Paradoxes

In today’s Gospel (Luke 9:25), Jesus reveals a paradox:

whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

Holding on to ourselves closes us in and so we die; but letting go of ourselves, losing control, handing ourselves over, can open us to new life.

But there’s another paradox I’d like to share today, the anniversary of the death of A. J. Muste in 1967 at 82 years of age.

“One has to be both a resister and a reconciler to be an effective pacifist. You have to be sure that when you’re reconciling you’re also resisting any tendency to gloss things over; and when you’re primarily resisting, you have to be careful not to hate, not to win victories over human beings. You want to change people, but you don’t want to defeat them.”

Paradoxes teach us that it is not always black and white – and that doesn’t mean that everything is grey. For me, it means that the truth is found in the ongoing dialogue, the ongoing paradox, the living in the midst of paradox and ambiguity.

AJ Muste seems to me to be one who lived with conviction – but int he midst of paradoxes.

Abraham Johannes Muste, born in the Netherlands, was raised in Michigan. After college he taught for a few years at what is now Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. After seminary he served for several years as a minister of the Reformed Church. He would subsequently pass through several denominations, before joining the communist Workers Party.

After several years he returned to a faith based on the Sermon of the Mount and advocated an activist pacifism. He was for several years the executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization.

When he retired from that role, he continued to be an advocate for justice, peace and nonviolence – protesting nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and the draft. A year before his death he was arrested protesting outside the US Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam. A few weeks before his death he visited North Vietnam to see the effects of the US bombing.

One of the most striking photos of A J is his climbing over the fence at a Nebraska missile base.

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Unworthy yet graced

Last Sunday’s readings reflected a sense of human unworthiness.

Isaiah protests (Isaiah 6:1-8),

I am a man of unclean lips.

Peter protests (Luke 5: 1-11),

Depart from me, Lord for I am a sinful man.

Even Paul protests (15: 1-11).

[I am] not fit to be called an apostle.

Is this just a reaffirmation of a faith that crushes people, that keeps people down by promoting a low self-esteem?

It might seem so. But, when I look at myself honestly, I realize that I am inadequate, I am not complete, I am not perfect.

I often have the illusion that I should be able to do it all, to do it always right. But reality often hits me in the face.

I cannot.

But, for we who believe in a God who became flesh for and with us, this is not the final word.

God sends an ember to cleanse the lips of Isaiah. Jesus calls Peter to follow him, to get up off his knees and go forward.

But Paul puts it most clearly and succinctly:

By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace in me has not been useful, not been sterile, not been in vain, to no purpose, empty.

Dorothy Day once noted that “The sense of futility is one of the greatest evils of the day.”

But she realized that God worked with her, in her – and made of her smallest acts a sign of God’s love and grace.

Yes, she experienced “the long loneliness,” as she entitled her autobiography. But she also experienced the grace of God – which came to her in a special way with the joy of motherhood.

Recognizing our need of God and others, our dependence, can free us from dependency on ourselves and from the frustration of not being able to be perfect. It can open us to God’s love.

Last year, while reading a book by James Keating on the diaconate, I cam across this quote:

[The deacon] is to receive an intimacy from God that makes him feel uncomfortable, because it makes him know that the love given by the Trinity to the alienated and the lonely is first given to him.

This brought me great consolation in the midst of a time when I was feeling a bit disconcerted and disconnected – alone. I felt a strong sense of both my sinfulness and God’s mercy. Not one or the other – both.

The next day I went to a Mass in the neighboring village. It was the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Later I found there words in one of her letters (#226):

I expect as much from God’s justice as from His mercy. It is because He is just that “He is compassionate and filled with gentleness, slow to punish, and abundant in mercy, for He knows our frailty, He remembers that we are only dust. As a father has tenderness or his children, so the Lord has compassion on us!”

This gives me great joy – and a great lesson to begin Lent.

A Sudanese saint and human trafficking

I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labor. Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.
Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, ¶ 211

Today the Church celebrates a Sudanese sister who had been for many years a slave, a victim of human trafficking. Saint Josephina Bakhita transformed her suffering into service of others as a Canossian sister in northern Italy.

Born in the Darfur region of Sudan, she was kidnapped into slavery when she was about seven years old. Sold several times – and seriously maltreated at least twice – she was eventually sold to an Italian consul who took her back with his family to Venice, Italy. There the consul gave Bakhita to a friend who entrusted her with care of their daughter.

To make a long story short, the daughter and Bakhita were sent to the Canossian sisters. There Bakhita learned about the Catholic faith. Her “owners” wanted to take her back to Sudan where they had a hotel but she refused. The owners insisted but the Canossian sisters and the Patriarch of Venice took the side of Bakhita who was baptized and given the name Josephine. To the owners’ surprise, Josephine was freed, since slavery was prohibited in Italy.

She joined the Canossian sisters and spent more than fifty years in simple tasks in several convents, supporting her sisters with her work and her prayers.

This morning as I prayed over the life of St. Josephine, I recalled several people from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, where I worked for many years.

I recall the families, especially Paula and Jim, who took in some of the Lost Boys of Sudan and made them a part of their lives.

I remember the large number of Sudanese Catholics who were a part of the St. Thomas parish.

I also remember a precocious high school student in religious ed, Luis, who has become a major advocate in the fight against human trafficking, even within the US State Department.

I remember the commitment of these people, as well as the suffering of the Sudanese people – even now – and the continuing scourge of human trafficking and poorly paid workers.

These people inspire me to continue the small ways I feel called to help people recall and recover their dignity, as children of God.

 

Fear that enslaves

Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them,
that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death,
that is, the Devil,
and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.
Hebrews 2: 14-15

This passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, which I was surprised to see is today’s second reading, fills me with hope.

Fear of death does not need to enslave us. That is the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

I see so much fear in our world.

Here in Honduras I hear the fear of gangs and crime that people in the big cities express (and that is found in the US State Department warnings about travel to Honduras – and also El Salvador). I hear it in the concerns of people around me about crime, violence, poverty, and more.

I have noted that fear in what I have been reading about the presidential campaigns in the US, especially expressed in fear of the Other – Syrians, Latin Americans, and more.

But I recall the beautiful essay of Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation, “The Root of War is Fear.”

At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.

But today in the Gospel (Luke 2: 22-40), Simeon tells Mary that her Son is the Light of the nations but that he is also a sign of contradiction that will cause a sword to pierce her heart.

How can we go beyond the fear of death, how can we be freed from that fear?

Perhaps it means taking seriously the words that the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp wrote from a Nazi prison, especially the words he italicized:

The fate of mankind, my own fate, the verdict awaiting me, the significance of the feast, can all be summed up in the sentence surrender thyself to God and thou shalt find thyself again. Others have you in their power now; they torture and frighten you, hound you from pillar to post. But the inner law of freedom sings that no death can kill us; life is eternal.

But i also think it includes loving, for “love casts out far.” (1 John 4: 18)

Lord, free us from the fear of death and bring us to love.

Tough words of rejected prophets

When St. John Bosco told his mother, a poor widow, that he planned to become a priest, she told him, “If you have the misfortune to get rich, I shall not set foot in your house again.”

When Thomas Merton, in 1949, wrote to the class of Sister Marialein Lorenz,

“I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.”

When Jesus spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth of the mercy of God even for a foreign widow from Sidon and a foreign general from Syria (Luke 4: 21-30), his hearers wanted to throw him off a cliff.

The foreigners, the widows, the poor hold a special place in God’s love. We who are rich need to be more carful and caring, opening our hearts (and our pocketbooks) to the poor, being with them, sharing their joys and sorrows.

Isn’t this what real love, God’s love, is all about.

———–

Today is the feast of Don Bosco who died in 1888 and the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton in 1915.

The horrors of King David

I was horrified this morning as I read 1 Samuel 11 – not just the edited version of the lectionary, but the whole chapter.

King David was terrible.

