Post 297
To Our Lady, who waits with us

November 23 & 24

This is the third anniversary
Of something sweet
The beginning of a new world
That turned some lives
Upside down and right side up
All at the same time.
Jesus, we trust in you.

This is the third anniversary
Of first secrets revealed
Of promises made
And companionship in the darkest hour

Two years filled to the brim
Of the unexpected, the undeserved and the extraordinary
Oh the thoughts of the dog!
The thoughts of the dog

Two years filled to the brim
Of spiritual stuff you couldn’t imagine
Of words you didn’t make up
Like the thoughts of the dog

And then a third year
Steadier, stronger
Budding and blooming
Victories, successes and garlands of flowers

A third year
That is nevertheless
Understood best
As another year of waiting

Ah yes

This is the third anniversary
Of looking at the sky and looking at the sun
And the stars and the clouds and the moon
And wondering when
It will all come true

Oh Jesus, I trust in you!

Post 296

A Chat Meeting:
Reflections on a Bunch of Stuff

Let’s pretend
Let’s pretend I’ve come over to see you, and you’ve brewed me some tea
Oh where do we begin?
So much to cover
Your life, what you’ve done, what you’ve thought
About everything
I want to know what you think about
Trump
Isn’t it incredible?
Every day is another day for the media to go wild
He says anything
Whether it’s true or not
The man gives liars a bad name
You’ll say, but don’t you support him? Didn’t you prefer him to Hillary?
There will be a slight pause, and I’ll wonder
How you would know that
You’re not a reader
Are you?
But we’ll continue, and I’ll say to you that I’m not a fan of Trump
Not that I liked Obama or Bush or Clinton either
Reagan I barely knew about
Are you a fan?
I don’t like Trump’s friendliness with Russia
Because I don’t like Russia
Because I don’t like what they have done in Ukraine
And what they are doing in Ukraine
And do you know what they’re doing in Ukraine?
The arrogance of Russia is extreme and very evil
I don’t like Trump’s readiness to say anything just to get an advantage in the moment
And the news of his infidelities was icky because it was true
Is lecherous the right word?
Yes, that would be the one
On one level you feel sorry for Melania, but on another level
You don’t
Remember the time she wore that jacket that said she didn’t care?
Her spokesman said it was just a jacket
As if people were “reading something into it”
As if people weren’t just reading the words printed onto it
You’ll say, you read the news?
There will be a slight pause, and I’ll wonder
Why you would ask that
You’re not a reader
Are you?
But we’ll continue, and I’ll explain that I was receiving the MSN news feed for a while
But yeah, it’s far better for me if I don’t see the headlines
It’s just depressing to see Trump all the time
And I can’t tell if he’s messing up as badly as the media says he is
Because I don’t follow him like they do
But when I watched the video of him inspecting the troops with the queen
I felt that those who had said he blew it
When he rounded the corner ahead of the queen
Were being a little too strict
Besides
When he actually couldn’t see her
It was very, very funny
And I don’t think he needs to give her any special respect
(But if he was late on purpose, that’s no good
If he was late by accident, that’s kind of funny)
The Americans don’t swear an oath of allegiance to what the English call royalty
Which is fine, though I think the American revolution was a terrible overreaction
It’s like Chesterton says
These revolutions keep going long after they should
The revolutionary apparatus gets set up, and the power intoxicates
Next thing you know, those who have upset the status quo
Come to love the status quo, which is to be in the process of upsetting the status quo
I can’t support the common man blocking streets using burning tires
Can’t support that
I can’t support the common man marching towards the government buildings
Holding homemade weapons and pieces of the cobblestone streets in their hands
Can’t support that
The aggression is unnecessary and immoral
The people in the government buildings are people too
They have families and they don’t want to die
This afternoon
But power intoxicates
The feeling that you are surrounded by many
That you are part of something momentous and massive
Can bring out the worst in men, don’t you think?
So what do you think about him?
Better than Hillary?
Yeah, I think so too
But it’s so good we’re not American
Aren’t you glad?
Everything there is so divided
It’s like a religion for them, isn’t it?
If you’re on one side, you’re supposed to believe everything said in favour of everyone on your side
As if you relinquish your right to think independently once you say you’re a Democrat
Once you say you’re a Republican
Seems like that, anyway
Seems like there are only two narratives, constantly in conflict over everything
But anyway
Then you’ll put on some more tea
And I’ll say
Oh, but I want to know
What do you think about Meghan Markle?
No, seriously!
No, you go first!
I really want to know!
Oh, totally!
No kidding. Those are exactly my thoughts!
Wow, we think alike
And did you watch that interview that she gave right after they were engaged?
Until I saw that interview, I didn’t have super strong feelings either way
But watching the way she navigated the questions
While looking at Harry to make sure he was gonna back her up was just kind of eww
Line after line
Spin doctor
Meghan said something like, “I didn’t know about him, and he didn’t know about me”
As if to suggest that they met just person to person — just two individuals, and
As if there was an equivalence about their backgrounds
As if anybody would expect him to know anything at all about the television show she acted in
As if she’s had decades of world fame, like Elizabeth Taylor or even Julia Roberts.
Her former best friend said that Meghan owned a book about Princess Di, and loved the commoner-to-princess element of the whole story.
Didn’t know much about Harry because she’s American, yeah right.
And then there was the part where she said something like “My ONLY question was, ‘Is he nice?’ because if he’s not nice, then what’s the point?”
Oh give me a break
Give me a break
As if she wouldn’t be intrigued and eager no matter what
He’s a prince
If the answer was, “Well, you know, he’s okay, good days, bad days, you know”
Would Meghan have said
“Hmm, I think I better just forget about him and go back to my husband”?
And then you’ll pour the tea, and say that you didn’t know that I was that much of a royal watcher
And I’ll say, that no, I wasn’t, but that I grew up knowing who the characters were
Anybody buying groceries sees the magazine covers
Let’s see
There was the mom, the queen, Elizabeth
And this guy who was her husband but who wasn’t a king
That part didn’t make sense to me, because the fairytale always has a king and a queen
Not a queen and some guy
But anyway, the queen has some kids
Most of whom really don’t matter because they’re not in line to the throne
The one who matters is named Charles
Charles doesn’t seem to get married forever, which puts everything into Jeopardy
He finally marries a blond woman and I’ll admit that I liked her poufy wedding dress
Made of ivory silk taffeta
Though it was ridiculously long, come to think of it
So this blond woman is Diana, and she tilts her head down just like this, and
Wears eyeliner right on the inside rim of her eyes
She looks demure, but she’s wily, and the palace is always trying to contain her
She sneaks off in the night to Do Good Deeds
Yikes.
Charles and Diana have two boys, and we all start seeing pictures of them
