Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Unforgivable

Any shooting spree is inherently horrific, but it reaches new depths when a child is involved. With so many children involved and their being so young, the Sandy Hook shooting is exponentially more tragic and disturbing. The innocence and defenselessness of a child evokes in us the instinct to protect, as witnessed by the heroism of the teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook who were also gunned down as they tried to defend the students. The whole nation is reeling as we try to comprehend how terrible the children's families must feel, and we feel helpless to comfort them.
     Terrifying as their last moments must have been, the victims are now better off than the schoolmates and loved ones who have survived them. Those little ones must surely be gathered in the loving arms of their Savior. But life for those left behind must be unutterably bleak right now.
    Though we feel there is nothing we can do for them, the prayers that so many are lifting on their behalf must support the bereaved, great as their pain surely must be.

     The pain of one person, however, is very likely continuing and very intenseand yet unrelieved by few if any prayers.

      In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom recounts her experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, and her sister Betsie's incredible sanctity, which repeatedly surprised her. After witnessing the beating of a "feeble-minded" girl at the camp, for instance, Corrie asks Betsie, "What can we do for these people? Afterward I mean. Can't we make a home for them and care for them and love them?"
     "Corrie," Betsie replies, "I pray every day that we will be allowed to do this! To show them that love is greater!"
     It is only later that Corrie realizes: "I had been thinking of the feeble-minded, and Betsie had been thinking of their persecutors."
     Similarly, when Betsie had been questioned and struck by a Gestapo agent, she told Corrie, "I feel so sorry for him."
     Again and again Corrie was shocked by Betsie's ability not only to forgive their enemies, but even to pity them. Sometimes Corrie felt a certain outrage at her sister's mercy.
     But she learned from Betsie's example, and after her death and the end of the war, Corrie did set up a home to help people recover from the horrors of the war. She went around giving talks, telling Betsie's story and encouraging people to forgive.
     She found herself unable to do so, however, when face to face with one of the Nazi guards from the concentration camp where she and Betsie had been prisoners. Beaming, he came to thank her for her message of God's mercy, hand thrust out to shake hers. But she couldn't lift hers, even after she'd prayed that the Lord would help her to forgive him. 
     It was only when she prayed, "Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness" that she could take his hand. And when she did so, an almost overwhelming love for him sprung up in her heart. "And so I discovered that ... when He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself."
     The hardest commandment Jesus gave us was to love our enemies, to forgive them and pray for them.
     It may seem unthinkable, impossible, to pity the young man who brutally shot down little children. Indeed by oneself it is impossible. But nothing is impossible with God. 
     And upon reflection, that young man is very pitiable. Something was awry in him. Such heinous deeds deserve the torments of hell. And without the prayers of others, it seems very likely to be his eternal lot. And yet, and yet... can we not pray that somehow, some way, his very last moments might have seen the grace of repentance? God is outside time; our prayers now and in the future can touch those final moments. Such a person may not "deserve" prayer, but definitely needs it.
     While not guilty of anything so monstrous, none of us is innocent either. As a sinner, I hope not for what I deserve, but for the mercy of God, made available by the Precious Blood of His Son Jesus.
     And that same sacrifice is not only more than enough to win mercy for Adam Lanza too, butmuch as we might shudder at the thoughtwas shed for that very purpose.
     May God's mercy be showered down upon him and upon on those whose hearts he has shattered. And someday, may they, for the sake of their own peace, be given the super-natural, miraculous grace to forgive.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Tips for Our Times

I see ... that you are worried about the turmoil and the disorientation of our times. It is indeed sad that so many are allowing themselves to be dominated by the [wave of evil] that is sweeping the world.... Their principal error is that they have abandoned prayer. Thus, they turn away from God, and without God everything is lacking to them. For, "without Me you can do nothing."
     With the recent slaughter of innocents in Connecticut, the threats to our religious liberty under the impending HHS mandate, and the overall degeneration in our society of morality, culture, and even the ability to reason, one might readily assume that the above quotation was written recently. But it was written over forty years ago, by Sr. Lucia of Fatima, to her nephew, a priest.
     Her recommendations still hold true now. Here are some gems to live by:
  •  "Keep close to God and ... tell Him about all [your] affairs and all [your] problems before discussing them with human beings.... You will discover that in prayer God communicates to you the light, strength and grace you need to do all He expects of you."
  • "The only important thing for us is to do the will of God: to be where He wants us to be, and to do all He wants of us..."
  • "Let time be lacking for everything else, but never for prayer, and you will experience the fact that, after prayer, you can accomplish a lot in a short period of time." 
  • "Never consider as wasted time you spend in prayer."
  • "The devil is very smart and watches for our weak points so that he can attack us. If we are not careful and attentive in obtaining the strength from God, we will fall, because our times are very bad and we are weak. Only God's strength can sustain us."
  • "Therefore, we all need to intensify our life of intimate union with God, and this we can attain only through prayer."
This letter is reproduced in Msgr. Jospeh A. Cirrincione's booklet, Fatima's Message for Our Times (Tan Books, 1990), pp. 2-5.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why Should We Forgive Others?

