Tag Archives: Dignity

Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

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Matthias Grünewald, Lamentation of Christ (detail) / PD-US

This reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

It has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

The Gospel reading prior to this spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

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Alvar Cawén, Pietà / PD-US

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.

Originally published at Frassati Reflections.

Wanted or Unwanted: Desire, Worth, and the Human Person

My mum was 17 when she had me. She had very little help with the pregnancy. She faced rejection, abandonment, and confusion at the onset, and 18 hours of labor, six weeks early, at the outset. She recently told me that, besides praying, she had resorted to telling herself, “Millions of women have done this before and made it through.” She recited the mantra over and over and over for nine months. I’m sure there were countless times that she thought to herself, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Naturally, getting pregnant meant a drastic change in her life plans. On top of the months of sickness and stress, she now had to figure out how to fend for a scrawny, yet perfectly proportioned and angelic, little boy. Granted, from what I can remember, I was flawless, both in appearance and behavior, but I’m sure it still affected her greatly.

Yes, I started off looking THAT good. No, I don’t know what happened.

To be 17 and to know with utter certainty that your future is now fundamentally and unavoidably altered, no matter how you respond, must’ve been an incredible weight to bear. To be any age and come to that realization is a hefty burden.

I’ve asked myself many times over the years why she did it, why she chose to receive the monkey wrench in all of her plans. Why did she choose to forego any and all of her current life goals to be an unwed mother in a small, fundamentalist church community? Why stomach the whispered gossip? Why fight the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and failure?

The answer is written and explained in every day of my upbringing. In every sacrifice she made, every extra hour worked, and every single time she let me crawl into bed with her in the middle of the night, she eloquently explained her thoughts on that time in her life, back in 1977.

In the swirling midst of emotion and anxiety, my mum sifted it all out and saw the truth of the matter: I was worth it. Somehow, despite everything else, she was able to weigh all the possible futures set out in front of her and saw her unborn child as worth more. Even though she hadn’t wanted the drastic veer “off course” that she was experiencing, even though–to be brutally honest–she hadn’t wanted a child prior to my conception, she didn’t let her wants and desires pull her from what was to what might have been. Want it or not, she was pregnant. Every motherly and loving act ingrained in me one enduring fact:

I wasn’t worthwhile because she wanted me; she wanted me because I was worthwhile.

There is a stark difference between the two approaches. If worth depends on desire or convenience, then an unwanted pregnancy will always fall somewhere between a hiccup and a disaster. However, if worth is intrinsic and essential to each human’s existence, then even the most unforeseen and undesired conception must necessarily fall somewhere between a joyful giggle and staggering “thank you”. When a human life is set on the scales, there is nothing else that can come close to balancing it, let alone weighing more. My mum knew that and taught it to me.

Jump ahead 38 years. I’ve chronicled our adoptions in-depth, and all the joys and priceless anecdotes that have accompanied them, however, I have never taken much time to expound on our struggles with infertility. Apart from the first couple of years of our marriage, we have always been open to life and conception happening at any point. In the months leading up to moving away to the Caribbean, we were even intentionally trying to get pregnant. However, in spite of our efforts, were never able to conceive.

Last summer, my wife and I celebrated our 15-year anniversary. She’d just completed her first year of medical residency. Things were pretty even keeled. Then, after over a decade of waiting and wondering, we found out she was pregnant. We were overjoyed and giddy and excited and all of the synonyms. We gleefully informed the children that the Justice League would be getting a new member. Apparently a bit of clarification was needed, because my 5-year-old said, “We’re getting a dog?”

So began the blur of pregnancy during residency. My wife plodded on, shift after shift. Along the way, there have been countless times we’ve thought to ourselves, “I can’t believe this is happening.” We are, daily, astounded and surprised by the fact that there’s been an extra human tagging along with us for the last 9 months. We’ve had the blessing and benefit of not only having wanted a child for so long, but also of being able to get fully prepared for it’s emersion, for its crawl onto this mortal coil.