The first is named William, which seemed like quite the odd name at the time, but not as strange to the modern ear as
Henry
Which soon became Harry
For real?
It didn’t sound very fancy
Not quite what I imagined as a name you’d choose when there are so many good choices
But not long afterwards, the world finds out that
Charles liked a woman named Camilla better than his wife, and
We all hear about how much he likes this nondescript woman
Diana does an interview exposing tons, and chooses, vengefully, to have it air on Charles’ birthday
The name Camilla is forever ruined for baby girls everywhere
Then Diana, whom you feel sorry for on one level, starts dating, and
We hear the name Dodi for the first time
Dodi and Diana
Oh dear
But they get murdered in a car crash by those who opposed the romance
(Just don’t assume that the royals were behind it
There was opposition to Diana from the Dodi side too)
On hearing the news, I am stunned
Thought I’d hear about Diana for decades more
So her two sons grow up
William starts dating a girl with long brown hair
She’s Kate
Okay, that’s fine, whatever. I wish them well
But I perked up when the wedding happened
I was interested in her dress, because I love a fairytale
What did you think of her dress?
I thought it was a little unfortunate, because I didn’t like the bodice
The shaping and strong division between the lace on top and the rest of the dress
I don’t know
I didn’t think it was that great
And that was when Pippa Middleton made her appearance
So then William and Kate began having children and faded mostly out of my mind
Their kids are fine, but everything was pretty much according to script
But then Meghan arrives on the scene, and I start seeing her picture on all the magazines and tabloids
(“We just don’t read them,” she said in her interview, a little too quickly and pointedly for me to believe her)
Who is this?
Nobody knows who this woman is, hence all the Google searches
Living in Toronto because that’s where she works, but actually an American
Dating a chef even though she’s married
Which came first, the divorce or the dating?
I don’t know
Then dating a prince
Did the chef know about the prince?
Did the prince know about the chef?
Which came first, the breakup or the date with the prince?
I don’t know
What I do know is that it’s all very messy, messy, messy
I don’t like a story where the prince marries a woman who has already been married
Whose husband is still around
What kind of story is this?
Get married, get divorced, meet the Prince, and live happily ever after?
Marriage is a temporary state
Until you meet Someone Better?
And I won’t even get into the situation with her father and her half-siblings, only to say that it’s all ugly
Would I invite such relatives to the wedding?
If I were the relatives, would I want to be invited?
Meanwhile, everyone is tripping over themselves to sidle up to Meghan and whomever is in her good books
Oprah gives kumquats to Meghan’s mom
All of a sudden, Meghan’s mom is really worth Oprah the Billionaire’s time
Go figure
It’s America, where royalty doesn’t matter, right?
And what did you think about Meghan’s wedding dress?
I was astounded at how boring it was
I was actually confused
What?
That’s it?
The woman could have had any kind of dress, and that’s all she did?
The preacher made the wedding about himself, and watching the royals trying not to laugh
Was really funny
Especially when you watched it on mute
I found it telling that Meghan chose to schedule her wedding when Kate was recovering from having her third child
Kate had a few short weeks with her new baby in the spotlight, and then she had to be on public display
Women do not like that
No woman in the modern western world wants to be photographed while her face is still pudgy from the excess weight, while the abdomen is still settling down
So Kate shows up wearing an outfit that looks nearly white
At some point, Kate’s sister Pippa marries a guy with a small head atop a long neck
Couldn’t she do better, after all that attention?
(Turns out, he’s due to inherit a title when his aunt or someone dies)
Kate and Meghan then alternate with being in the spotlight
Kate runs across the field and kisses or hugs someone when her husband’s team wins at some sport — a polo match?
Soon afterwards, magazines feature Meghan kissing Harry after his team wins at some sport — a polo match?
Alrighty
Lots of affection in front of the cameras
It’s at this point that I say to myself, I really need to not know anything more about these characters
And for a while, I avert my eyes
But then Eugenie gets married, and I want to see the wedding pictures
Princess Eugenie is the daughter of somebody, and has a history of looking bad, along with her sister
However, on the day of her wedding, she looks good, and I’m happy for her
Her husband looks pretty good too. I was happy for them
What did you think of her dress?
I thought it was quite nice. It had a deep V in the front and back, which, in principle, I don’t really love, but the overall effect was flattering
Did you not see it?
Oh, and Sarah Ferguson was there
That’s the red-haired woman who married into the royal family a long time ago.
She was some kind of hurricane that blew in and out of it
She has extreme gestures and facial expressions
She raised her arm in a fist shape as she greeted onlookers
Some kind of victory gesture
As if she had accomplished something by attending her daughter’s wedding
Meanwhile, Camilla skipped the wedding because she had to attend a “harvest festival” at some elementary school that day
We’re supposed to believe that it’s because, as her spokesman said, it’s not as easy as you think to reschedule things
Oh, the lies that people tell!
Do not become a spokesman if you care about truth
The reason Camilla wasn’t there was simple: she didn’t want to be there
But tell me, I will say
What do you think about royalty, in general?
Do you think it’s a good thing?
And you’ll tell me that you really haven’t thought about it much
So then I’ll ask you to think about it right now
And I’ll have some tea, which has finally cooled off enough to be drinkable
You say that you really don’t know
I’m not sure if you really don’t have an opinion or
If it’s because you think that I’ll have one
And you want me to go first while you decide
So I tell you what I think
It’s not so good
It leads to certain temptations that would not exist otherwise
People are tempted to marry people who have little else going for them
People are tempted to change their religion for reasons unrelated to religion, and, conversely
People refrain from changing their religion for reasons unrelated to religion
People are tempted to do things to keep themselves in the spotlight
People are tempted to do things that keep others out of the spotlight
But more importantly, this business of having titles warps family life
And family life is a very precious thing that should be spared from such pressures
You see, people keep track of their position in line for the throne
And each new baby who is born is resented
If that baby’s birth causes them to fall further down the line
Baby news is actually quite devastating in royal circles
Unless that baby is yours
I read that Meghan and Harry announced Meghan’s pregnancy
Right at the wedding reception of Princess Eugenie and husband
That’s not right
That’s stealing the spotlight in an extreme way
Don’t tell me that it couldn’t have been done at another time
So that’s what I think
The emphasis on closeness to the throne throws everything off kilter
Some people become ‘worth’ more
One person must bow or curtsey to another
One person must walk behind or stand behind another