The question came up today at our parish preparation for First Reconciliation. It seemed to stump at least one student. Perhaps she didn't know the answer, or perhaps she didn't know the reason behind the answer.
     At long last she ventured, "Because we can't get to heaven otherwise?"

     The answer took me a little by surprise; I guess I was expecting something like, "Because Jesus told us to" or "Because God wants us to" or "We have to forgive if we want to be forgiven."
     Of course, she's right; it's just not what I expected to come out of a second-grader's mouth.

      And why is that? Why did Jesus teach us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us", why does God want us to forgive others--to the point that we can't get to heaven otherwise?   
      Many of us can see that would be hypocritical to ask for forgiveness from God while refusing to grant it to one of his creatures.
      It came to me today, when trying to explain this, that it also has to do with the nature of heaven. If heaven is the fulfillment of our existence in being united with God, we are also united to everyone else who's united to God. If he is our Father, how can we be at enmity with one of his children? There can't be any discord in the heavenly home.
      Another image: no sin can enter heaven. Those who cling to serious sin, who choose the sin over God and refuse to repent of it, go with it to the trash heap (Gehenna). That's where sin belongs, and if we won't let go of it, that's where we'll go too. 
      But if we want to go to heaven and seek God's forgiveness, then he will remove the sin from our souls before we enter its gates. To seek that forgiveness but refuse to give it to our brother is like trying to leave our own sin at the gate, while trying to bring his sin in and paste it back on him ... or trying to keep him from going in at all.
      It just won't work.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

How Far Would You Go?

Guess what!” your best friend calls to say. “I’ve received a clear sign from the heavens that the one who will someday bring freedom, justice, and prosperity to China has finally been born. Terry [another friend] and I are going to see him, and we have room for you! We don’t know exactly where he is, and it’s a big country, so it’ll take some time and searching—we think at least six months, maybe a year. It will probably cost several thousand dollars, plus we’re bringing some gifts. I’m bringing the jeweled chalice my uncle the bishop left me; Terry’s bringing a golden casket for his burial (whenever that might be). Maybe you could bring the family jewels you inherited. Whaddye say?”
     Would you go?
     Somehow, I seriously doubt it—even if you had a intense interest in the welfare of China. Who could spare the time and expense of such a trip?
     Yet the journey of the Magi doesn’t strike us as surprising. Those of us who are idealistic and adventurous might even imagine that in their place, of course we’d do the same. But when one considers all that was involved versus the apparently minor motivation, it’s really quite astounding.
      We actually don’t know much about the Magi, other than that they came from the east. Wherever they were from, why would they care if a new king was born to the Jews—even the best king the Jews would ever have? They must have known that He was something special, otherwise their trip doesn’t seem worth all the trouble. Some think the magi were themselves Jews (for many Jews lived outside the Holy Land), and that they realized that this was the Messiah.
      Even so, they must have had great generosity and devotion for such an undertaking: leaving home, family and friends, their work, for a round-trip at least four months long, if not a year, that was difficult, dangerous, and expensive.
      If we knew that Jesus was visitable, would we do the same? Would we make such a long and difficult journey?
      Most of us simply couldn't, even if we wanted to.

      The wonderful thing is that Jesus is visitable in both senses of the word. Jesus can be visited, and the visit is much more doable than going halfway around the world. He is still present in our world—in the Blessed Sacrament. (No, we won't see Him in His glory, but then neither did He appear that way in Bethlehem. Either manifestation requires faith on our part.) And not only that, but He's not all that far off—but in numerous churches and chapels within easy reach.
      (Of course, we can "visit" Him any timein prayer. His Spirit lives within us, and He is always with us. This is an important opportunity to remember and utilize. But it's also important to show our love by taking the trouble to do more.)
      He’s visitable in another way too. He said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.” We may not be able to give Him gifts like the magi or a cup of water like the Samaritan woman, or a feast like Matthew, or wipe His bloody face like Veronica, but whenever we help or serve someone else, He will take it as service also to Himself.
      At Christmas, children sometimes give their parents “coupons” promising to do certain helpful tasks around the house. Also at this time of year, many people make New Year’s resolutions. Our family has a different tradition that involves something of both. Every Epiphany we play a game we call the “Quest of the Magi”, in which (after following clues to find the hidden stable) each of us presents Jesus a gift. We can’t place gold at his visible little feet, anymore than most children can buy a gift for their parents. So we spend a little time beforehand thinking of something we could do that would please Him. It could be a one-time thing or a new habit or goal for a longer period, even for the year. We write it down and lay it in the crèche.
If one were to try to imitate the Magi today, one could decide to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament once a week. A year of weekly half-hour visits would amount to a little over one day in the Magi’s journey. Surely we could do that much.
Maybe after a while, we’d get hooked and want to spend more time. (Sixty years of weekly hour-long visits would get us close, equaling a four-month journey.)
       If nothing else, let us pray that we can have even a portion of the fervor that drove those Magi to make such sacrifices in quest of a God that then they could have known so much less than we can now.

