It was a pleasant day in 1942. A young woman arrived home to a strangely empty house. Her family, including a favorite 10-year-old little brother, were gone; she was never to see them again.

Not long after, they returned for her and sent her to the so-called “labor” camp known as Auschwitz where she spent the next three years until liberation in 1945. Several years ago this woman became my neighbor, friend and confidante.

One day I shared with her some troubling family issues involving one of my children and his uncles, my sibs. As a result of misunderstanding their nephew, the uncles blackballed an awards ceremony honoring him. I deeply resented this slight, and told my friend I would never have anything more to do with them.

“Your brothers?” she said in wonder.

I saw her look of astonishment. And in her face I also saw the young woman who, in one fell swoop, lost every member of her family. She looked at me intently but gently. Putting her hand on my arm, she simply uttered two words: “Forgive them.”

Instantaneously, I was given to understand the depth of her message. What would I feel, how would I feel, if after this falling-out, those brothers were to disappear as hers had? The suddenness of this realization totally destroyed my sense of outrage and resentment. And even more amazing is the fact that, since that experience, the act of forgiveness has never again been difficult for me, much less impossible.

This is grace at work for sure, and I attribute it to the influence of this dear friend who had for three years endured real shame and torture. My sense of insult was indeed trivial by comparison.

Our recent Mass readings have dealt with forgiveness. St. Peter questions Jesus about how many times one must forgive another: Is seven times enough? [We are so mercenary we need to know the exact number. Heaven forbid I should forgive anyone more than required!]

So Jesus responds: Not seven times, but seventy times seven!! In short, there are no limits, just as God places no limits on forgiving us.

This past week also saw two relevant feasts back-to-back: the Exaltation of the Cross, and Mary, Mother of Sorrows.

In his first statement from the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Obviously, he had already forgiven his executioners, but as always he subjected himself to his Father’s will and desire, and prayed for that. And Mary, a mother watching her son not simply being insulted, but tortured and maligned: how could she forgive these barbarians? Unfortunately, the Gospels have no record of her remarks or thoughts on that occasion. But we can fill in the blanks, knowing that she had been aware all through her son’s life that his faithfulness to God’s will would mean horrors for both him and herself. She had accepted all of that years ago and couldn’t break the habit.

One thing I know about the refusal to forgive: it hurts me more than the one who has “hurt” me. Some wise person remarked that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Oh, that awful burden of anger! The heaviness of carrying those grudges! Is there anything worse?

Nothing is more liberating than the act of forgiving another. Counter-intuitive as it seems at first, it gradually becomes easier, and we find ourselves looking for words like Christ’s from the cross. My prayer must not be for myself, and not for the punishment of others, but rather that they will know the happiness of conversion and the forgiveness of God through me.

Here is one of the foundational teachings of Christ, so often repeated as the prelude to a physical healing. “Only God can forgive sins,” said his critics. Not so, according to our divine teacher. We have been made in the image of God and are called to grow more authentically into that holy image. We’ve therefore been given the power – and indeed the obligation – to forgive, to feel and show mercy. As we practice this divine habit, our teacher smooths our way, making it easier and easier to turn away from our life-destroying thoughts and desires.

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Merchant of Venice, Act IV

Our Father: A paraphrase

Our Father,
Our heaven is in You!

Your name is Love, Your name is Mercy.
Your name is sacred beyond understanding.

You welcome us into Your kingdom even in this life,
if only in part, not needing to wait for death.
You open it to us who Love You, who Love Your will.
It is when we Love that we see ourselves imaged in You.

Oh merciful and generous Father,
Give us now and each day whatever we need
to grow into Your image, the image of Christ.

Teach us to promptly forgive those who we think have injured us,
Just as we hope from You your generous pardon.

Protect us from the lure of evil.
Keep us from all attachments that hide Your Face from us.

For You are Love, Truth, and Life for all creatures in all ages.  Amen


Two Saints: a Perfect Blend

September 4 is the feast day of my patron saint, Rosalia. Not too many people in this country have that name and even fewer know her as a saint. Because she was also somewhat connected to the Benedictines, I thought I should tell you something about her.

Sources tell us that Rosalia was born in Sicily of Norman nobility and was perhaps a descendant of Charlemagne. In spite of this aristocratic background, she was drawn to live as a hermit and spent most of her life in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, a short distance from Palermo. Benedictines in a nearby monastery witnessed and admired Rosalia’s life of prayer, solitude and penance. Along with these monastics, many local people climbed the mountain to come close to Rosalia, attracted by her reputation for holiness. Rosalia died in 1160 at the age of 35.

A few hundred years later Palermo was threatened by the plague. Ardent prayers to Rosalia were believed to have spared the city and gave birth to an enduring devotion to the  “Dear Little Saint,” or “La Santuzza,” as she was affectionately called in the dialect.

Bringing Rosalia closer to home, my eldest brother’s birthday falls on her feast day. His age this year: 92! Following the tradition of being named after the paternal grandmother, two of my cousins were also named Rosalie; one of them (my favorite) lived to be 93. It doesn’t hurt to be connected to such longevity!

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, when I became a Benedictine Oblate I chose Mary Magdalene for my second patron. She is known as the Apostle to the Apostles because Jesus commissioned her to tell the other apostles of his Resurrection. We don’t know anything about her apostolic activities after that, though legend has it that she spent time evangelizing in France. Last year, Pope Francis elevated her feast day to the same level as the Twelve.

Rosalia and Magdalene together add up to give me a perfect model for my spiritual life: solitary prayer and spreading the word of Christ. St. Ignatius refers to these combined traits as being a “contemplative in action.” This is such a sound teaching, compared to the divided concept of being either a Martha or a Mary. Quiet prayer inspires us to serve Christ and then it supports us in that service.

Traditions eventually do change. Not too many children today are named “after” anyone in their family or even in the family of saints. I guess the theory is they must make their own glory.

As happens so often with young children, I didn’t care much for my given name. As I recall, the main reason was that the capital “R” was difficult to write in script! The other reason was that it was so “different.” There were not very many children of my ethnicity in my school. Instead, I was surrounded by Mary Pats, Susans, JoAnnes, etc. Back then, I didn’t know anything about La Santuzza, and certainly nothing about Mary Magdalene except for her wrongful association with the Gospel’s women of ill repute.

Once I began to learn more about these wonderful women, I came to appreciate the power of their example. Before I even knew that St. Rosalia had been a hermit, it seems that some of her spiritual genes had been passed on to me in my fascination with the eremitic life. And I deeply loved the passionate devotion of Mary Magdalene as she stood by the cross and later clung to Jesus in her joy and relief at seeing him after the Resurrection.

I often pray to these saints and would be happy to imitate them in their love and devotion to Christ. Through this brief post at the very least, I hope to bring honor to their names.