Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Holy Innocents – Part I

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more." (Matthew 2:16-18)

My youngest foster-brother was born into hell. I remember him a tiny baby nursing, so sick at a few months old he could hardly breathe, stuffing marshmallows in his mouth as one of my foster sisters and I wheeled him down the street on his first birthday. And I remember my foster father spanking him at a few months later because he didn’t want to wear the red corduroy pants, the ugly marks left when his hands and legs were slapped because he reached for something fragile, or spilled his milk, or did not want to be changed, his horrible cries of pain.

By three, he delighted in hitting me with his large plastic train. When I hid behind the rocker, my foster father would pull it away so he could get to me: he was just a baby. He couldn’t hurt me. Why was I making such a fuss? His mother died when he was three and a half; he did not understand. Neither did he understand why it was wrong to chase me, towel in one hand a butcher’s knife in the other, so that he could make the “blood streamed banner” he sang about in the children’s choir. But then he also didn’t understand the beatings, the incessant flow of verbal abuse, the locks on the food cupboards and refrigerator, the neglect, or any of the other indignities and offenses that filled his life. He was just a baby, born into a house filled with furious rage and only I knew to weep for him when I wasn’t fleeing him. When he was seven or so, I told my foster siblings that I was afraid of what he would grow up to be if something wasn’t done about his father.

He was nine when I left and still very much a baby, teased by his siblings and foster siblings for being fat, for being stupid, for being a virgin. But his face had passed from the sweetness of babyhood to a permanent state of confusion and of something else, something scary. He doted on the fish in the pond and pulled salamanders from under it to dissect on the kitchen table while they were still alive. Package after package of salt disappeared and we discovered he was using it to melt snails. One afternoon, I came upon him trying to chop off my dog’s tail. He seemed to enjoy killing and maiming; the adults were amused by it. Later I learned that as he entered his teen years, he had become increasingly angry. At fifteen, the last child in that house, he stabbed his father over and over and over, continued stabbing him after he was dead.

Often, we want to demand that God intervene – just in this one instance. He should prevent, should somehow fix things so that children have an opportunity to grow up before being attacked by the horrors of this world. How can he possibly allow little children to be scandalized, to have their consciences offended, to suffer the sharp swords of Herod’s soldiers? But all that is only distraction from the real question: Why doesn’t God protect little children from us?

We are Herod. We are his soldiers. We hurt children, abuse them, kill them. We ignore their cries, their pleas for help, their needs. We may harangue God, may insist he is callous and hateful, but our tirades only serve to distract us from the crimes we commit against babies, against children, against little helpless people who cannot understand the hells we make for them.

Freedom is a terrible gift: We are free to choose to be made like God, free to try to be gods. When we try to be gods, we cut ourselves off from God and become diabolic, create parodies of hell, destroy those we should love and protect. And God does not undo our choices: if freedom is to be free, consequences must be real. When we choose to destroy, there will be victims and children make excellent ones: it is so easy to impose our will on them, so easy to destroy them.

Abusers do not admit that they are destroying children. They are teaching them, correcting them, giving children what they need, what they deserve, what they are asking for. Fond of quoting scripture, my foster father, a Southern Baptist minister, had often repeated, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

I was not surprised to hear that my foster brother had killed his father. He did what he was taught to do. And I do not know if at that moment, my fifteen year-old foster brother was free to choose or if his pain overwhelmed him and all he could do was lash out in an attempt to end it. But I do pray that he and my foster siblings and all victims of abuse will choose to depart from our training, will choose to seek healing. And I pray for my continued healing. We can set up our own hells but they will be no better and can be much worse than the hells others created for us. We can become Herod or we can be like St. Joseph and our Blessed Mother – destroy or love and protect ourselves and the children God brings into our lives. We could not choose then. Though it is painful and heartbreaking, we can now.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Matthew

Matthew died half an hour before I met him. As we entered the hospice, a nurse met Sr. Josephine and me and asked that we go and pray over his body. I do not like dead bodies but I felt the familiar intense tingling that told me this was important so I followed the sister to the small back room where he lay.

