Becoming Like Children

The disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?”
He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said,
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Whoever becomes humble like this child
is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
(Matthew 18:1-5)

The USCCB has designated today as the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. As such, I’ll be talking about one of the gospel readings recommended by the USCCB to be proclaimed during the liturgy. (Depending on where you reside in America, your parish may observe this day, or your parish will follow the readings today that fall under Ordinary Time.)

Not many know this about me, but I share the same birthday as my mother. My mother was born on April 1st, 1963; I was born on April 1st, 1989. Aside from it being a cute piece of trivia about me, it’s a fact that I have always been close to my mother. I often joke that the relationship and friendship I have had with my mother has been one akin to the one shared by Rory Gilmore and her mother, Lorelai, from the dramedy Gilmore Girls. But on a larger and more relevant note, it’s an even lesser-known fact that my mother was *almost* never born. My grandmother, already married in 1962 and raising one child, felt pressure from relatives to terminate her second pregnancy. Upon going to an abortion clinic, my grandmother felt a sudden thrust of pain in her abdomen.

Ignoring that pain, my grandmother went to the abortion table, but heard a voice urging her, “Don’t do this!” My grandmother then fled the abortion clinic in tears, not caring about getting her money back. My grandmother told me the voice sounded feminine and that she presumed it was Our Lady who urged her not to go forward with the abortion. (Was it an interior locution similar to the ones St. Teresa of Avila writes about in The Interior Castle? I don’t know. Ultimately, my grandmother decided against the abortion.)  In a very real way, my mother was almost never born. Similarly, I could have never been born and never ensouled. I may have never written the reflection you are now reading. I am thankful for the life I have been given. My mother is too. Neither of us hold any resentment towards my grandmother.

I don’t want to politicize my reflection, because that’s not my intent. But the Church does recognize the need to pray for the unborn with days such as today, and with other days such as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (That’s when we pray for the souls of the children lost in the massacre ordered by Herod I in Bethlehem. See Matthew 2:1.)

When I read that gospel reading from Matthew, I am constantly reminded of the infighting that occurred with Christ’s twelve disciples. I am reminded too of the attempts by the Pharisees to catch Christ in a “gotcha moment” when they question Christ about the law of divorce. (See Matthew 19.) I am reminded of my own struggles with heartbreak, loss, and tragedy and when I have often gone to Christ, angry and resentful, demanding, “How can this be?” It is of particular importance that Christ is asked whom is “the greatest” by his disciples. Christ doesn’t say St. Peter; Peter is the disciple who gets the “best job” (becoming the first Pope) despite his thrice-denial of Christ. Christ doesn’t say St. John; John is considered “the beloved disciple.” Instead Christ does something else. Christ simply directs them to a child and asks them to become child-like in their disposition in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. For the innocence and mind of a child is a wondrous thing.

Consider this. Many of us, upon being asked what God is, might be tempted to say, “God is the Alpha and the Omega.” Or if you enjoy Thomistic theology, you may cite the following, as declared by Pope Pius IX in 1914, “The metaphysical motion of the Divine Essence is correctly expressed by saying that it is identified with the exercised actuality of its own being, or that it is subsistent being itself. And this is the reason for its infinite and unlimited perfection” (Postquam Sanctissimus §23). (Hey now, I’m a Lay Dominican and it’s practically a requirement to enjoy some Thomistic theology.)

Asides from that being a very profound statement, such a statement may read dense to some of us. In contrast, a parent simply tells a child, upon being asked what God is that, “…God is love” (John 4:8). A child understands immediately what God is, because they often equate the love of God to the warmth of their parents. And indeed, God is a loving father.

My larger point is this: do we approach God as a child in prayer and in our daily lives? As an obedient disciple? To the men out there (including myself!), do you act as a servant-leader rather than as leader-servants? Do we treat others, such as the homeless, as St. Teresa of Calcutta would say, with love and affection, because they [the homeless] are “God in His most distressing disguise?” Do we take up our crosses joyfully, and offer up our sufferings lovingly for the souls in purgatory, or in today’s case, for the unborn? Or. Do we approach God as a Pharisee? Do we question God at every turn? Do we approach God in anger with different shades of resentment? If we see a mother who has decided to go through with an abortion, do we judge them, or do we show them mercy and love? Do we tell them to seek the services of the Sisters of Life? Do we treat them with mercy and compassion? Do we pray for them? Do we tell them that no sin is beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness? You are unique! You are loved! You are truly a daughter or son of Christ, King of the Universe!

I am grateful for the life I have been given. My mom is too. And I pray every day for a greater culture of life. I have dealt with many tragedies in my life, have dealt with the loss of many family members and friends, and I have had many personal struggles in my past and present. (As we all have.) As followers of Christ we are to believe that every person is valuable, sacred, good, and wholly unique. Every person’s life has profound meaning and worth. And I pray every day that I treat everyone I meet in my life, from friends, family, and strangers, as Christ would. I pray everyday that I go to Christ as a child, wholly and completely reliant on Him.

Our Holy Father Francis remarks in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, of his lament and grief of the adverse impact we have had on creation. Remember, as directed in the Book of Genesis, we are to be stewards of God’s creation: “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). The culture of today can often be a “throwaway” culture. Such a culture has also had a tragic impact on the unborn. Today’s day of prayer is meant to recognize the right to life and ask for acts of prayer and penance for violations of the dignity of the human person, particularly through abortion. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.

Am I the Enemy?

