Tag Archives: death

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

Grieving as worship.

But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” — 1 Thes 4:13

A friend of mine, I’ll call her Grace, recently posted online describing a bout of profound grief. Grace’s mother passed away a few years ago and she still gets hit with moments of overwhelming grief. In this particular moment, she had had a dream about her mother — one of those dreams that feels very real. She woke up and, realizing that it was just a dream, sunk into a sadness that took her breath away. In her post, she blamed Satan for taunting her. Grace is a deeply convicted Christian who lives each day with the purpose of drawing closer to God. She has a passion for her faith that just leaves me in awe. In her post, she said that she felt that the more she strives to grow closer to God, the more she feels Satan goes after her. And this was just one more of his dirty tricks.

I think a lot about death. Not in a morbid or pessimistic way, I just think about the reality of it. I’ve felt for a long time that death is the single greatest challenge to our faith. We talk about it and even sing about it. We have all the sayings to make us feel better about it (“She’s in a better place!”, “Don’t you know there will be a party in Heaven when he gets there!”, “I can’t wait to walk on those streets of gold!”). The reality, though, is that most of us are terrified of dying, and we can’t wrap our heads, or hearts, around it when someone we love dies. We just don’t know what to do with it. Death is very much an inescapable part of our human experience.

Know this:  Death was not part of the original Plan. God didn’t want it this way. We did this. And we’re stuck with it.

But — and this is huge — death isn’t the end! Again, we know this and we say it out loud. But truly knowing it in the depth of our being… well, that’s probably the most difficult thing on Earth to do.

The Raising of Lazarus, Carl Bloch (1870)
The Raising of Lazarus, Carl Bloch (1870)

Something you should know about me — and you’ll see this the more you get to know me through my writing — is that I sometimes have an unconventional way of seeing things in the Gospels. Take, for example, the story of Lazarus. John 11:35 is such a familiar verse: “Jesus wept“. Every homily or sermon I’ve ever heard on this passage explains Jesus’ weeping as a moment where we see the humanity of Jesus: It’s in His grief for His friend that He is brought to tears.  Well, I just don’t buy it. If you read the passage leading up to it, you see Jesus, over and over, explaining that Lazarus isn’t gone for good, that this is all happening to show the glory of God — just wait! But the crowd, over and over, is convinced that this is the end for Lazarus — that he is… gone. And then, Jesus weeps. I think He weeps because He sees the profound stronghold death has on people. That they (we) are so deeply convinced that it is the absolute end. And not even He can change their minds. The crowd grieves without hope.

But, we, as St. Paul says, do “not grieve as others who have no hope.” Our grief acknowledges the loss, but, with faith, gives rise to hope. Years ago, I heard something beautiful about mourning. (I have searched for the source, but cannot find it. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has assimilated several ideas into this one in my head!) I will do my best to paraphrase it here:

When someone we love dies, something deep in our soul resonates that this is not how things were meant to be. We know, deep in the recesses of our being, that death was not supposed to be a part of life. We’re agitated by it. So much so, that we ache. But something else in our soul reminds us that death is not the end — that there is life beyond what we can see. And even more hopeful — we know that, one day, death will no longer be a part of it. Our longing for that day is such that we ache for that as well! And so, we grieve and mourn, knowing that this wasn’t part of the plan, and that one day it will be removed from our experience. And to the extent that we find that hope, when we mourn, we worship!

I called Grace and we talked for quite a while. I told her that I didn’t think Satan was taunting her. (I really don’t like to give him credit for anything that’s not his to take.) No, I believe that the closer Grace gets to God, the more deeply she feels the separation, the more she desires that day when all brokenness will be gone, the more she hates death and the distance it causes her to feel between her and her mother. To put it another way — she aches for God. I don’t think that’s a Satan thing — I think that’s a God thing!

So, perhaps you, too, find yourself feeling the deep loss of someone you love who has passed away.  Grieve! Let yourself mourn. But do so with hope! Hope that one day the original Plan will be restored! And know that your mourning is, in a very real sense, worship of the One who longs for us to live with Him in eternity!

___

Image: PD-US

 

The Treasure in the Field

By guest writer Kimri Thetadig.

___

I didn’t know my heart needed to be broken into to be set free.

It makes sense though: ensconced in comforting cold rock lies a humble sparkle of gold that the great Finder knows and sets out to uncover.

I’ve yearned for You a long time. Since before time. And all those countless timeless aches of missing and hungering and begging for the comfort of Your embrace, as I stumbled down thorny dark paths searching for my place, seem now like a fairy-tale but for the fact that most of my life I’ve lived the pain of being utterly and indescribably stuck.

As a child, staring out into Mama’s hilly rock garden behind my favorite blue house, I recall gathering all my friends (which were the rocks and sticks of Mama’s garden, a battered old teddy bear whose eye was about to fall out, shells from the ocean); we’d explore the world that was there and it made me happy to see sunlight on water, rippling down green leaf and ants carrying a predator 10 times their size. But then, the Thought gonged. At first without afterthought, then repeatedly like a death knell in the pit of my young guts: “What if there’s nothing, Nothing, NOTHING, N.O.T.H.I.N.G. after this?”

My first remembered encounter with the true despair of my humanity: “From dust we came and to dust we shall return.” The world is a funny, strange place.

I grew up here, the world, and its thoughts began quickly to set like weeds in my soil. I fed my garden the way I knew how. With the fresh bottled water of pessimism and the choicest fertilizers of discontent, sprinkling her undergrowth with a spritz of faithlessness, that I know now reeks of death. I saw that no matter how much I tried to block out the clamor of hurtful noise from outside, it is a battlefield. and for a young soul who does not know or understand the food of love, to be fed on the food of world is rot to the flesh.

I’d found You though in many guises and forms throughout my wandering on this earth. You appeared in my Mama who’d strengthen me every night with the coconut oil shield of faith and strength as she taught me with her hands and her heart how true love is a daily fight for good, a choice every day to get up and prepare breakfast, walk me to school though her bones would wail and crack with every step, sneak in a roll up and chocolate cookies in my bag for lunch and buy us ice-cream on our bus ride home with her last $5.

Again, You were there in the blaring beauty of the bee that hovered into our apartment window every day around lunch time, visiting me as I offered fake honey from a bottle I took from you, little bee. You didn’t seem to care I was feeding you with the food you fed me. You came back time and again and my heart was elated.

And then You came to me as I recognized for myself the path I would not choose to walk down. That took a lot to be true. You kissed me in the gentle breeze as I walked away from the path I hadn’t willfully chosen but walked down anyway, and gave me a friend so strong and loving to help me believe it ok to desire something off the beaten path.

