Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Suffering Revisited

"Without even realizing it, I had reduced Jesus to the equivalent of an antibiotic..."

When I entered religious life at 23-years-old, I was passionate, idealistic and determined.  I said goodbye to the world without blinking an eye and threw myself wholeheartedly into my vocation.  I devoured the teachings and perfectly obeyed all the rules of my community and the Church.  Though it wasn’t my primary motivation, a part of me thought if I just did what was right and believed what was true, God would protect me from suffering.  After all, isn’t this the promise God makes through the Psalmist, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent” (Psalm 91:9-10)? 

 Within the first two years of my religious vocation, life unleashed a series of events that led me to a crisis of faith.  One of my best friends from college, a devout and beautiful woman named Nicole, was diagnosed with cancer at age 23.  Six months later, filled with shock and sorrow, I was reunited with all of our friends from college at her funeral, as we asked God why.  

My mother, who was already ill at this time, was slipping deeper and deeper into depression.  As the days drew on, she lost the desire to live, wanting only to be reunited with her parents, whom she so desperately missed, despite having a family of her own who needed her.  Even though I told myself that God was all that I needed, I was still, in many respects, a little boy who needed a mother to console him.   

Living in a religious community, I not only experienced “how good and pleasant it is when brothers live in unity,” (Psalm 133:1) but I also encountered the misunderstandings, annoyances and tensions that are part of that unity.  Despite the many hours of prayer, the grace of the sacraments, and strong fraternal support, nonetheless forgiveness, charity and generosity were not getting any easier.  In fact, in some ways, they were becoming more difficult.

I examined myself repeatedly and thought, “I must be doing something wrong.  Perhaps I need to fast more, pray more or make another general confession.”  I sought counsel from books and spiritual directors believing that there must be a solution to my problems.  Once I found it, I thought, these trials would cease.  

After much searching, I began to ask, “Is this what life with God looks like?”  Suddenly, one day with this question echoing in my heart, I heard a voice that said, “Yes, this is exactly what life with God looks like.”  And then came the real stinger: “Do you think that you are exempt from human suffering because of your vocation to religious life?”  Even though Jesus had clearly said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take us his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), part of me believed that those words did not apply in my situation.

Without even realizing it, I had reduced Jesus to the equivalent of an antibiotic.  If I just follow the prescription: prayer, fasting, obedience, etc. then all of this suffering would disappear and I would return again to good health.  Without question, Jesus is our refuge and our physician, but he protects us and heals us in a way much different than our limited minds can comprehend.    

Looking back at those first two years of religious life, I realized that the suffering I encountered during that time was actually therapeutic for my soul and led me to an intimacy with God I had not yet encountered.  In those moments of suffering, and all the many ones that have occurred since, I am reminded of an important truth:  God is bigger than this world.  Without diminishing the importance of our earthly lives, our destiny lies beyond the limits of this world.  “For here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14).     

Despite our best efforts to avoid suffering, no one is exempt.  Too often we think that suffering is a sign that one has done something wrong, or that if that I just try harder it will go away.  Many people who have just experienced a conversion, or, like I was, beginning the initial stages of a vocation, assume this is true.  I realized, however, that this picture is incomplete.  By using God simply to avoid trials I was living only for myself.  Suffering, oddly enough, has enabled me to live for God.  

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR
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Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Paradox is Promising

     Few of us approach the scaffold willingly. As the tender hand of providence nudges us toward the cross, we dig up friction. We flatten our soles to the dirt of this earth and press. Christian spirituality makes much about surrender. The disciple of Christ is meant to loose his will to the wind of the Spirit (of which is it written: you cannot tell from where it comes and to where it goes) and surrender his desires in order to follow Christ, to live after the manner of Jesus. An example from the archive—it’s a prayer I penned in the initial years of religious life:

Come Holy Spirit, carry me.
Fasten me firm to your fancies.
Upon your whims, I plant my feet,
Let us fly from here.