One person must not begin eating before another
The tiniest preferences and whims of those who are ‘higher’ affect far too many
And instead of these things being set aside in the hidden world of family
They are brought into sharp relief there
Everyone needs to bow to grandma, because, well, she’s the queen
Curtsey, underling!
We laugh
Oh well
Nobody asked me how to set things up
Nobody asked me if I wanted to have a queen
I was born into a country that had a queen, and at one point
I even took an oath to serve her and her heirs
I don’t know how consensual that oath was, come to think of it
But anyway, at least the queen is over there and not here
She’s on my money but she’s not in my country, thank God
It’s good to be Canadian
Oh, but that reminds me!
What do you think about the legalization of cannabis?
Ha ha, I thought you’d say something like that
Isn’t it amazing how the language surrounding the use of pot has changed, almost overnight?
Now government and educational institutions speak about it so cheerfully and nonchalantly
As if they were never opposed to drug use in the first place
As if they wouldn’t be so
Backwards as to see it as a bad thing
I won’t change my views about it
Marijuana is not a plus
Drugs are not good, and their use should be discouraged by the government, somehow
But nobody asked me
The new Correct Attitude shows how people take their cues about what’s right and what’s wrong from the law
But something being illegal isn’t the same thing as something being immoral
Some things are illegal which are not, in fact, immoral, and some things are immoral but legal
The worse the government, the more mixed up things get
So now Canadians can buy marijuana openly, but raw milk only secretly
The legacy of Justin Trudeau is shameful
Hey, did you see all those photos of him and his family playing ‘dress up’ in India?
What’s the word for that?
Immature?
Narcissistic?
Laughable?
All of the above?
He and his family wore elaborate traditional Indian clothing repeatedly,
And posed with their hands like this
It was exciting for him, but his popularity back home plummeted as photo after photo started appearing on our computer screens
THAT is my Prime Minister?
What on earth does he think he’s doing?
He’s not as stupid as he seems, which makes the whole thing more problematic
Talking about weed makes me think about addictions in general
The thing about addiction is that people still have their free will
As long as they’re able to think, they still have the ability to escape
The difference is that by choosing to begin an addicting behaviour, a person gives the enemy a huge advantage, increasing, manyfold, the power of the temptation
And the enemy is Satan, obviously
You know your catechism, right?
You’ve got your phone, right?
Search “Catholic Catechism” and “drugs”
There it is
Paragraph 2291:
The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to moral law.
So there’s that
Man. I love the wisdom of the Catholic Church
I love the Catholic Church
And yes, I heard
Of course I’m unhappy to hear of those who abuse their position within the Church for their own financial gain, or for their own perverted pleasures
There are many, many men who became priests for the wrong reasons
They wanted to avoid questions about their lives, about their
Lifestyles
And so they joined the priesthood to avoid scrutiny
Once inside, they began doing their damage
Harming those who were entrusted to them
Shame on these men and
Shame on those who covered the actions of these men
The notion that one cannot criticize a priest has led to immense harm
I will criticize a priest, if he has done wrong
You agree
There will be a slight pause, and I’ll wonder whether you’re agreeing with my last sentence or the one before, and I’ll wonder if you’ve read those few posts
But we’ll move on
And I’ll say
Speaking of all things Catholic
Have you heard about that Catholic parish in Edmonton with 24 people on the payroll?
It rakes in a lot of money, but can’t balance its budget
Employing 24 people to do the work that other parishes do with 4 people is expensive maybe?
Go figure
That parish even hires people to teach RCIA, something which, in other parishes, is done by volunteers
Teaching RCIA is not difficult
It’s fun, in fact, if you do it for the right reasons
But it’s work when you’re paid to do it
They pay people to do everything, but the bathrooms aren’t even predictably clean
What’s the word for that?
Irresponsible?
Scandalous?
Who was on duty while that parish hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired and hired?
David Matwie?
Father Andrew Bogdanovich?
And who was on parish council approving this excess
This squandering of donations collected?
I wouldn’t donate to a parish that seems to exist for the sake of employing people
Why encourage mismanagement?
What a disgrace
We’ll sit back for a moment, just shaking our heads
Then I’ll ask you about that guy who drove that armoured personnel carrier through Richmond Virginia
He said that he was just following military orders when he took it through the streets of the city “to test police response”
Did you see it?
The video of it went everywhere because it was so bizarre
He wasn’t going fast, which made the entire thing very, very funny, because there was a whole fleet of police cars following him, and they just looked, well, ridiculous and inept
The story was widely popular, and almost everyone was cheering for the ‘tank’ driver
Once he parked, the befuddled police decided that this fellow needed to appear in court on July 11, 2018, and I was wanting to see how it all turned out
I even searched online, but the story appears to have been frozen, without anything further, and everyone who laughed and watched incredulously are acting like they didn’t, because the internet has now agreed that he’s not cool
But I’ll admit that I laughed
I laughed a lot
Joshua Phillip Yabut, I wish you well, wherever you are, whatever you’re driving
So we’ll drink our tea
Then I’ll ask you what music you’re listening to these days
You didn’t know I cared about music
But I do
As a matter of fact, I’m the first one to admit that it’s powerful stuff
To be handled with care
And maybe taken in small doses
Music brings you somewhere else
With someone else
Makes you want what you shouldn’t want
Makes you sad
Makes you lonely
Makes you happy
Makes you confident
Makes you remember
Makes you forget
Don’t say I don’t get it
I get it
I get it
Sheena said to me “You’re not the dancing type”
As if anybody isn’t the dancing type
If you’re human
You’re the dancing type
I still like “I Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd)
And I still like “Love Me Like You Do” (Ellie Goulding)
And Shawn Hook’s “Sound of Your Heart”
You clarify
You’re listening to the radio?
Since?
Last year.
And?
And that’s all.
So you think these songs are inspired?
Inspired?
There will be a slight pause as I consider the question —
The kind of question a reader might ask
Hell, no! I’ll say.
(Or maybe I won’t
You might get too freaked out to hear me say “hell,” like that
Some people are sensitive,
And some people like to pretend they’re sensitive)
These messages, these lyrics, no
I’m not saying they’re inspired
I’m saying I like them
And I like Taylor Swift’s song “Delicate,” the first song by her that I’ve liked
You won’t be sure what to say
So I suppose the topic would die and we’d find another
Would we talk about travelling?
Would we talk about cooking?
Would we talk about food?
Would we talk about people we know?
Would we talk about family?
Would we talk about aging?
Would we talk about God?
I don’t know
The only thing I know is that
We won’t talk about the fact that
You’re a Reader