You were generous Love. You were my loyal unpretentious Friend. You were comfort and hope.

Tonight, in Your holy Silence, I understood, fleetingly, Your presence. I have found the treasure in the field, that neither time nor death can steal.

Pulsing eagerly beneath our caged physical bodies is the beat of all life that finds wonderful expression when the beat drops, the right rhythm pulls and the soul recognizes her spirit’s call in the physical, her Creator birthing in her immense unspoilt joy. All inhibition disappears, limbs dance to the sound of her first love.

You came to bring fire to the earth. But like a gentle breeze, Your love touches my brokenness and i choose surrender over fortification now.

Once, when I was a child and thought like a child, I believed the possibility of there being nothing else after we live this life here on earth. Now, returning to that time before time I recognize again, the reality of where I am, my place, and where I am going.

I am going to my Father’s House, which He has broken open for me when He rolled away the cold rock and allowed me to dance on the dust of death and behold His gentle golden glory.

I am surrendered.

_____
Originally published at Destillation.
Bio: Kimri Thetadig is a young Samoan Catholic living in Brisbane, Australia. She says: “I don’t know how else to describe who I am other than a desperately weak and constantly sinning daughter of an ever-loving, ever-forgiving Father. My name is Kimri. I write, I eat, I read, I laugh, I live, I ask God daily for the strength to love Him and every creature He created enough and unselfishly. It’s not the easiest, but His Love shows me it’s possible. I pray that my words can contribute to making a well world, by God’s grace.”

Why is the world celebrating the #RoyalBaby, but watching #AlfieEvans die?

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

All day today and for the past few days, I’ve been following the status of little Alfie Evans. He’s a little British boy–just about two years old–who is very sick. In doing what socialized healthcare systems are so good at doing, the NHS has determined that further treatment “isn’t in Alfie’s best interests” and that he should be taken off life support–against his parents wishes.

His parents want to take him to Italy for further, experimental treatment. His father met with Pope Francis personally; the Pope invited them to Bambino Gesu Hospital, and even made it possible for the family to become Italian citizens. But as of writing, Alfie is barred from leaving Alder Hey Hospital in the UK. He’s been taken off a ventilator. His father has asked for oxygen but has been denied this request, and Alfie’s struggling.

Let’s go over that again: the government has determined that he shouldn’t receive further treatment; Alfie’s parents want to take him elsewhere for treatment, but the state and hospital refuse to let him leave.

His parents have appealed the British healthcare system and the European Courts of Human Rights time and time again to try to be able to get Alfie out of Alder Hey and time and again their appeals have been rejected, with doctors and judges claiming that further treatment isn’t “worth it” because he’s too far gone, and the “humane” thing would be to let him die.

I can honestly say I haven’t been enraged by something this much in a very, very long time.

God is the Author of Life

The only thing that makes the whole situation worse is seeing people on Twitter and in the news defend the absolutely indefensible position of the judges and doctors. I’ve seen numerous people claim that the decisions are just because Alfie is “incompatible with life.”

God is the author of life. It is not for me, for you, for any doctor or judge to decide that someone is incompatible with life. How arrogant of these so-called “judges” and how cowardly of these so-called “medical professionals” to think they know what is best for this child before his own parents. God’s hand decides when we close our eyes to this world–not a judge, not a doctor who injects a lethal substance, or denies a father’s request for oxygen for his son.

Maybe experimental treatment won’t help Alfie. Perhaps. I think his parents realize that. But it’s cruel, arrogant, flat out wrong and, dare I say it, diabolical, to deny them that chance. It’s their right as parents to do absolutely everything in their power to give their son a chance at life.

Everyone bends over backwards when someone wants to “die with dignity,” to kill themselves (selfishly, I might add) because of some terminal illness. This is because here in the West we’ve made comfort and ease of life an idol, and we cannot even begin to fathom the redemptive power of suffering, not only for ourselves but for others.

But when parents want to exercise their rights as parents, their son is literally being held hostage as they watch him die. This, indeed, is symptomatic and unsurprising of this culture of death in which we live.

Why is the world celebrating #RoyalBaby but watching #AlfieEvans die?

Today, Kate Middleton had her third baby; the hashtag #RoyalBaby has been trending on Twitter as millions of people send congratulatory messages to the Royal Family. The comments on social media have been euphoric, admiring Kate for her beauty and class as she leaves the hospital perfectly made up in a dress and heels and make up, and swooning over the new baby boy.

Meanwhile, in the same country, Alfie Evans mom has been begging and fighting for her son’s life all day–yet another day in a months long battle just to give her son a chance and save him from his own country’s government.

Is it because the Royal Baby has been born into wealth? Into prestige? Is “perfect” in the world’s eyes? Is it because his life doesn’t entail suffering and struggle and what the world considers “imperfection”?

Why do we celebrate one life, and shrug our shoulders as one is slated to be ended?

I hope the doctors and judges realize that they will have to answer for their actions–whether or not they’re “just following orders” or not. I hope they consider what they would do if it were their child. I hope they put themselves in the shoes of parents waiting with bated breath to see if today is the day their son is forcibly removed from life support. I hope their conscience jolts them to the reality of the situation and the horror of what they’re participating in, so that they can make a sincere and true conversion.

I don’t know how it will play out with Alfie. But I’m so sad for his parents, and enraged for them too. The UK and the European Court of “Human Rights” can never claim to care about human rights EVER AGAIN. Neither can anyone defending this indefensible situation.

I’m convinced that this culture that claims so ardently to care for “human rights” really only cares if you are, in the eyes of the world, perfect and powerful and wealthy and beautiful on the outside. If you’re imperfect, if your life involves self-sacrifice and suffering and struggle, the UK and European Courts and a shocking number of others say you might as well die.

The solution is found in respecting the dignity of EVERY human person, respecting life from conception to natural death. How many more Charlie Gards and Alfie Evans must there be before the world will realize this truth?

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Death is Not the End

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
— John M. C. Crum, Now the Green Blade Rises

A number of my young friends have died, either from cancer or suicide. It is difficult saying goodbye to people who die in old age, and even more so when they die young.

However, we as Christians have a steadfast hope in the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting. Death no longer has the final word. This is the Good News which is the fruit of the Cross! It is this knowledge that enables us to meet even the most painful death joyfully with serenity, knowing that beyond it lies eternal life.

Lent is a chance to reflect on our lives, purify our souls, and prepare for a good death, however it may come. We should not be like the foolish virgins with no oil in their lamps, but rather, emulate the wise virgins who were prepared when the Bridegroom came (Matthew 25:1-15). Christ, the Bridegroom of our souls, awaits our entrance to the Wedding Feast which is Heaven, abiding in Love forever.

It is, of course, still very painful for those left behind; the grief is in proportion to the love bestowed. Yet, we can smile through our tears, knowing that in spirit, our loved ones are still near to us, and that one day we may meet again, never to part.

Hans Memling, Triptych of the Resurrection (c. 1490)

If I should die and leave you here awhile,
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep
Long vigils by the silent dust, and weep.
For my sake – turn again to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort other hearts than thine.
Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.
A. Price Hughes & Mary Lee Hall

Movie Review: “King’s Faith”

The Christian movie King’s Faith (2013), available on Netflix, is a beautiful and moving story of faith and redemption. Best of all, it manages to convey the reality of faith without being corny or trite, examining complex human issues like death, crime, divorce and abortion with tenderness, displaying the full reality of the pain and trauma of loss while demonstrating the healing that comes with trust in each other and in God.

[Caution: some spoilers ahead]

King’s Faith centers on 18-year-old Brendan King (Crawford Wilson), who has been on the wrong side of the law multiple times and is placed in his eighteenth foster home after being detained for three years. His foster father Mike Stubbs (James McDaniel) is a math teacher at his new high school, and mentors the after-school Bible study group as well as the faith-based community service youth group, The Seekers.

Brendan was given a Bible while in juvenile detention, and came to accept the saving truth of Christianity. With his newfound faith in God, Brendan applies himself to his studies, determined to leave his old life behind.

However, trouble comes calling when Brendan saves a fellow schoolmate, Natalie Jenkins (Kayla Compton), from a car crash and appears on the news. His old gang tracks him down and demands that he hand over a stash of drugs and cash that he and his now-dead best friend had hidden before the federal drug raid that ended his friend’s life and landed Brendan in detention.

The Stubbs are recovering from the death of their only son, a police officer who was killed during a routine traffic stop. Vanessa Stubbs (Lynn Whitfield) is unable to move on, and spends most days cultivating flowers for her son’s memorial on the side of the highway.

Mike, meanwhile, has been able to surrender his pain to God and welcomes Brendan as a foster child, knowing that God may bring good out of this gift of a stable, loving home for a troubled youth. He is a trusting man who looks for the good in others, even those rejected by the rest of society.

As we follow Brendan through his new life and watch him and other characters grapple with the past, we witness the power of faith to transform even the most terrible circumstances, binding old wounds and uniting the estranged in love and truth.

A Vicarious Grief Observed

On the recent Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, my priest-uncle-spiritual-director, Father Jim, suddenly lost his brother Allan. Father Jim was abroad teaching a short course in Canon Law when Uncle Allan had a massive myocardiac infarction.

I have never met Uncle Allan, since he lived far from Metro Manila. But Father Jim said he had a lot of friends and touched a lot of people’s lives. I believe this to be true assuming that Uncle Allan were every bit like his brother. He and Father Jim were born successively. They grew up sharing rooms in their parents’ house and, later on, in their grandparents’ place when they went to college. Uncle Allan eventually became a medical doctor, got married, and had five children, all of whom are now either doctors or medical students. When Father Jim became a celibate member of Opus Dei and eventually a priest, Uncle Allan filled in his elder brother’s role of taking care of their parents.

I could thus imagine how close Father Jim and Allan were, and how painful it was for Father Jim to lose his brother. Actually, it was painful for me to see Father Jim – who has always consoled and cheered me up in my own low moments and who usually has more than enough zest for life to go around – feeling his brother’s absence.

On the one hand, I was impressed by Father Jim’s example of Christian hope. He derived consolation from the news that his brother died right after receiving the Last Sacraments, and from that wonderful truth called the “communion of saints”, by which we can pray for and to our deceased loved ones even after they are gone. He posted on Facebook, “St. Josemaria, who we both call Our Father since we both belong to Opus Dei, taught us his children that we never say goodbye, but “Till we meet again”. Till we meet again, my dear brother!”

On the other hand, Father Jim also admitted that while he had intellectually come to terms with his brother’s death, he felt the void that it created.

Indeed, given that each person is unique and irreplaceable, death can only create a void for those left behind. That void is felt not only by the deceased’s immediate friends and relatives, but also by those who, like me, witness a loved one cope with someone else’s death.

How does one console someone else who has just suffered an irreplaceable loss? What do I tell him who has always been the one consoling me, who has always been the one encouraging me to keep the faith?

At these moments, one fumbles for the right words, because it feels as if “condolence” does not adequately express the desire to alleviate a fellow human being’s inner pain. Then, one senses that no eloquent expression of sympathy can stop another person’s pain from recurring, much less bring the dead back to life.

Then, the question comes: why did God let me see and feel someone else’s suffering but leave me helpless to remedy it?

Perhaps, by making me witness another person’s grief at losing a loved one, God was teaching me how much we need one another, how important each and every other human being is. It is God’s way of teaching me to be more attentive to others – something that my introverted and independent self needs to be reminded of every now and then.

Perhaps, God was reminding me that priests, too, are vulnerable human beings, that while we look up to them for our own edification, they too need others to support them in their weaknesses. Indeed, Father Jim recounted how much he was helped by two brother priests who flew all the way to keep him company, by friends who fixed his flight arrangements to his hometown for the wake and the funeral.

Perhaps, by leaving me unable to do more for Father Jim than say a few consoling words, God was reminding me that many times, all that suffering people need from us is “with-ness”, that we accompany them in their sorrow.

In any event, one lesson I learned was to humbly admit and accept my helplessness, do what I can, and trust God to heal the broken-hearted in the best way He can, in His own time.

We know that the desire to alleviate other people’s sufferings pleases God a lot. Isn’t comforting the sorrowful one of the spiritual works of mercy? But sometimes, we feel that our efforts to console the sorrowful are futile.

God allows this to happen to purify our desires. He ensures that our desire to console the sorrowful be more than an exercise in self-affirmation whereby we delight in our ability to make others smile at us. He reminds us that He alone can heal all wounds. He reminds us not to underestimate His empathy for the broken-hearted, He having been heartbroken Himself.

I often wonder if prayers for the suffering actually help them. By placing me in a situation where all I can offer are prayers, God was telling me, “Trust me to heal him. Trust that I will heal the pain of my faithful servant.”

So I prayed, and when I prayed, I felt I, too, was being healed.

Sin, Slavery, and Identity

Abuse (and the trauma that results from it) causes not only the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of guilt, but also the anxiety of non-being.
…mind-control is the perfect metaphor for emotional abuse. Maybe it’s because the human will is so core to what it means to be, that if you take it away—whether through physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social or financial coercion—you violate a person’s humanity on an elemental level. You take away that person’s ability to say
I am.”
Maylin Tu, “Jessica Jones, Abuse, and ‘The Courage to Be’”, Christ & Pop Culture

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 4:18

Abuse makes the victim feel as if she is dirt, worse than dirt – just something to be used, abused and discarded. It violates her sense of self and her identity as a person made in the image of Love.

In my experience, abusive people have grown up with over-controlling parents, or absent parents. When they have not received love from the people who brought them into being, children are in danger of growing up thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They internalise the idea that they were not worthy of being loved unconditionally. If they do not heal, they are prone to inflicting pain on others in a misdirected search for justice and reparation. We are meant to be loved.

Patterns of Sin

Give your children these two things: roots and wings.”

Over-controlling people are dominated by fear – fear of the world, fear of the unknown. When they demand that their children conform completely to their narrow vision, it pinions the growing wings of the child, suffocating him and sending him the message that he’s not good enough as he is, but has to become something else in order to appease his parents and be loved. Fearful parents are in danger of bringing up children malformed by fear, unable to strike out on their own paths and swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other – fearfully appeasing people when they ought to say no, or controlling other people whom they deem weaker than themselves.

Absent parents deny their children an identity rooted in nourishing love. How often do you hear friends gushing over a baby to a parent, “She’s just like you!” We are stamped with the features and mannerisms of our parents; “we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.”1 I have watched people with absent parents look for love and attention in all the wrong places,2 hungering for the nourishment denied them in their earliest years. They become desperate for a resolution, something which can fill the aching void in the core of their being.

St. Paul reminded the Romans: “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” (Romans 8:15). When you have an identity rooted firmly in Christ, confident in the loving providence of God and His steadfast abiding presence no matter where you go in life, you are able to break free of any crippling chains handed down from your imperfect parents. It is true, you may have to struggle with the vestiges of generational sin throughout your life – but Christ is there with you in the struggle, purifying you and using your weaknesses as openings for grace.

Love is the Rule that Gives Freedom

Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.
Jim Rohn

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen as a Gardener
Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen as a Gardener (1507), Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen.

True love respects the free will of the person. The gardener may prune the plant now and then, but he allows it to develop naturally in its own time, fertilising it and watering it with dedication while it transforms energy from the sun into its own food, glucose. Likewise, God the most loving of parents may permit us afflictions to prune us of unhealthy attachments or attitudes – He may allow us to go through a trial, even a trial that seems to wrest us from Him, only in the end to bring us back safely, after which we realise that half the suffering could have been avoided if we had just trusted more in Him.

Like a gardener practising companion planting,3 God sends us good friends who help us flourish. He fertilises our souls with the nourishment of the scriptures at every Mass, and He waters them with showers of blessings – it is a blessing to even be alive and breathing! But like a gardener, God allows us to develop according to our nature, through which He too is quietly working. What is our nature? It is to produce the sweet food, the life-sustaining glucose, of Love.

“Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate in it intimately.”
Pope John Paul II

“To the extent that we fail to grasp what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human being into full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is.”
Dietrich von Hildebrand

You asked for a loving God: you have one… not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved. Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Sin Leads to Non-being

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Sin “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” (CCC #1849) Evil warps or destroys what is good. As pests consume crops and blight a garden, sin corrupts a person’s soul, dividing it from God, the source of all life and love.

Fr. Chris Ryan MGL writes:

“God’s unfailing offer to all human beings is the gift of Himself, which is the gift of His unconditional and unfathomable love. However, God utterly respects our freedom, which means that we can reject this love. This rejection can continue in and through further actions that deny or reject love to the point that such a choice, such a rejection, becomes fixed, irrevocable. Hell is thus not a punishment imposed upon the human person but is rather, the definitive outworking of the human person’s decision to define themselves in isolation from God and others. Hell is self-exclusion from Heaven.

Hell, moreover, is not a place. Rather, it is non-relationship. Hell is “where” the possibility of all relationship is ended… Heaven is other people – people living in a rich and vibrant communion with each other and with God. Hell is actually definitive loneliness.”4

When I was fourteen, my father brought home a pamphlet from church about abortion. I had already watched a video on abortion when I was eleven, in school (my non-Catholic schoolmates are against abortion to this day). But suddenly, the horrendous enormity of not existing struck me full in the gut, and I began to weep inconsolably in front of my parents, sobbing, “What if I had never been born?”

Sin divides us within ourselves and sunders us from God and neighbor. It destroys both harmony within the soul and harmony between persons. In the end, it can kill us – forever.

Professor Eric Johnston writes:

“We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.

To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.”5

Marc Barnes wrote: “If [God] is outside of time, if He is suffering right now, then, and this is really the crux, our sins directly increase His suffering that day on Calvary, His constant suffering.”6

God the eternal Logos, Who is Reason itself, has created an intelligible universe with rules of physics, mathematics – and morals. These rules, like traffic rules, allow us the freedom to travel along the paths of life. But when we stuff up, we are bound by the consequences. Also, the repercussions of our sins emit shockwaves throughout the world, into the lives of others, even those we may never meet. Broken relationships leave wounds that are passed down through generations. Just look at Romeo and Juliet.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669.
The Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1661–1669), Rembrandt van Rijn.

How do we repair this damage? God has granted us the insurance of His mercy. By participating in the Sacrament of Confession, we receive the sacramental grace not to sin again. By performing penance, we offer God our puny loaves and fish to be multiplied by His grace into nourishing food for thousands – the food which is eternal redemption, that is, God Himself, the source of Life. When we stuff up, we do what we can to make amends, to right our wrongs, and trust in God to bring healing and reconciliation in His time.

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain7

The Good News: We are Not Our Sin

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said in his keynote address at the 2016 Spirit in the City conference: “The pagan world is just, but merciless, with retribution. You are no more than your crime or your sin. The woman caught in adultery must be destroyed.

“Mercy is the more, seeing with the eye of God. The pagan eye always sees less.”

christ-as-gardener
Christ the New Adam, Gardener of Our Souls

God became sin for us so that we may become justified in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ took on the sinful, unlovable identity of mankind so that we could take on His Divine image, the image shattered by Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, mistrusting His loving providence. Through Christ, we may enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, becoming fully alive, transformed by Love into beings who can give pure love to all the world.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
John 10:10

Gloria Dei est vivens homo; vita hominis visio Dei:
The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book 4 Ch. 20.

