The Love Potion of the Cross

Many years ago, I worked as editor for a Canadian Catholic family magazine published by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The office was located on one of the Oblates’ lovely farm properties. Most mornings, before entering the building where my office was located, I would take my walk with God through the wooded area on this beautiful slice of creation, stopping at the Marian shrine at the end of a long lane. Some of the rocks at this grotto were formed in the shape of a big cross. I would touch these rocks and pray, offering to Jesus whatever was in my heart at the time.

Every time that cross confronted me. It invited me into love, and in that invitation revealed my own inadequacy to live in this love. Some days this cross seemed to mock me, because of my unwillingness to love generously. Other days I was drawn into a depth of mystery too big for words. Every time I learnt a bit more about that liberating and healing power released when pain, suffering and death are infused with radical and uncompromising love. I would try to take that lesson with me into the day, in particular when encountering pain, conflict and death.

Back in 2002, when the World Youth Day Cross was making its way through Canada in preparation for the great event in Toronto the following year, my own little ritual at the grotto increased in meaning and power. The testimonies of those who received the Cross in their communities revealed profound lessons and experiences in love and reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. On Manitoulin Island, Ontario, the Cross was taken to the native reserve’s cemetery, to the home of a young man murdered a month before and then to all places on the reserve where tragic accidents had occurred. How I wish that the same cross could have been taken through the schools and community of LaLoche recently. The Cross stopped at the site of a former residential school, and “all prayed for forgiveness and healing for former students and staff.” In Whitehorse, Yukon, the Cross was carried to a local food bank, “where it stood inviting all to come and pray, and was a sign of Christ’s love for the poor in our community.” From Amos, Quebec, came the account that the visit of the Cross was “as if Jesus came to visit us in our little village.”The people from Chibougamau exclaimed, “For once, we have not been forgotten!”

Many who encountered the World Youth Day Cross that year reported feeling invited by Jesus to reflect on its meaning and on their own call to Christian love in places of poverty, pain, and suffering. That, in essence, is what the cross is meant to do. There is a big difference between reverence for reasons of idolatry and reverence for reasons of healing, service and love. The first kind regards venerating the cross as an end in itself, with the risk of bordering on superstition; the second kind of reverence lets the meaning of the cross penetrate us in order to change us. The perennial temptation can take us on the path of the former without necessarily touching on the challenge of the latter. Venerating the cross without making connections to our own local realities of suffering, and without committing ourselves to be Christ’s healing love in those realities, necessitates an examination of motives.

One day, a woman poured her heart out to me. Pain, suppressed from a lifetime of abuse, came gushing out so forcefully that she feared for her sanity. I witnessed that pain piercing her body like the nails pierced Christ on the cross. There before me was a contemporary crucifixion complete with the challenge of Jesus to infuse God’s love into this woman through my words and looks, gestures and touch, and ardent prayers. Offering God’s soothing presence in the swirling wind of this emotional hurricane was almost more than I could bear. Yet I knew it was the only power that could redeem her into new life.

Even casualties from war, destruction and terrorism cannot heal through violent retaliations. Even the most evil acts need the power of a forgiving love that will not flinch. An Episcopalian/Anglican writer, Gale D. Webb, caught this aspect of forgiveness when he wrote in his book The Night and Nothing: The only way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like blood in a sponge or a spear thrown into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.

M. Scott Peck, a Christian psychiatrist, echoes a similar sentiment in his conclusion to People of the Lie. For the healing of evil, … A willing sacrifice is required…He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil…There is a mysterious alchemy whereby the victim becomes the victor…I do not know how this occurs. But I know that it does…Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world.

And so in this Lenten season I gaze upon the cross with renewed intensity and yearning. At we are nearing the mid-point of our slow and hopefully prayerful trek towards Holy Week, once again, in my imagination, I touch the rocks at the grotto from those morning walks many years ago and, for a moment, I feel once again the power of love in my bones, a love exploding the destruction of all pain,  suffering and death.

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That Ugly Word

In the midst of deliberations in Rome at the Synod on the Family right now, I am reminded of my own homily on Mark 10:2-16, preached quite a few moons ago in a far away pulpit. For what it’s worth, I am sharing it here below:

It was not easy to prepare this sermon. I attended two Bible studies and read a number of commentaries on today’s readings. The Gospel in particular provoked quite a gamut of responses and opinions, such as:
“It is important to speak strongly of the Church’s teaching on divorce.”
“How can we uphold Church teaching when divorce is so prevalent around us?”
“Do not use the text as a whip to punish divorced people.”
“These texts have been used to keep victims in abusive marriages, so preacher beware.”
These thoughts, and more, probably go through our heads too as we hear Jesus’ words today. In the midst of this world, our world, full of broken relationships, we take time to hear Good News in these words of Jesus.

Divorce. The very mention of the word wrings our hearts and wrenches our stomachs. The breaking up of what God intends to be “one flesh” rips through all of our lives. We have all seen and touched the pain — if not in our own situation, we have seen that pain in loved ones whose lives seem permanently scarred by marriage break-up. The private experience of divorce between two people affects the whole community. Because divorce is more than just a marriage break-up.

Divorce is merely the public recognition of a private reality that precedes its necessity. Behind the legal process lies the alienation and separation of a woman and a man. Behind the legal term lies the pain of having lost confidence, dignity and respect.

Sometimes unhealthy behaviours of abuse, power and control violate marriage vows long before divorce is pending. Sometimes a growing apart creeps in over time, driven by over-focusing on individual self-fulfillment or just plain boredom. We stop loving, and the “one flesh” is far to be found. Even if we never seek divorce, every marriage risks falling prey to a daily flatness and drudgery, far from the “one flesh”-union that spells fulfillment for each partner. Even when enjoying a healthy, loving marriage chances are very big that we experience the pain of break-up in other ways with those close to us.

Whether we call it divorce or break-up, we are all prone to get burnt in relationships. We invest ourselves in another, giving and receiving closeness and friendship. But even the best of friendships are tainted with the pain of separation, rejection, alienation. Husband or wife, parent or child, friend or foe, none of us are safe. Within our parish community, within our own selves and even with God, separation hurts and scars. It is not good for us to live alone. It is not good for us live cut off from the human community, cut off even from God.

It is that reality, the sin of human alienation, that Jesus addresses here. It is that reality, more than the law on divorce, that is judged as not part of God’s intent at creation. The Pharisees come to Jesus, asking a question to test him. We too are all ears to hear the answer. Like the Pharisees, we get caught in living our religion, and our relationships, like keeping a balance sheet. If we keep the religious laws, we will earn God’s grace. If we keep the minimum rules of getting along, our marriage will last. Jesus does not buy into that system. Jesus confronts us with both the sinfulness of all separation and with the glorious grace of God’s reconciliation. Legalizing divorce does not take away its sinful character, nor does it alter God’s original intent of joining man and woman into one flesh. Legalizing divorce does not make any broken relationship right,
nor does it take away God’s forgiving and healing action toward us. We suffer from hardness of heart, but God is still the God of forgiving and healing love.

It is not our job to pass judgment on others, nor to bury ourselves in guilt and shame over our sin. It is our job to face our own hardness of heart. We try to be God, in our own life or in someone else’s life — and our heart hardens. We presume, with the Pharisees, that we can earn our way into heaven by keeping religious laws — and our heart cuts itself off from compassion and understanding. We seek only our own gain — and our heart grows cold to the pain we inflict on others. We are obsessed with hiding our woundedness — and our heart buries itself in the illusion of perfection and false humility. We help sustain a culture that promotes individualism and self-gratification — we help grow the collective hardness of heart. We help sustain religious attitudes and practices that contradicts the spirit of community — we collude with the sin of not supporting one another when our marriage feels adrift. One’s marriage is such a private affair, we think. Before we know it, our “non-interfering”, and our inability to seek help grows hardness of heart — wherever we turn. We may not call every break in relationship a divorce. But every time we find ourselves alone, without support, cut off from our partner, alienated from community, we experience the pain of divorce. That is why it is not good for us to be alone.

Jesus levels the playing field. As men and women we are equally free to enter relationships. Once committed, we are equally responsible to grow in God’s love toward one another. Jesus urges us to take the sanctity of relationships, especially marriage, very seriously. Creation may be broken and fallen from God’s original intent. Our culture may be adrift in how to support lasting relationships. But these are not reasons for despair, nor for ignoring Jesus’ answer. Jesus asks us to be responsible for the quality of every relationship in which we find ourselves. As a community of faith we are called to account for the measure of support we offer one another. Far beyond quarreling over the permission to divorce, we are called to change our behaviour — to show more compassion than criticism, to listen more than we talk, to relate to one another as equals before God. Jesus condemns all separation and brokenness as sin. On this level playing field, we all stand wanting.

Before God, we are reminded of the purpose and goodness of creation. Before God, we are all called to become “one flesh” — in the community of marriage, in our parish community, in the world. In the daily routine of living, it is not good to be alone. As followers of Jesus, it is not good for any of us to be alone.

Children know that it is not good to be alone. Children do not hide their need for love. Children are ready to forgive and reconcile, often long before adults are. Children reach out without shame. In the middle of his serious conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus takes the child onto his lap.

In a society where children had no rights or social status, Jesus models before our eyes God’s kingdom of right relation. No matter how painful the separation, or how big the fight, children continue to reach and ask to be held in loving care.
No matter how foolish our questions, how fearful our doubts, how great our shame, God gently reaches out to us and nudges us toward right relation with one another.Despite the sinfulness of separation, as God’s children we may experience the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ. Held by Jesus, not stopped by anyone, we come to see all our relationships as holy places where God’s own presence and power is at work. That loving power of God in and through Jesus is infinitely greater than any of our sinful separations can ever be.

Jesus draws attention to this realization by welcoming children. Following the lead of today’s Gospel, I too will end with a story featuring children: a girl in elementary school had to do a project for science class. She decided to build a model of the world. So she took a rubber ball for her globe, carefully cut construction paper in the shape of all the continents, and glued them on to the ball. When she finished, she set the project on the table and went outside to play. About this time, her little sister Sally came in and began to play with the globe. She took Africa and tore it off; she began to chew on China; and she took a crayon and coloured all over Europe. Just then, her older sister came back in.
When she saw what had happened, she screamed at the little girl: “Sally, look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined everything. I hate you!” … Well, the little girl was utterly crushed. She ran away in tears. But when her sister realized what she had done, she found her little sister, threw her arms around her and hugged her close, saying: “Sally, you’ve messed up my world, but I still love you.”

You mess up my world, and you mess up relationships, but I still love you, and I continue to create you in my image, male and female, called into one flesh… — says the Lord our God… AMEN

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Heaven on Earth

My friend looked radiant as I entered the hospital room. “I found a way to be in heaven while living on earth!” she exclaimed. My open mouth and wide-eyed look gave away my shock; where was the depressed spirit, the monotone voice I heard only days ago, indicating that Carol had given up? She leafed through the book on her bedside table, while paraphrasing what she had read under the heading A little secret for those afraid of dying: “There are three ways to get to heaven without dying: to live fully in the present moment, since in heaven there is no time limit; to allow everything in life to move you and fill you with love, since the measure of love given and received is the only thing we get to take with us in death; and to give away those things that make for treasures in heaven like forgiveness, comfort, blessings, faith, hope and love.”

These words were as much a revelation to me as they were to my friend. For what I heard was another way of saying that the kingdom of God is truly here and now. We do not have to wait until after death to enjoy this kingdom. The more in fact we learn to live in faith, hope and love in this life, the more familiar heaven will feel, the more prepared we will be to meet God face to face. Treasures in heaven are those things we give away on earth. It is God’s greatest wish to give us the kingdom, and it is available here and now in the giving of ourselves, free of charge, without strings attached.

This new insight served as a corrective on my previous understandings that viewed heavenly blessings as “rewards” for living properly and faithfully. I still view the blessings as rewards, but not in some punitive/meritorious system imposed by God. Rather, heavenly blessings are a natural outcome of how we live our lives. If we can live as generously, as forgiving, as foolishly intense, as lovingly as God does, we will feel right at home in heaven once we get there. To the extent that we seem incapable of living and loving as God does, to that extent heaven will feel not only unfamiliar, but even hostile. If loving generously was not a part of our life on earth, then heaven can indeed feel like hell. It is not a vengeful God who chooses to punish. It is us that merely experience the natural consequence of a life filled with inadequate loving. Pope John Paul II said the same thing: ” ‘Eternal damnation’ is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice forever” (Papal Audience, July 28/1999). Seen in this light, God’s desire to honour our human freedom at all times is the fulfillment of God’s foolish loving of creation.

One summer evening a parish priest in a small town in B.C. heard a knock on his door. A young man and his wife were stranded. They had taken a week’s holiday with their old van, camping in the Rockies. Just before heading home to Calgary, their van was robbed – purse, wallet, stereo, belongings – all gone. They filed a police report. They tried to call a brother and a mother in Calgary; everyone was on holidays. They had no way to get home. The priest gave them enough money to make it to Calgary. He gave it to them with the request that when they could pay back, they do so by turning around and giving it to someone else in need. With grateful hearts, they promised they would even increase the amount. Deeply moved and immensely grateful, echoes of the movie Pay it Forward streamed through the couple’s minds and hearts.

This is how treasures in heaven multiply. This is how we train our heart to love as fully as God does. My friend in her hospital bed took this lesson seriously. So did the parish priest in B.C. and the young couple at the receiving end of his generosity. Treasures in heaven, enjoyed while on earth.

It’s heaven all the way to heaven; it’s hell all the way to hell. ~ St. Catherine of Siena & Richard Rohr, OFM

Heaven is a choice we make, not a place we find. ~ Wayne Dyer

It’s not hard, is it?

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