Sunday, July 22, 2012

Knights of the Dinner Table

Anyone who knew me growing up can testify to my being a notoriously picky eater. Many kids are finicky, but I was ridiculous: I didn't even like pizza or french fries.
      It came to a head one night when I was told I couldn't leave the table until I'd finished what was on my plate. Somehow a pile of refried beans had found its way there (I certainly didn't put it there!). I concluded I would have to spend the rest of my life at that table. I wasn't being stubborn; I simply viewed it as impossible. It was akin to being asked to eat a scoop of mud.
      I don't know how long I sat there, but it was dark, and everyone else had scattered to their bedrooms. Finally the punishment was upped—I can't remember what was said, but somehow I was motivated to give it a teeny tiny try. There was melted cheddar cheese on top—which I didn't like either, but it wasn't as bad. I flipped the whole thing over so the cheese, not the beans, would touch my tongue, gave a quick chew or two, and gulped it down with some milk. I survived! I kept on doing that, 'til bit by bit, it was gone. It was a miracle.
When Jesus sent out the seventy-two disciples to preach the Good News, he gave them very specific instructions. What we usually notice is that they weren't to bring anything with them—no money, no bag, not even sandals. Amidst such tough directions, this verse tends to get lost: “Eat whatever is set before you” (Lk 10:8). As a kid, that would have been much harder for me than going barefoot!
      But now, I see it as a great verse to add to my arsenal of Helpful Scriptures for Parents. It's a perfect verse to whip out when the kids start complaining about dinner.
      And it's great advice tooat least assuming you have a conscientious cook, preparing a healthy, well-balanced meal. If we only eat rich and fatty foods, avoiding the icky vegetables, we won't get all the vitamins and nutrients we need, but will probably get diabetes and heart disease instead.
      But there's more to it than physical health. Jesus wants us to do the same at the dinner table of life: that is, we need to accept whatever He sends us, trusting that it's good for us even if bitter and hard to swallow. A diet of all desserts and no vegetables is no better for our souls than for our bodies.
      Of course, that's easier said than done sometimes. Jesus must have realized that, for after all, He did say, "What father among you, if his son asks for bread, would give him a stone, or if he asks for a fish, would give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Lk 11:11-12). Sometimes what's on our plate sure looks like a scorpion, but we must trust our heavenly Father enough to believe that He knows what is good for us.
      Culinary courage is more than a healthy habit or an apt spiritual analogy, though. It is also a will-builder. I tell my kids to eat their vegetables not only for their health, but also so they can learn to make themselves do things that are good but that they find unpalatable. We need that kind of daily exercise in discipline or our wills will become flabby and weak. It is by being faithful in the small things that we gain the strength to conquer greater challenges.
      We may not have dragons in our modern world, but there are still threats that make us wish for knights like St. George. We can start training them, at the dinner table, to conquer themselves first and offer up the sacrifice involved (which for a kid might be sizeable!). And while we're at it, maybe we can do a little will-training and sacrificing of our own. 
     It might seem useless, but just because spiritual benefits are invisible, doesn't mean they're not real. Remember, it's the One we're praying to, who can make the real difference. Just as He did with the five loaves and the two fish given by the little boy, He can multiply our little gifts of prayer and sacrifice into splendid results.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Medieval Church: Lessons for Modern Times