Images: Wikicommons (1, 2, 3).

_

1 Eric M. Johnston, “The Sins of Fathers and the Hope of Fatherhood”, The Catholic Spiritual Life.

2 cf. James Parker, “Coming Out”, Family Voice Australia.

3 Jennifer Gonzalez, “Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers”, Cult of Pedagogy.

5 Eric M. Johnston, “Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Confession”, The Catholic Spiritual Life.

6 Marc Barnes, “Holiness, For Christ’s Sake!”, Bad Catholic.

Aging and Mortality

Can we reverse aging so that the really old are young again? Image source.

A somewhat recent article in Scientific America caught my eye: this one is about aging, or rather it is about reversing the effects of aging. This particular article describes research conducted at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in which the genes which control aging are tweaked to change older cells into a more embryonic-like state. This process reversed some of the effects of aging and also resulted in a longer lifespan for the mice on which this experiment was conducted.

By tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryoniclike ones, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reversed the aging of mouse and human cells in vitro, extended the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition and successfully promoted recovery from an injury in a middle-aged mouse, according to a study published Thursday [December 15, 2016] in Cell.

Time in a bottle. Image source.

Nor is this the only research into reversing the aging process. A group at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of the Harvard Medical School has reported that they reversed aging in a group of “severely aged” mice via a process of controlling telormere-shortening. Other groups have investigated the results of blood transfusions from young mice to old mice. Still others have been investigating the effects of NAD and Reservatrol on the aging processes driven by cells’ mitochondria. More still are examining the effects of diet and even of existing drugs.

While these studies have predominantly been conducted on live mice or on cell samples, the results of this research have been promising. In some cases, lifespans have been increased, in others muscles and various organs have been able to function as if younger. Much of this research is aimed at curing or staving off “old-age” ailments ranging from arthritis to dementia to strokes—and to that end we would all be better for these cures.

Belmonte, like some other anti-aging researchers, says his initial goal is to increase the “health span”—the number of years that someone remains healthy. Extending life span, the number of years someone remains alive, will likely take longer to achieve. Most major killers, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, are diseases of aging that become far more common past middle age. “This is not just a matter of how many years we can live but how well we can live the rest of our life,” Ocampo says.

However, it is also clear that some of the optimism behind this research as conveyed by these various popular science and news organs is that we may find a sort of fountain of youth, a way to stave off aging (and perhaps age-related death). As Karen Weintraub writes in Scientific America,

The new study suggests the possibility of reversing at least some of these changes, a process researchers think they may eventually get to work in living humans. “Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s senior author and an expert in gene expression at Salk….

Some compounds such as resveratrol, a substance found in red wine that seems to have anti-aging properties in high concentrations, appear to delay epigenetic change and protect against damage from epigenetic deterioration, Sinclair says. These approaches can reverse some aspects of aging, such as muscle degeneration—but aging returns when the treatment stops, he adds. With an approach like the one Belmonte lays out in the new study, theoretically “you could have one treatment and go back 10 or 20 years,” he says. If aging starts to catch up to you again, you simply get another treatment.

This research seems to be in its nascent stages: perhaps it will deliver a means of reversing (or slowing) the aging process, or at the least its effect; and again, perhaps not. To the extent that this research really does enhance our quality of life by seeking to cure certain illnesses like muscle degeneration or dementia, it may be commended and its results celebrated (if successful). However, there are hints that this is not the final goal of the research. Certainly, extending our “health span” is a worthy goal, and so to some extent is extending a lifespan. But to do so indefinitely?

The pursuit of a fountain of youth and of life everlasting in this world can end in nothing save tragedy. We are meant to live forever, it is true: but not bound to this fallen world, nor any other of our own creation or design. This present world is but a shadow of the one we’re ultimately meant to call home, and it is a “vale of tears.”

We need look no further than, for example, the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien to see this illustrated [1]. The fact that men are meant to die and to part from this life for the true everlasting life is a theme in both his Lord of the Rings series and his Silmarillion. Consider, for example, that one effect of the Ring of Power is that it extends the life of its bearer unnaturally: Bilbo lived to a great old age but felt “stretched” and “thin,” while Gollum slowly lost his very self, both visibly and mentally. Or consider the story in the Silmarillion of the fall of the Númenoreans:

Image source

The Númenoreans began to yearn for the undying city that they saw from afar, and the desire of everlasting life, to escape from death and the ending of delight, grew strong upon them; and ever as their power and glory grew greater their unquiet increased. For though the Valar had rewarded the Dúnedain with long life, they could not take away from them the weariness of the world that comes at last, and they died, even their kings of the seed of Earendil; and the span of their lives was brief in the eyes of the Eldar. Thus it was that a shadow fell upon them: in which maybe the will of Morgoth was at work that still moved in the world. And the Númenoreans began to murmur, at first in their heart and then in open words, against the doom of Men, and most of all against the Ban which forbade them to sail into the West….

Manwë was grieved, seeing a cloud gather on the noon-tide of Númenor. And he sent messengers to the Dúnedain, who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen concerning the fate and fashion of the world [2]….

Atanamir was ill pleased with the counsel of the Messengers and gave little heed to it, and the greater part of his people followed him; for they wished still to escape death in their own day, not waiting upon hope. And Atanamir lived to a great age, clinging to his life beyond the end of all joy; and he was the first of the Númenoreans to do this, refusing to depart until he was witless and unmanned, and denying to his son the kingship at the height of his days. For the Lords of Númenor had been wont to wed late in their long lives and to depart and leave the mastery to their sons when these were come to full stature of body and mind….

Thus it came to as in time that the Númenoreans first made great settlements upon the west shores of the ancient lands; for their own land seemed to them shrunken, and they had no rest or content therein, and they desired now wealth and dominion in Middle-earth, since the West was denied. (From the Tale of Akallabêth, in The Silmarilion)

The rejection of death ultimately proves to be the undoing of the Númenoreans: the Island of Númenor is that world’s Atlantis, and its sinking brings an end to the Second Age. Long before this happens, the greater part of the men of Númenor have lost hope for the next life, and in their despair they lost even what little bliss is afforded in this one. Their “wise men” abandoned true wisdom in search for a means of reversing death: “Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.”

This obsession with death and with forestalling it leads these people to cease really living well, as they turn from lives of virtue and daring to lives of “revelry” and pursuing riches and pleasures. They also cease in their offering worship to Eru (God), and turn instead to gaining dominion over all other men.

