Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Marian Posture

*Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

 (blog by Fr Jeremiah, CFR)
Many families, at some point in their history, have experienced a certain amount of anxiety due to money. My family, unfortunately, was one of them. When my father was shot in his left shoulder during the Vietnam War, he lost the use of his left arm. Without a college degree and able to use only one arm, the odds of him ever finding a well-paying job were slim.

Throughout most of my childhood, my father usually worked two jobs at a time. The best jobs he could find were as a security guard and janitor. Even though he was grateful for those jobs, both of them only paid him little more than minimum wage. With two young children at home, it was never enough. Money always seemed to disappear before all the bills were paid.

When I was lying in bed at night I would often hear my mother and him discussing financial matters. “How are we going to pay for food this month, their school clothes, doctor visits, etc?” I would often hear them say. At the time, I was too young to comprehend the seriousness of not having food, clothes for school or not being able to go to the doctor’s. What I do remember though, from those conversations, was the anxiety in their voices. Without realizing it, and certainly against the will of my parents, their anxiety found its way into my heart.

Thankfully, I always had food, clothes for school, and was able to go to the doctor’s when needed; however, this early childhood experience left a deep mark within me. Rather than embracing life and looking forward to the future, I grew up afraid of life. The anxiety I encountered from growing up in a poor family convinced me that I was ill prepared for life. I felt alone, scared and lost in a world that, at least from my own experience, appeared to conspire against me.

Whenever I was faced with a challenge, whether it was in school, sports or human relationships, I immediately became anxious. Since I already felt ill-prepared for life, I naturally believed I was incompetent to face all of life’s challenges. This anxiety manifested itself through a series of “what if” questions. “What if I fail this test?” “What if I lose the game?” “What if this person doesn’t like me?” What if…?

Unfortunately, after my return to the Church, this anxiety did not disappear. Not surprisingly, I brought this attitude with me into religious life. Several weeks before I entered the Franciscans I was again plagued with more questions. “What if I can’t live in New York City?” “What if I am called to be a Benedictine monk and not a Franciscan friar?” “What if I am supposed to get married?” These questions, fueled by my inherent anxiety towards life, pestered me throughout my initial stages of formation.

It was during this time that I began to look more deeply at the life of Mary. I found, through the various episodes of Mary’s life portrayed in the Gospels, that she, perhaps more than anyone, had the right to be anxious at times. Whether it was at the Annunciation, the flight into Egypt, or the Crucifixion, Mary was never exempt from the trials and uncertainties of life. In fact, her privileged role in salvation history only thrusts her more deeply into them, as Simeon prophesies to her: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35).
What struck me most by meditating on Mary was how she responded to life. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation is essentially the same response she uttered her entire life: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:39). Despite the heartache, confusion and sorrow that accompanied Mary’s life, she said yes to everything that God allowed. Intrigued by Mary’s disposition, I focused my prayer on how Mary said yes to God’s mysterious will.

As I compared my situation to Mary’s, I began to notice a fundamental difference. Due to my tendency towards anxiety, I approached almost every situation by asking “What if…?” “What if I can’t do this? What if these people don’t like me? What if this situation doesn’t work out, etc.?” These questions created more questions, which, incidentally led to greater anxiety, causing me to become paralyzed before much of life. Mary, on the other hand, had an entirely different approach. Even though she may have asked “What if…?” at certain moments in her life, Mary, I believe, moved forward by asking another question: “What is…real?”

By asking the question, “What is real?” Mary rooted herself in reality: the reality of God’s Fatherly care. This question reminded Mary, beyond all the twists and turns of life, beyond the darkness and confusion that we all must face at times, that God, as a loving father, is near, trustworthy, and in control. Regardless of what our minds or our hearts might like us to believe, by asking ourselves “What is real?” we are reminded that the trials and struggles we have to face in this life do not have to cripple us. Faith, as Mary demonstrates, is a light that penetrates through our darkness, revealing to us that we are not alone.

These insights into Mary brought about a radical change in my mind. Instead of being afraid, I attempted to approach life not by asking “what if” to every situation I faced, but, like Mary, reminding myself of what is real: that God is a loving Father whom I can trust. I began to live more in reality as opposed to all the many “what ifs” that don’t exist.

Anxiety, unfortunately, was as natural to me as the air, and as I first began attempting to let go of it, I felt felt like I was swimming upstream. As I placed my trust more deeply in God’s care, however, a deep peace began to resonate within my soul. Now, many years later, the grip that anxiety once held on me has loosened. Even though I still have to struggle against it at times, Mary reminds me that life flows most gracefully when we imitate her faith and trust in God.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Seeing Lisa

Lisa and I met in the seventh grade.  Her family had recently moved from Philadelphia into my neighborhood and after talking each morning at the bus stop, we eventually became close friends.  As neighbors who were the same age and in the same grade, we found our lives, without any real planning on our part, becoming closely intertwined.

