Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Awash in God's tears

Normally each morning during our lectio period after Vigils and Lauds, I pick up Scripture (typically that day’s readings for Mass, which immediately follows), or some other type of spiritual reading. This morning, after meditating on the Scripture passages for Mass (Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 11:29-32), something next to my chair caught my eye—the March 14 issue of America magazine, with an article titled “Weapon of War: Who will Protect the Women of Congo?” It is a gut-wrenching account of the unthinkable brutality that has terrorized the people of Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo for years.

I wouldn’t usually advise reaching for a news magazine (even a Catholic one) to pore over as lectio divina. Scripture or the writings of the saints, Church fathers, or other spiritual authors are much more conducive to prayer. However, the America article seemed to fit somehow into my own reflection on the Mass readings and other circumstances around the world and closer to home.

I won’t even attempt to describe the political and social climate in the Congo region that has immersed it in warfare for almost 20 years, and how the world has responded (or not). There are numerous and complex sources of conflict which I am not capable of commenting on. However, on the simple level of our shared humanity, what is going on in the Congo is utterly horrifying, and almost none of it makes the headlines.

According to the article, since 1994 five million Congolese have been killed in the conflict. FIVE MILLION !!! That is more people, by far, than populate the city of Los Angeles. If that weren’t enough, rape is one of the primary “weapons” used by rebels and various forces. As the article describes it, villages are routinely raided by troops who savagely beat the male citizens, and then force them to watch as they repeatedly rape their children, wives, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers. Thousands of women have been subjected to this by forces seeking the upper hand over one another through intimidation, terror, and degradation, the article states.

Needless to say, the violence has had a devastating effect on the surviving victims at the deepest of human levels. I can’t think of a more apt depiction of hell on earth.

Unless it’s Japan. A 9.0 earthquake is destructive and traumatizing enough. Fleeing and watching (for those so “fortunate”) the immense rolling waves of the ocean that literally swept whole coastal towns off the map adds insult to injury. No one yet knows how many thousands were killed because the damage is so severe. As rescuers pluck through the debris looking for survivors, radiation is seeping from a number of damaged nuclear reactors as controllers scramble to prevent complete meltdowns that could inflict even more pain and suffering on the people for generations.

The other day, a former newspaper colleague of mine wryly remarked on his blog: “It will be futile to make any more ‘disaster’ movies. The whole planet is a disaster movie these days. Probably always was, but now we can be sure that every act of God (and there are plenty) will be captured on video and served up piping hot within minutes.”

My friend is right, though I don’t agree with his sentiment of blaming the God whom he claims not to believe in for all this mess.

Closer to home, the much-too-young father of a fellow monk lies unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator in a hospital bed, surrounded by stunned and frightened family members who simply can’t take it all in. That is a scene I can certainly relate to.

Sheer madness. Where does it all end?

Or, even better, why?

Good questions. I am reminded of a conversation related to me by a good friend grieving over the loss of her 42-year-old husband (and a friend of mine) to cancer. She was speaking with her father, and cried out to him, “It’s not fair!”

And he responded, “You’re right.”

My friend told me that she has always appreciated that response. Her father didn’t try to ease his own discomfort by offering up empty platitudes or attempting to explain anything. He didn’t tell her not to feel the way she did. He simply acknowledged her pain and entered into it with her. He filled his daughter’s grief with his presence.

That is a key insight for us all, I think, and reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by the French poet Paul Claudel: “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it, but to fill it with his presence.”

OK, but still, why the suffering in the first place?

Humanity has struggled with that question for millennia. I won’t attempt to deceive you into believing that this blog will finally and absolutely answer it.

I don’t know how it all works, but from the perspective of faith, I will say this (hold on to your hats!):

We suffer because of sin.

Go ahead, scream and curse at me. Get it out of your system, but please read on.

I am NOT saying that the good people of Japan, or Congo, or that my confrere’s father or my friend’s late husband—anyone—deserve what they are getting because of their sins. That would make me the most detestable of all.

But the simple fact of the matter, quite obviously, is that ours is a sorely broken and fallen world. Why? Because our choices matter in this life (and the next). We are not independent of one another, despite what our culture tells us. Everything we do or say or think as human beings has a ripple effect on the lives of other human beings and the world around us far beyond our capacity to see or discern—like a small pebble dropped into a pond that sends ripples out in all directions.

