One of these choices is not like the other

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As an actress, I have frequented circles where the pursuit of life, love and the absolute virtue of self-expression reign supreme: Live your truth. If it’s you and it makes you happy, go for it. The universe is looking out for you.

These messages are found not only in my artist circles—they saturate all of our relativistic society and egalitarian culture, where nothing is objectively true and all is subjective; where no one or no One can be Lord over the “almighty” individual. It is all too clear who is the ruler of this world (hmm…does this make anyone want to shout the conquering cry of the Angel of Victory?)

This is in no way to stand in judgment over any colleagues or friends—far from it. I too lived this way during my “cherry picking” days and had some problems with claiming absolutes, especially where the Church was concerned. Without being rooted in my identity as a daughter of the Most High or knowing about the the infinite treasures and wisdom of Holy Mother Church in a meaningful way, it was all too easy for me to think that I was doing alright as long as I was a “good person;” that I had my life over here and could put God someplace else to visit when it was convenient.

Slowly, mercifully, over the years of deeper conversion, the Lord convicted me. He opened my heart to the immensity of His unique, personal love for me (and for each of us). He opened my eyes to the spiritual reality and battle of our existence, where there is indeed an absolute choice to be made.

Moses says, in no uncertain terms:

Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish…

Easy enough choice, right? When looking at the eternal bliss of Heaven or the infernal horrors of Hell, who would willingly choose death over life? Yet that is the trap so many of us fall into when we willfully turn our hearts away from God for whatever reason, refusing to listen to the Truth—the Truth of His love for us, and the responsibility we have as His children. And not only listen to the Truth, but to joyously and actively choose to obey.

In the Gospel today, Jesus shares with His intimate friends a harrowing picture of the sacrifice He will make for the salvation of sinners. Knowing the infinite value of our souls and the passing temptations of this world, Christ then invites us all to make that choice to deny ourselves, daily take up our cross, and follow Him; to choose eternal life over eternal death. Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who give witness to this in a powerful way. As St Paul writes in Romans 8:18–

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

In this life, we should strive for nothing short of sanctity—Heaven is the realm of Saints and that is our true land. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of whenever I’m tempted to be “led astray and adore and serve other gods:”

When I care more for the opinions of others and it feels easier to keep my mouth shut in conversation rather than defend my Catholic faith and beliefs; when I let talk venture into uncharitable gossip because it’s all in “fun;” when I let jealousy poison my opinion of another person rather than seeing that person, and the gifts He has bestowed upon me, through the eyes of God; when I’d rather scroll through social media or watch Netflix rather than pray with Scripture or the Rosary.

Every day in countless small ways and in all sorts of places—at work, on the train, on the streets—the Lord invites us to die to ourselves, to love Him, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments. We can turn away from Him, piercing His Heart with our refusal, or we can turn to Him with our whole heart.

I have come to relish the moments when someone asks about the Divine Mercy image at my dressing room table, or notices my scapular peeking out, or learns that I attend daily Mass and bi-weekly confession (working up to weekly, Padre Pio!). Yes, even the moments of wide-eyed disgust when passersby see me, a young woman of color, standing outside Planned Parenthood in prayer. These moments of encounter open the door to astonishment and plant the seeds of grace.

The world around us is hungry for Truth and real Love. The universe and the gods that we make in our own image will never satisfy our deepest desire for God.

When we ask for the grace to live boldly and joyfully the proclamation that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, that there is no other, and that we were made for so much more than what the world offers—we will receive it.

When our seemingly ordinary days are colored by the extraordinary fact that Our Lord’s sacrifice and His infinite love for us, that Heaven is real (as is Hell), and that we have a choice to make—who knows how many souls we can win for the Lord?

Let us join with the universal Church in prayer for the Holy Father’s intention this month–that Christian communities, especially those who are persecuted, feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected.

Be faithful. Be authentic. Most of all, be not afraid. The victory is His.

Choose life, then.

Choose life.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us!

Holding Heaven

“I’m holding heaven in my arms tonight!” the lyrics of an old country song came unbidden, as I gazed down at the little one cradled softly in my arms. The afternoon sun highlighted the perfect features of a tiny face, illuminating like a halo the downy hair peaking from beneath a newborn cap.  The baby girl’s name was Caeli, from the Latin word for heavens.

*            *            *

Her mother Regina and I were born just eleven days apart, and were best friends from the age of seven, when I convinced her to walk home with me from school one day.  I had her wait outside while I asked my mother if she could come over to play.  “Who is Regina?” my mother asked.  “The girl standing in our driveway…!”  She wouldn’t have to ask again, as Regina quickly became a permanent fixture in my life.

Three decades later, we were still the best of friends, but no longer shared a school or a zip code.  I was single, with my New York City work and shoebox apartment.  Regina and her husband had a house in the country, shared with eight young children.  I visited when I could, to entertain them with stories and give them sugar highs.

As I had every other time, I shared Regina’s enthusiasm when she announced that she was expecting again, due in the summer of 2014.  But then I shared her devastation, when, as the pregnancy progressed, there came sobering news.

Tests showed signs of anomalies, and more tests were suggested, followed by more doctor visits and somber consultations.  Eventually the fears were given a name: it was believed that the baby, to be named Caeli, had both Trisomy 18 and spina bifida. 

While spina bifida brought challenges that could be reduced or corrected by surgery, Trisomy 18 was more serious and life threatening.  An extra chromosome 18 brought with it high risk factors—only half of these babies live to be born, and only ten percent of those live past the first year.  Those who survived often had heart defects and/or damage to other organs, and ongoing health risks.  In fact, the specialist to which Regina and her husband Erik went for help refused to treat them, saying that there was no point. 

We began to pray a 54-day rosary novena for a miracle.  The miracle was Doctor Elvira Parravicini.    Dr. Parravicini was a Catholic neonatologist working at Columbia Hospital, who had begun a program especially for families in such situations.  She had come to New York at the suggestion of Monsignor Guissani, founder of Communion and Liberation

For her, to follow Christ in such a situation was to “follow” the child: that is, to respond to the needs of the child, including not only medical needs but also the need to be welcomed and loved, even if for a painfully short while.  In Caeli’s case, Dr. Parravicini met with the parents to provide good prenatal care, and to be prepared for surgery (necessary within 72 hours) should the baby require it.  She also arranged for the other children, Caeli’s siblings, to be at the hospital the day of delivery, so that they could meet and welcome her. 

Early on the morning of June 18th, Regina began procedures to induce labor, with Erik at her side.  Her brother, a priest, brought her mother and the other children awhile later, and staff provided activities for them while they awaited Caeli’s arrival. 

Across the city I waited anxiously, begging God for a miracle, that Caeli be healed and be allowed to live.  I don’t know that I have ever prayed harder for a miracle, as if I could move heaven with intensity alone.

Regina had gone into labor early that morning, but hours later I had heard nothing.  I tried to work, but was too distracted.  Finally, I sought refuge in the Church of St. Monica nearby.  I prayed to every saint I could think of.  And then out of desperation, I prayed to the future St. Caeli.  I knew that God is outside of time, and that Caeli was likely be a saint soon and always, and so I implored her help, too.

Just then, kneeling there in the front of the church, I was surprised by a peal of girlish laughter.  I felt this laughter rather than heard it—it is hard to explain what I even mean by that.  It was too real to deny, and yet beyond the realm of the normal.  But I was simultaneously sure of two things: that is was Caeli’s laughter, and that it was a laugh of perfect joy.  At once my anxieties fled and I knew that all was well; I couldn’t contain my own joy.

Later I would wonder at the timing.  It was shortly thereafter that I received the waited-for text, and I crossed town to Columbia as fast as city traffic would allow. 

But the little girl that they placed in my arms was too still.  There was no movement of breath; no tiny heartbeat as I held her close.  I saw Regina’s face etched with pain, as she lay in her hospital bed. 

Little Caeli had lived for just under half an hour.  She had been baptized by Dr. Parravicini, and then confirmed by her uncle, and all her siblings were gathered around singing the Regina Caeli as she moved from our world to the next.

If I was surprised by my earlier joy, I was more surprised by the magnitude of my grief.  Why?  I knew that even though it wasn’t the answer I wanted, that Caeli was in heaven, in perfect joy.  So why such pain?   As I prayed once again, I realized that my grief too was a gift.

I stood with Jesus at the side of the tomb where Lazarus was buried.  He too, knew the ending—better than I.  But He wept.  Not because of the power of death—which He would defeat; but rather, because of the power of life, which He gave and so loved.

And I found myself back further, at the dawn of time, when God looked over creation and said, “It is good.”  Then when He created humanity, He said: “It is very good.”  This pronouncement came before any human activity or achievements; before love could be earned or reciprocated.  It was God’s delight and love for human life itself.

“You can’t explain beauty, but your heart recognizes it, intercepts it…” said Dr. Parravicini.1  For a few minutes we were invited to heaven.  Invited to see with the eyes of a Father, to love with a Father’s heart, the matchless beauty of a human person.

Caeli was loved into existence.  The love which she received and mirrored was already perfect.  God had nothing more to ask of her, no further mission to accomplish than to witness to heaven. 

St. Caeli, pray for us.

Caeli Philomena June 18, 2014

 

Notes:

1From a 2012 blog post by Rev. Robert O’Connor on Dr. Parravicini.  The formatting has since become compromised but I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety—it may well be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.