In teaching medieval history a few years ago, I noticed a pattern. During that time of tremendous growth in the Church, over and over again some of her own children turned against her. Yet each time, a saint would come along to counter the heresy or corruption, a saint whose personality and fidelity to the Holy Spirit formed the ideal duet to meet the dilemma.
     When Nestorianism began spreading in the fifth century, the Lord raised up St. Cyril of Alexandria to combat its errors. Soon after, Manichaeism and Donatism were met by the brilliance of St. Augustine, and Pelagianism and Monophysitism by Pope St. Leo the Great. When the iconoclast heresy took hold in the Eastern Empire in the eighth century, St. John Damascene—a Christian courtier in a neighboring Muslim land—was in the perfect place to write on the truth about icons without fear of reprisal from the Byzantine emperor. And in the twelfth century, St. Dominic was the right man in the right place to pull the teeth of Albigensianism. Each time, the Lord did not merely defuse the heresy, but He used the opportunity to bring forth a clearer understanding of His teachings.
     Heresy has not been the only threat to the Church arising from within her ranks. Time and again, complacency led to a worldliness and corruption creeping into the lives of Church members. And time and again, God has called forth saints to oppose materialism and sloth, especially by their exemplary lives. I
n the late fourth and early fifth centuries, St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople followed St. John the Baptist's example by critiquing the emperor and empress' moral failures. St. Boniface made enemies by calling priests to obey their vows in Germany in the eighth century. In the twelfth century, when many were content with a Christian veneer, the challenge to die to self for love of Christ was given by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the monastery and St. Francis of Assisi in the world. In the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Siena respectfully reminded the popes of her day of certain duties, and Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in the sixteenth century countered laxity in their religious orders, while encouraging alllay and religiousto seek the joy of meeting God in contemplative prayer. And these are merely the most famous of such voices calling for reform.
     The pattern is perhaps most clear at the end of the Middle Ages. In the early sixteenth century, Rome was so rampantly corrupt that it is no surprise that Martin Luther was scandalized when he visited there as a young monk. Yet about this time, St. Philip Neri was born—a saint whose extraordinary love of God and neighbor, joy, preaching, and example would lead to a reform in that city and to his being dubbed the “Apostle of Rome.” At the same time that the laity were confused about the Church’s actual teaching on indulgences and Luther was concluding that he need not obey the Pope anymore, St. Ignatius of Loyola was forming a new religious order that would
catechize the laity and dedicate themselves to doing whatever the Pope might ask of them. 
      When the Church at last managed to convene a general council to sift through the protests against her, St. Charles Borromeo was there to help define doctrine and establish reforms. And he eagerly carried out these reforms in his own archdiocese, especially in rooting out error from the clergy and founding new seminaries. In the same period when five million Europeans left the Catholic Church, nine million native Americans entered the Church in the decade following the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in 1531. 
     This pattern is instructive to us in two ways. First, we must realize that this problem will always be with the Church. This shouldn’t surprise us, for didn’t Christ give parable after parable on this: wolves in sheep’s clothing; weeds amid the wheat; sheep and goats being separated at the end of time?
     Secondly, when we see false teachings and scandals in our own time, we must look for the saints God is raising up to counter them. We may recognize among them Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, confounding the materialism and selfishness of our age, and Blessed John Paul II, already called “the Great” for his profound and rich illumination of the truth in the darkness of this "culture of death" in which we live. 
     But it's not enough to look around, wondering where the saints are, why there aren't more of them stepping up to the plate. We must also look in the mirror and recognize that God also has a part for each one of us to play.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fear Is Useless

Among possible motives for sin, pleasure probably comes to mind, selfishness seems to cover all the bases, and of course the “love of money” has St. Paul’s vote as “the root of all evil”. With those obvious contenders, fear may not even make a blip on the radar screen. Nevertheless, I think fear’s a big motivator, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
     It’s not obvious usually. I mean, if you lived under a dictatorship, then it would be obvious: people around you, and you yourself, might do or fail to do things you wouldn’t otherwise, out of fear.
     But living in a free country as we do (at least at this point), fear doesn't seem to play much of a role in our day-to-day lives. And since we don’t like to admit we have any fears, we certainly don’t go looking for them.
     It’s when you start digging deeper in your spiritual life that you discover it. When you start trying to root out sin, a good practice is to back up and ask, Why do I do that? Sometimes you have to back up a few times before you stumble on the real reason, and not infrequently that reason is fear.
      Let’s say you keep blowing up at your family members in a certain situation, say, when they make you late. Why does that make you explode? You might say because you really hate to be late. But why is that? If it’s not an important event, could it be that you’re afraid of what people might think? Maybe it's the fear that the person waiting for you will be annoyed and like you less. Or that the person will lose respect for you, or that you won’t be able to maintain your own sense of superiority over that person. Maybe you're afraid that it will tarnish your image as having it all together—either in the eyes of someone else, or in your own.
      Or let’s say you keep putting work before family. That could spring from a lot reasons—maybe your self-image is too caught up in being successful, for instance. But fear could play a role too. Maybe behind that desire for success is a fear of being a failure, or even a fear of being average. You’ve got to be Somebody, or you’re nothing. Maybe it’s more serious: you’re afraid that you’ll get passed over for a promotion, or you’ll lose your job.
      It takes a lot of courage even to admit those fears, let alone overcome them. Usually it’s only during a retreat or a time of ongoing prayer and reflection that we can open ourselves to seeing these things. We build a lot of walls to keep from seeing these deeper areas of ourselves; usually if we do get a glimpse over a wall only to find the sight rather alarming, we quickly stop looking.
      Jesus was being sensitive to the situation when he told Jairus: "Fear is useless; what is needed is trust." (After all, the poor synagogue leader had just been told that his daughter was dead.) To many of us, he could say rather, "Fear is worse than useless—sometimes it's downright dangerous.”
      We need to recognize fear, because it can cause us to sin. We can walk all over other people, be rude to them, or indifferent or blind to them, because we are so focused on avoiding whatever it is we fear. God doesn’t say, “Love one another as I have loved you…unless they stand in your way somehow, or endanger your self-image or the achievement of your personal goals or your livelihood.”
      No, no. Rather he says, “Be not afraid”—over and over and over again throughout the Bible. And John Paul II echoed Him: “Be not afraid” was one of his pet phrases—he who had lived under Nazi occupation and then Communist totalitarianism. How could someone who’d faced truly fearful circumstances say that? Because he trusted in God, because he looked beyond this life.
      Usually the best way to overcome a fear is to stop running from it, to face it. When you run away from what you fear, its shadow will follow and loom over you. But when you turn around and face it, it almost always shrinks considerably. What if X did happen? Really think about it. Usually you’ll realize it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
      But even it were something truly terrible, Christ has promised that with His grace we could endure it. If we were to give it over to Him, He could and would bring good out of it. And with His help, we could do what He does: we could bring good out of it too, if by nothing else, by offering it up. 
     Even if the worst scenarios we can imagine were to happen to us, ultimately it wouldn't matter, so long as we were seeking first God's Kingdom and His righteousness. "The only tragedy in this life is not to become a saint." Any suffering we may undergo can help us fulfill our purpose: to get to heaven and to bring as many souls with us as we can.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Cluster of Crosses