Post 295

Oh Pinocchio! Reflections on Lying

I once looked into the story of Pinocchio. I was familiar with it only through the Disney movie version, so I was interested in the book when it crossed my path. I didn’t get very far, because it struck me as a dreary and pointless collection of adventures. Interminable would be the right word. But I bring it up because of the nose. The key thing to know about Pinocchio is the thing about the nose. It grows. The nose grows whenever Pinocchio lies. I’ll return to this.

Do you stay awake at night remembering the embarrassing things you have said and done? I have finally stopped wincing at the recollection of a lie I told. I once planned to make a cherry cheesecake for a dinner party, but I found that shopping for the ingredients was expensive. The recipe called for a lot of Philadelphia cream cheese, for instance. I stood there looking at the brands and the prices, and after a long pause, I went for the cheaper brand. I made the cake and the people at the dinner party really liked it. Another guest, Ruth, turned to me asked me, point blank, whether I had used Philadelphia cream cheese. I was kind of stunned. I was quite new at cooking and baking, and I didn’t know whether it was very bad for me to not have used Philadelphia cream cheese. I said yes.

Some would say that it was a ‘little white lie,’ but I don’t want such a defence. The best defence I could give myself would have to do with the element of being surprised by the question, and being put on the spot in front of others. But even that is not a full excuse. The truth is that there isn’t a full excuse, by which I mean that there isn’t an excuse that absolves me completely of my responsibility. My failing reveals that, in the moment, I was more concerned about my reputation than the truth. I was worried that people would think that I was a stupid cook, or a cheap cook, or both.

Nowadays, I don’t think I’d bring a homemade cheesecake to a dinner party. What if the host has prepared a chocolate cake? You don’t want the desserts to compete. Mind you, I suppose it’s possible that I had volunteered to supply the dessert. I can’t remember much about the event, other than this conversation that everyone else has forgotten. Everyone is so busy remembering other conversations that they’ve had.

As for Ruth herself, she may think, to this day, that I used Philadelphia cream cheese. Or maybe she knew I was lying. So maybe I’ll just come out and say: Ruth, I’m sorry I lied to you about the brand of cream cheese.

Ruth?

Are you there?

(Bloggers must always assume, almost simultaneously, that nobody is reading, and that everyone is.)

Oddly, I tell this story before telling you that I have strict standards when it comes to telling the truth. And, until quite recently, I felt that I was in very good company in this regard. Isn’t everyone else doing their best to always be honest? Isn’t honesty the norm?

Our society does still have a Judeo-Christian outlook about the essential things. Dishonesty is still considered bad. When people observe that President Trump is a liar, they mean it as a criticism, not just as a neutral statement of fact.

So people don’t want to admit that they have lied. The exception to this is that they will admit it when they expect that their listener will applaud their deceit. “I told the officer blah blah blah, and he totally believed me!” Cue chuckling.

And thus you wouldn’t know, from looking around, or from talking to people, that they lie, frequently, repeatedly, almost habitually. They use it as a means of getting through life in the smoothest way possible.

But I am so tired of it! I am tired of all of the versions of this. I’m tired of the big-boastful-in-your-face lies, and I’m tired of the smiley, fake-ity, I’m-so-nice lying! I am exasperated by the people who pretend that they are entirely on your side, but unable to lift a finger to assist you when you need it. Their hands are just, well, tied. They just, well, can’t. “Sorry! I’m so sorry! I wish you the best! I can’t help you this time or the next, but I’m really so nice, and I’m really so caring!”

The truth is that when you care, you will actively seek for a solution. You may be limited in what you can do, but you will exert yourself. You won’t be sighing and smiling and blaming this circumstance and that policy; you’ll just make an effort. People are creative when they are motivated. When someone cares, then they will apply their intelligence to figuring out how they can help.

The most exasperating of all, of course, are those who cast themselves as holy, and yet who won’t do anything to help those who need it. Indeed, they are the most practiced of all in appearing concerned and helpful while being entirely dismissive. The only question for them is how much effort they need to expend in appearing to be ‘good,’ before they can get back to their lair and their favorite apps. And sometimes it’s worse than this. I remember being told by someone, “I’ll pray for you,” and when I questioned that comment, which was quite out-of-keeping with the context, he apologized, because he knew that he was using this line in the worst possible way (almost as a curse).Those who are the most publicly holy are often the quickest to put on a smile, but behind it, there is nothing. There is no empathy, and there is no kindness.

This phenomenon is as old as the hills. When Jesus told his Good Samaritan parable, you notice that the ‘holy’ characters act badly when nobody else is watching: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31-32). (A Levite is a priest’s assistant.) And Jesus rebuked the pharisees, who burdened others while doing nothing to ease these burdens. They burdened others by making new rules, and by appearing, themselves, to set an example of holiness. Their techniques worked, in that others felt badly for not being able to attain such high standards. The average person couldn’t be bothered with setting aside one-tenth of the kitchen herbs for the Lord, and consequently felt like a sinner compared with the Pharisees, who always acted righteously, or so it appeared.

Nowadays when we say the word “Pharisee,” we know that we are talking about the ‘bad guys,’ but it wasn’t like that then. Back then, they were seen as the holy ones, the ones who had been abundantly blessed by God as recognition for their upstanding lives and pure hearts. For Jesus to criticize them was absolutely astonishing.

Who are the new Pharisees?

They are everywhere. Some are in the pro-life movement. Some are doctors and teachers. Some work at your local church. Some preach. In every corner of the world, finding someone who is widely perceived as ‘good’ and ‘holy,’ is all too often a case of finding someone who looks great from the outside, but is entirely rotten underneath.

Do I exaggerate? Or am I simply saying that the phenomenon, existing in Jesus’ time, condemned by Jesus, continues today?

And right now, I am saying that you can see it in the lying. The lying face smiles, and tells you that she really, really, cares about you, but can’t do a thing to help. The lying face nods sympathetically, but forgets about you the moment you turn your back, or worse: actively hopes for your undoing.

The phenomenon was captured perfectly by the VeggieTales song, “Busy.” Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/UsqruZS4nyM

The lyrics are:

Archibald (Mayor): I’m busy, busy, dreadfully busy
You’ve no idea what I have to do.
Busy, busy, shockingly busy
Much, much too busy for you.