This is a slightly modified re-presentation of my post from last Epiphany

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Perfect Mother*

I met Supermom once.
It was when my eldest was in preschool. I was already feeling pretty inadequate as a traditional mom. All the other moms would bring something nutritious or homemade for snack. When it was my turn, all I could usually manage was chips.
(Once I did manage to prepare something—peanut butter and crackers. Okay, I didn’t bake anything, but I did take the time to spread peanut butter on each cracker. Then I went upstairs for a few minutes. When I came back, my preschooler was licking one of them. “Oh honey,” I said, “those are for snack at school today.” “Don’t worry, Mommy, she replied. “I just licked a little bit from each one.” I could have cried. I probably did. Then I went and bought some chips.)
At Halloween, the moms and siblings were invited to the preschool party. I was still applying my daughter’s make-up in the hall just before we went in. My younger daughter and I were just wearing regular clothes. During the party, I discovered I was sitting next to Supermom. I admired her son’s alien costume, only to discover she had made it herself. Then it gradually came out that she had also made the Little Bo Peep costume her toddler was wearing and the full-length, matching costume she herself was wearing.
I was in awe. I realized that though we were sitting in the same room, we were from different planets. I could not imagine having the time to make three costumes from scratch. Granted, our family was going through a particularly challenging time—we had just moved; my husband was injured; as a result, I’d just taken a part-time job teaching my first college course; and we had recently found out I was pregnant.
But even in the best of times I couldn’t do what she had done, since all I can sew are buttons and crooked hems.
If I had had any doubts about her true identity as Supermom (which I didn’t), they would have been obliterated by the postcard I received from her in early December. On the front was an invitation to a “Christmas Cookie Exchange Party”. On the back was an intro talking about how this fun idea would save us time during the hectic days leading up to Christmas. Then there was a list of steps involved. I never read past Step One, which said, “Simply bake nine dozen cookies….”
Although this wasn't likely to make me feel any more adequate as a mom, it was too incredible to incite tears; I just laughed. For days, in fact. I would say to myself, “Step one: Simply bake nine dozen cookies…” It was so simple! And even with four more steps after that, this would somehow make my Advent easier.
(I think this must have struck even the other moms as not such a great time-saver, as the party never actually happened, due to lack of participants.)

Today we celebrate not only New Year’s Day, but also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. We celebrate and thank her for saying Yes to God and being the vessel through which the Savior was brought into our world.
Sometimes, though, Mary can seem as, or even more, formidable than Supermom. After all, one of her titles is “Mother Most Perfect”. And the Church teaches that she was sinless: that Gabriel’s greeting to her, “Hail, full of grace,” indicates that unlike the rest of us, who could not inherit the gift of divine grace lost by Adam and Eve, God gave Mary that gift in advance, foreseeing the salvation that Jesus would win for her and us.
The idea of a perfect mother can be off-putting. Why would we go to her for help? Wouldn't she look down on us? How could she understand us or our lives?
Being sinless, however, is not the same as never being tempted. Nor is it the same as being incapable of sinning. (If that were the case, she wouldn't have free will.) After all, Adam and Eve started out being full of grace, and sinless. And when you think about it, they had it easier than Mary. Everyone they knew (God and each other) until they met the serpent was also sinless, whereas everyone Mary knew, until Jesus came along, was a sinner.
C.S. Lewis maintained that though Jesus was sinless, He knew more about temptation than we do. We are tempted, and often struggle with temptation, but we have all fallen. Only someone who never gave in to temptation would really know what it’s like to struggle and keep on struggling and never give in.
Besides, if Mary were haughty and cold and disdained us fallen creatures, she wouldn’t be perfect. Such pride would itself be a sin. No, a good mother is understanding and patient and comforts her children. A perfect mother would be all that and would advise, encourage, and help her children better than we can imagine.
In the Gospel of John, the author never refers to himself by name, but always as “the beloved disciple.” Theologians say this is not only to indicate his special relationship with Christ, but to give us an opportunity to put ourselves in the story. Every disciple was and is loved by Christ. Each of us is the beloved disciple. So when Jesus from the cross said to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother”, He was also talking to you and to me. And like the beloved disciple, we should welcome her into our home, into our hearts. What a tremendous gift He’s given us—His own Mother, a perfect mother, who understands us, loves us, prays for us.
Today is a day to reflect on this great gift, and to thank Mary for all she’s done for mankind and for each of us. It’s also a day for us moms to think about how we can better imitate her. And for all of us to be thankful to those who have mothered us in this life.
I think I’ll go call my mom now.

*This is a re-posting of my blog from Jan. 1, 2012, under the title "Mother Most Perfect."