The Egg and the Rock

Today’s Gospel seems to tell a Tale of Two Peters. Jesus asks his disciples the pivotal question: “Who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who proclaims in reply: “You are the Christ!”

Peter is able to see supernaturally, beyond the humanity of Jesus to His divinity. God will continue to reveal to him what is more than human, and so give him the grace to lead the Church.

But like yesterday’s story of the blind man whose ability to see comes in two stages, Peter is still blind to the full mission of the Christ he has just professed.

Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this He turned around and, looking at His disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mark 8:31-33)

It is easy with 21st century hindsight to scoff at Peter’s blindness. We who know the good of Good Friday, the joy of Easter Sunday, the promise filled at Pentecost—we can accept the mangled God on the cross, perhaps a little too easily. We can shrug off the scandal of suffering. We wear the cross around our necks, hang it above the doorway, see it every Sunday on the altar at Mass.

One of the most powerful, but deeply dark and disturbing stories that I have ever read, is told by Stephen Mosher in A Mother’s Ordeal. The book follows the story of Chi An, who comes of age during the Communist Revolution in China, and whose life later becomes entangled with China’s brutal One-Child Policy.

It is not an easy story to read, not just because of the shocking cruelty and violence, but because it lacks a comfortable division between victim and perpetrator. Chi An was both.

Following the birth of her son, Chi An became pregnant a second time, in violation of the population agreement she had been forced to sign on her wedding day. When her pregnancy was discovered, population control officers compelled her to go to the hospital to have an abortion. She and her husband were heartbroken, but reluctantly complied. “How can an egg break a rock?” her husband asked sadly.

In her pain, however, (or perhaps in part because of it?) she went on to implement the very policies which had cost her her child—and which had now become the infamous One-Child Policy. “By now my envy of women with more than one child had hardened into something akin to resentment,” she admits. Her primary role was to convince women to agree to abortion or sterilization voluntarily—but if they did not agree, more drastic measures were taken.

She became a primary enforcer of both mandatory sterilization and abortion. The stories that she tells are deeply horrifying. Women were subjected to extreme pressures to give in to “remedial measures” but when they did not comply, abortions were done anyway by force—even in the ninth month, even during labor. When one baby boy survived even that, she watched as the doctor quickly took care of it.

At one low point, Chi An’s own best friend Ah Fang went into hiding to protect her unborn child. Chi An ruthlessly tracked her down, finding her in her last month of pregnancy. When labor began, Ah Fang begged Chi An not to call anyone, to look the other way until her child was safe. Chi An did not.

Later, her doings caught up with her, as Chi An herself became pregnant with an illegal child. She sought asylum in America (where she was living temporarily due to her husband’s work). Even from afar the Chinese government exerted pressure to abort, threatening not only her but those she loved back in China with all sorts of punishments. She became again a victim of the same policies she had worked to enforce. As she fought to save her daughter, the guilt and grief over all of the horror that she had participated in began to fill her life. “’What right do I have to have this child’, I thought bitterly, ‘while so many others have lost theirs?’”

Chi An found no way to escape the pain of her past: “‘What good is your regret?’ I sneered at my newly awakened conscience. ‘How does it help the troubled and despairing women, now forever barren, who you tortured, aborted and sterilized?’”

One day, to her surprise, her husband suggested they go to church. She had no experience with Christianity—her family was atheist, and her husband’s family had been either atheist or Buddhist. Yet one Sunday she found herself in Saint Michael’s Catholic Church and, for the first time, was confronted with the crucifixion.

I was fascinated by the painful figure on the cross above the altar. Why would anyone worship a dead god? I thought to myself. Chinese gods were always robust and happy…the idea of a dead God was simply absurd. Surely the fact that this man had been killed proved that he wasn’t a God at all. Who would want to kowtow before a defeated creature, I thought, unless he was not a mere a creature at all but the Creator? But then why had he allowed himself to die? It was almost beyond belief, certainly beyond the human imagination. The wildest dreams of human beings, I was sure, could not have begun to conjure up a dead God. Perhaps there was something to this after all.

I remembered the hundreds of women who I had forced to have abortions, how they had writhed and screamed and cried. I remembered my own abortion, how I had writhed and screamed and cried. If this tortured figure was God, then surely he felt and understood the pain I had felt and caused. Was there in his death some larger meaning?

…Months later, I made my first confession—and felt at peace with myself for a long time. The little hands that had been clawing at me could no longer reach me in the new place where I lived. My mind laid the little-boy-who-would-not-die to his rest. From now on the only cries that would wake me at night were that of my newborn daughter.

I was forgiven, but justice demanded that I do more…how could I help women still in China? I resolved to begin by telling Steve my story, however painful that might be, so that he might write it.

Applegate crucifix

*You can read Chi An’s story in its entirety in A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy by Stephen Mosher, published in 1993.  For those readers who have Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, this book is currently available as a free selection.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Kind of God

Recently it seemed that a wish was about to come true. It was the wish that I made the last three years while blowing out birthday candles. The wish that I had been working tirelessly for and praying for on a daily basis. I worked feverishly to prepare, past the point of pain, and then on the promised day enlisted all my friends and family to pray as well.   I was confident that God had heard my prayer, sure that it was all finally going to work out as I had hoped.

It did not.

The disappointment was crushing. At first I could only laugh at the horror of it all. But fatigue and frustration fed my feelings which quickly turned black and melodramatic. Not only was there no light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel itself had fallen in, and an entirely new tunnel would have to be built.

The Opposition Voice began to whisper words of doubt and discouragement. “Surely if God were good, He would have heard and answered your prayer…”

I have at times in my life felt a supernatural joy, disproportionate to the circumstances, from a source that had to be More than human. This was the opposite. For just a few moments, my heart felt burdened with an inhuman aching; the pain of promises broken and dreams dashed and all the failed expectations of all my friends and family and those I don’t even know seemed to take over. Miscarriages. Broken marriages. Failed operations. Caskets lowered into the ground. Unanswered prayers of every kind. “What kind of a God do you believe in?” the voice taunted.

The devil always overplays his hand. In his very taunt he offered me the antidote: I believe in a God who is good.

I don’t know how God will bring good into or out of all of these situations. But I know He is good.

This trust in the goodness of God: the virtues of faith and hope—these are the weapons of life in the desert.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus seems to be rejecting not only the Syrophoenician woman’s request for the healing of her daughter, but the woman herself. “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Yikes!

But despite the apparent harshness of Jesus’ rebuke, the woman persists, and cleverly turns around this unflattering epithet: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

Scripture scholar Mary Healy notes that not only is this Gentile woman filled with chutzpa in her persistence, but she is the only person in all of Mark’s Gospel who addresses Jesus as Lord. This remarkable recognition of Jesus’ sovereignty comes not from an Israelite, but from a foreigner. She pays Him homage, falling at his feet, and in her reply expresses confidence that His goodness will include Gentiles as well.

Her faith and her persistence move Jesus to grant her request. Her daughter is healed.

The Syrophoenician woman turns out to be a model of Christian faith…She refused to take no for an answer—and her boldness is rewarded. The clear lesson in this story is that the Lord does hear our prayers, and even his apparent refusals are meant to awaken in us a yet deeper faith, which opens us to receive the gift he has for us. Few sayings of Jesus are recorded more often than his reassurance that what we ask in prayer with faith we will receive. –Dr. Mary Healy

Lord, grant us the grace to trust always in Your goodness, even when we cannot see your plan.

Michael_Angelo_Immenraet_-_Jesus_and_the_Woman_of_Canaan

Source: Healy, Mary.  The Gospel of Mark. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2008) pp. 143-145.

Image: Michael Angelo Immenraet [Public domain]

Not Dumb Forever

“God wounds only to heal.” His eyes were filled with compassion, as he spoke these mysterious words. Moments ago, this priest had told me that God was going to answer my prayer for joy (fulfilled first here); now he seemed to be promising pain.

What did this mean? I had been taught that even God’s punishments are mercy. However, in reality I regarded this a bit cynically, calling to mind the joke about the ambulance driver who runs over a pedestrian and then proclaims, “Isn’t it great that I am here to save you!”

I was thinking about this later, when I (foolishly) walked across the deck of the beach house barefoot, thereby acquiring one of the largest splinters I have ever seen in the ball of my foot. It was unspeakably large, and unspeakably painful. It was baffling how it managed to get in, because there was no hole by which to extract it. The only way to remove the splinter was to cut into my foot. As I painfully pierced my skin to get at the splinter, I thought about the mysterious ways of God.

In today’s Gospel Zechariah is told, “Your prayers have been heard!” This gift of a son is not a random bequest from the Almighty, but a specific answer to Zechariah’s prayer. And yet he doubts the possibility that his prayer is being answered.

And because he doubts, he is punished.

Or is he? Zechariah is struck dumb, literally, rendered speechless for the next nine months. One can only wonder at what was wrought in that silence. What did he think, as he watched his aged wife’s burgeoning belly? What wonder filled his mind as he placed his hand over her womb, felt the quickening and kicking of the prayed-for-son growing beneath her heart?

