One of the things that has escaped my grasp fully to date as a Christian, as a Catholic, is this promised peace that surpasses understanding. Oh, I've experienced it in moments... but it's temporary and elusive.
I'm a worrier. I suffer anxiety when not in control which means really that I suffer from anxiety fequently.
A necessary condition for interior peace, then, is what we might call goodwill. We could also call it purity of heart. It is the stable and constant disposition of a person who is determined more than anything to love God, who desires sincerely to prefer in all circumstances the will of God to his own, who does not wish to consciously refuse anything to God. Maybe (and even certainly) in everyday life, his behavior will not be in perfect harmony with this desire, this intention. There would undoubtedly be many imperfections in his effort to accomplish this desire. But he will suffer, he will ask the Lord’s pardon for this and seek to correct himself. Following moments of eventual failure, he will strive to come back to his usual disposition of wanting to say “yes” to God in all things, without exception. Here, then, is what we mean by goodwill. It is not perfection, nor sainthood achieved, because it could well coexist with hesitations, imperfections and even faults. But it is the way, because it is just this habitual disposition of heart (whose foundation is found in the virtues of faith, hope and love), which permits the grace of God to carry us, little by little, toward perfection.
What struck me in the book, what stood out (and should to every Christian), is this proclamation that God's love is patient with those of us who are slow to rid ourselves of that which grieves Him:
The first goal of spiritual combat, that toward which our efforts must above all else be directed, is not to always obtain a victory (over our temptations, our weaknesses, etc.), rather it is to learn to maintain peace of heart under all circumstances, even in the case of defeat. It is only in this way that we can pursue the other goal, which is the elimination of our failures, our faults, our imperfections and sins. This is ultimately the victory that we must want and desire, knowing, however, that it is not by our own strength that we will obtain it and, therefore, not pretending that we can obtain it immediately. It is uniquely the grace of God that will obtain the victory for us, whose grace will be the more efficacious and rapid, the more we place maintaining our interior peace and sense of confident abandonment in the hands of our Father in Heaven.
Confident abandonment is the key. It's what we should strive for. Placing all, placing our circumstances, placing the whole of our being, in God's hands and coming to the knowledge that He is working in and through us for our good despite that which might seem to be telling us quite the opposite.
I'm not there yet. May not ever get there. But I'm striving to get there anyway:
We would like to come back for a few moments to this affirmation of the Bible, which is ultimately surprising, that God leaves us wanting for nothing. This will serve to unmask a temptation, sometimes subtle, which is very common in the Christian life, one into which many fall and which greatly impedes spiritual progress. It concerns precisely the temptation to believe that, in the situation which is ours (personal, family, etc.), we lack something essential and that because of this, our progress, and the possibility of blossoming spiritually, is denied us. For example, I lack good health, therefore I am unable to pray as I believe it is indispensable to do. Or my immediate family prevents me from organizing my spiritual activities as I wish. Or, again, I don’t have the qualities, the strength, the virtue, the gifts that I believe necessary in order to accomplish something beautiful for God, according to the plan of a Christian life. I am not satisfied with my life, with my person, with my circumstances and I live constantly with the feeling that as long as things are such, it will be impossible for me to live truly and intensely. I feel underprivileged compared to others and I carry in me the constant nostalgia of another life, more privileged, where, finally, I could do things that are worthwhile. I have the feeling, according to Rimbaud’s expression, that “the real life is elsewhere,” elsewhere than in the life that is mine. And that the latter is not a real life, that it doesn’t offer me the conditions for real spiritual growth because of certain sufferances or limitations. I am concentrated on the negatives of my situation, on that which I lack in order to be happy. This renders me unhappy, envious and discouraged and I am unable to go forward. The real life is elsewhere, I tell myself, and I simply forget to live.
The goal is to live, with the knowledge that no matter what, God's love trumps, His care for us is immense and that nothing can separate us from that care. Words easily spoken, even trite to the ear, but profoundly true.
Peace is what I'm looking for. Abandoning all to God is what I must do daily. Not fearing what it is that this abandonment means will be the biggest obstacle.
Lord, help me find that peace, help me empty my heart and hands of anything preventing that finding:
Two people close to me have lost loved ones this past week. One has lost his wife of 24 years. The other a sister-in-law married to a beloved brother. Both within a couple of weeks of what is considered to be a joyous time of year. Think on that for a moment.
Joy can seem particularly fleeting for many of us despite the fact that in large measure, all is well. Imagine how fleeting it must be to those experiencing the death of a dear family member, especially this time of year. The pain must be near intolerable.
Christmas is a season filled with words. Harried store clerks try to smile as they offer season’s greetings. Familiar carols ring through the malls, retelling the ancient story of an unplanned birth on a dark Judean night, where a company of angels filled the midnight silence with music, and an announcement of good news and great joy. These angels did not merely dazzle their audience with a stunning light show, but they spoke, using the local dialect. They communicated and were understood, and the words they spoke launched the stunned shepherds on a hunt for this remarkable baby.
As Christmas approaches, I remember words spoken by aunts and uncles and grandparents, loved ones who have been gone many years now. This season of joy is tinged with sadness for many as we sometimes find ourselves separated from those we love, whose voices and words we cannot hear no matter how much we wish we could change the circumstances that have driven us apart.
It’s why the season can be melancholy, as words and memories threaten to overshadow that small, remarkable word spoken by the angels in the dark of night: joy. Christmas rightly understood is all about the joy that wells up as we realize that God our Father and Creator has reached out to us in love through this child whose birth we celebrate each December.
The God who created us whispers to us that he loves us, that he has not forgotten us, that he himself has joined us in history, joined us in the harshest darkness of our winter nights to speak of the possibility, the reality, of joy.
All who, like those befuddled shepherds, have gone searching for the child born in Bethlehem have discovered joy at the end of their quest. May you, too, experience the joy of Christ this Christmas season.
I pray for all experiencing a season of melancholy and hope that in the midst of the longing, the sadness, the emptiness, the love of Christ will reach down in merciful gentleness and restore a sense of hope and, yes, despite the current darkness, rekindle the possibility, the reality of true joy.
God's peace and His joy to you Eddie, and to you Juan.
Some of the passages in the “Evangelii Gaudium” attracted the criticism of ultraconservatives in the USA. As a Pope, what does it feel like to be called a “Marxist”?
“The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
The most striking part of the Exhortation was where it refers to an economy that “kills”…
“There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.”
What is the right relationship between the Church and politics?
“The relationship needs to be parallel and convergent at the same time. Parallel because each of us has his or her own path to take and his or her different tasks. Convergent only in helping others. When relationships converge first, without the people, or without taking the people into account, that is when the bond with political power is formed, leading the Church to rot: business, compromises… The relationship needs to proceed in a parallel way, each with its own method, tasks and vocation, converging only in the common good. Politics is noble; it is one of the highest forms of charity, as Paul VI used to say. We sully it when we mix it with business. The relationship between the Church and political power can also be corrupted if common good is not the only converging point.”
That won't satisfy all, may not even satisfy many of my conservative brethren but so be it. Consider me convinced that his critics on the right are wrong about the man and about what he's attempting to do.
Elsewhere in the interview, there are hints to what that might be:
What does Christmas mean for you?
“It is the encounter Jesus. God has always sought out his people, led them, looked after them and promised to be always be close to them. The Book of Deuteronomy says that God walks with us; he takes us by the hand like a father does with his child. This is a beautiful thing. Christmas is God’s meeting with his people. It is also a consolation, a mystery of consolation. Many times after the midnight mass I have spent an hour or so alone in the chapel before celebrating the dawn mass. I experienced a profound feeling of consolation and peace. I remember one night of prayer after a mass in the Astalli residence for refugees in Rome, it was Christmas 1974 I think. For me Christmas has always been about this; contemplating the visit of God to his people.”
What does Christmas say to people today?
“It speaks of tenderness and hope. When God meets us he tells us two things. The first thing he says is: have hope. God always opens doors, he never closes them. He is the father who opens doors for us. The second thing he says is: don’t be afraid of tenderness. When Christians forget about hope and tenderness they become a cold Church, that loses its sense of direction and is held back by ideologies and worldly attitudes, whereas God’s simplicity tells you: go forward, I am a Father who caresses you. I become fearful when Christians lose hope and the ability to embrace and extend a loving caress to others. Maybe this is why, looking towards the future, I often speak about children and the elderly, about the most defenceless that is. Throughout my life as a priest, going to the parish, I have always sought to transmit this tenderness, particularly to children and the elderly. It does me good and it makes me think of the tenderness God has towards us.”
How is it possible to believe that God, who is considered by religions to be infinite and all-powerful, can make Himself so small?
“The Greek Fathers called it syncatabasis, divine condescension that is: God coming down to be with us. It is one of God’s mysteries. Back in 2000, in Bethlehem, John Paul II said God became a child who was entirely dependent on the care of a father and mother. This is why Christmas gives us so much joy. We don’t feel alone any more; God has come down to be with us. Jesus became one of us and suffered the worst death for us, that of a criminal on the Cross.”
Christmas is often presented as a sugar-coated fairy tale. But God is born into a world where there is also a great deal of suffering and misery.
“The message announced to us in the Gospels is a message of joy. The evangelists described a joyful event to us. They do not discuss about the unjust world and how God could be born into such a world. All this is the fruit of our own contemplations: the poor, the child that is born into a precarious situation. The (first) Christmas was not a condemnation of social injustice and poverty; it was an announcement of joy. Everything else are conclusions that we draw. Some are correct, others are less so and others still are ideologized. Christmas is joy, religious joy, God’s joy, an inner joy of light and peace. When you are unable or in a human situation that does not allow you to comprehend this joy, then one experiences this feast with a worldly joyfulness. But there is a difference between profound joy and worldly joyfulness.”
Here's hoping we each find this profound joy and in a lasting way.
So without delving into a pity party and saving you dear reader from the details, know simply that yours truly has been having a bit of tough time of late.
Work stuff and home stuff is running this worry wart ragged. My escape is, thank God, my faith. It's my sustenance despite its frailty and weakness. I'm not sure where I would be without it. Actually, I probably do but I'd rather not think about it.
So this morning I came across the following and oh how timely, oh how filling, oh how... wonderful, it was to hear.
Maybe you're a worry wart. Maybe you're not. Maybe you're in need of something short, sweet but filling. Maybe you're not.
Either way, I'm betting more than a buck or two that you'll enjoy this.
Be still and know that I'm with you Be still and know that I am here Be still and know that I'm with you Be still, be still, and know
When darkness comes upon you And covers you with fear and shame Be still and know that I'm with you And I will say your name
If terror falls upon your bed And sleep no longer comes Remember all the words I said Be still, be still, and know
And when you go through the valley And the shadow comes down from the hill If morning never comes to be Be still, be still, be still
If you forget the way to go And lose where you came from If no one is standing beside you Be still and know I am
Be still and know that I'm with you Be still and know I am
The day after my son Joshua died, after the necessary funeral and burial arrangements had been made, I got into my car, drove aimlessly some distance, and finally parked in a relatively desolate place away
from traffic, noise, and people. I turned the car off and began to talk out loud to God, but at a volume more accurately described with the term 'yell.' "Why? Why him? He had done absolutely nothing wrong. He most certainly didn't deserve this. He suffered so much over these last two years. How could you let this happen? How could you just watch this happen, right in front of your omniscient view? How could you have just watched all this happen this whole time, silently, as from a distance, and done absolutely nothing? Nobody I know with even a shred of moral decency would do such a thing! Why didn't you do something to help him, to heal him? Why even bring him into the world, only to allow him to suffer so much, and then give him no chance to grow up, not even a chance to enjoy childhood? Why? How could you possibly be good and just, and allow an innocent child to suffer and die in this way?" In my anger and grief, as I hurled these questions at God I was repeatedly pounding my fist on the center of the steering wheel.
Then at some point while still pounding on the wheel and repeatedly interrogating God with no reply forthcoming, a kind of trilemma began to form in my mind, and I gradually realized that under each of its three horns what I was doing was silly and pointless. Either God did not exist, or God was evil, or God was good. In what I had witnessed in Joshua's suffering, any God who was morally indifferent or 'neutral' or apathetic was just evil. If God did not exist, my complaining was silly and pointless, because in that case nobody was listening. And if God were evil, then my complaints were also silly and pointless, because there would be no point complaining to an evil deity about ill treatment, since if he were evil he wouldn't care about failing to be good. I realized by this process of reasoning that my act of complaining to God about an injustice could only make sense if God is good. But then, of course, if God, being God, is good not by participation in goodness or by derived goodness, but as Goodness itself (ipsum bonum), then my act of complaining to Him also did not make sense because in that case He certainly has a good reason for allowing my son's suffering and death to happen, a reason I cannot presently see. I would be complaining to Goodness itself about its behavior, as though I know Goodness better than Goodness knows Goodness, and as though I know better than Goodness how Goodness ought to run things. And that too would be silly and pointless (and arrogant), because one can't show up Goodness by appealing to Goodness. Any attempt to do so only shows up one's own insufficient understanding of Goodness, and is thus self-refuting. The proper response, if God is Goodness, would not be to rail against Him but instead to trust Him, even if I never found out the good, justifying reason for Joshua's death, even if for the rest of eternity I never could find out that reason because it was so far above my finite comprehension.
Dr. Cross filed this over at Strange Notions under the category The Problem of Evil. It's a must read particularly for those of us who wonder aloud (who wouldn't?!) about the loss of innocent life.
Twice today I have been very moved to come across gloriously beautiful — dare I say transcendent — images, where the poignancy of the moment was movingly emphasized by the small unconscious movement of a single hand.
First, thanks to Deacon Greg, I saw the La Stampa photo of Pope Francis kissing a man so seriously disfigured that most of us would likely find him difficult to look at, and would turn away.
Everyone is looking at this picture, and it is, indeed, breath-taking.
But this is the image, a few frames later, that really grabbed my heart:
When you go to the slideshow, you see La Stampa’s headline reads “Pope Kisses a Man Plagued with Boils”, and that would be bad enough, but I suspect the poor man is really afflicted with neurofibromatosis, also known as Recklinghausen’s disease, which can cause deafness, difficulty walking and sometimes crippling pain.
If it is indeed neurofibromatosis, then it is very possible that this man has been shunned and disregarded for decades. Some people would even look at him and decide that his quality of life is likely so miserable, so socially valueless that it might not be worth living. Pope Francis — like his namesake before him, who famously kissed a leper — thinks differently, and he wants us to think differently, too. Throughout the slideshow you see that more than simply kissing this man, Francis clearly prayed over him.
A kiss is pretty special, true, but laying hands upon that which can repulse us, and allowing them to linger there, and then praying with and for that person — that’s a wholly different, deeper sort of unity. Where they stood may have been very crowded, but in this moment there was a peculiar intimacy of oneness, and the way this challenged man lays his own hand upon Pope Francis’ arm is eloquent of it.
A Pope laid his hands on a sick man, and a sick man laid his hand upon that Pope with a sense of utter trust, safety, familiarity and consolation.
Look at that hand, and how confidently relaxed it is. This man is not clinging to Francis; he is uniting with him.
Serious healing is going on here, though it may not be obvious. We believe in things visible and invisible, and healing can be visible or invisible, too. Perhaps what is being healed in this moment is decades of injury — rejection and derision — heaped upon this man from a world obsessed with beauty and perfect fitness, and less so with the soul.