Helpless

Lent hit before the pandemic did, remember? It seems like so long ago, but I do remember how Ash Wednesday brought about the traditional pious squabbles about how best to observe it — or, more accurately, about how poorly everyone else was observing it. Traditionalists sneered at the soft and feeble neo-Caths whining over the few penances modern Catholics are still obligated to perform; and left-leaners rolled their eyes at the performative masochism inherent in extravagant fasts and self-deprivations. Remember when that what we wrestled with? 

Also according to tradition, I struck a healthy spiritual balance by being annoyed with everyone.

I have scant patience for people who loudly and self-righteously announce they are exempting themselves from fasting because it makes them feel tired, and therefore it must not be healthy, and their God is a God of love who isn’t into that kind of thing, and anyway their Fitbit doesn’t have a way to track “dying to self.”

I also have zero sympathy for Catholics who are passionately in love with their faith as long as it’s gory and dramatic and self-aggrandizing (but when it has to do with loving their fellow man, not so much). Scratch a Twitter Catholic who’s really enthusiastic about old school penance, and you’re pretty likely to find an old school fetishist. (On second thought, don’t scratch him, unless you want him to think you’re asking for some amateur photography in your DM’s.)

So anyway, yeah, I recall heading into Ash Wednesday Mass with a heart full of dust. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost like I need a savior. 

One of the conversations around these topics did yield something fruitful, something I somehow never understood before. It is this: Fasting isn’t just an exercise in self-control, and it isn’t just something we do in solidarity with the poor, who have fasting imposed on them.

Fasting is also, maybe even primarily, a way of revealing to ourselves just how helpless we are.

It’s a way of reminding us something about ourselves which is always true, but gets masked by a razor thin veneer of strength, an illusion of control. We fast not to work our way up to crushing sin with our new spiritual muscles, but because we forget so easily how close we always are to being just plain dead. We fast because we need to be reminded that we are helpless.

Well, just in case you didn’t catch that lesson when Ash Wednesday came around, the virus followed up. And now every single one of us has had a penance, a fast, imposed on us from the outside. Want some food? There isn’t any. Think you’re in charge? Here’s an invisible enemy that can attack you through your mouth, your nose, your eyes. Forgot about death? Here are the bodybags. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. 

It’s up to us whether or not we learn from these privations and revelations of the pandemic. We do have free will, and even when our exterior circumstances are out of our control, we still have interior options. 

The same is true with fasting. It’s entirely possible to follow the Church’s guidelines on fasting — to voluntarily undertake this discipline —  but to still do it the wrong way. We can fill ourselves full of beef broth and milk and carbonated beverages and feel as full as possible without actually eating, and thereby miss the full experience of emptiness and want. And we can masochistically revel in the perverse pleasure of our meal-deprived agonies, and end up feeling proud and accomplished at our strength the end of the day. We can waste the opportunity the Church offers us, and make it useless or even harmful. We can miss the point, which is that we are helpless, in need of a savior. 

And the same is true with the privations imposed on us by this pandemic, including the temporary loss of the sacraments.

The last few weeks have been a study in how to get through a pandemic wrong. We can trample each other, steal, hoard, and lie. We can be imprudent and reckless and cruel. We can call each other either communists or fascists based on whether we’re more comfortable with risking the lives of the vulnerable or risking the livelihoods of the poor. We can use our suffering as a chance to tell other Catholics that they, too, would disobey their bishops if they just wanted Jesus badly enough. 

But the only real answer is the same as it was on Ash Wednesday, when the statues were covered, the alleluias were taken away, and the angel descended to tell us we are dust. The answer is: We are helpless. We need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. 

There is no system that will bring about only good things for all people. Someone always gets broken. Someone always gets infected. What we are, what we always have been is helpless, helpless. In need of a savior. 