He must have gone back over that day a thousand times, not just the angel’s words but what had come immediately before. How it fell to him by lot the honor of approaching the holy of holies, to offer the incense on behalf of all of Israel. How with the incense rose the prayers and longings of countless generations for freedom and redemption. Could it be that God could, would, answer these prayer, too?

In the silence it is God who speaks, God who acts. In the silence, we come to know God’s Word.

What kind of God did Zechariah believe in?

Zechariah, abruptly silenced, was forced to let God get a Word in edgewise. And as he was stilled by silence, he was schooled in the lessons of faith, of hope, of trust in the goodness of God. These are the weapons of life in the desert. These hard-won lessons would be instilled in young John the Baptist. Even in the desert, God provides. Even in the desert, God is good. Even in the desert, God’s promises are being fulfilled.

We know that life grew within Zechariah, too, because when speech returns, he prophecies with joy, about the mission of his son, about the “tender compassion of our God.” Discouragement and doubt have given way to trust in the Promise.

Ultimately, the answer to his prayer and mine, is the same: Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

Fra Angelico Zechariah

Image: Fra Angelico The Naming of John the Baptist

 

Flowers in the Desert

“Flowers in the desert” my friends and I would call these little graces, gifts of hope or promise during times that seemed dominated by absence.

They varied in nature or significance: A chance encounter on a plane. An intriguing new addition to the social circle. An anonymous gift of a $100 bill. A word from a friend that was undoubtedly in fact a word from God.

These little things would be signs that would carry us through.

But they were only signs; therein lay the thorn on the rose. Pressed too hard, they did not deliver, but would in fact disappoint if mistaken for the Gift.

The airplane conversation opened windows to vision, but no doors. The new relationship was flattering and fun, but not “The One.” The money was quickly spent. The word brought peace for a time, but then back to waiting and wondering, “Where am I Lord? What am I doing? What are You doing? Are you even there?”

Anyone who has walked in the faith for some time has likely come to know the seasons of the soul. There are days of spring, when all things seem to proclaim the glory of God, when streams of grace flow amply and flowers bloom everywhere. In such seasons my heart knows easily the nearness of God, quickens with a song or a verse or just the simple suggestion of Presence.

But there are other seasons, seasons of winter, when it seems that life lies buried under the frozen dry ground. When the same words that once caused my heart to flutter, read again do not move me at all. When prayer feels like an empty exercise, a movement of the mind and will, while the heart is cold and still.

It is in the winter desert that faith becomes real.

Once upon a time, I thought that this meant that I was being tested, that I would prove myself a real Christian with heroic acts of faith, hope and charity that rose above my feelings. But I am no more able to produce these than a wanderer in the desert can produce water or an oasis. In the desert, it is God who provides.

Centuries ago on a hill called Tepeyac Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego. She asked him to go to the bishop with the request that a chapel be built in her honor. But the bishop was uncertain and asked for a sign. Our Lady provided.

She sent Juan Diego to gather roses from the desert hillside, of a kind that had no business growing in winter. Juan Diego is delighted with this gift, sure that it will be what the bishop is seeking. Our Lady carefully arranges the roses in his tilma, and Juan hurries to the bishop’s palace.

But as we know, the roses were only a means to reveal something greater. When Juan Diego opens his tilma, it is Our Lady’s own image that is revealed.

There are many moving details to this story, but of special significance are the eyes of Our Lady in this image of Guadalupe. The image itself confounds scientists—that there are not brush strokes, that it has been held by the rough cactus fibers, that is has survived for centuries—all indicate something miraculous. But a close look at the eyes in the image is even more startling—the iris and pupils show the images of people, as would appear in eyes that were photographed. And the proportions of these people are different in each eye, as a true photograph would show—but this image on the tilma predated the invention of photography. Even the microscopes used to reveal these images in the eyes did not exist at the time that Mary’s image appeared.

Many believe that the people shown in Our Lady’s eyes are Juan Diego, the bishop, and those present at the unveiling of the tilma. That even as they were looking to see signs, Mary saw each person present, held them in her gaze—and does so to this day.

Roses in winter reveal the vision of God. We are seen by heavenly eyes, held by hands that we cannot see. Even in such times, we are not alone. It is not the gifts that we seek, but the Giver.

“Am I not here, who am your Mother?” Our Lady tells Juan Diego. Her image shows her belly, swollen with Presence. She who became Mother to Emmanuel mothers us too, and calls us always to her Son.

In today’s Gospel we hear the first proclamation of the Incarnation, the Good News of the coming of Emmanuel. The name Emmanuel means God is With Us.

It is He Himself who comes to save, to be with us. More than a sign, He is the reality our hearts long for.