Larry: Oh, I see.

Archibald and Doctor: We’re busy, busy, dreadfully busy
You’ve no idea what we have to do.
Busy, busy, shockingly busy
Much, much too busy for you.

‘Cause we’re busy, busy, frightfully busy
More than a bumblebee, more than an ant.
Busy, busy, horribly busy
We’d love to help, but we can’t!

One of the interesting indicators of lying has to do with facial expressions. I once came across the phrase ‘micro-expressions,’ or something to that effect. Ah yes, an internet search just now shows me that I have remembered the right phrase.

Here’s what Wikipedia says,

“A microexpression is the innate result of a voluntary and involuntary emotional response that conflicts with one another. This occurs when the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) responds appropriately to the stimuli that the individual experiences and the individual wishes to conceal this specific emotion. This results in the individual very briefly displaying their true emotions followed by a false emotional reaction.”

Do you understand? Have you seen it?

Sadly, I have seen it many, many times. I notice it quite often when someone in a service-industry related job, usually in a receptionist-type of capacity, is quite happy to deliver bad news. There’s that flash of a smile that’s gone very quickly, and replaced by a sober expression telling you that the booking you need is unavailable, or that you’ll have to pay an extra service fee.

One of the most memorable examples for me of observing a micro-expression was in a conversation where a man was telling his friends, a husband and wife, that he had landed a new job, and was now working for the same big employer that they were working for. There was a look of horror on the face of both husband and wife, replaced almost instantaneously with smiles and words of congratulations. It was quite remarkable, and really quite creepy as I reflect back on it.

I speak about these micro-expressions because they are commonplace, and reveal surprising things. They show that people habitually disguise their very negative real feelings in order to project a much more positive image.

Now you’re asking whether there’s any harm in that. You’re saying that the world would be far worse if people didn’t fake it.

I understand your point, and I agree that it would be really grim if the airline guy started laughing upon saying your plane is delayed until tomorrow.

But the line must be drawn at LYING. It’s just not right for people who don’t care to say that they do. It’s just not right for people to say that they wish it were otherwise, when they don’t.

Is this a Canadian problem? To some extent, I think it is. I think that Canadians are particularly concerned about appearing ‘nice’ from the very first moment of meeting (meaning that, arguably, things can really only go downhill from there), and are particularly prone to stepping in with a lie. I also believe this is a Christian problem. Christians want to appear to be ‘nice,’ and will speak words of support and solidarity when all they really, really want is for you to fail.

You say that I rant.

Let’s say that I don’t even go for the obvious first line of defence, and ask you to define a rant. Let’s say I accept that, and let’s say that I want to talk about that.

First, does the notion of ‘ranting,’ (unending, and almost irrational or hysterical complaining) as a way of describing human expression, not in itself show that we, as a society, are highly uncomfortable with a genuine exploration of topics? Does it not show that we, as a society, would really just rather if we all stopped saying anything in order to resume the smiling façade?

And second, may I ask: Are some things worth ranting about? Is there something wrong with expressing strong dissatisfaction when something is, in fact, amiss?

If addressing a problem in a long and detailed fashion is a rant, then sign me up for ranting, provided that I have a free moment or two.

Truth needs to be given more respect. We must challenge the notion that it’s fine (or even noble) to lie in order to spare someone’s feelings. It’s not. It is very, very, wrong.

A trusting person can go for years, or decades, believing that he or she is surrounded by the Very Best Kind of People, because none of these people will ever reveal otherwise — not intentionally, that is. The false front misleads, as it is intended to. The pretense of kindness or holiness creates an artificial world, and this can be sustained for a very long time, provided that those who are deceived do not question too rigorously, and provided that those who are deceived always give ‘the benefit of the doubt,’ to the liars.

You see, the reason that Jesus needed to expose the evil of the Pharisees was because the Pharisees were successful in their deceit. They really did have the people convinced that they were earnest, humble, devout and full of love for the Lord. Anybody who wondered about the inconsistencies in the behaviour of the Pharisees would not speak up. And, as a matter of fact, a person critical of such holy people would even doubt himself; he would say to himself that the apparent flaws of these good men must be due to his own sinfulness.

So when Jesus ‘went public,’ he condemned these ‘holy’ men openly. He needed to release the common people from their awe and admiration of these deceivers. He loved the common people, and so he gave them the truth.

The deceit never goes on forever. Sooner or later, God allows the mask to fall, and you see that the deacon is a thief and a liar. You see that the priest was an abuser and a liar. You see that the mother-figure was a fraud and a liar.

Notice that in each case of problematic behaviour, you will always be dealing with someone who is a liar. Lying is what creates the context and opportunity for further evil.

Satan is the father of lies. He has no power other than to tell lies.

To the extent that you tell lies, you are imitating his example. You are being his follower. I don’t care how you dress it up or ‘reframe’ it in your head. The fact is, you’re doing it. You are telling people that you really hope for this, but you in fact are hoping for the opposite. You say that you want this, but you want something different. You tell people that you don’t care about that, but you do.

In addition to the I’m-so-nice-but-unable type of lie, people often tell stories where they are the innocent victim.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is such a thing as an innocent victim. The Old Testament account of Job is not a fiction.

But I want you to think, for instance, about all of those stories you’ve heard from the wife about the husband. In all of those stories, the wife is the innocent and selfless victim of an uncaring brute of a man. The truth is, most couples are equal. When you hear one spouse complain about the other, you would be quite right in assuming both are to blame, usually equally, over the course of a week. When you hear the woman complain about her husband, I warrant that in 99 cases out of 100, she is omitting the details about her own contribution to the problem.

I spoke to a lawyer who worked for the federal government. Her responsibility was to write cheques to victims of residential schools. In other words, she was charged with distributing the settlement funds. She listened to the stories of victims, and the worse the account of the suffering or abuse was, the bigger the cheque she would write. She shuddered at the stories that she heard.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

In this context, some of the stories would be motivated by money. The teller of the story would say to himself or to herself that the alleged perpetrator, being dead, wouldn’t care what is said now.

As I said, don’t get me wrong. There is such a thing as an innocent victim. The Genesis 37 story of Joseph and his scheming, dastardly brothers is not a fiction. In the case of children institutionalized or otherwise put into the care of uncaring or predatory adults, this is appallingly frequent.

But sometimes, people make up stories. They think that it doesn’t matter, that they aren’t hurting anyone. However, every offence against truth is an offence against God. Every lie is a very serious problem.