So now we’re rounding the corner toward Holy Week, and I still have a heart full of dust. I have stuck to my penances, more or less. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have bleated out my confession to a priest six feet away. I have done my best to be prudent. And I have still been infected with rage and disdain for my fellow man, still allowed fear to colonize my heart. I have still scrambled to mask myself with a thin veneer of control as I watch everyone I know wrestle with this angel, and watched them receive what I know will be a permanent limp.

It says in the Torah: Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.

I do not know how to do this right, any of it. The sanitizing, the fasting, the sacraments, the seclusion, the shopping, any of it. I do not know. Because I am helpless. It’s almost as if I need a savior. 

***

 

Image: Detail of Jacob Wrestling With an Angel from The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature via wikipedia

Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS

We are watching an edifying, religious-themed movie with the family on Fridays in Lent. Complete list here. Review #1: I CONFESS (1953). Every time I number something, it peters out pathetically, but this time will be different. I can feel it. 

Honestly, I didn’t expect a lot from this movie. I expected some rather stilted drama and rushing around and dramatic lighting, but not a lot of plot. Silly me, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t absolute Grade A Hitchcock, but it was tightly constructed, compelling, a little weird, and unpredictable throughout the whole movie, with lots of yummy dramatic camera work. I wanted the kids to see a movie where the priest is the hero, and it did a good job of portraying a priest (Montgomery Clift) who is pretty noble and brave, but is also a regular guy. Not only does it show him struggling with the choices he has to make, but it shows him before he was ordained, as a soldier and as a normal guy with a girlfriend.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but once the painfully suspenseful part is apparently over and Fr. Logan has come out victorious, and you think, “Ah, he’s passed the test and done what a good priest ought to do!” . . .  that’s when the really awful part begins for him. It doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty rough! Good stuff. A solid and engaging movie, and the final scene packs a good punch. 

The whole family watched this (youngest is five and oldest is 21) and they all seemed to follow it easily. Some of these kids do get squirrelly when we try to show them a black and white movie, but they seemed interested and engaged throughout.

It turned out a few of the kids were a little wobbly on the details of the seal of confession, so we did stop the movie a few times and reinforce that what they were seeing on screen was accurate (if somewhat more dramatic than what most priests face). They were impressed.

The only weensy theological complaint I had was that, when Fr. Logan is staggering around Quebec going through his agony, he doesn’t run to the tabernacle for solace, which is what I would expect a priest in dire straits to do; but he just kind of suffered around town.  He speaks and behaves as if God is very real to him, but it doesn’t actually get shown much in the movie itself. He does pass under a statue of Christ carrying the cross at one point. I just would have liked to see more of the spiritual side of his suffering. What we see is mostly the emotional side. But it’s not really that kind of movie, I guess. 

Oh, and I feel the gal (Anne Baxter) ought to have had a lot more comeuppance than she got, but in a Hitchcock movie, you should just be glad he didn’t have her skinned and made into slippers or something, I guess.  

It was odd and sad to see everyone on screen behaving as if a Catholic priest is the last one you’d ever suspect of doing something wrong (and there are so many priests! Just priests everywhere!). But the central plot was a good reminder that the priesthood itself hasn’t changed, and I know priests nowadays who would absolutely do just what Fr. Logan did. They just don’t happen to look like Montgomery Clift.

All around, entertaining and yes, edifying. Recommended. 

We watched this through Amazon Prime. It was $2.99 to stream it as a rental. 

Next up: Either Song of Bernadette or Babette’s Feast.

Ain’t no party like a Lent film party, ’cause a Lent film party is MANDATORY. 

During Lent this year, we’re going to watch an edifying, well-made family movie every week, possibly on Friday nights. That means everyone has to watch it. That means you can’t be on Instagram or drawing BTS fan art while you’re watching it! My stars, how penitential can you get? 

We haven’t watched many of the typical Catholic movies that Catholic families watch, so this is probably a pretty basic list. There are seven Fridays in Lent this year, but I guess we’ll skip Good Friday. Here’s my list so far. Suggestions welcome!

 

I Confess

“With the brand of Alfred Hitchcock burned into every scene!” Sold! I could go for a “priest as hero” movie. 