Real repentance and atonement for this is not made by Númenoreans, and their island is lost. Their descendants on the “mainland” include those who remain loyal to the elves and angels, who are led by Elendil and his sons, whom together found the realms of Arnor and Gondor. Yet even these don’t really repent of the sins of the Númenoreans whole-heartedly: this is evidenced by Elendil’s son and heir Isildur’s refusal to destroy the Ring of Power when he has it in his grasp, preferring to keep it and to use its power for himself. Indeed, it is a distant descendant of Isildur, Aragorn, who finally is show to really repent of this way of life. He does this throughout the Lord of the Rings series by braving the passes of the dead, by refusing to take the Ring when it was in his power to do so, and ultimately by laying down his life before becoming “witless and unmanned.”

In our own world, the methods are different but the aims are much similar. In Tolkien’s imagined world it is magic which is meant to conquer death, whereas in ours it is technology [3]. But the goal remains the same, namely to forestall again and to conquer death. I would venture to add here that some of the “side-effects” of this are the same. It is certainly true that we do, on average, live longer now than in ages past, at least in the wealthy and “modernized” nations of the world. But do we live better than our forefathers?

I do not mean by that question, are we physically healthier and more free from pain or illness. Can we be said to be happier people, or more joyful? Are we more virtuous, more faithful, more grateful for our blessings, and do we make more of ourselves and what lives we are given than our ancestors? I contend that on the whole, the answer is “no.” Indeed, in some ways we appear to make less of ourselves than they did, while at the same time being given greater opportunities than they had. I do not think anyone now living would need to look especially far to find examples to support my claims. We may look from drug addiction and the overburdened prison system, to the young mother ushered to the nearest abortuary; or from the late twenty-somethings who have not the appearance nor the reality of maturing into adulthood, to the simple despondency of many people who are not “making it” in the world.

To all of this, I can but recall the wisdom once taught to every Catholic school child, and now forgotten or even outright discarded:

7. Q: Of Which must we take more care, our soul or our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than our body.

8. Q: Why must we take more care of our soul than of our body?

A: We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness.

9. Q: What must we do to save our souls?

A: To save our souls we must worship God by faith, hope, and charity; that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.

Footnotes

[1] Fiction in general and fairy tales in particular do more than just stimulate our imaginations and entertain us. They can show to us the world as it really is, in the sense that by changing the setting, a good story allows us to gain insights which we might overlook in “real life.”As Miss Jean Elizabeth Seah has written in the conclusion to one of her columns on this site,

Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairytales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a sacramental vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in God’s creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others as co-pilgrims on the rocky road to the Heavenly City, where we may one day meet the Prince of peace and be welcomed as co-heirs to His Father’s kingdom.

Tolkien, for his part, excelled at this.

[2] The gist of the message sent by Manwë is that death was a gift bestowed on man by Ilúvatar, that is, by God. The Valar (angels dwelling in the world) could not undo this gift, nor did they fully understand it: but it must be accepted by man as a gift, and thus dying well and with hope in one’s heart for the next life is the proper attitude towards death:

You and your people are not of the Firstborn, but are mortal Men as Ilúvatar made you. Yet it seems that you desire now to have the good of both kindreds, to sail to Valinor when you will, and to return when you please to your homes. That cannot be. Nor can the Valar take away the gift of Ilúvatar. The Eldar, you say, are unpunished, and even those who rebelled do not die. Yet that it to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfillment of their being. They cannot escape, and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs. And you are punished for the rebellion of Men, you say, in which you had small part, and so it is that you die. But that was not at first appointed for a punishment. Thus you escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness. Which of us therefore should envy the other?’

And the Númenoreans answered: ‘Why should we not envy the Valar, or even the least of the Deathless? For of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance. knowing not what lies before us in a little while. And yet we also love the earth and would not lose it.’

Then the Messengers said, ‘Indeed the mind of Ilúvatar concerning you is not known the the Valar, and he has not revealed all things that are to come. But this we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the Land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World. And the doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Ilúvatar. It became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some became willful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them. We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this; but if that grief has returned to trouble you, as you say, then we fear that the Shadow arises once more and grows in your hearts. Therefore, though you be Dúnedain, fairest of Men, who escaped from the Shadow of old and fought against it, we say to you: Beware! The will of Eru may not be gainsaid; and the Valar bid you earnestly not to withhold the trust to which you are called, lest soon it become again a bond by which you are constrained. Hope rather that in the end even the least of your desires shall have fruit. The love of Arda was set in your hearts by Ilúvatar, and he does not plant to no purpose Nonetheless, many ages of Men unborn may pass ere that purpose is made known; and to you it will be revealed and not to the Valar.’

[3] I am here making a deliberate division between science and technology. Science is ultimately about searching for knowledge, specifically (when we refer to modern science) it is searching for knowledge about nature. Technology is one possible application of science: the tools and techniques we use to work with or even to control nature.

Laughing at Death

Living by faith includes the call to something greater than cowardly self-preservation.
—Kurt D. Bruner, Kurt Bruner, Jim Ware, Finding God in the Lord of the Rings

Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing….If it had at least enriched the earth; if it had given birth to…what? A hill? A rocket? But no. Nothing will have taken place.
Simone de Beauvoir

St Lawrence puns

Over dinner, I related the stories of the martyrdoms of St. Lawrence of Rome and St. Thomas More to my atheist friend, to which he curtly responded, “They joked when they were just about to die? I don’t buy that.”

“Thomas More had a trial—everything he said was recorded in court documents,” I countered.

These two saints are famous for their pre-mortem quips. St. Lawrence, patron of deacons, cooks, and comedians, exhibited true courage under fire: as he was being grilled to death, he cried out, “Assum est. Versa et manduca.1 (“It is roasted. Turn me over and take a bite.”)

Thomas More, though not physically tortured, surely underwent intense emotional turmoil in the Tower of London, knowing that if he only swore the Oath of Supremacy, he could be reunited with his loving family, who had been plunged into poverty by the loss of their breadwinner. Yet, as he ascended the scaffold, he said politely: “I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.” Just before his head was chopped off, Thomas More exhorted the executioner to be careful of his beard, saying, “This hath not offended the king.”2

A couple of other English saints displayed the same ready wit. Blessed John Sugar said on the scaffold, “Be ye all merry, for we have not occasion of sorrow but of joy: for although I shall have a sharp dinner, yet I trust in Jesus Christ that I shall have a most sweet supper.”3

St. John Roberts was not to be outdone: “Even as he was dying at the Tyburn gallows, Roberts astonished the crowds with his high spirits, joking, ‘Here’s a hot breakfast despite the cold weather,’ as he looked down at the fire burning to boil his remains.”4

How could they have laughed in the face of death? All of them lived in times of religious persecution, and they gave up all they had to profess the faith.