     From where? From the land of my own will. A lovely idea. It is only a matter of time, however, before the scourge scours the flesh of God and we, his disciples, scatter. Surrender is a radical idea. To go unfightingly toward death? It’s not natural. When the chalice of his passion was pressed to his lips, even Jesus pushed back. “Father, let this cup pass from me.” And yet, the courageous qualifier: “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” I push back more.

     In Honduras we slaughtered a pig. The brother whiffed the sweet spot and landed the axe-head slanted near ear. The pink creature freaked. Four-hundred pounds of hoarse squeals will root you. The sow went wild. Breaking the chains, her stout hooves tore into the earth hauling all her fat rage in livid circles till the brother, two hands to the shaft, swung the axe again. Dead between her eyes.

  I’m a bit that way. These years of conversion have found me stubbornly fighting for my life. It would have been easier to surrender from the get. I have heard stories of teenage saints sweetly swooning into the Father’s arms, saints anesthetized by ecstasy just before the heifer, say, gores their fragrant bodies, saints born with a perfect pater noster poised upon their suckling lips. Hagiography, I’m afraid, can mislead the unacquainted. It’s a different style of writing, a different way of remembering. Being a disciple of Christ is never so easy as not to hurt—any saint will affirm that—but with Christ the hurt is never final. Resurrection happens. Yes, it happens but it happens only inside a death. Unless a grain of wheat die, says the Lord, it remains but a single grain. 

We, like any creature, once we sense the life we are accustomed to living is actually in danger (and I tell you Christianity is a danger to our lives) most of us will fight to save it. Please God we don’t fight too well. Although its very logic is difficult to unpack, the paradox is promising: he who loses his life, gains it. But, my friends, you do realize it has to be lost. The question each of us will spend our lives answering is just how much of our will can we stand to lose? Or, if you’d rather, how much life can we stand to gain?

+ Br. Joseph Michael Fino, CFR
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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Authority of the Author

In the midst of the cacophony of competing voices, the voice of God breaks through the confusion and offers sure guidance. The practice of prayer is essential to hearing that voice. Podcast by Fr. Luke Fletcher, CFR. Listen to learn more!



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Other

Everyday we stand before an unsolvable problem: life. The people we encounter, the events that occur and the places we are led, often leave us frustrated and confused. If we are honest, most of the time we don’t understand why things happen the way they do. This can lead some people to conclude that we are alone, that life is only a series of random events with no rhyme or reason.
Faith, on the other hand, views things differently. Without denying the puzzling nature of life, faith attests that beyond the darkness, beyond the veil of this world, there is an “Other,” who not only guides the universe but also guides each one of us. This Other not only guides our lives, but also loves us in a way we cannot comprehend.
I was reminded of this truth during an unexpected conversation in an unusual setting. I had just finished giving a retreat in Dallas, TX and was on my way to Los Angeles, CA for another retreat. As I boarded the plane and sat down, I began to consider how I should spend these next four hours. Typically, flying provides an ideal opportunity to write, because of the minimal amount of interruptions available.
I opened up my computer and began reading my latest reflection. The flight attendants announced that the gates would be closing soon and we should prepare for takeoff. I looked around and noticed that the plane was entirely full, except for the seat next to me. Suddenly, a woman who appeared to be in her late forties with black dyed hair, ripped blue jeans and sunglasses boarded the plane.
“I didn’t think I would make it,” she said to the flight attendant, as she tried to catch her breath.
“Just in time,” she said. “Have a seat. We will be taking off shortly.”
As she sat down next to me, she placed her bag under her seat, pulled out her phone and began fixing her hair. While she buckled her seatbelt, we smiled at each other and I said hello.
“O Wow,” she said. “Are you like a monk?”
Laughing, I said, “Well, sort of. Technically I am friar, a Franciscan and a priest.”
“I’m a Jewish agnostic, she said. “My ex-husband is Muslim and my brother just became a Buddhist.”
“Wow,” I said, “I’m a Christian. Do you know any Hindus? Then we would have all five major world religions represented!”
We both laughed for a few seconds as the plane began to make its way down the runway. During takeoff, she looked at me very seriously and asked, “Would you mind talking?”
“Of course not,” I said, with a smile on my face. I put my computer away and placed it under the seat in front of me. “What would you like to talk about?”
“Well, my name is Joan…” and so it began.
For the next three hours, Joan did the majority of the talking. She was raised in a Jewish home, where faith was more cultural than personal. Her father was always working, leaving her home alone with a mother who was always telling Joan everything that was wrong with her. Desperate for the affection of a father, she began a series of relationships with older men, each one worse than the previous one. Desiring love and acceptance more than an education or a career, she dropped out of college at 20 years old.
Wanting to escape her past, she left Brooklyn and moved to San Francisco in order to begin a new life. After drifting from one job to the next, she finally met a man, whom she described as a “dream come true”, while working as a bartender in the Bay area. Alan, a few years older than Joan, was a successful businessman, who appeared to have his life together. He was young, rich and attractive, and, most importantly, interested in Joan. The two began dating and got married six months later.
Three years into their marriage a secret from Alan’s past came back to haunt him. A drug addiction, that Alan believed he had conquered, came back into his life and Alan began using again. With two small children at home and a husband who was using drugs, Joan turned to alcohol for consolation. Needless to say, their marriage was on the verge of collapsing. Nine months later they got divorced.
When I met Joan on the plane she had just finished a month long rehab program for her drinking. She was anxious to see her two boys again, who stayed with her sister for the last month. As she showed me several pictures of them on her phone, tears came pouring out of her eyes. “I just don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “I don’t know how to live. I don’t know how to be a mom. I don’t understand life.”
She was interrupted by the flight attendant’s voice over the intercom. We had just begun our descent into LA and we would be landing in a few minutes. Joan took out a tissue from her purse and began wiping her eyes. Looking at me with a smile she said, “Thank you for listening to me.” 

