Category Archives: Personal Thoughts

FEAR and LOVE

“Forgiveness liberates the soul.  It removes fear.  That is why it is such powerful weapon.”

I had the opportunity to watch the movie “Invictus” the other night.  It recounts the story of Nelson Mandela’s  efforts to bring together the people of post-apartheid South Africa through the support of their national rugby team.  The above quote is spoken by Mandela at the beginning of the movie.  A very powerful statement, I think, the meaning of which I have yet to fully understand experientially.  I am learning in a very practical and painful way that forgiveness is a very costly gift to give.  And yet a case could be made that lack of forgiveness is the motivation for most of the awful things that occur in our world.  As the AA saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.”  When we have been hurt by others in our vulnerability, if we choose not to forgive and instead choose to protect ourselves in FEAR, we simply perpetuate the problem.

I think when I first started this blog I expressed that I wanted to use it as a sounding board for some of the things I need to work through in terms of understanding my vocation.  For the next few posts I will be reflecting on forgiveness, and in that vein, will begin by clarifying the concepts of fear and love using Scripture.

I think I only began to understand the great power that FEAR has over humanity many years ago in the Novitiate as I meditated on the creation story.  The book of Genesis is ripe with symbolic meaning in regard to brokenness of the human person.  The Original Sin of Adam and Eve was certainly a sin of disobedience and pride in wanting to be “like gods,” but that at the root of this rupture of relationship between God and humanity was FEAR.   The significance of the encounter between the serpent and the woman in Genesis 3 is often overlooked.  I wanted to spend some time “breaking open” this Scripture in this post today.  I include a link to the text of Genesis 3 (http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/genesis/genesis3.htm) .

First, the biblical view of a serpent is not one of a little snake that we might see in the garden (scary enough!), but a large, powerful creature that embodied for the Hebrew people all that was evil.  So when the serpent questions Eve, his inquiry could be interpreted as a threat as well as just a simple question.  The serpent finds his “in” when Eve responds by saying “God said ‘You shall not eat [of the tree in the middle of the garden] or even touch it, let you die.’” (Gen 3:3)  Eve reveals some resentment or distrust about the command God has made about the Garden of Eden by her addition that they are not even to touch the tree, which was not the case.

The serpent appeals to this emotion by stating that God is withholding something from the first couple.  He claims that God does not want them to be like Him; rather, God wants to keep them in ignorance and subjection.   This completely contradicts the expressed intention of God in Genesis 2 where God makes the statement, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.”  (Gen 2:26,27)   The serpent capitalizes on Eve’s distrust of God or perhaps the fear she is experiencing in this encounter with him, and leads her to believe that by rupturing the covenant of trust between God and the first couple that they have something to gain rather than lose.

The question is not always asked when reading this text: where was Adam?  It was Adam’s job to “cultivate and care for”(protect) the garden, as well as his bride.  Clearly the serpent is an intruder, a threat to the harmony of the garden.  The text tells us Adam’s whereabouts in verse 6: “So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  Sometimes what Scripture doesn’t say speaks more loudly than what is written.  So why doesn’t Adam say something if he was with Eve the whole time?  And why doesn’t he say anything when offered the fruit?  It was to Adam that God’s command was given in the first place. (Gen 2:16-17)  One conclusion that could be drawn is that Adam sensed a threat in this situation that caused him to respond in fear rather than truth.

The full implication of what they had chosen becomes absolutely clear to the first couple after the rupture the covenant.   Scripture says that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked.” (Gen 3:7)  The ruptured covenant relationship makes clear to them their vulnerability, and by that same token reveals to them the vulnerability of the other – the weaknesses that can be manipulated or used to gain power over the other.  Scripture indicates that this propensity of persons to operate from a place of power rather than love in relationships is a result of Original Sin; and therefore the power that FEAR has in our lives is due to this result.  We, as Adam and Eve, feel we must protect ourselves in relationships.  When we are called to relationship, just as God calls Adam, we understand his response: “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” (Gen 3:10)

This rupture that Original Sin causes in all relationships – between God and humanity, humanity and creation, man and woman, and even a loss of harmony in the person – helped me to understand the meaning of John’s letter where he states, “There is no FEAR in LOVE, but perfect LOVE drives out FEAR because FEAR has to do with punishment, and so one who FEARS is not yet perfect in LOVE.” (1 Jn 4:18)  This was a real eye opener to me, as I had formerly believed that the opposite of LOVE is hate.  But it’s not; hate, more often than being an indication of not caring, is often frustrated or embittered love for another.  But it is FEAR that is the motivation behind most of the grave injustices committed in the world.  It is because of FEAR that we are able to “dehumanize” another, to look at that human not as a person but as a “non-being” or “moving object” in order to make it easier for us to treat them as less than what they are. 

I have had this conversation about FEAR with others more specifically in terms of Nazi Germany.  How could a highly educated, civilized group of people justify singling out races and groups of people for destruction?  I used to be confounded by this, but the “school of hard knocks” has helped me to see that this type of behavior goes on every day.  It is easy to let oneself out of FEAR label a person as “less than” in order to guard oneself from behavior that threatens our concept of safety.  The labels we can assign are legion – they are “morally bad,” “different,”  “strange,” “not worthy of help or respect”… the list goes on and on.  Sometimes we can even find reason to justify behaviors towards these labeled persons in order to limit their freedom.  We did this in America during this last century – those who were labeled as “idiots” and “threats to society” were sterilized in government institutions against their will.  Some of these people are still alive.  We do this as a society in our tacit support of abortion of fetuses (a Latin word for “little one”).  And then of course there is our history of race based slavery and discrimination.  Of course, America is not the only country that has done this, just the one I am familiar with.  The point is, operating from FEAR is an everyday occurence, and I believe stating the truth about this can help us be aware of how we marginalize people in order to protect ourselves.  When I start to recognize the barriers I erect in order to protect myself in relationships, only then can I start to heal and strive to recognize the presence of Christ, the profound worth and dignity of the human persons that I have the opportunity to encounter each day.  Whether that presence of Christ is easily discernable or hard to see, it is there.

The next post will be another reflection on FEAR, and I will try to unpack what Scripture says about how we are to respond to this propensity to live from FEAR, and what role LOVE and FORGIVENESS have in this response.

Finding Meaning in Advent

Advent is my favorite time of the entire liturgical year!  I love the anticipation and HOPE that the readings at Mass convey, and the emphasis on preparing for Christ’s coming.  We are to prepare for His coming in three ways during this season:  reflecting on Christ’s entrance into human history through His Incarnation as a baby, His second coming at the end of time, and we prepare to receive Him more intentionally when He comes to us in the Eucharist and in our encounters with the human person.  Mother Teresa once said, “In the Eucharist I see Christ in the appearance of the bread; in the slums, I see Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.  The Eucharist and the poor are but one love for me.”

I have been reflecting on how I should best prepare for His coming during this Advent season, and I am once again brought face to face with the stark change that has occurred in my attitude toward life.  Much of my desire to be “serious Catholic” in the past was motivated by a very “black and white” approach to the world.  I have been amused when talking with friends recently by some of the things they say I told them in the past about holiness and the meaning of life.  I was very certain of how holiness is achieved and felt my mission as a religious was very clear.   But PRAISE GOD for the hard knocks of life!  I, like Paul, have been “knocked off my horse” and from my clear mission to consider again what it really means to belong to God. As a person who tends to be focused on accomplishment, I wanted to follow God in a way that was socially acceptable and clear in purpose.  Of course it should follow the dictates of common sense and clearly reflect God’s approval!  But what if that’s not GOD’S plan? I continue to struggle with discouragement over “losing my mission.”  All I was going to “accomplish for God” now seems to have been just an illusion.  I wanted my life to be important, to have MEANING.

I am starting to realize that God is much less concerned with me being successful at doing anything “for Him” than He is interested in helping me to KNOW HIM.  And that the MEANING that I wanted to give to my life is not so much my work, but His.  My motto is the Scripture from the Prodigal son story: “You are with Me always, and everything I have is yours.”  (Luke 15:31)  THIS is what I am to live: to KNOW that I am with Him, and that what I seek, I already possess in this relationship with the Father.  I am starting to learn that “finding God’s will” is not necessarily the hard job that I have made it.  In fact, I think His will is pretty simple: LOVE.  That’s it.  He wants us to know we are loved, and to help every person we meet to  know they are VALUED and LOVED!!!  Perhaps God intends for me to recognize and appreciate the meaning He has imbedded in the very smallest things, the places that seem insignificant.  Rather than accomplishing a plan and giving meaning through my work, perhaps I have been placed here on earth to recognize meaning, appreciate it, and see the extravagant love God manifests in the littlest things.  That is beauty too, and perhaps is the real source of happiness: “to soak up meaning” rather than to create it myself.  This is my HOPE for this Advent.

St. Francis

I decided to watch the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Franco Zefferelli a few weeks ago on the occasion of All Saints Day.  This is my favorite movie of St. Francis.  I have been told many times it is not an accurate depiction of St. Francis’ life.  I think many people dislike this movie because of its (not so) veiled references to issues of the 60s (hippie idealism, Vietnam war, upheaval of culture).  But as I am not a child of the 60s, I don’t have an immediate reaction to the overtones but wonder perhaps if the connections Zefferelli made in regard to the similarity of the situations is a real insight.  The reason that I love this movie is because I believe it captures beautifully the abandon of a soul captivated by God.  And St. Francis was really just such a person!

The time of St. Francis was a very confusing one in the Church.  There was a preoccupation with wealth and an abuse of power among many Church leaders.  In response to this situation, many movements sprang up in the Church that began to witness to the Gospel message through a life of radical poverty.  Many of these movements in the end, however, separated from the Church because they began to embrace wrong teachings about Christ and the Church.  Other movements never intended to be faithful to the truth but began to teach entirely different doctrines, not based at all on Christ or His Gospel message.  Some Catholics responded to the situation with disgust and frustration, while others were simply confused.  Many laypeople, because of the confusion, began grassroots movements themselves that emphasized prayer and service.  Does any of this sound familiar??  The only difference that I observe in the situations is that I don’t think the problem in the Church today is so much concerned with an abuse of wealth, but of authority and obedience.

So with all of this going on, how did St. Francis respond to the problems of his time?  By simply trying to live the GOSPEL in all its SIMPLICITY.  He took the words of Jesus seriously and tried to live them.  While St. Francis abandoned everything in attempt to live the ideal of the Gospel perfectly, he didn’t abandon the REAL.  How did he ground himself in reality?  By trusting again in the words of Jesus, when He says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Mt 16:18).  He took Jesus’ words at their face value and trusted that even though things seemed confusing, that fidelity to the Church in spite of the confusion was the way to stay grounded in reality and in the truth about Jesus.  Francis served as a challenge to abuses in the Church by his radical life of poverty and simplicity, and at the same time, unlike the other contemporary poverty movements, he determined to be faithful to the Church.  Francis has a profound respect for the office of the priesthood, even when the priests he encountered were personally very sinful.

Isn’t this how we are called to respond to the problems of our time too?  Jesus hasn’t changed!  He is “the same yesterday, today and FOREVER!” (Heb 13:8)  His message, and His mercies, are “new every morning.” (Lam 3:23)  All we need do is decide to read the gospel again, make sure we understand what it says, take it seriously, and live it.  This might sound like an overly simplistic answer, but I don’t think it is.  Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it won’t be HARD!

Love Comes Down

It’s been awhile since I have last posted here!  Thank you to those of you who continue to check back for the newest postings!

This morning I was reminiscing about my recent opportunities to visit and reconnect with good friends of many years.  One of my friends told me during our visit that I use the word “beautiful” a lot.  My interior response was, “What a compliment!”  Life IS BEAUTIFUL – if we only have the eyes to see.

As I reflected on the beauty of life this morning, I happened to also be listening to the song “Love Comes Down” by Matt Maher and was touched in particular by these lyrics of the song:

“Isn’t it BEAUTIFUL!  isn’t it marvelous!  The God of the Universe, He became one of us.  We cry out and then, LOVE comes down again.  Hope is found in Him!  Alleluia!” (Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beAXbgFP3Wg to hear this song along with the lyrics (ignore the grammatical errors!)

I have so much for which to be GRATEFUL.  God LOVES me; He REALLY DOES!  And He LOVES YOU.  There are moments in life of TRUE JOY, when we recognize the beauty of God and the human heart infused with the LOVE of GOD!  We are truly beautiful in His sight!  Why?  Because we’re great?  If we are, it is due to Him.  This is the BEAUTIFUL LOVE of the Father for His children.  He infuses our souls with beauty and the ability to share the beauty of LOVE, if only we choose to participate.  Love is Love only if accompanied by the true gift of self.  This is not a half-hearted surrendering of our time or incidentals; we are to give our very being.  This is the quest in which we are all invited to partake!  What a beautiful life:  to give ourselves in FREEDOM, to choose to see the GOOD, to see LOVE, to see the BEAUTY of the image of God carried in the soul of each person rather than seeing the negative, the failures, selfishness.  And even if we do fail, to know that LOVE will continue to descend into our brokenness when we cry out, and will heal us so that beauty, love, and goodness can again have the opportunity to emanate from our souls!  This cycle will never stop, but will continue even into eternity – the eternal gift of self that is called LOVE.  This is the love of the Trinity: of the Father for the Son, the Son for the Father, made fruitful in the person of the Holy Spirit.  How BEAUTIFUL!  Alleluia!

A Compassionate Life

“It would be sad if we were to think about the compassionate life as a life of heroic self-denial.” ( Henri Nouwen, The Dance of Life)  This really struck me, as I think so too.  Why?  Because the latter attitude emphasizes the self and what is repulsive about reaching out to others while the first emphasizes love, solidarity, union and relationship.  Rather than celebrating the self by emphasizing your ability to embrace the repulsive, why not emphasize the person, the other, seeing their good, the value they have? 

I was told sometime during this last year that when I speak about serving others I speak too much about other people, how they touch me and reach out to me and I do not talk about what I have done for them.  The point being made was that I focus too much on myself and not on other people.  Perhaps I am wrong, but I do not see it this way at all.  I have tried to give my life in service to others, but I really do feel that when I do this, what I receive is much greater than what I give.  And perhaps that is a sign I should try harder.

But while I can always try harder to serve others, I personally think the problem is a difference of perspective more than an indication of selfishness.  I choose to focus on living a compassionate life rather than a life of self-denial.  Why?  Because the life of self-denial depresses me – it focuses on the “No” of life, what must be given up to care for others.  A compassionate life focuses on the “YES”:  a yes to love, a yes to inviting others to be part of your life, a yes to relationships with beautiful images of God.

I guess the questions I have about this is, does it matter which perspective a person has?  Is focusing on self-denial any more meritorious than focusing on compassion?  Certainly focusing on what is being given up is heroic, but does love necessarily have to be something hard or negative?  Can’t it be something good and life-giving?  Can doing the right thing also be uplifting to the spirit?

If someone out there has a different perspective, or see something I’m missing, I would like to know this!  I want to broaden my understanding of these things.  Have a blessed day!!