 

Flowers in the Desert Delfino

Photo by Delfino Barboza on Unsplash

The Rock

Last Christmas a very generous friend gifted me a Know-It-All watch. It knows when I am sleeping, and how well. It knows when I am sitting—and buzzes “Move!” when I do so for too long. It knows my heart rate and will buzz frantically “Abnormal…!”—often during particularly still moments such as the Consecration—assuring that said heart rate will quickly climb even higher.

I keep this omniscient tyrant for two reasons: one is that it alerts me to calls, which is helpful because I frequently forget where I’ve left my phone. The other is that it tracks my steps, motivating me at least in theory to take more of them.

One morning this past spring I was traveling with some friends from college, and we were planning to enjoy a leisurely brunch before heading our separate ways. I decided to take advantage of the hotel treadmill and get my steps in early. I was pleased that by the time we sat down to brunch, I was just 50 steps short of 10,000.

It was worth it. The food was delicious and it was a delight to just relax and enjoy extended conversation. But suddenly, mid-sentence, I felt the familiar bossy buzz and looked down at my watch to see the fireworks going off, signaling that my steps goal had been reached. I was amused and bewildered. How could this be, since I had been sitting for the entire time?

“It’s because you’re Italian,” my friends laughed. “You talk with your hands….”

Today’s Gospel is about speaking with more than words. It is in fact our actions that speak to God most clearly. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, ‘will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven,” Jesus tells His disciples.

Faith is something that we profess not with our mouths but with our lives. By our actions, we build our house on either rock or sand.

At the same time, faith is knowing that it is not by my own strength or power that I do good. Rather, God has made me good and empowers me to choose the good. We are free to say no to what would hinder His will, knowing that it would also hinder our happiness.

Recently I read an article with the rather bizarre assertion that Mary and Jesus could have been just as happy and holy had they told God, “No.”

The author was trying to make a case for the primacy of consent. That at the Annunciation, Our Lady had the freedom to say Yes or No to God’s proposal. This is true: Our Lady was not forced to bear the Son of God. She was invited to be the spouse of the Spirit, the Mother of the Son, but she could have said No. All heaven awaited her answer.

Any man who proposes knows the intensity of such a moment, of held breath, awaiting a reply. No lover worthy of the name would make it a matter of force. She must always have the power to choose.

And yet, with the power to choose comes the power to choose tragically. Mary could have said No. But it would indeed have been a tragedy. Nothing else she could have chosen would ever approximate what God had in store for her. Her empty autonomy could not have been on par with being the mother of the Savior of the world.

Mary, full of the love of God, trusted the goodness of God. She knew He could not and would not propose something that was not good. She knew that whatever He does through us, He also does for us. She was free to respond fully and joyfully, and she did.

We also build our actions on the rock of Christ when we trust His promises, when we choose to say Yes to something (Someone) greater than ourselves. If instead we choose to trust in human ideas, in human strength, in human plans, then we find we have built on sand.

 

Gratitude a Platitude?

I smiled politely but inwardly rolled my eyes and sighed. I had come far, driving for several hours across state lines for this conversation. I was searching for peace, the peace that I heard Jesus promise and holy people speak of, but that was elusive in my own life. I was experiencing darkness and angst, teetering on the edge of depression. I thought this holy priest would offer helpful advice, transformative insight, something beyond: “Try keeping a journal of things you are grateful for.”

Gratitude?!? It was vaguely offensive, this suggestion that my problems arose because I was ungrateful. And a Gratitude Journal seemed little better than a “self-help” suggestion. Surely, if self-help propaganda actually worked, it wouldn’t be an ongoing industry.

I roll my eyes harder, today, at the naïve and stubborn girl I was then. Because when I finally took this priest’s advice, years later, it was transformative.

He was right, of course, that gratitude brought with it an increase in happiness and tranquility. Science in fact confirms this: studies repeatedly show that those who practice gratitude are generally happier and healthier. But in the spiritual realm this truth runs much deeper. In recent years I have meditated often on this mystery of gratitude, and how in fact gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life in ways that are not immediately apparent.

First, gratitude orients us toward God. Gratitude as grace is more than an expression of contentedness, more than an acknowledgement of the good things in our lives. It is a recognition of, a turning towards, the Giver of these gifts. It is not coincidence that the first prayer children learn to pray is the practice of gratitude, of receiving and responding to the goodness of God. Gratitude is the first expression of the faith that saves us.

When in today’s Gospel Jesus remarks with dismay that only one of the ten lepers He healed has come back to thank Him, it is tempting to read this as a scolding for a breach of etiquette, as though Jesus were little more than a divine first-century Miss Manners. But what Jesus is lamenting is a matter of relationship. We are called as Christians not just to be thankful for someTHING, but thankful to someONE. Gratitude turns the heart toward the Giver. It is the relationship, this coming to the Giver, that saves.

Second, gratitude increases our capacity for God’s gifts. Gratitude in turn unlocks other blessings. It is a mystery of faith that I have come to recognize experientially: our gratitude actually increases the gifts of God.

At first I was put off (again!) by this idea. It seemed to be just another quid pro quo, a means of “earning” grace by playing nice and saying the right things. Worse, it seemed to demean God, suggesting He was crankily waiting for us to respond properly before giving us more good things.

It was living in the country that I began to understand why this might be—why it was more than just spiritual tit for tat, a reward for good behavior. I had discovered early upon my move home on that our basement was vulnerable to floods, and when that spring brought prolonged record rainfall I feared the worst. But each day that I checked, the basement remained dry. It was only after weeks of dry and drought that a short burst of rain sent the water rushing in.

The reason is simple: when ground is dry it becomes hardened, and the water cannot penetrate quickly enough and so runs off the surface of it creating the flooding. But as the earth receives water, it softens, allowing it to receive more and more. Similarly, the more our hearts are open to God and His gifts, the more He can give to us without “drowning” us. The more we gratefully receive, the more we are capable of receiving what God gives us.

Finally, gratitude keeps present in our hearts and minds the goodness of the Giver. As we remember our blessings and the ways in which God has provided for our past, we carry the seeds of hope for our future, even in seasons of scarcity and suffering.

“For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes.”– Dag Hammarskjöld

Idol Speculations

Earlier this week two activists made something of a splash when they removed controversial carved images from a church in Rome and tossed them into the Tiber River. Subsequently, Catholic social media has been flooded with commentary about the controversy. Who or what were these images depicting? Was it the Blessed Virgin (an early theory later rejected by a Vatican spokesperson); was it a “simple representation of life” in Amazonian art, or was it a “pagan idol,” specifically Pachamama? And the men who did this tossing—were they thieves, stuntmen, or heroes? An anonymous video showing the Tiber toss was uploaded to You-tube and has since been watched by thousands; some with concern and dismay, some with wild cheering.

The action comes during the Synod on the Amazon being held in Rome, which itself is stirring significant controversy, particularly from many who fear that it will be used as an occasion to change church teaching. Cries of racism have also arisen from both right and left. The left is accusing the right of rejecting Amazonian symbols and culture because they “aren’t white enough”; the right is claiming that the left is patronizing the Amazonian people by “watering down” church practices.

It is not the first controversy for our church. The centuries have been filled with contention and crises and wars against the church from within and without.

In times of discord, of scandal, of challenged faith, what is a faithful Catholic to do?

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells His disciples “Do you think I have come to spread peace? No, I tell you, but rather division.” One might think His word is being fulfilled!

But looking closer at today’s Gospel, we see both the real desire of Jesus, and the response He desires from us in the wake of scandal. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

In these times, more than ever, we must pray.

It is not enough to be a chorus of curses against the darkness. We must BE light. A lightbulb on its own is useless—it gives light only when it is plugged into a source greater than itself. We too must receive from a genuine and literal Higher Power.

Prayer is not merely petition, not merely giving voice to our anger or anxieties. Rather it is to sit in the presence of God, to become one with Him, to learn His mind and His heart and receive His Spirit so that we might bring Him to others.

Our mission is to be conduits of grace to the world. If a stone statue of an idol can bring harm, how much more can a living vessel of the Holy Spirit bring good?

To offer anything less than Jesus is a tragedy. Certainly if apparent idols are presented in the church as alternatives to God, that is a grave scandal. But who do people encounter when they meet us? What are we offering through our lives? In my experience both “outsiders” and we ourselves are much more scandalized by the selfishness, hypocrisy, apathy of any individual professed Christians. We must ask ourselves, when people meet us, who or what do they encounter?

The first work of the Christian is to pray, to become and do the good that God asks of us as individuals.

I do not say this as an excuse to avoid the struggle against evil, to avoid taking sides. Rather, I say that we must not limit that fight to the evil in others.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

That something other than Jesus might be worshipped, that something other than His Mother be honored as ours, is indeed disturbing. But what idols need to be exorcised from our own hearts?

Who do people encounter when they meet us?

Every conversion I have ever heard or read about has been born of encounter and attraction. Sometimes a direct encounter with God, often, first, an encounter and attraction through the life of a Christian. Always it is a movement toward some good, toward joy, toward peace, toward love.