Duty and salvation

When my oldest kid was about four, she happened to wake up around midnight to go to the bathroom. She stumbled through the living room, where my husband and I were sitting.

On this particular night – which was not a typical night! – we happened to be watching Daffy Duck cartoons and eating candy. She didn’t say a word, but just nodded to herself and kept walking. She was clearly thinking, “I KNEW it!”

It was, as I say, not a typical night. A typical night would be more likely to find us filling out insurance paperwork, trying to get stains out of someone’s favourite overalls, or simply trying to muster up the strength to get up, brush our teeth, struggle our way under the covers, and get a few hours of sleep before the baby woke up for her first feeding, so we could catch another few hours of sleep before it was time to get up and do it all over again, take care of everybody and everything all over again.

But what she saw was burned into her brain, and she thought she had found the real secret of adulthood: As soon as the kids’ bedroom door closes, you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT.

She wasn’t really wrong. Adults CAN do whatever they want. The catch is, if they DECIDE to do whatever they want, they’ll almost certainly ruin their lives and the lives of everyone around them, and go to hell when they die. It’s kind of a big catch.

What I tell my kids is that, when you’re a child, people make you do things you don’t want to do. But when you’re an adult, you have to make yourself do the things you don’t want to do. You have to be the unwilling worker and the strict taskmaster, both!

It occurs to me that we, even as adults, often fall into thinking of God as the strict taskmaster: the one who descends from on high, telling us what we can and cannot do. Every time we feel the urge to do WHATEVER WE WANT — uh oh, here comes God, saying “no, no, no.” Get up, take care of the thing, don’t do the thing you want to do, do the thing you don’t want to do instead. Then, tomorrow, do it all over again, even though you’re tired.

Following the ten commandments can feel very much like this, some days, or some years. And then we go to confession and admit, “I didn’t do the thing you told me to do. I failed.” And God forgives us, which is nice.

I’ve been teaching my faith formation class, over and over again, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. We are the silly ones who need to be saved, and He is the saviour. We are the wandering ones, and He is the one who finds us. We are the ones who fall into the hole, and He is the one who pulls us out again.

So I was making up my lesson plans and I realised that, with all this talk about sheep, I had not yet introduced the kids to the idea that Jesus is the paschal lamb. And boy, the strangeness of it hit me right between the eyes. God is not only the shepherd, but also the lamb.

I know you know this. You’re a Catholic, so you’ve heard it all before. But have you ever thought about how strange it is?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Was Fr. Damien of Moloka’i a white savior?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was at the National Statuary Hall Collection in DC on Thursday, and she shared a photo of the statue representing Hawaii on her Instagram account, commenting that “when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told – and virtually no one else.”

(You’ll have to excuse me for not linking to her story directly. I don’t understand how to use Instagram.)

As often happens with AOC, she wasn’t wrong, but she also managed to say something true in a way that you have to work to defend. The statue representing Hawaii is of Fr. Damien of Moloka’i, a Belgian priest who ministered to Hawaiian lepers and eventually died of the disease. 

“This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like! It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture & how it impacts the present day,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

She is, as I say, not wrong. She was saying that, when history is written by white people, it tends to present the world in terms of the wise, just, bold, important things white people have done. It makes it seem like white Europeans are the heroes of history, and everyone else is supporting characters at best, villains and savages at worst.

This is what she means by white supremacy, and she’s right. It’s not just a matter of skewing our perception of the past. Learning a white-dominated history makes it easier for white people to continue seeing themselves as realer and more important than dark-skinned people right now. A history that populates the past with white heroes and dark-skinned savages informs the thinking of people like the men who hunted and killed Ahmaud Arbery. They saw a black man in a white man’s world, and they got rid of him. 

She wasn’t even criticizing Fr. Damien specifically, although she chose his statue to feature with her comment. Her office told CNA

“it’s the patterns that have emerged among all of the statues in the Capitol: virtually all white men. Each individual could be worthy, moral people. But the deliberate erasure of women and people of color from our history is a result of the influence of patriarchy and white supremacy.”

Her office later added that “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling. It is still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii in the Capitol over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”

But, she did feature the statue of Fr. Damien in her commentary. She apparently didn’t realize that the statue wasn’t chosen and donated by white Europeans; it was chosen and donated by the Hawaiian people, who presumably wanted Fr. Damien to represent them.

Why would they chose a white man rather than a native? If you read about Fr. Damien’s life, it was not because he was a white savior, but because he imitated Jesus the savior. 

It’s a touchy topic to compare any man to Christ, especially when contemporaneous accounts of Fr. Damien’s life did explicitly paint him as a white savior descending from above to minister to utter savages living in squalor, helpless until the beatific European man came to the rescue. That is not what happened. This skewed version of his story helps cement the bizarre idea that Christ Himself was white.

But Fr. Damien was so beloved not because of some supernatural ability to appear from on high and single-handedly transform a people, but from a willingness to work and live with them, learn their language, eat their food, and even contract their disease. His mission wasn’t to bestow salvation on them, but to help restore them to a life of dignity that they had been denied, by teaching them about Christ, by helping them to take care of themselves, and most of all by becoming one of them when no one else even wanted to think about them. 

Every saint’s story reflects the life of Christ in one way or another; but the biography of St Damien of Molokai, whose feast day is May 10, is full of unusually striking parallels that have nothing to do with whiteness and everything to do with Christlike-ness.

His sacrifice was entirely voluntary. After the Hawaiian government isolated its lepers on a peninsula to contain the disease, the Church realized that there was no one to tend to their spiritual needs. But the disease was so fearful and so contagious; the Bishop did not insist that any of his subordinates go there to serve. Young Fr Damien, a Belgian priest, willingly volunteered as a missionary, even though he was afraid.

The Son of God was utterly complete before the Incarnation. The birth, works, suffering, and death of Christ were all entirely voluntary, asked for by the Father and willingly accepted by the Son, even though He was afraid.

He was a substitute for his brother. His brother, a member of the same religious order, was originally slated to travel to Molokai, but became sick; so Damien took his place.

Christ took on human flesh and suffered and died to pay the debt of humanity. He became our brother so that He could take our place.

He tended to the body as well as the soul. St Damien’s mission was to preach and bring the sacraments, but he also cared for the lepers’ physical well-being, helping them upgrade their living quarters, organize schools, farms, a legal system, and even a choir.

Along with teaching, forgiving sins, conferring grace, and granting salvation for our souls, Christ healed the blind, made the lame walk, fed the multitudes, and even cooked a breakfast of fish for His friends, because even a mortal body is precious, and our physical needs are true needs.

He didn’t keep himself apart, but lived his life alongside his spiritual children.  Fr Damien didn’t isolate himself out of fear, disgust, or a sense of superiority, but lived with the lepers intimately, eating communal poi with his fingers, bathing corrupted limbs and dressing wounds. He clothed them with his own hands, shared their pipes, and dug their graves, until he finally died of their disease.

Christ did not save us from Heaven, but confined His immensity into a mortal human body, to live alongside the ones He came to save, and even accepted human mortality. 

He was slandered, accused of depravity and dirtiness; and even his own superiors gave him only faint praise, calling him a “peasant” who served God “in his own way.”

Christ was hounded by slander and abuse, culminating in a trial and execution full of insults and false accusations, which He bore without defending Himself.

His good works were not confined to his life span.  When Fr Damien died, he left behind a community that was transformed.

Before He died, Christ established the Church, so that His work would continue after the Resurrection.

 

I can’t help thinking that Fr. Damien himself would have chosen someone else to represent Hawaii, had he been asked. Nothing in his life indicates that he sought fame or recognition. He is the patron saint of outcasts, including HIV patients, a population many Catholics continue to see as untouchable, unworthy. 

Maybe it would have been better to represent him with a statue showing how he looked toward the end of his life, when the disease all but destroyed his white skin. If there is a lesson to draw from finding a Christlike white man representing Hawaii, maybe the lesson is this: Christ was not white; Christ was human. 

***

A portion of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in May of 2017.

Photo of Fr. Damien by Henry L. Chase / Public domain 

Oh, that final verse!

Drive down the road on December 26 and beyond, and you’ll see a bunch of denuded Christmas trees kicked to the curb because their owners think Christmas is now over. They may have sung Christmas songs at their house, but they haven’t listened to the final verse.

And that final verse is vital. Take, for instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Would I Were Nigh”:*

This is my favorite kind of Christmas carol: gentle, tender, and spare, with enough details to make the scene human, but also eliciting a sense of wonder.

You can see on the sheet music that the choir director wanted the singers to perform the first verse, to skip verses 3-5 for brevity, and to end with the final verse. And that final verse is there for a reason.

The first five verses express a subjunctive longing to have been present at the actual birth of Our Lord – to see “the oxen lie beside Him” – to watch Joseph keep “a watchful eye for danger” while the baby sleeps — to see the shepherds “lend ragged coats to hide Him.”

But the final verse is even more reflective: “Would I were there . . .” he says, “Yet everywhere, I too can beg His blessing; Then go my way, by night or day, safe through a world distressing.” And that one thought deftly rescues the entire song from any hint of fantasy or sentimentalism: we don’t have to daydream or wish, because no matter who, where, or when we are, the scene is real. The Incarnation of our Lord is present to us. The luminous child lights the way through every era.

I haven’t thrown out our Christmas tree. Our decorations are still up, and we’re still lighting our Advent wreath throughout the Octave of Christmas, singing Christmas songs instead of Advent ones. We’re still feasting, still pressing ourselves to treat each other with extra care and tenderness, because Christmas isn’t over. And yet I woke up in the middle of the night in distress, feeling like I missed the mark this year. Our Christmas was too busy, too secular, too focused on externals and not enough on the Christ Child. Somehow, I hadn’t seen Christmas through to its end.

Well, of course I hadn’t.

Just as with the folks who toss out their trees on December 26th, I make a mistake if I pin all my hopes for peace and joy and love on Christmas day, or really on any single day. If I do make this mistake, it’s because I haven’t listened to the song all the way through. I’m leaving off the final verse, and that one is vital.

