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]

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