  • He sends out his troops in battle but stays home in Jerusalem.
  • He sees the wife of a foreigner who is fighting for him and lusts after her.
  • He sends messengers to get her to come to him. He goes to bed with her.
  • When he finds out she’s pregnant he tries to find a way to hide it.
  • He sends for the foreigner who is fighting for him and tells him to go home and have sex with his wife. He even sends a present after him.
  • The foreigner, more just than David, refuses and instead sleeps with the other troops at the palace door. The foreigner had sworn by God and by king David that he would not do it and he is true to his word – as well as to God and king David.
  • Then David gets him drunk so that he’ll go home, have sex with his wife, and cover up David’s adultery.
  • The foreigner, although drunk, refuses.
  • David is distraught. So he sends a message to his commander by means of the foreigner that tells his commander to find a way to do away with the foreigner, disguising it as an act of battle. David not only commands a killing; he sends the message through the person who he wants killed.
  • David’s commander arranges for the foreigner to be killed by a strategic move during a battle. Other soldiers are also killed.
  • David gets the word. He’s first angry at the defeat but is appeased when he finds out the foreigner is killed.
  • After the foreigner’s wife finished the time of mourning, David took her into his palace as another of his wives.

David was a sinner – and Psalm 51 is perhaps the only decent response to these acts.

But are we any better?

You may have noticed that I did not use the names of Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba his wife, or Joab. David treated them not as persons but as things to be manipulated for his pleasure and power.

Do we do that?

Also, are we not often like David in other ways? I remember the honest answer of Jimmy Carter to the question about whether he had ever committed adultery. Carter recalled that he had committed adultery in his heart.

And how many times are we not like David in trying to cover up our sins and the results of our sin? We may not kill someone to do this but we sometimes try to manipulate persons or the facts in order to cover up our sins. Or we may try to kill another’s reputation by blaming our faults on another.

I think I see some of this happening in the US primary campaigns and in the corrupt politics here in Honduras. But I must also ask myself, “How much am I like king David?”

Horror of horrors.

But God is merciful.

Have mercy on me God in your kindness;
in your compassion blot out my offense….
Psalm 51

Teaching how to fish is not enough

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…
to preach Good News to the Poor.
Luke 4: 18-19

There are bishops who are good news to the poor.

Five years ago today Bishop Samuel Ruiz, retired bishop of San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico, passed on to his Lord.

A defender of the indigenous, he was loved by the poor but vilified by the rich and powerful. He developed a diaconate program among the indigenous in his diocese, which was eventually squelched by Vatican authorities. But when Pope Francis visits Mexico he will, according to reports, visit the tomb of Jtatic Samuel.

I visited the tomb in late January 2012 and saw it adorned with flowers.

Don Samuel's tomb

Tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

I wrote about him in an earlier post, where I also mentioned Sister Dorothy Marie Hennessey, another witness for the poor. But today I want to share this reflection of Don Samuel which appeared in Catholic Peace Ministry Newsletter, June 2000:

      It’s a very well known saying that if someone offers you a fish, you don’t take it. You ask him to teach you how to fish.
So, Pedro learns how to fish. He goes to the store and he says, “I want to buy a net and I want to buy a hook,” And the owner of the store says, “Uh, what’s going on here, Pedro? You learned how to fish?”
He says, “Yeah, I learned how to fish.” Then the owner says to him, “OK, but what you didn’t know is you have to sell me a portion of your fish.” And Pedro says, “OK,” and he goes out and starts fishing.
He’s on the edge of the lake and soon he feels somebody tapping on his shoulder and somebody is standing there, telling him, “What’s going on here? You can’t be fishing here. This is private land.” And so they push him off.
Pedro has been given a skill, but that’s not enough. You can work on the “development” of the individual person, but the other half of that is working on the structural injustices.
The only question at the end of our lives is about entering the Reign of God: the reign prepared for those who visited the least of their sisters and brothers in jail and who fed them when they were hungry, the reign which those who reject the poor will not enter.
So the ultimate question is not a question of orthodoxy [right belief] but of orthopraxy [right practice].
The final question is not was I right or wrong but did I love my sisters and brothers or not. Whether I was loving my brothers or sisters or not — that is the only question.

May Don Samuel inspire all of us to be Good News to the poor – accompanying them and working to change the structures that keep them impoverished.