When Lisa’s first boyfriend suddenly broke up with her in 10th grade she was devastated.   We skipped school and spent the whole day eating ice cream and playing video games.  Despite being a bit upset about Lisa and me skipping school, Lisa’s mother called to thank me for being there for her.  When Lisa was hospitalized a few weeks after our graduation from high school with a mysterious illness, I spent almost everyday at the hospital with her family, just being present to her and helping her in any way I could.
When I was ordained a priest, Lisa, a non-Christian, was sitting in the front row of the cathedral hours before the ordination began, appearing more excited and enthused than many of my devout friends.  Even though she did not understand exactly what was happening, it didn’t matter.  She knew that my ordination was a major moment in my life and that was enough of a reason for her to attend.  Two years later when my mother died, she drove six hours from Washington, D.C. to attend the funeral and spend time with my family as we grieved.
What is unusual about our friendship is that Lisa and I disagree on almost everything, from politics, to social issues, and even religion.  Yet after each conversation, whether it is a friendly one or a heated debate, we always affirm our love for each other.  Genuine love, respect, and friendship, we believe, is always deeper than ideology.  Thankfully, we have never permitted our convictions to disrespect or harm the other.  If either of us would utter a harsh word in the midst of a fiery conversation, both of us, sooner or later, would apologize.  Our differences have stretched both of us to become more patient and better listeners.  We have both learned, much to our own discomfort, that life is not black and white, and that each person is a work in progress.
Every person is made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1.26).  This statement, found in the very beginning of the Bible, is a reminder that the human person cannot be reduced to merely worldly categories.  Too often we identify people in this world based entirely upon their political persuasions.  Even though these aspects about an individual may be relevant, they are never in and of themselves a complete portrait.  The human person, thank God, is always more than his views and opinions.

A friend of mine recently told me that his family had to cancel Thanksgiving with his relatives this year, because of what he described as “political differences” among various family members.  Both families decided that they couldn’t spend the holidays with each other because of how they voted in the previous election.  Unfortunately, this story is a sad commentary on our highly charged political climate.  What is tragic about this example is not that people believe different things, but that they have allowed those beliefs to create divisions, even among their own family.

Nothing, of course, is as important as our faith.  Yet even when we disagree in religious or theological matters it is important that in the midst of those differences we continue to love the other person as God does.  Over the years, I have spoken to many people about their religious beliefs.  At times, just the mere presence of a Catholic priest can elicit very strong reactions.  Most people, regardless of their experience with Catholicism, are generally respectful, even if they disagree with the tenets of the Church.  However, a few times I have encountered people who have been extremely disrespectful, either by laughing at me, mocking me, and even spitting on me in public.
In these moments, I have tried, though never perfectly, to follow Jesus’ command “to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43).  Even though there is a part of me that wants to lash back at them, judge them and even mock them in return, I realize that that attitude only creates more division, because I have failed to see the other person in his entirety.   Instead, I try as best as I can to listen to them, understand their viewpoint, and pray for them, because despite our differences they, like me, are made in the image and likeness of God.  As radical as this approach might appear in our current culture, this is exactly what Jesus did throughout his public ministry.

I am not, of course, ignoring the real consequences that ideas have, but a person is not an idea.  Often, as the Gospels recounts, Jesus ate with Pharisees, tax collectors, and sinners, three groups that differed widely in thought and action with Jesus.  Rather then seeing these people through the particular labels and worldly categories in which others viewed them, Jesus saw each person as having infinite value, and for whom he would give his life.  Genuine discipleship requires that we at least try to do the same.
Lisa and I continue to live very different lives and believe very different things.  Yet still, after twenty-five years of friendship, these differences have not eliminated our love for one another, nor have they lessened our respect for each other.  We speak each month on the phone, and see each other about once a year, usually around the holidays, regardless of how either one of us has voted.  Despite all the many people who have come and gone in my life, Lisa has remained constant and, I am confident, will remain so my entire life.

In many ways, Lisa has been one of the greatest teachers in my life.  She has forced me to examine my views more thoroughly and see things from a different perspective.  Rather than changing my beliefs, Lisa’s presence and the challenge that she initiates in my life has helped me to love people more deeply. Because of her I try to see people less as the world does, and more from the viewpoint of the Cross.

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR