Saturday, April 23, 2011

Come bring light to our darkness.

Thursday of Holy Week there was a Tenebrae prayer service at our Church which was presented by the youth group. It's a pretty morbid service, starting out with a bunch of burning candles representing the Light of Christ which are gradually extinguished until everyone leaves in darkness. The teenagers presented a bunch of hopeless and desolate situations (e.g. kidnapping and child soldiers in Africa, domestic abuse and children sold into sex slavery) and asked us to respond with "Lord, come bring light to our darkness."

People ask, how can evil exist if God is good? Thomas Aquinas answered that we human beings cause evil because we have free will and that includes the option of choosing evil.

Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Job lost everything and was given all sorts of horrible afflictions even though he loved God and God loved him. One answer is redemptive suffering, i.e. a sort of purgatory on earth where we are cleansed through our suffering and are given the opportunity to learn and grow through trails. But Christianity provides the additional opportunity of offering up suffering like prayers are offered (or positive mindset, good vibes, healthy energy, a sense of calm) to effect changes in other members of the Body of Christ. The idea is that we combine our own sacrifice with that of Christ and in that way we can use our own suffering as a means of easing the suffering of others. This is why St. Faustina said, "If angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion and the other is suffering."

Mother Teresa saw the power of the idea of offering up suffering and founded the Co-Workers to the Missionaries of Charity. The Co-Workers are sick and suffering men and women who long to serve others but can't physically do the work. Instead they offer up their suffering in petition for strength for Mother Teresa's Sisters and the success of their work. Mother Teresa often said how she felt strengthened when she remembered her Co-Workers bravely suffering on her behalf. At one point Mother Teresa taught the concept to a young boy in the house of the dying: "A young boy who suffered horrible pain--at last he said--he was sorry to die--because he had just learned to suffer for the love of God." The young boy was sorry to die because he had just found meaning in his suffering.

Under arrest in the WWII concentration camps, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl noticed three types of survivors--those looking forward to the future and reuniting with loved ones, those concentrating on a present task such as planning a book or learning a language, AND those who found meaning in their suffering. Finding meaning allows us to suffer with dignity.

Thomas Aquinas said that God always brings good out of suffering. And the crucifixion and resurrection are the shining example of that. For those who believe in God the worst evil that could be committed is to KILL God. And yet that happened. And good came from it. And God was able to forgive.

But the teenagers brought up the uncomfortable question of the seemingly innocent bystanders. What about people who never have a chance to embrace Goodness? The teenagers' examples were the tragedy of child soldiers in Africa who are drugged and abused into becoming awful abusers themselves and children who are sold into sex slavery. Faced with such atrocity it seems obvious that there is no justice in the world. I've heard people say that this is why they could never believe in God. But for theists I think the fact that there is no justice in this world is the whole point. The hope is that there is some sort of justification that comes AFTER or in some way that we don't understand. And in fact, the Catholic belief in Purgatory allows just enough wiggle room to make that possible.

The Church describes mortal sins as those that severely damage our relationship with God--which would include being addicted to drugs and murdering people. BUT the Church acknowledges that not only does the offense have to be grave, but the person must be aware of the gravity of the offense AND still intentionally commit the offense AND do so willingly (not under duress). This introduces a bunch of subjectivity which leads the Church to acknowledge that God is the only Just Judge. This is why the Church no longer insists that suicides necessarily go to hell and why technically we can pray for the souls of people like Hitler, who we've all decided should go to hell but regarding whom God might know something we don't (maybe he was insane in a way that kept him from having a conscience).

So it seems to me that a Merciful God, who is not confined to the rules and rituals of religious institutions, is the great hope for such lost souls. The Saints tell us that those who are struggling the most are offered the greatest mercy and that even a brief feeling of remorse at the moment of death is enough to save a soul (e.g. the thief on the cross). And unless you believe in a Calvinist sort of predestination, God doesn't choose certain people for damnation. Those without a fair chance should get that chance in some way, shape, or form beyond our comprehension.

BUT that doesn't mean we ignore suffering in the world while we sit comfortably. Especially to Catholics who believe in a sort of metaphysical connection between all created things, and especially between members of the Body of Christ, it should be obvious that the suffering of one small group can have negative effects on everyone else. The Tenebrae service reminded me of a vision of the Prophet Isaiah. Our metaphysical body and our world need to be healed.

Where would you yet be struck,
you that rebel again and again?
The whole head is sick,
the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot to the head
there is no sound spot:
Wound and welt and gaping gash,
not drained, or bandaged,
or eased with salve.
[Isaiah 1:5-6]

Friday, April 1, 2011

Death and rebirth.

Lent started Ash Wendesday, which is the day after Mardi Gras for all you socialites out there. Aside from the no-eating-meat-on-Friday rule one typically chooses a personal sacrifice or two--for example trying extra hard to give up a bad habit (like a New Year's resolution) or giving up something we're attached to (like my giving up Facebook). The latter is kind of nice because getting the good thing back on Easter is a bit of added celebration. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are two special days of abstinence (no eating meat) and fasting. I slipped up on my very first day of Lent by not eating breakfast when I should have just eaten a smaller lunch and dinner. I ended up lightheaded and sick feeling from what I suspect was low blood sugar. I also accidentally ate meat. Who knew this would be so hard? But in general, the not eating meat has been laughably easy since Carrie has been staying with me and cooking vegetarian dinners for us. I usually go to lunch with work friends on Friday but tuna is an easy substitute for 'real' meat. BUT having to remember the rule serves the purpose of reminding me about why I'm doing it---oh yeah, that Great Jesus thing.

Today I finally went to Stations of the Cross, which consists of communal prayers said at each of 14 pictures stationed around the church. The point is to meditate on 14 aspects of the Passion narrative. I expected people to show up out of feelings of obligation (part of why I went), distractedly read off some prayers, and leave glad to be able to check off one more thing on the Lenten To Do list. I was a little concerned when I walked in and there were no more prayer books available, thinking this might be a disorganized mess. But as I shuffled into the pew I was impressed with the quiet seriousness of the group.

I did not anticipate the emotional experience about to unfold. The theme of this particular version of the stations was the experience through Mary's eyes. She watches her son suffer but knows that it has to be so. She silently cries and silently prays and silently follows. There were a lot of men and a lot of women both young and old in the pews and almost everyone was sniffling or hiding their face or drying their eyes. Whoa. Intense. It reminded me of when I sat trembling with dry sobs as I tried to sing at my boss's funeral with his engineers sniffing back tears on either side of me. The moving thing about Catholic sorrow is that it's sorrow mixed with expectant hope, which is a beautiful kind of sadness.

I never knew that my boss was (is?) Catholic until he died. What a surreal experience to attend a Catholic mass with upwards of 100 scientists and engineers! I was glad I sat next to a certain coworker when he hesitatingly crossed himself at the beginning of the Mass. I'm not sure how I would have overcome my performance anxiety if I were stuck between a bunch of stoic and silent old dudes. It was pretty intense having all of those people together at the same time remembering this man. I was struck with a mix of emotions including most prominently grief and hope. To me it felt like a going away party, with key people giving advice and toasts and the rest of us there for celebration and moral support. A story started to play out in my head of a young European couple marrying and then setting off for America (sort of like Far and Away without the class discrimination), where they may never be heard from again. This is what the Church says happened to my boss, I thought. He was united with his Beloved and he is now somewhere beyond our reach, until we finally join him in that place, or state of being, or whatever it is. What a beautiful way to achieve some sort of closure.

One check box remains on my Lenten To Do list: my pre-confession confession. Multiple people, including Father Bill, have suggested that us catechumens make a sort of practice confession before we get baptized. It's a practice confession because we can't do the real thing until after we're baptized, since through baptism we die to our old life and are born into a new life in Christ with a clean slate. So yeah, basically those of us who haven't been baptized get out of confession on the Constantine technicality (he supposedly waited to be baptized on his death bed). A lot of people I've talked to are terrified about this idea of confession but I see it as something like free therapy. I mean, there is now a person who is literally obligated to listen to me whine and complain and to comfort and encourage me that things will get better--what's not to like about that?

Three more weeks until I die to Old Sarah and become New Sarah! Unless I go all St. Francis of Assisi and rush off naked into a life of absolute poverty there should be another update soon.