As we walked along, the nurse told us a little about him. Drugs had ruled most of Matthew's brief life; he was about thirty. Just before Halloween, he had taken an overdose; no one knew if it was accidental. Matthew had been in a coma for about a month. His brain still functioned but medical science knew no way to wake him. His older brother had died of AIDS in this same hospice a year earlier and when the doctors determined that death was certain, Matthew’s family had arranged for their younger son to die also in this familiar place. Half an hour after his arrival, while the nurses were still settling him, Matthew died.

The nurse opened the door and we breathed in sweetness. A clear, high, just within range of hearing chorus filled the room with a song of joy. Peace welcomed us into its richness. Heaven was rejoicing here in this room, invited us to add our voices to its song.

“Can you hear it?” I asked Sr. Josephine. “Yes,” she replied as she opened her prayer book to the prayers for the dead. I followed suit and our prayers joined the song:

“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Matthew. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.” (from the Book of Common Prayer)*

Whatever dissipations he had indulged in, whatever sufferings and torments he and life had heaped upon his soul, something had happened to Matthew while he lay in coma. I believe some cleansing, some healing, some radical change had come into the young man whose body lay on the bed. And now, in this place that should have been so terribly sad, heaven sang Alleluia.

This was almost too rich for human presence. I was nearly exhausted with wonder and was glad when we fell into silence. It was very good to be here but I could not stay very long. The experience was too big. Actually, I was too little. I wanted to leap into a grande jetes. I wanted to sit quietly and let it encompass me. Sr. Josephine sent me out of the room; tears began to flow as soon as I closed the door.

The operation of heaven in this young man’s life, its condescension were overwhelming. I wondered if Matthew had been like a broken limb that must be immobilized in order to heal. I wondered that God would do it, would immobilize this little lost sheep who must have been filled with terror, unable to seek healing without enormous help. I believed that God would do anything to find us, knew that heaven rejoices when we are found, but I had never seen it like this before.

The risk that heaven took was heart breaking. What if even a coma had not been enough? What if the suffering he had undergone during these past weeks had not led to this?

Yet now heaven sang Alleluia. What should have been an occasion of great sadness was a time of immense gratitude and joy.


* I was a member of the Anglican Communion at the time and was discerning whether I had a vocation. Though the community was mostly contemplative and becoming more and more so, the hospice was their one external ministry.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rebellion

Two nights ago I lay awake after I had said my prayers and read enough to be nice and drowsy. Sleep would not come. I was not hungry. I was neither too hot nor too cold. There was nothing preying on my mind. I had taken my medication and my vitamins. It was none of the usual culprits. The air in the apartment was extremely dry, it recently became cold enough in New York for the heat to come on. The pain in my sinuses was terrible but surely it would not keep me awake. I lay awake in the dark wondering why sleep eluded me and fussing at God.

In my study, two doors away, the humidifier I use in the winter was out ready to be filled when the air became dry. But I was too tired and decided to do it another night. Then I remembered the trivia quiz that I must submit before the end of the day. Since forfeiting was unacceptable, I got up, went into my study, booted my laptop and completed the quiz. I decided I was much too tired to carry the humidifier down the hall to the kitchen and went back to bed. A while later I got up, passed my study and continued on to the bathroom but decided I was just too tired to deal with the humidifier. Finally, about a quarter of two, I decided I would not sleep, got up and filled the humidifier. Over the next hour and a half, as I waited for the pain to subside, I told God that I am exceedingly stupid, that I might have been asleep already, that lack of sleep meant the next day would be awful. Finally I said, “You know what the problem is, don’t you? I’m in rebellion against you.”

It’s true. I am in rebellion against God though my actions don’t look or feel like rebellion. I’m certainly not doing anything as horrid as Lucifer did (whatever it was) to be thrown out of heaven. My actions can’t be as bad as Eve’s or Adam’s. Most people probably would not consider them rebellious at all. But I can’t escape the truth. In its tiny little way, my rebellion is absolutely real.