Song of Bernadette. I have never seen this movie, but we are way, way behind on our apparition education. The kids know about Our Lady of Guadalupe and I think that may be it, oops. People tell me this movie holds up, if you can put up with some dated acting, and it has Vincent Price in it. Good enough for me. 

The Miracle Maker (1999)

A stop motion animated life of Christ I saw several years ago, and was impressed by. It does have some scenes that would be alarming for little guys. I remember it as being not perfect but pretty gripping. 

Becket (1964)

Mehh, maybe not. I think the older kids have actually seen this one, so this is not high on my list. The one thing I learned from watching it is that excommunication is extremely dramatic and noisy, and it turns out it’s actually not, so I may have an unreasonable grudge against this movie. Gosh, I love Richard Burton’s face, though. I always want to bring him some hot milk and give him the day off. 

Calvary

Well, this looks really good. I somehow missed hearing about it when it came out. 

Looks like it would be for teenagers only. I am always drawn to movies that portray characters as fully human, but with great dignity. Looking forward to it. 

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Again, I think the kids have seen it, and I’ve seen it a few times. I’m not excited about watching it, but I’m not ruling it out. 

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

In my head, this is mushed in with The Bells of Saint Mary’s and other goofy, disposable Catholic kitsch, but Damien says there’s something more to it. So let’s find out!

Babette’s Feast (1987)

It turns out Damien hasn’t seen this! It’s very hard to find a movie he hasn’t seen. 

I haven’t seen this movie since college. I remember it as weird, funny, beautiful, moving, and nice and dark so the subtitles actually show up. Also, it’s not about priests or sisters, which makes it a standout on this list. 

The Mission (1986)

I haven’t seen this since college but a few scenes have stayed with me. Probably just for the older kids, right? It’s not actually high on my list, but I could be persuaded.

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Here’s one I know nothing about. Looks interesting. Anybody? 

The Robe

Damien and I have both neither seen this. (I know that sentence has some problems, but I’m on vacation. You know what I mean.) I guess I’ll sit and watch Victor Mature and Richard Burton try to out-act each other; twist my arm. I gather The Robe is essentially the movie they were making in Hail, Caesar (which I LOVED, by the way. We can watch that one after Easter, I guess.) I looked up a review and the first one makes scathing reference to “leftist Hollyweird,” and the second one is a complaint that it’s revisionist Christianity because it doesn’t make the Jews look bloodthirsty enough. Yeah, you know what, we’re watching it. 

Lilies of the Field

Another movie I know nothing about. I have never actually seen a Sidney Poitier movie, and that ain’t right. I gather this is about a Baptist trying to out-Bible a Mother Superior, and failing. I’m in.

Silence (2016)

I know this isn’t unusual or anything, but I will always give Martin Scorsese movies a chance. 

Probably another one for teens and up. 

Passion of the Christ is out this year, although I think it’s great. I’ve seen it often enough that I can call it up in my memory, and the older kids are mad at us for making them watch it at one point, so we’re taking a pass; may revisit in future years. I did review it here, and defend it against accusations that it’s gratuitously violent and inherently anti-Semitic

There Be Dragons.

Just kitten. I watched this once and I’m still mad.

Okay, what do you think? Have you seen these movies? Are there any egregious gaps on my list? The kids insist we watch The Ten Commandments during Holy Week most years, thereby getting our Vitamin Heston infusion for the year. 

 

This Lent, be quiet

What to do for Lent? That question reminds me of that old joke about the two seminarians. One of them asks the bishop if it would be okay to smoke while praying.

“No,” his excellency answered sternly. “When you’re praying, you should be giving your whole heart and attention to God.”

Seminarian walks out gloomily and sees another seminarian pacing up and down the courtyard with his breviary, puffing happily on a cigarette the whole time. The first seminarian tells him, “Don’t let the bishop see you smoking while you pray!”

“No, it’s fine,” the second one replies. “I just asked him if it would be appropriate to pray while I was smoking,” and he said, “Yes, my son. That would be most salutary. Pray all the time!”

There are a few different morals here. One is that many seminarians are punks, and there’s a reason they have to be in school for seven years before they’re released out into the wild. The second moral is that bishops . . . well, you don’t want to know what I think about bishops. Let’s move along.

The third moral is that both seminarians were pretty caught up in what they were supposed to be doing, with their hearts and minds and hands (and lungs), and neither one (at least in the space of the joke) is putting a lot of thought into what they are supposed to be . . . being. And even though I smoked my last cigarette 17 years ago, that part feels very familiar.

Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine this morning, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.

The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But . . .

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Image: elisandropootcarrillo (pixabay.com) (Creative Commons)

Today I’m on The Catholic Podcast . . .

talking with Joe Heschmeyer and Chloe Langr about Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, for their series on the way of the cross. This episode, #57, is called “The Women of the Way,” and includes passages by the great Josef Ratzinger.

You can hear and download the episode here.

I talk about how I came to understand why and how Mary truly understands our suffering; and about the sensation of helplessness that so often comes along with motherhood and with love in general, and how that sensation can either tear us away from God or help us meet him more intimately. (This conversation was the impetus for my essay, Mary who stays.)

Their other guest is Deacon Brad Sloan who works with women who’ve been caught up in sex trafficking in the midwest. He says so many of them have never experienced what it means to be loved, by anyone else and certainly not by their maker.

The podcast isn’t just discussion; it’s intended to help you meditate on various themes in the stations of the cross. The goal is to help us understand that we’re not alone in our suffering, and to give us the courage to confront evil in our lives. 

The Catholic Podcast homepage is here and feed is here; and you can follow them on Facebook @TheCatholicPodcast.

Image: Station of the cross, Saint Symphorian church of Pfettisheim, Bas-Rhin, France. XIXth century. Detail of the 4thstation : Jesus and his mother. Photo by Pethrus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Why we can’t have baptisms during Lent

Did you just have a baby?  Did you call the rectory to schedule a baptism? Did they tell you you’ll have to wait, because they don’t do baptisms during Lent?

At first, this may not make sense to you, but I assure you, there is a very good reason for this policy.  You see . . .

Lent is all about acknowledging our fallen nature and appealing to the Holy Spirit for help in conquering sin. Lent is about remembering that sin has wounded and weakened us, and that we are in desperate need of God’s grace and salvation. We can gain this grace by engaging in ancient practices which engage both the body and the spirit, and we emerge refreshed and reunited with God, humbly giving thanks for His mercy and salvation.

Baptism, on the other hand, is all about acknowledging our fallen nature and appealing to the Holy Spirit for help in conquering sin. Baptism is about remembering that sin has wounded and weakened us, and that we are in desperate need of God’s grace and salvation. We can gain this grace by engaging in ancient practices which engage both the body and the spirit, and we emerge refreshed and reunited with God, humbly giving thanks for His mercy and salvation.

So that’s why we can’t have baptisms during Lent. It just wouldn’t make sense.

In defense of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

Nobody:
Me: Sure, as a Jewish Catholic who has a reputation for resisting pop Catholic trends, I’d love to tell you what I think about The Passion of the Christ.

Here, I will focus on two criticisms: Its ultra violence, and its antisemitism; and why I think it’s worth watching. I don’t know, I felt like getting yelled at.

It it gratuitously violent?

Yes and no. No doubt some viewers reveled in the sadistic violence and graphic gore; but I’m also quite sure others came for the gore and saw more than they bargained for. But I don’t think the violence was just a hook to trick gore-happy viewers into an edifying movie. It was also a way to express how unanswerably outrageous the crucifixion, the murder of God, really was.

Gibson is far from the first to depict the passion and death of Jesus in grotesquely heightened terms, because if we have a hard time grasping the spiritual horror of what happened, we can at least feel the corporeal horror, and go from there. It’s not necessary to depict the crucifixion this graphically, but it’s not illegitimate or inherently inappropriate; and it does have a purpose other than to feed viewer’s blood lust.

For instance: After the notorious interminable scourging scene comes a heart-stopping aerial view of Jesus’ blood splattered all over the courtyard. An impossible amount of blood. Pilate’s wife comes out with a stack of fresh linens and tremblingly offers them to Mary and Mary Magdalene, and the two climb down on their knees and begin to carefully mop up every drop. An impossible task. That scene is responsible for a permanent change in my thinking, transforming the phrase “precious blood” from a pious nicety into a central reality that changed how I approach the Eucharist.

The violence may simply be too much for many viewers. But I didn’t see any violence that was there simply for the sake of showing violence. It was an ordeal to watch, and it was supposed to be.

Is the movie antisemitic? 

I mean? No, but actually yes. Yes and no. Mostly. . . . (heaven help me) no.

Mel Gibson assuredly is antisemitic. After an outcry, he did cut a “blood oath” scene from the original version; but declined to meet with the ADL, basically saying: Look, I hope you get over this not-being-Catholic thing someday. Newsflash: The man is an asshole. But my policy is to evaluate works of art on their own merits as much as I can.

Most accusations of antisemitism in the movie seem to fall into two categories: Things that were probably intentional, but which the average viewer (which I am) wouldn’t pick up on; and things which you can interpret according to your own baggage.

In the first category, intentional but missable, includes details like the sign on the cross. Sr. Rose Pacatte at NRO says:

That Gibson was making a conscious choice to reject and negate Judaism is indisputable when we see the sign on the cross. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is written only in ecclesial Latin and Aramaic. He rejects the Greek as detailed in John 19:20, and Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire at that time. Thus, according to Adlerstein, Gibson creates “a tension between Aramaic/Hebrew; he does not create a bond but severs it.”

and

One [viewer] mentioned the tear that fell from the cross and the earthquake, which is significant because the scene shows the destruction of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death, but the destruction did not happen until A.D. 70. According to Gomez, this scene points to a “replacement theology,” upholding the mistaken medieval idea that Christianity (Ecclesia) has replaced Judaism (Synagoga). The brokenness visible in the temple evokes the brokenness of Synagoga. In other words, it’s a “dig” at Judaism that does not appear to be there by accident.

I just plain didn’t notice the historical discrepancies, so if these details were attempts at antisemitism, they failed.

It’s harder to deny that Gibson portrays the Jews using offensive stereotypes, and shows the apostles as some sort of “high Jews” or “white Jews” by portraying them as separate from the others.

But . . . the Jews who crucified Jesus were the bad guys, and the ones who didn’t betray him did make themselves separate. I understand the dangers of feeding stereotypes, but how is a moviemaker supposed to portray evil without signaling to the viewer that it is evil? You tell me. The High Priests were concerned mainly with retaining power; Judas did sell out Jesus for money; the Jews who insisted on Jesus’ execution did reduce their faith to a bunch of ritualistic formalities which were threatened by his new commandment. These evils portrayed are what Jesus came to get rid of. To refuse to depict them would be to refuse to depict what actually happened. There isn’t a lot of nuance in character among the Jews who condemned Jesus because it’s not that kind of movie. The good guys don’t show a lot of nuance, either.

The question is, does the movie say “These men did something evil” or “These Jews did evil Jew things”? This is why I say it depends what you bring to the movie. If you’re an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see that the Jews killed him because Jews are bad. If you’re not an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see what kind of people rejected Jesus: Those who want power. Those who want money. Those who value order over truth. Those who are cowards. Those who are cruel.

So Mel Gibson and his pals may be saying, “This is what Jews are like,” but I don’t think that’s what the movie is saying, unless you’re specifically looking to hear that message. It’s the same with the Gospels themselves. If you read the Gospels shallowly, you’ll think they’re a story about how the Jews betrayed Christ. God knows many have read the Gospels this way! But if you read the Gospels with an open heart, you’ll see it’s a story about how we all betrayed Christ. So the movie gives you what you’re ready to get from it. It would be easy to watch the movie in 2019 and recognize, for instance, the College of Cardinals among the crowd of grasping, preening, vicious high priests willing to sacrifice an innocent victim to retain their power.

It’s also hard to make the case that the movie blames only the Jews for Jesus’ suffering, when the gleeful sadism on display is clearly a Roman thing. When Caiphas sees the scourging, he winces and turns away.

However, it’s weirdly pro-Pontius Pilate, which bothers me a lot. Pilate is a cultivated man who’s been assigned to a fractious backwater, and he has Jesus tortured and executed with great reluctance, to keep the mob at bay. That’s in the Gospel, as far as it goes. But the movie adds a scene where Pilate basically tells Jesus, “Look, I feel really bad about this” and Jesus basically says, “Hey, I see who you’re working with here. Don’t worry about it.” That scene is inexcusable, and makes the biggest case that the movie is antisemitic.

So, with these issues, why watch it?

It’s so freaking interesting. So outlandish and bold, but somehow never heavy-handed. Do you know how difficult it is to make a movie with a scene like the scourging scene and have people remember other scenes besides that one?

Gibson doesn’t take the easy way out in any scene. It’s a long movie, but the pacing is great (the scenes that feel long are meant to feel long). Herod is crazy, and weird, and sad. Judas devolving is so terrifying. Veronica is so appealing. The moment with Simon of Cyrene is gripping. Satan is scary as shit. Some people think it was just dropped in for spooky-ookiness, but Steve Greydanus says:

At certain points this androgynous figure is depicted in opposition to the Virgin Mary — but never more arrestingly so than before the pillar, where there is a kind of anti-Marian vision that I will not describe, except to say that it is so bizarre and grotesque, yet ultimately meaningless, that it seems to come straight from hell.

Works for me. I have never seen a depiction of Satan that works better.

Filming it in foreign languages was brilliant. Brilliant. When you’ve been a christian for a long time, it is so very hard to hear the familiar words of the Gospel as new. And it is so very ticklish to figure out what accent you should speak in when you’re playing Jesus! The solution? Put it in words that almost no one understands, and let subtitles, with their layer of psychological remove, work their magic. Or just let the visuals speak for themselves.

Best of all is Mary. Her face and the way she carries herself, and the way everyone keeps coming to her for help. This Mary was a major revelation for me, and helped me see a warmth and strength that’s missing from . . . really most depictions of Mary in art of any kind.  When Jesus is in prison and she comes to find him, you’re so glad they have each other.

And then the resurrection scene. (I had a little larf to myself when IMDB sequestered a plot synopsis that described this scene, warning that it included a spoiler. Boo!) It’s not corny. It’s not lame. It’s glorious, and terrifying, and it redeems everything you have endured during the rest of the movie.

Must you see this movie? Of course not. There is no movie a Catholic must see. If we’re not required to believe in Fatima, not required to pray the rosary, not even required to be literate to be practicing Catholics with a genuine relationship with God, then we can certainly make our way to heaven without having seen The Passion of the Christ (or Unplanned, or Fireproof, or God’s Not Dead, or Here Be Dragons, etc. etc. etc.). Movies are just movies, and you don’t have to come up with some particular reason to dispense yourself from seeing them.

But Passion is different from other movies that Catholics tend to guilt each other into watching. It doesn’t just carry a Positive Message that We Should Support; it’s a great work of art, and because of this, it at least can be tremendously powerful spiritually. Good for Lent; good for a Lenten retreat.

If you’re going to show it to anyone, know your audience. As described above, it could fuel antisemitism in those susceptible to antisemitism. But it doesn’t automatically deliver that message; and it could genuinely spur true spiritual growth.

It’s not for kids, for goodness’ sake. It’s not for people who can’t endure violent movies. Don’t make anyone watch it. But if you can stand some gore, and if you are yearning to feel more engaged in a story that has become stale with retelling, then don’t be scared away from this movie, thinking it’s just torture porn or propaganda. It is an ordeal, but a worthwhile one; and as a work of art, it’s a great.

***

P.S.
I deliberately didn’t read Steve Greydanus’ reviews of the movie until after I finished writing. I don’t always agree with Greydanus, but he gives lots of illuminating analysis here.

Is Christmas alive in your heart today?

If you think of the liturgical year as a lifetime, the Christmas season is a very brief babyhood, just a bright little sliver on the pie chart, and the dark wedge of Lent hits right around the teen or early adult years.

Doesn’t that explain a thing or two?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Mary who stays

My daughter is drawing at church. She handily sketches in a crucifix: Top, bottom, one arm, then the other. She’s drawn it many times, over and over. Lately, she’s adding more detail, and at first I didn’t know what it was– some kind of ghost, a formless lump.

Then I saw it was Mary, swathed with robes and veils. Jesus on the cross is sharp and angular, and he turns his face up to the heavens in his agony; but Mary’s head is down, almost crushed into the ground as she bows under the great grief of his innocent suffering. She is utterly helpless. She can’t rescue the child she brought into the world.

In her grief, she is almost unrecognizable, and why not? Why should she be her same self, since the crucifixion is so outrageous? It never should have happened. How could it possibly have happened? This is God we’re talking about; actual God, that than which nothing greater can be thought, and here he hangs, bleeding dry.  Ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by some thugs wielding a hammer.

Never mind the veil in the temple, it should have been the entire planet, the whole fabric of the universe that was ripped in two when he died. I don’t know how the world was held together through the crucifixion. How did everything not come apart?

I do know. It was held together through Mary, who stayed.

Under the intolerable weight of the suffering of her son, she was helpless, almost crushed. But she didn’t leave. There was nothing she could do, but she stood by and let it happen to her with him. Sometimes this is the only action of love: To stand by and not leave.

The suffering of innocents is what tears people away from the Church, away from God: When we have to stand by and watch the innocent suffer, and no one will rescue them. It tears us apart. This is why the abuse crisis has been the breaking point for so many people: The Church was supposed to be where children were safe, but instead it was where there they were ripped into shreds. Extinguished. Thwarted by thugs wielding a crosier.

It is not tolerable.

But it is nothing new.

The split, the rift, the gap, the unravelling: This has been the story of man since we left Eden. God the Father made His children for wholeness and delight, and what did they do but leave, tear themselves away from him; tear each other apart. Even when there is no ill will, this is the duality of the human experience of love since the Fall: We always live through love and loss at the same time. Never love without loss. From the moment we give birth, we prepare our children to leave us. From the moment we marry, we take on the burden of preparing our spouses for death. This is nothing new.

But Mary is something new. She holds in her heart the making and the unmaking of her beloved, and she does not come apart. She is strong enough to make the son of God and strong enough to stand by and watch him unmade, and still she does not leave. She is steadfast like no other.

Our sorrows are the first part of the story. The long story, the whole story, is that the world is all knit back together again in the womb of Mary. If Penelope wove and then unravelled a shroud, over and over again while she waited for the king to return home, then Mary weaves . . . what should we call it? The swaddling clothes that somehow bind up eternal life itself. And every day, death tries to unravel it, and every night she knits life back up again, day after day, over and over again. She does not leave her island. She is waiting for the king to return.

There are times when we all flee from the foot of the cross. It is too crushing. It hurts too much to be so helpless. We are perhaps willing to suffer, ourselves. But how willing are we to stand by and watch the ones we love suffer? That is the thing that feels intolerable.

But leaving the foot of the cross leaves the world unravelled. Running away from injustice, and staying away, leaves injustice as the final word. If we want to meet Jesus, we must meet him in suffering, in injustice, on this island world at the foot of the intolerable. That’s where he is right now. That is where love is. There is nowhere else, no other place but this temporal island called suffering. We will not be here forever, but we need to be here ready to meet him. To try to escape is to leave the world unravelled.

