Monthly Archives: November 2015

The misery and the beauty

On November 30, 1943, a Dutch Jewish woman died in Auschwitz – one of millions killed by the Nazis for being Jewish or “different” in other ways.

Many years later, the diary of Etty Hillesum came to light.

One passage that struck me reveals her depth – able and willing to see beauty even when surrounded by misery, suffering, and the horrors of evil.

It all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful, and I believe in God. And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call horror and still be able to say: life is beautiful. Yes, I lie here in a corner, parched and dizzy and feverish and unable to do a thing. Yet I am also with the jasmine and the piece of sky beyond my window. There is room for everything in a single life: for a miserable end and for belief in God.

Advent is a time of waiting in the midst of darkness. It is a time to contemplate the misery of the world, the people who live in misery (which is often a term indicating extreme poverty). It is a time to not turn away from the suffering but to face it – with faith and with hope.

In the midst of the Nazi Holocaust, Etty Hllesum could call upon her belief in God to sustain her. She nurtured this belief by prayer. As she wrote on May 18, 1942:

The threat grows ever greater, and terror increases from day to day. I draw prayer round me like a dark protective wall, withdraw inside it as one might into a convent cell and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again. I can imagine times to come when I shall stay on my knees for days on end waiting until the protective walls are strong enough to prevent my going to pieces altogether, my being lost and utterly devastated.

We live in dark times but God is a protecting wall – but not a wall that keeps us isolated from the evil and the pain of others, but a wall that sustains us to see and respond in love to the evil around us.

I think today also of Pope Francis who went to a war-zone, the Central African Republic, and even visited a mosque in an area surrounded by “Christian” militia – not afraid to confront evil.

Would that I had such faith and courage.

Dorothy Day and Advent Love

May the Lord make you increase and abound
in love
for one another and for all.
1 Thessalonians 3:12

Dorothy Day died thirty five years ago today, November 29, 1980.

An ardent pacifist and advocate for the poor, she was an anomaly in her day – and even now. She combined a deep love of God and a profound piety with a life of commitment to the poor and to peace.

So it is astounding that Pope Francis noted her in his address to the US Congress a few month ago:

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

Her message of radical personal and social change was clear and rooted in her faith. In June 1946 she wrote:

What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of workers, of the poor, of the destitute—the rights of the worthy and unworthy poor, in other words—we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.
We repeat, there is nothing that we can do but love, and dear God —please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.

In the midst of the violence and the cries for war, in the midst of poverty throughout the world and the masses of refugees fleeing war and unrest, her message of Gospel love is so needed.

So this Advent is a time to open our hearts to love and to commit ourselves to see the face of Christ in all – friend and foe – and love them in deeds and in truth.

Do not quench the Spirit!

Advent has begun, in the midst of the darkness of winter in the northern hemisphere, in the midst of fears in the face of violence, in the midst of continuing war and poverty throughout the world.

As the sun set I sat and prayed evening prayer.

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Sunset tonight

The first verse of the reading for Franciscan Morning and Evening Praise was 1 Thessalonians 5:19:

Do not quench the Spirit.

But so much around us tries to quench the Spirit.

But that has often happened, as Jeremiah noted. But the first reading from the lectionary is about the promise of God to raise up one “who will do justice and right in the land.

How much do we long for this.

But even more the Lord promises that the city of Jerusalem, that has been a place of injustice and idolatry, will be called “The Lord, our Justice.”

It seems too much.

To try to understand, I opened Dan Berrigan’s Jeremiah: The World, the Wound of God, pp. 146-7.

Fr. Dan calls us to constantly recall the promise.

“We too have been known to lose heart in evil times, under the soft savagery of the culture (and not so soft after all; consult the people subject to the bombs of our unsoft hands….
“And the declared enemies of the empire are by no means the only one assaulted. Against us also wars are declared, even though in a different form. This form: the dimming of vision.”

The dimming of vision, the loss of hope for the Lord, our Justice, is damning; it leads us to lose sight of God and of our very selves. We fall into fear and even despair.

We forget the promise. We forget our call. We quench the Spirit.

Reading an article in Goodness and Light, I came across this quote from Marianne Williamson, which is a call to revive the Spirit, to remember the call, to make the promise real.

You are a child of God. Your playing small for not serve the world… We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us…

Remembering this, we can reflect the Light of God in the darkness of our world.

This might be a good Advent practice, asking ourselves every day how I can reflect that light, that vision, that Spirit, which gives us the promise of “The Lord, our Justice.”

 

Gratitude

Yesterday a visitor from Ames and I spent the day with Padre German.

We first went to Mass in Pasquingual where Padre German gave a forceful sermon. What I most remember was his remarks about the reading from the book of Daniel, chapter 5, about the banquet feast where the king used the gold and silver cups and plates of the temple.

Among many points, he suggested that to be eating off of gold and silver plates means that we have gotten all this by oppressing others, from stealing from others. I had never read that passage in that way, but it makes a lot of sense, especially here in Honduras.

After Mass we returned to the parish center where a meal was ready for us – but not on gold plates.

In the afternoon we headed for El Prado de la Cruz for a Mass, remembering a man from the community who had died a year ago. The Mass was delayed because of a community meeting and so we got back to Dulce Nombre late.

