents of the letter the son’s is evidently much more objective because he ‘was able to grasp her mode of expression.’”  Guissani then asks:”But how can one come to have the experience which dictates the words?  To attain this, one needs an encounter, something present.  One needs to meet that experience today,” even as the boy met the girl. 
This is the Orthodox-Catholic view of faith.  Christ isn’t history; He isn’t a personal feeling alone; He is lived in the Church, in the Body of Christ, a living and an understanding of each other.  This communion of believers explains the importance of the mass, the re-living of Christ’s life now, today, together.  Emmanuel --- God is with us.
I found this explanation by Guissani of the ways we strive to believe in Jesus as God to be most compelling, and it related to my life very much, and to my thoughts this past week.  I wrote earlier of how some do not understand my feelings about life, of not prioritizing myself enough.  In Guissani’s view, I might be said to be living the Orthodox-Catholic message, or at least to some degree.  I am choosing to dwell in the Body of Christ, choosing its well-being over mine, accepting my pains as small things in the full body, and perhaps even as necessary for its health.
This definition of the Church as a unity lived and proclaimed to each other is not understood by many in America today, and is even rejected by some:  “No!  Your beliefs are yours alone, not to be lived in public.  No!  There are laws saying you may not live your life as the Body of Christ, but rather must live it as part of the body WE proclaim, the body of justice and equality in OUR eyes.  You will not speak of your God in public!”  And so living our faith and helping one another with schools or hospitals or charities --- while helping ALL others, even non-Catholics --- is not permissible.  “You may not live your faith in public; WE will decide what you do in public.”  And so the Affordable Care Act and other laws require nuns to pay for contraceptive means, and Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, and Catholic photographers to celebrate “gay” weddings, and a man driving across a desert in a Western state sees a cross on a hill and sues, saying: “This offends me,” and a judge considers. 
And I can almost hear the devil cackling, waiting for the first nun to take advantage of the temptation of “free contraceptives.”  “See,” he will scream.  “They really don’t want what the Church teaches.”  And it will be headlines, everywhere.
Such is the attitude in the United States today.
I guess I feel compelled to document here one other thing I read this week, which influenced my meditations.  It was from the daily Readings of the Office, which included the story of Esther.  Esther was a Jewish maiden who was made queen --- until the day the king’s chancellor declared that all Jews must die, for daring to live their faith in public ---- this was against the law there, also.  And so Esther prayed to God, in words we perhaps should be praying today: 
“My Lord, our King, you alone are God.  Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, for I am taking my life in my hand…. We have sinned in your sight, and you have delivered us into the hands of our enemies, because we worshipped their gods.  You are just, O Lord. But now they … have undertaken to do away with the decree you have pronounced, and to destroy your heritage; to close the mouths of those who praise you, … to open the mouths of the heather to acclaim their false gods, and to extol an earthly king forever.”
“Manifest yourself in the time of our distress and give me courage.  Save us by your power, and help me, who am alone and have no one but you, O Lord. … O God, more powerful than all, hear the voice of those in despair.  Save us from the power of the wicked, and deliver me from my fear.”
So what are we to do, as Christianity in public is being outlawed in America.  First, I believe, we should follow the prayers of Esther, humbly admitting our faults and begging God’s mercy.  And then, as Esther, be prepared to die.  It was Jesus who showed us the example, of the one dying for the all, even if the one were God.  Do we consider ourselves more important?         

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Last Teardrop of Life

I stood at my mother’s side late in the evening of the last night of her life --- as we know it.  Her breath had quieted, the room became silent, not a sound, not a smell, not a movement.  No flickering of light.  Time itself seemed to have stood still.  While her eyes had been firmly closed all that day, now, bending near, I saw they were open in narrow slits, looking out one last time --- at me.  And a single tear welled up in her eye.  And then, even as we were separated at my birth, now we were joined again, and a tear welled in my eye also.
What did mom see, in her last moment?  No time for a thought to form or be pondered; what did she feel?  Certainly in the days leading up to her death she had felt some pain, or at least discomfort.  Dying is not an easy thing.  But in those final hours, in that final moment, the senses of her body no longer sent impulses to her brain, telling it to do something.  The brain was done doing things for the body; the senses didn’t matter.  If ever the brain and the soul of the body were in perfect awareness of each other, surely it was at that moment.  What did mom’s very being see and feel?
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They say it takes two weeks for your body to really begin a vacation, divorcing itself from the thoughts and worries and feelings of your everyday life, as it goes on every day ---- and on, and on, and on.  Surely to some degree our life, or at least our body, grows into some kind of automatic everyday mode, knowing what to do and what to prepare to do as our days pass, largely unchanging from one to the next, and so even on vacation it must want to continue in that mode.  Only after some extended period of “difference” can it take notice, and perhaps change what it is thinking and feeling.  I experienced that two week-plus vacation only once in my working life, and yes I can attest that somewhere during that second week my body changed.  My shoulders seemed to loosen, and my mind didn’t worry about the meetings I was missing, or some tasks to be done.  I was alone on that vacation, and suddenly I felt no need to worry the next week, the next day, or the next hour, or even plan about them  ---- no planning was necessary at all.  And life just happened, even though I didn’t plan it.  And I saw things I might not have noticed, I spoke with people I might have ignored, and it was like I had entered a different world. 
And my mind in wonder asked: “Who knew this world existed?”  And for as long as it did, we enjoyed.
That transitioning to a world we haven’t seen or felt, even if for a few days, is a joyful thing.  But you have to experience it, because it can’t be adequately described or catalogued.  Dr. Jack Kevorkian, “Dr Death,” who used to give poison to people who wanted to die, wanted to experience that feeling through the experience of others --- no, not of their vacation, but of their moment death, of their transitioning to a new world.  Some say he really had no empathy for the sick and dying nor wanted to help them relieve their pains (indeed, some he poisoned had no pain, only fears of pain or death).  Rather, Dr. Death wanted to be there at the moment of death, even opening a dying person’s eyes if they were closed, so he could peer into them, watching and wondering what they saw and what they felt.  He wanted to see “what eye has not seen, nor ear heard.” 
Even as it took a number of vacation days to fully experience the joy of a vacation, a temporary change of life’s experiences, so it takes a number of days to fully experience death.  It cannot be rushed.  You cannot experience swimming without jumping into the water, nor skydiving without jumping out of the plane.  Nor can you experience death without dying.  It is something which must be fully experienced to find the full joy, in the life being left behind and the one approaching.  And so what happens to those who die suddenly?  I do not know, but I DO know we are encouraged to pray especially for them; missing the experience of dying they are in need of our prayers.  And of those who CHOOSE death suddenly?  Again I do not know, but those we are encouraged to pray for even more, for in their last moments, they have made a bad choice. 
Some have described Dr. Death as a very evil or sick man, desperately wanting what he could not have, and not really understanding what he would do with it even if it were received.  Perhaps he just needed a long vacation. Or perhaps he didn’t understand, but he was looking for God in all the wrong places.
Some say that in that last moment of life we see the eternal bliss arrive, and we shed a tear in happiness.  Perhaps.  But having been there at the last moment of mom’s life, I think she saw one last time and felt one last time with her body, what she had felt growing throughout her entire life, what she had yearned for and had yearned to give.  At that final moment, mom looked at me and felt love, and loved.  And cried a final tear of joy.
How better could anyone conclude this life, nor open their spirit to a new life, a new joy they had never felt before.  So many without really thinking on it fear death, but I am sure it is something which grows on you, and at the final moment you do understand, and are at peace with this life, and the next, a peace beyond all our understanding.