I can hear that I sound like I’m saying, “Don’t leave the Church, or you will betray the world and betray God.” I am not. I know I have said things that sound like that, and I am sorry. I don’t know what I would do if it had been one of my children abused. I don’t know what I would do if I were a reporter or a district attorney who talked to hundreds and hundreds of victims. When I do write about how the Church has betrayed the innocent, there always comes a time when I close my computer and put my head down and cry. But this is not my life’s work. If it were, I don’t know what I would do.

I am only thinking of Mary, and how glad I am that she didn’t leave.

Jesus was crucified for our sins, and Mary stayed at the foot of the cross for our sorrows. She stayed there for us, waiting on that island called suffering and death. She stays with us still. With her son she will make the world whole again; and then there will be love without loss.

 

The Virgin In Sorrow by Simon Marmion. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons

 

But will my husband suffer enough this Lent?

Like most lifelong Catholics, my husband and I have no idea what the rules of fasting are, so we have to look it up every year. And every year, I tell my husband, “But that’s how you eat every day anyway.” This is why he is within a single stomach virus’ distance of fitting into the pants he got married in over two decades ago, while I . . . well, let’s just say that marriage is an opportunity for growth, and I have not squandered that opportunity. No, indeedbaconator, I have not.

So I have my work cut out for me, but there’s a real danger my husband will skate by these next forty days without suffering at all! In case you’re in a similar position, here are some ways to make your husband miserable help your husband draw closer to Christ this Lent, which is your job:

1. Keep it spirituelle. Complain incessantly about all the things that make it especially hard for housewives to fast, like having to be around food all day, and being hungrier than most people anyway because your attitudes toward food and hunger and body image are all out of whack because of all the sacrifices of pregnancy and childbirth you’ve made throughout your married life. I mean, I don’t even know when I’m hungry anymore, you know? I can’t tell if I’m actually hungry, or just frustrated with how frustrating my life is, or if my body is telling my I’m deficient in something, because I’m so depleted, or what!

Then when he sympathetically suggests that you might go easy on yourself because of your state in life, give him a pitying look and murmur in a Holy Spirit kind of voice, “I don’t know, that just seems kind of . . . contrary to the spirit of the season, you know?”

2. Practice catecheticriticism. This is when you send a message to an adult in the next room by way of instructing children who are in front of you. Like this: “And so, kids, there are a lot of ways you can show God that you are sorry for your sins. Giving up Minecraft or candy OR OLD CROW is good, but you could also do things, like keeping your room clean or BRINGING THAT RIDICULOUS BROKEN DISHWASHER TO THE DUMP ALREADY or sharing your toys. These are all good things to do for Lent, and here is a nice coloring page of the stations of the cross, because I GUESS I HAVE TO BE THE SPIRITUAL HEAD OF THE FAMILY SINCE NO ONE ELSE IS STEPPING UP. Here are some crayons.”

3. Cry, and refuse to say why, because it’s nothing, just nothing. This one isn’t specific to Lent. It’s just pretty much the worst thing you can do to a guy.

4. If he persists in his concern, admit that you’ve just been feeling low lately, that’s all, and it would just be nice to get away from these same four walls and this kitchen and these kids and just feel like a woman, you know? Just for one time. Then when he reminds you that he asked you five times if you wanted to go to Chili’s, say, “Oh, I know, I know, but it’s Lent . . .”

5. Complain about female bloggers who talk about fasting when they really mean dieting, and how sick it is that, in society today, all we care about is women’s bodies, and what about their souls? Talk about Cosmo, armpit airbrushing, and how much the actresses in Star Wars got paid. Go into your room to be alone and pray for a while. When he comes in to search for the socks you claim there are plenty of in his drawer if he would just look, let him find you standing there, just gazing at that clingy red sundress you wore to your friend’s wedding two decades ago, back when you considered ice cubes an indulgent snack. Just gazing at it. Then say, “You know, in the Middle Ages, they fasted all the time, all through Lent. Did you know that? Ugh, we’re such wimps nowadays. People really were holier then. Society today really makes me sick.”

You know what, the $5 ‘Rita at Chilis is not half bad. I’ll meet you there, right after confession.