It seems like just when I think I’ve learned to trust in God, He says, Oh yeah, how 'bout now? and takes it up another notch.
     Or two. 
     Or three, ... or five or six.
     Yesterday, a priest said that maybe I was going through these things so that I could help someone else by sharing it on my blog. On the way home, I started thinking about what I'd learned about suffering just this week, so here goes...

This past week I saw two daily Mass-goers with whom I'm acquainted, both of whom I hadn't seen in quite a while—say, about a year. In each catch-up conversation, something struck me.
      The first conversation was with a British fellow in his seventies. He was a lector at a neighboring parish, where my husband often, and I occasionally (used to), go to morning Mass. (Ever since my recent pregnancy, it's been too early for me.) I didn't know him very well; from my pew, he seemed holy and on the serious side—dignified. I liked his accent.
      When I saw him last Saturday, I hardly recognized him. I hadn't known that he had Parkinson’s, but now the signs were obvious: a constant struggle to control his head, his facial expressions, and especially his mouth. Even his delightful accent was lost in the difficulty of forming words.
      I immediately felt for him, but every time I tried to express my concern or sympathy, he'd turn it away with a joke. (When I asked him how he was, for instance, he responded, “Oh, you know how it is: one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.”) He just told one joke after another—and funny ones too.
      How many people in his shoes—having lost exterior charm and dignity—would become reclusive? How many, having trouble communicating, would stop trying? How many, in the face of suffering that was bound only to increase, would descend into self-pity or bitterness?
     Not he. Instead he evidently resolved to forget about himself and focus on others. He has a gift for making people laugh, and he's decided to keep on using it. And at the same time, he's a wonderful model of how to suffer gracefully.

The other person is in her sixties (though she looks about 50), whom I got to know last year at the evening weekday Mass at our own parish. She tended to be gloomy and to see things from a sardonic, if not negative, perspective, which I chalked up to temperament.
     When I saw her on Monday, she seemed more lighthearted and much more cheerful.
     When I mentioned that I'd been going through one thing after another, she replied, “That’s what last year was like for me. I’d feel like I’d just get one nostril above the water then—bang—I’d get knocked back down again. And I'd say, 'Lord, what are you doing?!' ”
     Her response stuck with me. Not only was it a humorous rendition of what I felt, but it also made me realize some things. First of all, maybe the gloominess I'd seen in her wasn't temperament, but a reflection of what she'd been going through. Secondly, seeing her more cheerful now and the words “last year” seem to indicate that that period of difficulty is apparently over.
     It's so important to remember what St. Teresa of Avila said: “All things pass.”

And the priest yesterday helped too. Not surprisingly, the Holy Spirit used him. He suggested that I picture myself in the lap of Mary (à la the Pietà) and pray a Memorare.
      It was powerful.
      It was a great comfort to feel the pity and sympathy of our Mother. Even though my sufferings are nothing compared to what her Son—or even she—had undergone, I felt that she still cared, still felt sorry for me.
      I realized how comforting sympathy can be—just having someone acknowledge that what you’re going through is hard, and care, can be a big help.
      Then I thought about how wise the priest was in having me turn to Mary, as it’s easier to imagine her being compassionate. Then I thought, wait a minute, Mary can’t truly be more compassionate than God—the Source of mercy, whose mercy and compassion are infinite.
      I realized that subconsciously I’d been thinking that God did not care about my sufferings; that He was indifferent. As if He were watching me suffer, and just casually shrugging a divine shoulder, and saying, “Yeah, well, you’ve got to suffer. This is good for you. What, you want a different cross?”
      As a parent, I sometimes have to let my children suffer, but that doesn't mean I don't care. Just because I let the nurse give my sweet little baby her shots (and even hold her down to help!) because I know that this suffering is less than the illnesses she could otherwise get, doesn’t mean that I don’t care that the shots hurt. I care tremendously, and feel so sorry for her, especially as she doesn’t understand.
      Surely God, the Father and model of perfect parenthood, has even more sympathy and love for us in our sufferings.

How can we ever say we've learned any virtue? When will we ever reach a point in our lives when we can say, "Ah, I've arrived. I have a reached the pinnacle of trust [or patience, etc.]"? Never. We'll always have more to learn and room to grow as long as we are drawing breath.
     But if the fruits of suffering include learning, coming closer to God, becoming more like Him, and helping others, then it’s all worthwhile.