“Healing is like an onion—there are many layers to it,” said the priest kindly. “God is moving foothills and mountains in your life—but you are looking for a volcano.”

His words gave me a measure of peace, but still I wanted more. A few days later, when the retreat had ended, I sat alone in the chapel. I felt burdened, not free. I felt an anxiety that I knew was not from God, and a longing for something more. I recalled the words of Sister Miriam, “You are not a problem to be fixed, but a person to be loved.” I remembered: “You need to let God love you…”

“What does that even mean?” I cried out. “I am trying so hard…” And I started sobbing with a pain that I could not identify but that poured forth from the depths of my being. “I am trying to let You love me! You know I give You permission! What more do You want of me?”

And then a memory surfaced, of the very worst sin of my life, the sin for which I was most deeply ashamed. “Will you let me love her?” I heard a gentle Voice ask. “Will you let me love the girl that did that?”

I froze for a second from the shock, and then recoiled in horror. Then, with a fury that would make the demons blush, I turned on my former self and screamed, “No!”

*            *            *

Like Saint Peter at the Last Supper, I thought I was stronger than I was. I had heard a story of someone committing this sin. I was aghast. “I could never do that!” I said with assurance, unaware of my underlying arrogance and spirit of self-reliance.

At supper with His disciples, Jesus tells His friends that one of them will betray him, and that the others will all flee. Peter is sure of himself. “Surely it is not I Lord!” “I will lay down my life for you.”

Jesus, who knows the dust from which we are made, warns him: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”

Sure enough, in the dark by the fire, three times Peter reacts: “I do not even know the man.” He hears the cock crow. And Luke tells us, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Luke 22:61)

What was in that look? I used to imagine disappointment, reproof, perhaps a tinge of “I told you so!” I saw in His eyes a mixture of sorrow and accusation, a frown on his face, a furrow on his brow, “How could you Peter?”

But God is love. And I believe that it was that look of love by which Peter was “undone.” A love that rushed into his hardened heart and rent it in two. “And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)

It seems at first that the greatest test is behind Peter, and that he has failed. But there is still a greater test to come.  Peter has seen Jesus heal and forgive. He has heard Christ’s call to forgive without limit, “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Does he believe in Jesus? Does he believe in His power to forgive, to make new?

We all, with Peter, must choose to take Christ’s words to heart. To receive within the depths of our own hearts His healing and forgiveness. But this is not easy.

Is there ever a doubt in my mind that it is virtuous for me to give alms to the beggar, to forgive him who offends me, yes even to love my enemy in the name of Christ? No, not once does such a doubt cross my mind, certain as I am that what I have done unto the least of my brethren, I have done unto Christ.

But what if I should discover that the least of all brethren, the poorest of all beggars, the most insolent of all offenders, yes even the very enemy himself—that these live within me, that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am to myself the enemy who is to be loved—what then?

(Carl Jung quoted by Dr. Conrad Baars in Born Only Once).

At supper that night, Jesus broke bread with both Peter and Judas. Peter denied Him, but later became the first Pope and a martyr. Judas betrayed him, and we are told he regretted it, he returned the coins he had been paid, but he went and hung himself.

Was there such a great difference in their sin? No; rather, the difference was in their willingness to be forgiven. Jesus loved Judas also, to the end. Even in the Garden, when Judas comes to betray with a kiss, Jesus kindly calls him “Friend…”

For Peter, accepting this forgiveness is not an abstraction. There on the beach by the sea of Galilee, Christ will ask him, again, three times, “Do you love me?” And Peter, now humbled, will say, “You know everything…you know that I love you.” He now knows he cannot love on his own power. But Christ promises that He Himself will perfect Peter’s love, foretelling that one day, Peter will follow him to the cross, and this time lay down his life (see John 21:15-19). “Follow me,” He invites.

To follow and believe is not merely to acknowledge with our minds, but to receive in to our hearts the love of Christ. To allow it to convict and convert us, as an outpouring of compassion, not condemnation.

Once a woman who had been guilty of multiple abortions was struggling to accept forgiveness. Her priest had told her God was merciful, but she could not accept it. Ironically, she was going to counseling at that time with a Jewish therapist.

He questioned her, “Forgive me if I have this wrong—I am not Christian—but isn’t the idea that Jesus died for sins on the cross?” “Yes,” she agreed.”

“For everyone’s sins?” he pressed.

“Yes,” she answered. “Except mine.”

*            *            *

There in the chapel I sat, both Pharisee and Sinner at once.

The Pharisee screamed in accusation at the Sinner, “I hate what she did…I hate how she made me feel…she made me feel ashamed…she made me feel unworthy…she made me feel that I was bad…”

I heard myself naming each of the spirits we had been renouncing all week. And then, “she made me feel that I don’t deserve the love of my Father.”

I was again caught by surprise.

And as I cried out this last, I felt a sudden resurrection and freedom as the long-buried lie was exorcised from my soul. In place of the lie, I felt the embrace of the Father that shame had kept at arm’s length.

As we had been taught to do, I imagined my two selves standing at the foot of the cross. First, I asked Jesus to forgive, and then I forgave.

Christ is in each of us. Caryll Houselander asserts, even in the most hardened sinner. She suggests that we reverence such a person as we would the Holy Sepulcher (Tomb of Christ)—in which He is waiting to rise from the dead. Sometimes that tomb is within.

This Easter, we are invited to share in the death of Christ, and also in His resurrection.

Forgiveness of Sins

Image Credit:  Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash