Category Archives: Spirituality

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.

Crib, Cross and Holy Eucharist

One of the things I love best about the Advent and Christmas season is the attitude of PREPARATION and ANTICIPATION.  I love putting up Christmas decorations, making cookies and candy for the holidays and the feelings of good will in the air.  Another aspect of this preparation that I love is the SILENCE that can be found during the Advent season too.  It can be a challenge to find it in our busy world, but the moments are there.  Our weather especially can prepare our hearts to be silent and ponder deeper meaning: to go outside when snow has freshly fallen (and where there are no snowplows!); to take a walk among the skeletal trees, dead leaves, and sharp winds and contemplate that periods of death and barrenness can be the preparation for new life.

Most of all during Advent, I love to contemplate what it means that God CHOSE to enter this world as a baby.  This is the thing that I love most about salvation history – that is, that God always seems to choose the surprising way to manifest His love to us.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8)  It begins in the Old Testament with the way God begins to draw His people into covenant with Him – a new beginning through Abraham who is to trust radically a God whom he does not really know, building a nation through Moses, a man who stuttered and spoke to the pharaoh about the liberation of the Israelites only through his brother Aaron, and establishing a kingdom through David, a young boy who was still tending sheep when anointed as king.

This “surprising way” of how God manifests His LOVE to us reaches its zenith in the life of Jesus.  St. Francis of Assisi was so struck by it that he established the spirituality of his religious order on this notion through constant reflection on the “Crib, Cross and Holy Eucharist.”  And that notion is the surprising reality that God chooses to SAVE us, to free us from sin, to draw us into relationship by making Himself VULNERABLE, WEAK and POWERLESS.  At the crib, we see the Incarnation, the entrance of the eternal God into time with all of the frailties and insecurity of a helpless baby.  At the cross we encounter a God who chooses to save His people not through a blatant display of power but by being BROKEN so that this BROKEN HEART, the channel of His LOVE and MERCY, could be opened for all people.  And at the tabernacle, we see the presence of Jesus under the humble appearance of bread, waiting for us to encounter Him, drawing us through LOVE: “Whom the world cannot contain, love imprisons here.” (Pope Pius XII)

My hope and prayer is that each of us can take the opportunity to STOP during this Advent season, if only for a few minutes a day, to encounter God in the silence of our hearts and contemplate this mystery of the Crib, Cross and Holy Eucharist.  What was it like for God to be a baby?  Why did he make Himself helpless in this way?  Why did God choose to save us through death?  Why was it essential in the mind of God that His Son restore us to relationship with Himself through an act of extreme vulnerability?  Why does Jesus choose to dwell with us continually through His presence in the Blessed Sacrament?  What meaning is conveyed through this?  How do all of these events help me understand what the real definition of LOVE is?  By asking questions like these we enter more deeply into the ANTICIPATION of the Advent Season and will desire to PREPARE our hearts for His coming!

Meaning and Mercy

The first time I saw this picture, I found it repulsive and bleak.  The colors are dark; the figures a bit depressing.  This painting is the work of Sieger Köder, a German priest and artist and World War II survivor.  I was given a card with this painting on it, and upon receiving it shoved it in the bottom of a box.   As time went on however, I felt called to return to the picture, and found God had unlocked some of its meaning for me, and was calling me to live and minister to others through the truth that this artwork expresses.  I taught an Apologetics class to Seniors this past year and had the students compare this artwork with Edward Munch’s “The Scream.”  It was a powerful reflection on MEANING.  At the end I revealed to them the inspirational text for the picture.  It is included here:

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.  While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples.  The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.  Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.‘ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”    Matthew 9:9-13 (USCCB NAB Online Bible) See also Mark 2:14-17

What I love about this picture is the perspective of the viewer.  You, the viewer, sit in the place of Jesus at this table.  Notice his hands, open, breaking bread for the guests.  All but one of the people at the table looks to the place of Christ, in EXPECTATION.  I like to imagine that this scene is the reaction of the people after hearing the interaction of Jesus with the Pharisees.  What they seek, what they want to know, is if what they have heard is the TRUTH.  Are these just nice words that Christ speaks?  Or is this the truth about their individual persons, the truth about their profound value and meaning?

This is what the world seeks from the Christian today.  In a world spinning out of control, losing its focus and foundation, people seek MEANING.  They want to believe that their life means something, and they seek to see in the Christian evidence of the Gospel message being operative.  We sit in the place of Christ at this table because we are His hands and feet.  And I am called to make manifest to the person seeking to know their dignity and meaning the profound worth they have before God.  People expect to see that the Gospel message makes a difference in my life, your life.  Or are we frauds like the Pharisees?

And how will we convince those who seek the truth of the Gospel message?  By living the message of Matthew Chapter 9: “I desire MERCY, not sacrifice.”  They want to see a person who not only knows the words of Scripture, but has experienced the MERCY OF GOD.  We, as witnesses to Christ in the world, are to live from that Mercy, and then share it with others.

How will I know that Mercy?  By being aware of my brokenness.  This is the way I become aware of the great need for MERCY.  When I am profoundly aware of the Mercy that has been given me, I can then share that same Mercy with others.

I am reminded of the popular Pope Paul VI quote, “If you want peace, work for justice.”  I would finish that quote with the following, “And if you want justice, You practice MERCY!”  For if no one is willing to be merciful, justice will never have a chance to flourish.

Brokenness

The Sacred Heart of Jesus: “Broken by man’s cruelty, yet symbol of Love’s triumph!” (alternate prayer from the Feast of the Sacred Heart)  This is what His Heart shows: that LOVE conquers by embracing brokenness, making sin and cruelty the way to unleash His LOVE.

For me, this image is the symbol that gives me HOPE.  I, like Jesus is in this image, am BROKEN.  Yet it is in this brokenness that God desires to make His Merciful Love known.  The brokenness of my life cannot be removed or erased, only healed.  But God wills something even more powerful: to heal me, and then make this brokenness the channel through which His Love can reach others!  He wills to purify the wounds of my brokenness so that His love can be given through me to others.  What better way to thwart evil than to take the effects of sin and its resulting brokenness and make it a source of grace!

So it is in brokenness that God chooses to make His Merciful Love Visible.  It is in the brokenness of the pierced side of Christ that God chooses to unleash the power of His grace.  And when we surrender our brokenness to God and allow Him to heal it and transform it, then our lives can become a channel of that same mercy and grace.

So often we FEAR brokenness: our own and others’.  We try to protect ourselves from being “exposed,” so that people won’t discover just how awful we really are.  We avoid people who make us “uncomfortable,” with the source of this discomfort usually being something that is strange or “not normal” about them – a type of brokenness that threatens our position of safety.   When there is a fear of brokenness, one can never really draw close to another person for fear of discovering that they are not perfect.  Hence, you can never truly love.  That is the great irony of life: we often choose to live in avoidance of the broken and those who might expose the failings that we have.  But then who is the loser?  It is the sad fact that the “strong” are those who lose out because they refuse to take the risk to be vulnerable and LOVE.