And speaking of lawyers, I recently attended a function where a lawyer told me about his past addiction to crack cocaine. I can’t remember how he worded it, but he referred to his addiction in such a way that made it sound as if he really had no choice in the matter. I challenged him on this. Was the choice of beginning the crack cocaine not his? He really didn’t like this, and his hackles went up. He said that I was berating him, and extracted a promise from me that I wouldn’t berate him any further if he told his story of how he got addicted in the first place. I said okay, though I think, on reflection, that I conceded too much with my promise. I should have used the obvious first line of defence, and asked him to define ‘to berate.’

So this is his story. He is in court with a female client charged with a crime. When the court session ends, she asks him to drive her home. He says no initially, but she says that her back and such-and-such make it difficult for her to get home. He agrees and drives. While he is driving, she begins using crack cocaine. The car fills with smoke. He angrily asks her to stop, but she doesn’t. He is instantly addicted. He reaches what she gives as the destination, about which he said to me, “it was probably a crack house.” From then on, he is addicted, but after great efforts through various agencies, he frees himself from his addiction.

I asked him how he got his own crack cocaine. He had a three-part answer.

(Beware of multi-part answers. “I couldn’t come to watch your performance because just when I was almost out the door, I was made to do more cleaning for the worthy charity, and my car was in the shop for repairs.  Plus I was still recovering from a bad case of the stomach flu, and I didn’t want to make anyone else sick.”)

The first was that “there are crack houses everywhere.” The second was that “she took me to a crack house” (so he knew where it was thereafter), and the third was that, “when you’re addicted, you’re addicted — you’ll find it.”

So do you believe his story? By being a nice guy, and agreeing to help a woman in need, he winds up, through no fault of his own, with a crack cocaine addiction.

The problem with being a criminal lawyer is that a lawyer may be tempted to steer the client in the direction of the ‘best’ story. The lawyer knows which facts are most damning, and hopes that those facts don’t surface at trial. The lawyer also sees that if certain other facts were to be introduced, then the case would go better for the client. It becomes a dangerous game. Every lawyer likes to win a case, and a record of winning cases improves your reputation and your business.

But any lawyer who encourages his client to lie is violating his professional duties and is being immoral. Indeed, he may bear more guilt for misleading the listeners than the criminal, because the lawyer chooses the path of deceit in a more calculated way, and because he takes the position of adviser. Those lawyers who find themselves seeking the gray area, where truth is obscured, should find a new line of work, asap.

By contrast, a good criminal defence lawyer does not reinvent the past. There are ways to pursue a rigorous examination of the prosecution’s version and evidence without introducing what is false. Indeed, the dedication to the truth must remain of paramount importance for defence lawyers, who are tempted to win cases, and to help their clients. There is a limit to how much one can help. There’s a limit.

In the same way, there is a limit to how much we can ‘be nice.’ There is a limit, and that limit is truth. There’s a line. On this side, there’s what’s true, and on that side, there’s what’s false.

In North America, many people live by the rule (at least while outside the home) that “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” It’s a problematic concept, and not necessarily Christian, for that matter. Review the New Testament if you don’t believe me. How many times would Jesus’ words be condemned by the modern world as being less than ‘nice’?

It should be: “If you can’t say something true, then don’t say anything at all.”

Being ‘nice’ by lying, by pretending to be who you are not, by pretending to feel what you do not, is wrong. When repeated over time, such lies can add up to paint such an enormously false picture of a person, institution or situation.

Yet these false pictures will one day be exposed. So be honest. Don’t say what you think sounds good; don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Eventually, the truth will come out (because God is merciful and will not allow the charade to continue) and the relationship will be in shambles.

Those who work in service industries, who in fact do not care at all for the people they serve, should also reconsider their line of work. Don’t be a receptionist if you don’t like people. Don’t work for an airline if you envy the people who travel. Look for a new job asap. Some types of work involve many hours of interaction with inanimate objects. Do that instead.

So now I return to Pinocchio. You’ve heard, I think, that the human nose continues to grow even after one reaches adulthood? In fact, they say that the nose grows one’s whole life. Others disagree, and say that it isn’t the case that the cartilage continues to grow; it is merely an issue of gravity making it appear larger. Does it matter whether or not there is growth if the consensus is that it appears larger as we age? The larger appearance, whether real or just perceived, contributes to the increasing ugliness of aging men and women. We all begin with a cute little nose, but years later, it looks really quite different.

As I learn more and more about the human heart and the woeful choices being made generation after generation, I can’t help but wonder about this too.

What if people’s noses do grow (or appear larger) in direct proportion to how much they lie? A lie at a time, and a fraction of a millimeter added on, day after day, week after week, month after month. Uglier and uglier. Maybe it is this way. Maybe it is some sort of visual indicator of lies told. Stranger things than this are true.

But of course, I don’t know. I don’t know if the nose knows. I don’t know if the Pinocchio story has this dimension of truth. What I do know, however, is that God knows. God knows that you often leave the truth aside, and that you don’t need to.

So for the sake of your soul, and maybe your nose, if you can’t say something true, then don’t say anything at all.

Post 294

Sent

The theme for this Sunday’s Mass involves the idea of being sent to deliver a message that God wants delivered. Of course, God could deliver the message himself, but 1) God likes to share, by which I mean that God involves us in his plans. An obvious example of this is that God could have made new humans without the cooperation of humans, but his design involves our participation. 2) God’s request to send a message forms a test for the one who is sent: Will you be faithful to God’s wishes for you to say what he wants said? and 3) Sending a regular person as his messenger forms a test for the ones who hear the message: Will the listener(s) discount or even despise the messenger that God has chosen?

In the first reading (Amos 7: 12-15), we don’t hear the long, long warning that Amos delivers to Jeroboam II and the Israelites. What we do hear is Amazi’ah telling Amos to stop prophesizing in that location. Their names start with the same letters, but Amos is the good guy and Amazi’ah is not. Mind you, Amazi’ah clearly views himself as the Protector of Everything Good. He fulfills the role, played by many throughout history, of defending the status of a corrupt leader, of protecting the status quo, of ‘standing with,’ as we now say, those who need to repent and take the truth to heart. He tells Amos that he is not being appropriately respectful towards the location, which is the home of King Jeroboam II, the king of Israel. Amazi’ah informs Amos that this “is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amazi’ah is ‘educating’ Amos, telling him that it is not a good idea for him to prophesy here. Amazi’ah doesn’t tell him that he cannot prophesy, but he says that he can’t do it there. He tells Amos to move along, move along. He says, “Go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there.” In other words, get lost.

In response, Amos does some educating of his own, informing Amazi’ah (and us) that he isn’t a prophet. He isn’t even the son of a prophet, he says. In other words, it wasn’t his idea to stand there and say things like “Your wife shall be a harlot in the city and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword.” (Those lines are actually just after the reading for tomorrow, so I feel slightly guilty for colouring outside the lines, but there you have it.)

I find Amos’ reply in defence to be quite endearing and even poetic. He says, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” A sycamore tree has big low branches, and if you tend it (“dress it”) properly, the tree will do a good job of producing something like figs. When Amos talks about his work, he talks about it in present tense. We call him a prophet, and Amazi’ah calls him a prophet, but Amos doesn’t see himself as a prophet. He says “I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.” He doesn’t say that he was a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees. He says “I am a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos doesn’t know what the future holds, so I suppose he is expecting to return to that work.

I wonder what kind of flocks he had. Sheep? Goats? I find it amusing that when I type the word “goat,” my computer offers me a picture of one. Here he is: 🐐. And here’s a sheep 🐑. Baa.

Distracted? Me?

So anyway, in his humility and simplicity, Amos describes what happened: “And the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me,`Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”

The words describing God’s actions are quite simple, yet they are strong. God is described as ‘taking’ someone from one place and giving them an entirely new direction: “Go” and an entirely new responsibility: “Prophesy.” The imperative form of the verb is being used here. It’s not “Could you please go?” and it’s not “I would really appreciate it if you would go.”

God says “Go.”

In the Gospel reading, Jesus repeats this pattern. He calls those whom he has chosen (“and he called to him the twelve,”) and then he sends them (“and began to send them out two by two.”) He gives specific instructions. Wear sandals and bring a staff (a practical thing, but also shepherd imagery for the future), but don’t bring money, a bag, food or an extra tunic.

Imagine if he were speaking to the modern audience. North Americans can’t go across town without bringing a water bottle. (Drinking water to stay Hydrated = virtue itself.) Jesus would say, “Don’t bring a backpack or a suitcase, wheeled or not. Don’t bring a hat or pants that can convert into shorts. Don’t bring a water bottle, energy bars or a propane stove. Don’t bring a tent. Don’t bring your phone, your credit cards and don’t pack any cash . . . ” Honestly, I think some people would refuse to go, just on the grounds that they couldn’t bring their coffee. (Pun not intended, initially.)

He also gave instructions about what to do if people would “not receive you” and “refuse to hear you.” That was, of course, what happened to Amos. He wasn’t welcome in Bethel, where he went to warn the Israelites and their king. Jesus directs, “Shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.” It is interesting to see that there is a response that is not only permitted, but commanded if the one who is sent is rejected. The response is physical, but it signifies something big: God’s displeasure with those who were supposed to receive his messenger and his message.

What was the message? The message was that it was time for people to repent. (“So they went out and preached that men should repent.”) To repent means to evaluate what you have been doing, and to understand that your excuses for wrongdoing are unacceptable. It includes making amends to God, and, in some cases, making amends to people against whom you’ve sinned.

Looking at the Psalm (a section from Psalm 85 will be read this Sunday), there is the idea of listening to God, and God wanting to communicate with us: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts” (85:8). Interestingly, the description of the audience has three parts. Are those three different groups, or are they different ways of saying the same thing? It refers to a) his people, b) his saints, c) those who turn to him in their hearts.

The answer is that God will speak to whomever will listen (“Let those who have ears, hear!”) wherever they are in the world and wherever they are in their life journey. This includes, most importantly, those who are not typically or traditionally viewed as being part of “his people” or “his saints.” When the truth is revealed, won’t everyone be so surprised to discover who has been, in fact, open to God’s message and who has not? Who would have expected that the herdsman over there was paying such close attention to God? In the same way, it will be quite surprising to discover who cares about God and who doesn’t. Picture the seller of braided string bracelets who sits at the street corner, hoping to interest some tourists. Maybe she is the one who is actually attentive to God’s call. Picture the young university student working late into the night. What do you know about her response to God’s call? Then there’s the bus driver who spends his days navigating the bumpy roads in the interior of his country. What does a prophet look like to you? Someone with white hair and flowing robes? Someone standing on the street corner with pamphlets? Ultimately, those who “turn to him in their hearts” (i.e., those who genuinely love and care about God on the inside, as opposed to those who act as though they do, for the sake of gaining admiration or other benefits), are “his people.” They are “his saints.”

And then we have St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about St. Paul lately, and it was all because I was wrestling with the readings for this Sunday. My issue is that St. Paul’s writing is always really loaded. It’s chock-full of words and phrases. I came to realize, in the end, that you don’t have to be concerned if you can’t digest all of it. In almost all cases, even the tiniest portion of a letter from St. Paul is crammed with so many intricate sentences with clauses upon clauses that you would have to read each sentence three, five or ten times to get your mind around even the grammatical structure of each sentence (Where’s the main idea here?). And hearing it read at Mass means that it goes by very quickly. You’re fortunate if you can grasp a couple of concepts as the words zoom past you. There’s a reason that the Church serves only thin wedges of his letters at one sitting.

St. Paul’s letters are, of course, valuable. “They’re letters from a Christian to other Christians, and we’re Christians,” as WiseOne put it. They show the issues that were confronting Christians at the time, and they contain explanations about what the Christian life is supposed to be. Having said all that, St. Paul’s intention was quite focused: he was writing to certain communities, keeping the connection and wanting them to persevere in the faith. His letters are different from the Gospels, for instance, which were intended as a more-or-less public record of the life of Christ.

I spent a long time trying to understand why his writing is the way it is. The style of the letters make the letters quite ‘heavy’ and almost rigid. For this reason, when St. Paul says, “Rejoice,” you can barely appreciate it, because he says it in such a solemn, sophisticated and, well, often long-winded way. It’s not just that the letters are complicated. Complicated things can be very exciting in the way that they reveal the truth. I like the mystical style of St. Pope John Paul II, and I like the philosophical style of Pope Benedict, and I like what I’ve read of Pope Francis’ writing. Their writing styles are rich and full, and although they are often complicated, they’re not circuitous or boring. St. Paul’s writing, on the other hand, doesn’t yield the same proportion of “aha!” moments and “wow, that’s really well put!” moments in relation to the amount of effort one must exert to comprehend it.

That’s my take, anyway.

Let’s go talk to St. Paul.