The kicker? She’s due today, January 27. Yes, she’s due on the March for Life. As if we couldn’t get any cheesier or heavy-handed or over-the-top. But, that’s how we roll in the Justice League.

I struggled to find a hard-hitting, thought-provoking, hyphen-laden point to this post. Usually, I have something specific to say, and I won’t click “publish” until I at least feel like I’ve said it as coherently as possible. This time, though, I just knew I wanted to say something today. I’ve been excited and eager to post, but I couldn’t figure out what the tie-in would be. It took me a while to put my finger on it. I think what it boils down to today is this.

There is so much dang truth, beauty, and goodness in the world that I don’t just want everyone around me to see and know it; I want them to be ecstatic when there’s one more person in the world who gets to see it and know it! A new kid on the block can never be a bad thing, not objectively, because it means that one more beacon of infinite goodness is now advancing through this life!

From the first embryo, until the moment my mum found out she was pregnant, until the moment I wrote this, until the last breath of the last person, the worth and gorgeous complexity of each human life quietly calls to us, from each stage of development, to revere this life, to protect this life, to polish this life to a sheen.

Cherish each second of human existence, from conception to natural death, because each of those seconds are inextricably linked with each second of yours and mine. Protect our first moments to insure all the subsequent ones. And, please, please, always be willing to toss aside any and every timeline if someone threatens to intrude, regardless of how small and quiet they may be.

 

Works of Mercy Part IV–Clothe the Naked and Bear Wrongs Willingly

This is part IV of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, and part III first.

Clothe the Naked and Bear Wrongs Willingly
A couple of years ago, there was a kerfuffle over the popular clothing maker Abercrombie and Fitch when some remarks made by their CEO in a then seven-year-old interview surfaced:

The article dredged up a seven-year-old interview with Mike Jeffries, the sixty-eight-year-old, eccentric C.E.O. of Abercrombie & Fitch, rehearsing the principles that made Abercrombie one of the most successful—and most hated—brands in retail history. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Jeffries observed. “We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

One response to this interview was a campaign called “Fitch the Homeless,” in which a man searched second-hand stores for Abercrombie and Fitch clothes, bought them, and then videotaped himself distributing them to homeless people. Was the man behind the campaign acting mercifully by clothing the naked?

Clothing serves a practical purpose as well as a moral one. The practical purpose is the protection of the body from the immediate environment, which includes keeping the body warm in the cold of winter and keeping out the biting and stinging bugs of the summer. The moral purpose is to remind onlookers that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), and that it is the visible matter of the soul. Another moral purpose of clothing is that it further helps a person to act with modesty and decorum, though these things are both rooted in human dignity (of others and one’s own, respectively) which might be made visible with proper clothing.

These purposes of clothing should make clear a few points about clothing the naked:

  • The clothing should be in decent condition. “Hand-me-downs” are of course perfectly acceptable, provided that they are in good condition: they are little different from clothing obtained at a second hand store like Goodwill or the Salvation Army or Savers, all of which often sport some very dignified garments.
  • The clothing should be modest and decorous. This means again that it is in good shape, but also that it fits well and is “presentable.” A part of being presentable is that it it is not overly flashy nor overly big on images etc. Modest means more than just “being covered,” and decorum often goes out the window when the shirt says something offensive or lewd.
  • Actually, more often that not designer t-shirts lack modesty, decorum, or both; so, for that matter, do the ever-popular jeans with holes torn in them. These may be expensive clothing, but they are not performing the moral (and, for the matter, many of the practical) functions of clothing.
  • There is a sense in which clothing is also shelter. This is especially true to the survivalist, who will often note that clothing choice is among the most important decisions to make when preparing for a disaster. Providing a nice rain-coat or a warm blanket straddles the line between clothing the naked and harboring the harborless.

Among other things, it should be clear from this list that the “Fitching the Homeless” campaign was not exactly merciful to the homeless. Instead, it was about using the poor to score publicity points against Abercrombie and Fitch. It hinged on the idea that the poor were somehow less dignified, that the clothing “brand” would suffer by being seen on homeless folks—which to be fair was a problem with the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch more so than with the fellow undertaking the campaign. In short, it accepted the premise of the CEO that the poor are somehow “lesser” than the rest of us. As one commentator at the time put it,

“This stunt is based on the exact same premise offered by Jeffries: that some people are ‘unworthy’ to wear A&F clothes. The hipster doofus handing out A&F clothing to people on the street is doing it because he accepts the notion that they’re somehow lesser than “the rest of us.” His stunt has no bite without this assumption.

And the guy in the video is just passing out clothes to random people, without any sense of whether or not the clothes are wanted or even fit. He gives something to a decidedly plus-sized woman when we already know A&F doesn’t make plus sized clothing. These people are just being used as props.”

While this stunt involved giving clothing to the poor, it left them in truth more naked than before.

An often-misunderstood passage—and there are unfortunately all too-many of these—has our LORD telling us, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). Here we see a link between clothing the naked and bearing wrongs patiently.

And many sins are of a nature as to leave the sinner “spiritually naked,” they may be an embarrassment to him, may impair his sense of decorum or may be against modesty. A drunkard feels ashamed that he gets drunk as often as he does: so he remedies this shame by getting drunk. Bearing wrongs willingly means being patient with someone whose sins are often as frustrating to them as they are to you. Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that

“In respect of the result of the inordinate act, on account of which the sinner is an annoyance to those who live with him, even beside his intention; in which case the remedy is applied by ‘bearing with him,’ especially with regard to those who sin out of weakness, according to Romans 15:1: ‘We that are stronger, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak,’ and not only as regards their being infirm and consequently troublesome on account of their unruly actions, but also by bearing any other burdens of theirs with them, according to Galatians 6:2: ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens.'”

To bear another’s wrongs patiently is to develop a sympathy for them: that is, a sympathy for the person suffering, for the person who experiences temptations to sin. We are all tempted by something, after all, whether that something obviously and directly hurts others or whether the harm is more hidden and secretive. There are, in the final scheme of things, no merely “private” sins and no harmless evils, since every sin damages our relationship to God and to His Church.

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). These are not merely passive measures of nonviolence being counseled by the good shepherd. As one commentator has noted, these are in fact rater “edgy” statements given the time and place they were made:

In Roman Palestine, incidentally, a person of superior rank who slapped you in the face would expect you to respond by crawling in the dust and grovelling before him. (Or, her.) To remain standing, instead, and turn the other cheek, was a little more edgy than we may nowadays appreciate. Similarly, a Roman soldier could lawfully require you to carry his gear for one Roman mile, but not farther. This was a tax in kind, a short-term enslavement. By carrying it for two miles, you were turning the tables. You were now portering in friendship as a free man — and showing him how to do his job. This, too, was edgy. Similarly with him that commandeered thy cloak: give him the coat also, as the charitable act of a free man. Jesus was not counselling passivity, let alone gestures that are “holier than thou.” He was proposing quite practical — and edgy — stratagems for the slave to free himself from the bondage of this world.

In bearing wrongs willingly, we neither retaliate nor grovel, but instead show forth our own sense of dignity, acting with a sense of modesty and decorum: we may in turn inspire others to do the same. There is a certain bondage which comes from holding a grudge: by bearing others wrongs willingly, we free ourselves from that bondage, at least in part. We throw off the shackles of this world, and in return may inspire those who wrong us to do the same. We then take a few faltering steps as free men, as people who are more able to cooperate with God’s grace to overcome our own sins, or perhaps to inspire or help others to overcome theirs.

In acting with decorum and modesty, we become momentary windows for a world which has forgotten what these things are. Perhaps as such we will inspire them to act in accordance with their own dignity as men bearing the image and likeness of God. We need more men of virtue, more women of grace–but we must first become such people.

 

Continue to Part V.