Before getting to the parish to pick up my car, Padre wanted to stop to visit an ill older man.

We found where he lived and went to the simple room where this 93 year old man lay on his cot. He was weak and a bit deaf but he was full of life and even joy. His daughter-in-law took care of him since he couldn’t get up and walk.

We stayed around as Padre German talked with him, amazed at his joy despite being confined to bed.

The family brought us coffee and sweat bread.

One of the sons came and his wife, the daughter-in-law explained how she cared for him. She even mentioned that her husband had recently had back surgery.

I could not help thinking about the years where I cared for my father when he was confined to bed for the last years of his life.

I was filled with a deep gratitude for this old man and those who cared for him.

As we drove back to the parish center to pick up my car, tears filled my eyes as I recalled my father and this old man.

They were not tears of sorrow but tears of gratitude – for the woman and her husband who cared for the old man, for the opportunity I had to care for Dad, for the life and deep joy of the man confined to his bed, and for the gift of playfulness that my Dad gave me.

For all this I am grateful – and today just happens to beThanksgiving.

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Dad and I

The non-existent patroness of philosophers

Bernardo_Daddi_-_St_Catherine_of_Alexandria_with_Donor_and_Christ_Blessing_-_WGA05852Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of philosophers.

There is only one problem. She probably didn’t exist.

But the legend is fantastic and fascinating.

She was brought before the emperor and tried to convince him about Christ. He was flabbergasted and brought in fifty of his philosophers to argue with this woman.

But the emperor’s attempt to win Catherine over backfired.

She ended up convincing the philosophers who professed their belief in Christ before the emperor. They subsequently lost their heads – philosopher martyrs!

The emperor sent her to jail. (There are some reports that he didn’t kill her right away because he wanted her as his consort – typical macho emperor.)

But Catherine could not be stopped. She converted the jailor, two hundred of the imperial guard, and even the emperor’s wife – all of whom were martyred for the faith.

The frustrated emperor tried to kill her by placing her between two spiked wheels. She touched them and they broke into thousands of pieces and killed some bystanders. (She’s also the patroness of wheelwrights!)

Finally he had her beheaded.

But the story doesn’t end there. Angels came and carried her body off to Mount Sinai where there is now an Orthodox monastery – St. Catherine’s.

There is much we could learn from St. Catherine’s story.

I particularly call to mind two women philosophers who influenced me – Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil. But I also recall women theologians, including the Catalan Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades who recently wrote a book on Weil and Dorothy Day, Por amor a la justicia, which I hope I can find and read some day soon.

But I think Robert Ellsberg puts it well, at the end of his meditation of St. Catherine in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time:

She [Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

What makes for peace

If this day you only knew what makes for peace
—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
Luke 19: 42

Jesus cries even today,
because we have preferred the ways of war,
the way of hate, the way of being enemies.
Pope Francis, 19 November 2015 

As war fever mounts, it might be useful to consider these words from an essay of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton from “The Root of War Is Fear.”

The essay can be found in New Seeds of Contemplation. But when it was first published in The Catholic Worker, it included the following words in an introduction which are not found in the original book.

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.

First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.

At the end of the essay Merton reflects on what we should be praying for when we pray for peace.

So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed— but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

So today in the wake of violence let us pray for peace, for our conversion to the way of the Christ of peace, for the abolition of war.

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From the church “Dominus flevit” in Jerusalem

 

Like stars in the darkness

In the midst of the terror in Paris and Beirut in the past week, while thousands flee the violence in Syria, while many remember the terror and the killings in Kenya and Nigeria, while war and bombing continues to kill many in the Middle East and elsewhere, while hospitals are bombed, while violence and hunger leaves many victims throughout the world, many feel as if the end of the world is at hand. Many feel, as we read in today’s first reading from the prophet Daniel 12: 1-3, that we live in a time “unsurpassed in distress.”

Many have felt this throughout history. The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem felt like the end of the world to the Jews. The fall of Rome to the “barbarians” felt like the end of civilization. The black plague led many to think that the end of the world was at hand.

But Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, Mark 13:32, that no one, but the Father, knows the day and the hour.

Yet, I ask, what can we do in the midst of the darkness?

The last line of the reading from Daniel can give us hope and also challenge us:

Those who lead the many to justice
will shine like the stars forever.

There are many voices that would lead us to the supposed justice of vengeance and extermination of our “enemies.”

But there are voices that urge us to the justice, the righteousness, of God, a justice that seeks to offer a different vision of the world, that refuses to demonize even those who commit terror, that challenges us to be creative, loving, and merciful.

The violence of terror is meant to leave us paralyzed by fear. But the justice of God is meant to guide us to new ways of living and loving.

I don’t have answers, but I think that we do have a guide – Jesus. We also have guides among us who offer us a different vision of justice.

Last night I noted that several persons have recalled the Last Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé, one of the Trappists kidnapped and killed by extremists in Algeria in 1996. The full text can be found here, but a few phrases might help us to meditate in the midst of the darkness

I ask them to associate [my] death
with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference
or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value.

I should like, when the time comes,
to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart
the one who would strike me down.

Dom Christian is one of those stars who can guide us to the true Justice, the God of mercy and all-embracing love.

May we see his light and follow him on the way to real peace.