Yes, it is difficult to accept and is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that present difficulties arise from our personal sins, although our own failings may cause us—or others—to suffer. Rather we suffer because of original sin—the fallen nature of humanity.

Original sin was NOT, as my blogging colleague writes, “eating a measly little apple.” It was pride—the intentional decision to turn away from God, to control our own lives apart from the Creator, to “be like gods” (Genesis 3:5).

This separation continues to hurt us to this very day. It manifests itself in our various sufferings because it’s not how we were created to live. Death entered the world because we turned away from the Life that is God, who in his justice honors our free will, our choices. However, God did not invent death, and he does not inflict it as punishment.

I keep a newspaper clipping in my Bible of a letter to the editor written a number of years ago. It struck me then because the writer so succinctly captures our plight:

“By granting us free choice in our affairs, God allows the consequences of our bad choices to impact us and, to our shame, innocent future generations. God’s ‘vengeance’ [as it were] is to allow us to live in the world that we have chosen to physically and morally despoil.”

Fine, one may say, then how do you explain earthquakes and tsunamis?

Simple. I don’t. I cannot comprehend the inner workings of the cosmos any more than anyone else. But I am convinced that we are all connected to one another and everything around us in myriad ways unseen. When we fractured our relationship with God, who created us in his image of Perfect Goodness, the world came along with us. We are of the same substance, formed from the ground, and one with it. “Adam” means “man” in Hebrew; it is a play on the similar-sounding word “adama,” which means “ground”.

So, who knows?

But most of us are not committing atrocities like those being committed in Congo, and are trying to lead decent lives. We’re good people, right?

Yes, that may be true, but the darkness of heart that leads some to commit such acts as outright murder, rape, etc., surely lurks in the hearts of each and every one of us in one way or another. We should not try to fool ourselves into thinking that we are “more civilized” than others. Some of history’s greatest acts of barbarism have been carried out by the most “intelligent” and “civilized” of societies.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know what is truly in our hearts. Secretly pleased in another’s misfortune because it improves our own standing. Falsely and maliciously harming another’s reputation because of a long-nursed grudge. Focusing our attention on materialistic self-indulgence while turning a blind eye to the needs and suffering of others. In one way or another, to one degree or another, it’s all there, and it affects us all.

Jesus explicitly says that those who harbor murderous or adulterous thoughts are just as guilty as those who act on them (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28).

Then what are we to do? Sit in sackcloth and ashes like the citizens of Nineveh in today’s first reading from the prophet Jonah? Well, it wouldn’t be a bad start.

More important, I think, is interior repentance—recognizing and owning up to our individual and collective failings and their untold effects on the rest of humanity—that leads to outward transformation of ourselves and the world.

I am reminded of something our instructor (Fr. Guy Mansini, O.S.B.) said in Ecclesiology class the other day. A little out of context here, but still applicable, I believe:

“All the truly important things that happen in the Church happen secretly and silently, not publicly.”

If this is true, and I think it is, we all have a lot of work to do. And it starts in each one of our hearts.

Rather than focusing on who or what may be responsible for acts of war and violence, earthquakes, man-made disasters, and illness, the vital question for each one of us is this:

“Is your heart ready to return to God, to welcome restoration of that fractured relationship—no matter what else may be happening?”

In other words, whatever the case may be for those caught up in the world’s tragedies, where do you stand? If your earthly life would cease this day, would you be ready?

Jesus says as much in the Gospel of Luke: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those 18 people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (13:2-5)

I am absolutely and irrevocably convinced that at the point in time (and it will happen), that every single person on Earth finally turns to God in all humility within his or her heart, eternity will fully enter in, and all pain and suffering will cease.

When we stop looking for and assigning blame, and begin to acknowledge the Creator in whose image we were made, and our true relation to one another, on THAT day, we will say to God in sincerity and truth:

“It’s not fair.”

And God will say, “You’re right.”

Then, our eyes will be opened, and we will realize that Jesus has entered so fully into our sufferings that he has taken them all to himself and given them to God with one last gasp: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

At that moment, we will realize for joyful infinity that we have been in God’s embrace all along, awash in his tears.

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