Who Will Pray for Them?

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted my thoughts during convalescence from a potentially life-threatening illness. [I can say this now that I’ve been cured!]

I had visited a reading from Exodus and wrote the following:

Amalek has come to wage war against Israel. Moses tells his general, Joshua, to engage in battle while he, Moses, climbs the mountain overlooking the battle. Moses keeps his hands raised to heaven in prayer and while he does so, the Israelites prevail. But Moses, after all, is merely human. His arms tire and fall to his side, leaving the Israelites to flounder in battle.

Moses’ brother Aaron and his friend Hur come to the rescue. They position themselves on either side of Moses, supporting his raised arms so that they can remain steady until sunset and the successful end of the battle. . .

God has given me the equivalent of Aaron and Hur. Family on the one side, friends on the other; these keep my arms lifted up to the source of strength.moses-and-help

Last year, it was I who needed support from family and friends. During this past year, however, it has been my closest friends who have needed me, whether from illness or other challenging situations in their lives. The little I’ve been capable of doing has been not just an opportunity to return a favor (how shallow that sounds!), but a Grace to illustrate to others, to a truly minor degree, the kindness of Christ, the practicality of his teachings, the fact of God’s unfailing providence.

This year, I’ve been blessed to be one of those arms, even weakly as I’m able, holding them up.

This last month has been fraught with hardships around the world, some of them natural disasters, but others — such as the Las Vegas massacre — man-made. We have all been urged to pray for the victims of these tragedies and we very readily comply.

But I can’t help but think of the thousands or even millions of people who are considered (and surely are) our enemies. And so I anxiously wonder: if we crave peace and love, who will pray for them?

Forgiveness

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.

Holidays, Holy Days

cookoutSummer is on the wane. Its last holiday is Labor Day when families and friends will be gathering in back yards, patios and public parks. There will be games: softball, volleyball, croquet. The traditional hamburgers, hot dogs and sausage will be served along with a variety of salads, topped off by watermelon, cakes and pies. In another day or two, children will be laying out their new clothes for the first morning of school. The mingling fragrance of new pencils and shoes will soothe them to sleep.

Such are traditions. We look forward to them as welcome islands of rest spent with loved ones in an atmosphere of laughter, story-telling and open affection – a powerful antidote to the heavy seriousness of our days at work or school. The goal is simply FUN, pleasure in the companionship of people who love and value one another.

Then too there are celebrations that honor an individual person: birthdays, mothers or fathers day, anniversaries. Special practices often mark these days: the favorite flavor cake is made and extra little services are performed for the honoree.

Count them, these oases of rest and celebration: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, weddings, and so many more opportunities for a relief from the everyday blahs.

As each of these special days arrives, we attentively prepare for them, careful to observe and repeat certain practices that provide the continuity of one celebration to the next. These rituals convey a sense of stability and permanence in our unpredictable world. Yet along with the sameness is a special something new to mark this one celebration as unique this year: maybe a 40th birthday that ushers a young adult into middle age; a Fourth of July that might draw us to consider afresh our nation’s foundation and values.

Most who read this post have been blessed to have been brought up in this nest of traditions that both refresh us and anchor us to a sure place of safety. Holidays can be holy days that cement affectionate relationships with others.

Our liturgy of the Mass consists of the same elements as holidays and is even referred to as a celebration. Each time we participate at a Mass we are at a feast. It is a commemoration of that famous of all dinner parties — the last dinner, in fact, that Jesus celebrated with his friends. This was a farewell dinner, for all at table knew that their Teacher would be leaving them. It must have been a sorrowful celebration, as our going-away parties often are, but it was the high point of Christ’s mission and his relationship with his friends. I no longer refer to you as servants! We disciples had now been raised to the special status of friend.

The Mass is designed to recall and even relive both the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection appearances. In the story of the journey to Emmaus, Jesus reviewed Scripture passages with the two disciples to illustrate how the prophecies referred to his life and death. Just so, at each Mass various scriptural readings add luster to the changing liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. In this way, the life and teachings of Christ are reviewed for us throughout the year, just as the Emmaus disciples experienced on their walk with Jesus. As they listened with burning hearts to old revelations made new, they came to recognize and receive the living Christ in the breaking of the bread. The sacrament of life-giving love was the high point for them in their journey, just as it is for us at Mass.

When I attended Mass for the first time after a long absence, I was amazed to see the pews emptied as virtually everyone went up to the altar to receive Communion. For me, this was a significant change that was probably not realized by those who had remained in the Church. It was a powerful revelation of how the congregation had evolved over the years into such an intimate relationship and greater comfort level with the Person of Jesus Christ. To me, it concretely demonstrated what St. Paul mysteriously referred to as the Body of Christ. The widespread reception of Communion confirmed for me Christ’s real presence in the world and in us.

This is what Christianity is about: our union with God and with each other in Christ. This happens not just once in a while, a few special times a year, but every time we join with one another in the celebration of the Mass.