“You’re welcome,” I said. “Thank you for sharing all of that. It takes courage to be that vulnerable.”
“Well,” she said, “If I can’t trust a monk whom can I trust?”
We both laughed.
“Do you mind if I say something Joan?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” she said. “You think I’m crazy, right?”
“Don’t be silly. You’re not any crazier than I am!” I said. “You mentioned that you don’t know what you are doing, that you don’t know how to live and that you don’t know how to be a mom.”
Nodding, she said, “It’s true.”
“Perhaps you don’t have to know,” I said. “Look, here we are at 30,000 feet. How did you get here, after all that you have been through? It wasn’t your family who got you here. It wasn’t your husband, or even you. It seems to me that there is somebody else, an Other, who has been carrying you and has gotten you here to this point.”

“You mean “God?” she said.
“Every time I hear the word God I think of my mother telling me how pretty all the other young girls were at synagogue and how she wishes I would spend more time on my appearance so I could look like them.”
I closed my eyes out of sadness. “I’m so sorry that was your experience,” I said.

We were both silent for a few moments. “Perhaps the best place to start,” I said, “is with the realization that there must be an Other who cares for you, loves you and is guiding you in your life. If not, then how you are here? How am I here?”

There was a long pause. She looked out the window and I could see in the reflection the tint of a smile on her face.
“This Other” I continued, “is not an idea or some sort of energy out in the universe. He is personal, forgiving and is not obsessed with your past. He is love, and without Him we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Life is impossible without an awareness of the love that sustains us. If we want to understand our life then the most sane thing we can do is open ourselves to this Other as best we can, and He will take care of the rest.”
By this point our plane had landed and we were taxing to our gate. We remained in silence for those few moments until the flight attendants announced we could unbuckle our seatbelts and begin exiting the plane. As Joan and I grabbed our bags we walked together out of the plane and into the airport. Before we went our separate ways, she looked at me with tears in her eyes.
“I do believe there is an Other who is sustaining me,” she said. “There has to be, otherwise I don’t know how I would be standing today.”
I smiled, “So do I Joan.”
We hugged goodbye and began to walk in separate directions. A few seconds later I heard her yell, “Hey, Father.”
I turned around.
“Will you pray for me?”
I smiled at her. “Of course I will. Please pray for me to.”
“I will,” she said, as she put her sunglasses on and disappeared into the crowd.

+ Father Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, C.F.R.
Monticello, NY