I was angry that night. I have lived with illness much of my life but until four or five years ago, I could usually ignore it. Now I can’t. And sometimes, much of the time, I just want it not to be real, not to be in my life. Certainly pain and fatigue and feeling like crap are no fun. But what I really hate is all the work. I don’t want to wake an hour early to take the one prescription that will only fit into my schedule at that time. I don’t like that I must be closely attentive to my diet to be certain that I get enough protein. I don’t want to need to remember to remove my contacts as soon as I get home and use eye drops. I don’t want to have so many medical appointments. There is a long list of things I don’t want to do and that night, filling that humidifier was just another thing on the list and the list was just too long.

My rebellion isn’t limited to an occasional humidifier incident or skipped pill. I rebel every single day, sometimes many times a day. It’s so easy for me to begin reading a book because I don’t feel like getting dressed in the morning. I will ignore a necessary task because I’m just not in the mood. I will even put off buying something I need, even food, because I’d rather watch reruns of (the original) Star Trek than go to the store. Reality is often not to my liking.

There’s something petty and inept about my rebelling. Big rebelliousness would require an awful lot of work and I’m much too lazy. Perhaps if there was a lot of unguarded money lying about or if it was easier to remember to hate or if I didn’t get distracted when devising interesting things to do to the people who annoy me or if I could think of how to kill someone without becoming utterly disgusted and knew how to dispose of the body effectively, I might do something really spectacular. But I’m usually limited to some sort of pout.

My rebellion is effective though. I excel at exacerbating my sufferings, even at creating suffering. I’ve missed many nights of sleep because I was pouting at God. I’ve been cold and hungry and had really gloomy days because I refused to do something that I felt I shouldn’t have to do anyway. As a teenager, I ignored increasing pain in my foot until the injury was so bad I was forced to give up ballet because I didn't want anything to interfere with my dancing. (I’ve been rebelling since I was a child.) And because I had better things to do, I ignored my worsening health for months until my skin was literally breaking apart because of malabsorption and my oxygen intake was down to 29% of normal. Certainly others are affected, perhaps more than I know, but I always, always hurt myself, sometimes very badly.

And I have absolutely no excuse. My life has been very difficult but God has cared for me, has been a palpable presence to me as long as I can remember. In fact, I have absolutely no memory of a time without him. I have been without people, I have never been without God. Even before I had language to express it I knew, people might do horrible things to me but that wasn’t God’s fault, wasn’t God’s desire. My life is evidence that God is trustworthy, evidence that he loves me. I know I am very, very fortunate. I have what I need. I have enough: a humidifier, food, medication, clothing, some of the best doctors around, a job with excellent health benefits, even an alarm clock that reliably wakes me so that I can take the first pill of the day. All I must do is toss out my list and use what God has provided.

There is only one reason I rebel, I want to be exempt from living in this broken, sinful world. I want the world to be as I think it should be. I want to be as I think I should be, as I know I should be, something greater, something not limited by all the silliness of this reality. I am aware of an immense desire to be free from the discomforts and restrictions of life on earth. I am Eve’s daughter; I even want God to be as I think he should be. Chances are I would have listened to the serpent too even though I love God. But I don’t love him enough so that I consistently obey his command to love as I have been loved, even when I am the person I should be loving, even when I know the cost of disobeying him is suffering.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Those Damnably Inconvenient Corpses – Part III

In the book of Job, Satan is depicted as an accuser who insists that Job only loves God because God has blessed him. He desires to prove his point by harming Job, first destroying all that he has including his children and then, when Job’s response fails to fulfill Satan’s expectations, by afflicting him with noisome boils all over his body. It is a cruel stroke. Not only does Satan deprive Job of his health but also of his community.

Job contains an excellent snapshot of Satan: always looking for evil in God’s creation, looking for evil in us, desiring to harm us in any way he can, out to separate us from ourselves, from community, from God. The ancients Israelites accurately depicted Satan then and he hasn’t changed.