The final verse, not only in the song but in anything that God is trying to tell us, says: “This story, your story, doesn’t end with death.” If we’re not getting everything we need in this world, if we don’t feel satisfied, if we feel adrift and alone and incomplete, if we feel that we’re always missing the mark, that’s because we haven’t gotten to the end of the song yet. We haven’t yet gotten to the final verse, which rescues all the others from fantasy.

The most accurate “final verse” we can sing is the one the Church teaches us: We wait in joyful hope, and that includes joyful hope for our own salvation through Christ’s efforts, not through our own. Don’t skip that verse.

The light of the Christ child is not meant be contained in a single day. It stretches from that night in Bethlehem to our present day, and it also stretches out ahead of us, into the future, as we wait for Him to come again and set all things right, in our own lives and in the “world distressing.”

So if this season feels all too distressing to you – if you are alone, or if you are suffering, or if bad memories seep through and make this time of year awful, or even if we ourselves are the cause of that distress — remember that we’re all still in that subjunctive phase.

There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel incomplete. We are incomplete. The final verse is yet to come. Oh, that final verse! It’s worth waiting for.

***

*from An Irish Carol Book (McLaughlin and Reilly) compiled by Fr. John Fennelly, arranged by Fr. Fennelley and  J. Gerald Phillips, my sister’s choir director in college. I can’t find a recording anywhere, so here is the music (thanks to Sam Schmitt for hunting down and sharing the sheet music!)

A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2015.

Give up your pride. Only God saves.

The central problem the fellow was grappling with wasn’t lust, it was pride. There’s no such thing as protecting your wife by sinning. The only way out of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum is to take yourself out of the center altogether, to admit defeat, to seek personal repentance, and to let God work out how to bring salvation out of that humility. The fellow couldn’t make any progress with his sexual compulsions because he was trying very hard to make sure he was still in charge — not only of his own behavior and his own soul, but his wife’s soul, as well.

Read the rest of my latest from The Catholic Weekly.
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Image: Daniel R. Blume via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Can we endure the light?

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There was a man who could read people’s souls, and he would sometimes deliver messages from God.

It sounds fishy, but if you saw his face, especially his eyes, you’d believe it. For some reason, he visited my house when I was a teenager. When I came in the room, his dark eyes pooled with pity, and he asked, “Is there anything you would like to ask?” There wasn’t. I was on an ugly, dire path, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to turn around yet. So I walked out of the room. Fled, really. I could see that he was very close to God, and I couldn’t stand being that close to him.

It is not enough, you see, to recognize the presence of God. You can identify holiness, but it won’t do you any good if you’ve been living in a way that doesn’t prepare you to endure it.

Herod, for instance, recognized the Christ. Or at least he was well-versed enough in scripture to know that something big was coming, something that could change the world. But when he found Him, his whole thought was to extinguish that light, because it was a threat. Not to be endured.

Herod was a brilliant, powerful, and exceptionally brutal tyrant, who protected his throne by killing everyone who might someday threaten it, including his wife, two of his sons, his wife’s grandfather, her brother, and her mother. You cannot live that way and then suddenly rejoice when your savior comes. You don’t want a savior, when you live that way. It’s not that you don’t recognize salvation; it’s that you hate it.

The magi, on the other hand, also found and identified the Child Jesus, and had (what an understatement!) a different response. Before they ever appeared in the Gospel, they had spent years studying scripture and anticipating the arrival of the Savior. But their studies clearly brought them beyond some academic knowledge of the coming king. Isaiah spoke of glory and brilliance, a “Hero God” — and yet when the magi found Him in Bethlehem, just another poor baby Jew, they still knew who He was — and they rejoiced, and adored, and gloried in His light.

It’s not enough to identify God when you find Him. It won’t do you any good unless you’ve been living in a way that makes you ready to want salvation.

Several years ago, I had a little glimpse of Jesus. He was in the form of another man, someone who served God with every moment of his life. When I walked into the room, he was on his knees on the floor, binding the ankle of a boy who had hurt his foot. The boy was not grateful, not at all. He sulked and pitied himself, but the man radiated love. His posture was a living expression of love. The room shone.

This time, when I saw holiness, I didn’t run away. I stayed and watched, because the light of charity that shone in that room had something to say to me: “Be like this.”

In the first reading at the Mass of the Epiphany, Isaiah says:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

This is a light that may reveal all kinds of things. It’s not enough for those “nations” (and we are the nations) to recognize and identify God. It’s not enough to be able to realize what holiness is when we see it.

How are we preparing, before that light appears? The magi knew it was coming, and they prepared themselves to welcome and adore it. Herod knew it was coming, and he made plans to extinguish it. Herod acted like exactly like Herod when His savior appeared, and so will we act exactly like ourselves when we meet God.

Just being in His light will not be enough. If we live like Herod, we will respond to Him like Herod, with fear, with loathing. We will see the light, and we will want to put it out.

When the glory of the Lord comes to shine upon you, what will that light reveal?

***

Image: “Epiphany” by Gallardoblend via Deviantart
This essay was originally published on Aleteia in January of 2016.