How can we, too, laugh in the face of death?

Because we know that death is not the end. Death is a new beginning, where we may come at last face to Face with the source of all Life, Love Himself.

St. Paul wrote with harrowing honesty to the Corinthians: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor. 15:19) He continued: But now Christ is risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep: For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.

I recently attended the annual Spirit in the City conference in Brisbane, where Archbishop Mark Coleridge addressed us on Christianity and paganism. He said: “Pagan culture is essentially self-referential and imprisoned in a self-worshipping world. Do ut das: I give so that you give to me. I am the real focus. It is a world of doing deals in a strict logic of exchange, where you sacrifice to capricious gods to keep them nice. It is a world where Death is the ultimate non-negotiable.”

Archbishop Coleridge reflected that the pagan catch-cry carpe diem, “seize the day”, encapsulates how their hope is fragile and in the end evaporates. He continued, “Christianity brings to birth a new world which looks to the other and worships the Other. It bursts free of the tyranny of the self.

“With Easter, death no longer has the last word. Easter gives us a genuine hope, not a cosmetic hope, born out of what seems to be hopeless. The Bible records a story of blood, sweat, and tears out of which comes a cry of hard-won jubilation, unimaginable in the parameters of the pagan world. The logic of exchange is broken; God overturns every previously non-negotiable status quo.”

My good Buddhist friend once listened patiently as I explained the Resurrection to her. I acknowledged, “It’s mind-blowing!” But if there is an omnipotent God, couldn’t He do the seemingly mind-blowing impossible? Couldn’t He choose to become human, die, and rise from the dead? Is the doctrine of the Resurrection less reasonable than belief in reincarnation?

Bono grasped the difference between grace and karma: “The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled… it’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.5

Christians are free to laugh in the face of death, because death is not the end. Instead of the ultimate despair of atheists like Simone de Beauvoir, we possess an eternal hope, a lasting peace, a profound joy.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of sobriety.
— 2 Timothy 1:7

But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you. – 1 Peter 3:15

29/6/14 Collect pictures of Chaira Badano and her parents who are nearly 80 in London pics david poole.

One cardinal of the Church visited [Chiara Luce Badano]. He said, ‘That light in your eyes is amazing. Where does it come from?’ ‘I try to love Jesus as much as I can.’…Take a good look at those eyes on her deathbed. It makes no sense at all. Unless some of this invisible stuff is actually real….The only thing that’s going to give us that on our deathbed—not even your deathbed, but give you that to wake up in the morning and brush your teeth—is if the God Who loves you, the Author of life, and the end of the story being Heaven, is good and real. Really real…the ‘ground under your feet’ kind of real. Only if it’s that real can we have that [joy].
Chris Stefanick, “Absolute Relativism: The New Dictatorship and What to Do About It

Despite her illness, she did not lose her joy…
Esteban Pittaro, “Exclusive: The death of Sister Cecilia; the rest of the story,” Aleteia

This is the night when Jesus Christ
broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
Easter Proclamation (Exsultet)

But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of death shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure was taken for misery: And their going away from us, for utter destruction: but they are in peace. And though in the sight of men they suffered torments, their hope is full of immortality.
Wisdom 3:1-4

“Beside the terror of God’s judgment, the atrocities of the totalist tyrant are pinpricks. A God-intoxicated man, knowing that divine love and divine wrath are but different aspects of a unity, is sustained against the worst this world can do to him; while the good-natured unambitious man, lacking religion, fearing no ultimate judgment, denying that he is made for eternity, has in him no iron to maintain order and justice and freedom.

Mere enlightened self-interest will submit to any strong evil. In one aspect or another, fear insists upon forcing itself into our lives. If the fear of God is obscured, then obsessive fear of suffering, poverty, and sickness will come to the front; or if a well-cushioned state keeps most of these worries at bay, then the tormenting neuroses of modern man, under the labels of ‘insecurity’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘constitutional inferiority,’ will be the dominant mode of fear.
—Russell Kirk, The Rarity of the God-Fearing Man (via The Federalist)

When we feel us too bold, remember our own feebleness. When we feel us too faint, remember Christ’s strength. In our fear, let us remember Christ’s painful agony that Himself would for our comfort suffer before His passion to the intent that no fear should make us despair. And ever call for His help such as Himself wills to send us. And then need we never to doubt but that either He shall keep us from the painful death, or shall not fail so to strengthen us in it that He shall joyously bring us to heaven by it. And then doeth He much more for us than if He kept us from it. For as God did more for poor Lazarus in helping him patiently to die of hunger at the rich man’s door than if He had brought to him at the door all the rich glutton’s dinner, so, though He be gracious to a man whom He delivereth out of painful trouble, yet doeth He much more for a man if through right painful death He deliver him from this wretched world into eternal bliss.
St. Thomas More, Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation

It says in the catechism that death is nothing but the separation of soul and body. Well, I have no fear of a separation which will unite me forever with the good God.
—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Images: Tomics; “The Schoolgirl Saint: The courage of Chiara Badano has propelled her towards the Catholic church’s highest honour”, Daily Mail.

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1 Fr. Francesco Moraglia, “St Lawrence: Proto-Deacon of the Roman Church”, Vatican.va.

2 Melissa Keating, “The Four Best Beards in the History of Christendom”, FOCUS. cf. Douglas O. Linder, “The Trial and Execution of Sir Thomas More: Primary Documents”, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

4 Bess Twiston-Davies, “Divorce, Dissolution, and Death: The English Martyrs”, Catholic Culture.

5Bono on the difference between Grace and Karma”, Resistance and Renewal.

Where Is Your Soul?

If anything could prove the existence of a soul, it is the utter emptiness of a corpse.
— Mary Doria Russell, Children of God

Death of St. Joseph

When I was little, I asked my father where our souls were in our bodies. He made a gesture in the general area of his liver while trying to explain that souls animate our entire bodies. For quite awhile afterward, I was convinced that the soul was an organ beside the liver.

One evening I was walking through a park with an atheist friend, who is a strong determinist—he doesn’t believe that we have free will, but that all our decisions are formed solely by our genes or environment. He asked, “Wouldn’t you make the same decision again with the same information at hand?”

He is also a complete materialist (in the metaphysical sense). I asked, “What’s the difference between a living person and a corpse?”

He responded: “It’s all neurons. I’m basically a robot.”

At that juncture, I was strongly tempted to hit him over the head or grab him by the shoulders to shake some sense into him.1

Scientists have found that there is actually increased brain activity after death.2 Numerous near-death and out-of-body experiences have been recorded, suggesting that a human maintains consciousness though he may be clinically dead.3

Here’s a fascinating story in the secular press: “The top doctor who swears he saw a glimpse of hell: No-nonsense anaesthetist dismissed patients who said they’d had out-of-body experiences until HE went under the knife.

Many years ago, my maternal grandmother Maria died from an accidental poisoning, and my grandfather left her body lying on their bed for a few days because he was in too much grief to prepare it for burial.

After those days, she awoke, saying that she had found herself in a place of profound peace and overwhelming joy, which she never wanted to leave. But a bearded man approached and told her she had to return to earth, because she had children to look after.

I am rather glad she did come back to this life, because my mother wasn’t born yet!

These words by a scientist who converted from materialistic atheism have stayed with me:

Lewontin and most scientists are true believers in materialism, possessing an absolute faith that matter and its workings will eventually explain everything in the universe. But such a faith has already failed at the most basic level; brain function alone cannot account for the simple experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, or smelling. All human beings, scientists and laypersons, live in the nonmaterial world of the smell of lavender, the deep resonance of a cello, the beauty of a sunset over an ocean, the wonder evoked by the night sky, the elegance of Euclid’s demonstration of the infinitude of prime numbers, the very world that materialism cannot explain. If only matter existed, then we would have no interior life; we would be mindless things like rocks and volcanoes.4

The soul is the form of the body, as Aristotle teaches.5 “The body cannot be the principle that accounts for life, since a body, when deprived of life, is still a body, but not alive.”6 Just as a house becomes a house when materials are constructed according to a certain plan, so does a living thing come into existence when it is ensouled.7 Without the soul, the body crumbles away into dust.

Let us treasure our souls, and take good care of them, just as we care for our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). Our souls are made in the image and likeness of God, that is, in the image and likeness of Love.

Remember, Christian soul, that thou has this day a duty:

God to Glorify, Eternity to Prepare for,

Jesus to Imitate, The Angels and Saints to invoke;

Your Soul to Save, Your Body to Mortify,

Sins to Expiate, Virtues to Acquire,

Hell to avoid, Heaven to Gain,

Time to Profit by, Your neighbors to Edify,

The World to Despise, Devils to Combat,

Passions to Subdue, Death Perhaps to Encounter,

and Judgment to Undergo.8

brooklyn_museum_-_the_soul_of_the_good_thief_lame_du_bon_larron_-_james_tissot

“…there is a case against cannibalism; the aversion from the idea of my eating my next-door neighbour is not a prejudice. … It rests on a sacramental sentiment about the human body, by which the soul soaks the body like a strong savour, and does not merely inhabit it like a hat in a hat-box.”
G. K. Chesterton, “The Moral Collapse of Modern Germany” (February 17, 1917)

You do not possess the Sacred Humanity as you do when you receive Communion; but the Divinity, that essence the Blessed adore in Heaven, is in your soul; there is a wholly adorable intimacy when you realize that; you are never alone again!”
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, around May 27, 1906 (After assuring her mother that her doctrine on the presence of God within us is not something she came up with, but rather what Scripture tells us.)9

“I have found heaven on earth, since heaven is God, and God is in my soul. My mission in heaven will be to draw souls, helping them to go out of themselves to cling to God, with a spontaneous, love-filled action, and to keep them in that great interior silence which enables God to make His mark on them, to transform them into Himself.
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity (Letter 122)10

Images: The Death of St Joseph, mesa wood carving (via Joy-Sorrow); James Tissot, L’âme du bon Larron (The Soul of the Good Thief).

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1 Actually, I wanted to kiss him (can robots feel longing for, or aversion to, a kiss?), and I wrote a poem about that, but that’s another story.

2 Ed Yong, “In Dying Brains, Signs of Heightened Consciousness”, National Geographic.

4 George Stanciu, “Atheism: Disproved by Science?”, The Imaginative Conservative.

5 S. Marc Cohen, “Aristotle on the Soul”, Philosophy 320: History of Ancient Philosophy, University of Washington.

6 Joseph M. Magee, Ph. D., “Thomistic Psychology”, Aquinas Online.

7 S. Marc Cohen, “Aristotle on Substance, Matter, and Form”, Philosophy 320: History of Ancient Philosophy, University of Washington.

8The Christian Soul”, Holy Reflections; “Subjects for Daily Meditation”, Preces Latinae.

10 Jean M. Heimann, “Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity”, Catholic Fire.

Two Icons of Christ

In the Gospels we never see Jesus as an attendee at a funeral.  He attends festivals, weddings, and so many dinner parties that people consider him a drunkard.  In the Gospel for October 9, He accidentally encounters a funeral procession of the only son of a widowed mother.  They meet in the road, and death flees in the presence of Jesus, the source of life.

We attend funerals with tears and mourning.  In the Byzantine rite as the casket leaves the church, it meets the Gospel book, the primary icon of Christ in our midst.  Then the priest proclaims this Gospel.  He bangs the hand cross on the casket to symbolize the life of Christ not given in vain.  It reminds us that He has come to bring life to the world.

Although we are all wandering in our own private funeral processions to lonely graveyards, we meet a stranger in the street who knocks on our casket and reminds us to wake up.

When we become numb to the vulgarities, atrocities, and absurdities of the world, we need courage, hope, and wisdom, which we find in the life of our Lord.  The proclamation of the Gospel judges the world.  Christ comes first in humility as a child.  Christ comes second to judge the world through the Gospel of everlasting life.  Everything that falls short of mercy and compassion will pass away.  The obsceneness of the world hides the love in its midst.  We find the kingdom of heaven in the actions of peacemakers, where true power lies.

The procession of the gifts in the Byzantine liturgy mirrors the procession of the Gospel.  After the Lord moves through the world, we move through the world.  Bread and wine represent hospitality.  When the Lord comes to us through His Gospel, we offer Him the gift of ourselves in return.  He has judged the world and found it wanting and empty, and He has decided to fill it with life.  We receive His mercy first as the down payment to the world.  We become living icons in the world by filling the void with compassion and love.  When we act as His icons, the Lord stands within us and knocks on the coffin of the world and calls it back to life.

 

These thoughts come from a homily by Father Daniel at St. Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic Church in Irving, Texas.