He was calm. Concerned for me. Concerned for marmar. He waved us back but his focus was on them. I have no auditory memory of his last words but I understood their meaning then as I do now: ‘You needn’t do this thing.’ They had choice. They behaved as if there were no possibilities. Like Adam and Eve, they had suppressed God’s voice until there was no memory of that which would have caused them to laugh at themselves in disbelief or bawl because they contemplated committing such horrors. So they followed even when they were led away from being human.

If we have enough courage to examine suffering closely, we will find “hatred for God and his kingdom.” (1) We will find Satan – not as a curiosity, nor as a convenient name for evil, nor as a metaphor for the process of maturation in which we separate from our parents and become autonomous, but as an actual being. Paul’s principalities and powers and “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (2) are not just bad feelings and inclinations. We are involved in something more than a psychological exercise. We are involved in a real fight with real casualties.

We don’t want to believe in the existence of Satan. He’s something out of a past we think best left behind, a past full of unimaginable ignorance. We are convinced ignorance saw demonic possession where there was only illness, saw the devil in normal behaviour, saw the wiles of Satan instead of the backwardness of society. Today we are wise. We have explained the devil away. And though we have learned much through science and through psychology and medicine, if we are honest, we know we have not been able to rid ourselves of Satan. We hear his voice insisting we can do quite well without God. Satan’s power is not the brilliant spectacle depicted in horror films or in science fiction and fantasy. He is a being with a seductive voice who lured our first parents into disobeying God and today is still “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” (3) We are his prey. We are the casualties.

Since our first parents listened to him, we have been prone to give credence to that voice sounding in our hearts and, through the voice of a stranger, the voice of a loved one, in our ears. His promise to us is the same as it was to them. We are to be like God knowing good and evil. Satan seeks to frighten us, mislead us, entice us into joining his rebellion not for our good, and certainly not so that we can be free from the shackles of ignorance and superstition. In a hideous parody of God’s ultimate plan for us, we are to be free to hate and destroy, to enslave others, to be enslaved, to be so familiar with evil that we hate good – we are to be free to be like Satan.

We play into Satan hands by convincing ourselves that he is merely a figment of our imaginations. In truth, we have been born into a war zone where we are “obliged to wrestle constantly if [we] are to cling to what is good.” (4) But if we will not even admit his existence, his battle is won. We are like the dwarves in the C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle sitting impotently in the darkness. We can only fight him if we will acknowledge his existence and seek help. At times I wonder what might have happened if our first parents had told the serpent they’d get back to him after their stroll with God. (5) How might the story have been different for all of creation? We cannot know but we do know that through heeding Satan’s enticement to disobey, they lost humanity’s original holiness and justice and now, against Satan, the strongest of us is less powerful than a newborn fighting an adult. Alone we can never hope to withstand him.

The scandal of Christianity is that God has not treated us at all as we did him. Though we chose to rebel, God has chosen to enter the war and fight for us not as supreme commander transmitting orders from a safe, distant place but as one of us, subject to the same battles that beset each of us each day. He enters into the fray against the forces that seek to destroy us and is betrayed and executed as an enemy of the people; he is the supreme casualty. The story should end there and if you or I were the author, it would. But where we would end, God makes a new beginning. Though war rages, the outcome is sure, God will win. He has neutralized the enemy’s best weapon: fear of death. And by becoming man, “by taking [our] manhood into God,” (6) he has made it possible for us to participate in his victory if we will turn away from that insidious voice, if we reject Satan’s ‘freedom’ and instead be set free to be fully human, to grow into God’s image and likeness, to love him so much that even the wiles of the devil can only make us more like him.

I sat on the floor in the church between the coffins Рone for grandpére, one for Ti. The adults cried but I did not understand why. Lying there crumpled against the wall, he had not been unhappy, had not been in pain. He had been concerned for me, for marmar, for them. I could recall his face. And even now, he was more calm, more still, more full of peace, more my grandpére.

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1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 395
2. Ephesians 6:12
3. 1 Peter 5:8
4. Gaudium et Spes
5. Genesis 3:8
6. The Athanasian Creed