Blogger: Good afternoon, St. Paul.
St. Paul: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! — You can just call me Paul.
Blogger: Call you Paul?
St. Paul: Sure, yes; we almost always drop the “saint” when we talk to each other in heaven; we’re all saints, so we —
Blogger: It’s understood?
St. Paul: Exactly!
Blogger: Makes sense! Makes sense. Having said that, since I’m, well, still on earth, would it be alright with you if I keep the “Saint” part?
St. Paul: Oh, sure, sure.
Blogger: Just habit, I suppose.
St. Paul: I understand. And, don’t get me wrong: It’s a wonderful title, “Saint.”
Blogger: Well yes, of course. It’s a great title. Better than Mr.
St. Paul: Or Dr.
Blogger: Or Ms.
St. Paul: Or Sir
Blogger: Or Your Highness
St. Paul: Or Your Grace
Blogger: Ooh, yes, I suppose so. Food for thought, there. But anyway, let’s get started. I’d like to review this portion of the reading for tomorrow’s Mass. We’re starting in at line 3 of your letter to the Ephesians.
St. Paul: Not with the salutation? Did they lose the salutation?
Blogger: It’s here, but I guess the salutation isn’t part of the Mass readings this time.
St. Paul: I was just joking.
Blogger: Oh.
St. Paul: I knew they didn’t lose it.
Blogger: Right. I get it! Now let’s jump into it. Looking at the first line, why don’t you do the honours and read it?
St. Paul: Of course; my pleasure. I wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Blogger: And then you added–
St. Paul: Yes, I wrote: “He has blessed us in Christ.”
Blogger: That’s nice.
St. Paul: Yes, yes. I wanted to remind the Ephesians that our blessings flow from and through Christ.
Blogger: And then you mentioned the ways that God has blessed us.
St. Paul: Yes. God blessed us in Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
Blogger: What did you mean by, “in the heavenly places”?
St. Paul: This is a reference to the many types of spiritual blessings that God wishes to bestow upon us. Also, I liked to remind everyone about heaven. People liked to hear about heaven.
Blogger: And then you talked about the idea of being chosen.
St. Paul: Yes, yes, that was the heart of this part, and that’s probably why the Church chose this part of my letter for tomorrow. I wrote, “He blessed us even as he chose us, in him.”
Blogger: The “in him” part is referring to Christ?
St. Paul: Yes, of course.
Blogger: So you’ve mentioned Christ three times now.
St. Paul: Can’t go wrong there!
Blogger: It’s clear whose side you’re on, for sure. Nowadays we typically don’t mention Christ’s name as often as you do in your letters. I mean, there are some people who try to emulate your style, but they’re often going for a ‘look.’ A look of holiness, you know.
St. Paul: Ha ha, yes! I understand. I understand.
Blogger: And then you’ve got this part about “the foundation of the world.”
St. Paul: Ah yes, that’s when God chose us. God chose us “before the foundation of the world.”
Blogger: Sort of a sweeping phrase?
St. Paul: ‘Sweeping’ phrase?
Blogger: The phrase sounds grandiose.
St. Paul: Ah. (Smiles.) Thank you.
Blogger: You seem to like throwing those in.
St. Paul: ‘Throwing’ them in?
Blogger: As in, you like to add phrases into your writing that remind your audience of the significance of the topic, and of the Christian way of life.
St. Paul: Ah, yes, well, of course! Of course! It’s necessary. The Ephesians, well, you know, they were like everyone else. It’s necessary to remind, to teach always. When you are not there in person, especially it is essential to teach constantly. Every word is an opportunity. Every phrase is a chance, not to be squandered.
Blogger: And then you wrote that God chose us “to be holy and blameless before him.” And here, you’re not saying that you and the Christians, new and old, are holy and blameless, are you?
St. Paul: Well, we try to be.
Blogger: But you’re not bragging, are you?
St. Paul: What do you mean, ‘bragging’?
Blogger: Are you being boastful? The modern ear, you know, is on guard against boasting, especially from Christians.
St. Paul: I boast only in my infirmities.
Blogger: Ha ha. Good one!
St. Paul: (Smiles)
Blogger: Just to interrupt myself again. Do you joke around more now that you’re in heaven? I mean, in comparison to how you were while on earth?
St. Paul: Heaven is very fun. A “blast,” as people say. Lots of joking around; lots of laughing.
Blogger: Were you a serious fellow, while on earth?
St. Paul: I was.
Blogger: Not so much joking?
St. Paul: Not so much, but I was joyful on the inside.
Blogger: Seriously?
St. Paul: Of course! (Smiling)
Blogger: You wrote what God chose us to be.
St. Paul: Yes, I wrote a good section here. I wrote: “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
Blogger: That’s quite a mouthful.
St. Paul: Mouthful?
Blogger: It’s a lot — you know, a lot of concepts in there.
St. Paul: It is, but I really wanted it to be complete. A person has to exert an effort, you know. These letters — these letters had to last a long time. I couldn’t write every day. I needed to put in as much as I could. To teach constantly, that was my way.
Blogger: Here you mention “the Beloved,” that’s—
St. Paul: Yes, that’s Jesus.
Blogger: And I see the phrase “according to.”
St. Paul: According to, yes.
Blogger: You really like that phrase, didn’t you? In the lines for Sunday, I see it a lot of times. You wrote, “according to the purpose of his will” and “according to the riches of his grace” and “according to his purpose” and “according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things” and “according to the counsel of his will.”
St. Paul: It’s a connector. It’s to help me explain how things are and how they came to be that way.
Blogger: You weren’t worried that it was too complicated?
St. Paul: Oh, no, no, no. Not too complicated. It explains. The more information, the better. If a person doesn’t understand it the first way, perhaps they will understand the second way. If they don’t understand the second way, then perhaps they will understand the third way.
Blogger: And then what about this: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.”
St. Paul: Ah yes, that’s a good part. And it presents even better in the original.
Blogger: Was that section intended as —
St. Paul: Yes, as educational, to teach, to remind them of everything that God has given us, through Jesus
Blogger: And then —
St. Paul: Then it is: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Blogger: Whew! That’s a lot!
St. Paul: You think so?
Blogger: Yeah!
St. Paul: You would have preferred it shorter? Simpler?
Blogger: Well, I mean, the heart of the sentence is rather hard to find.
St. Paul: But they liked long letters.
Blogger: They liked long letters?
St. Paul: I think so.
Blogger: Well they really are pretty long. Did you know that there are websites with statistics about the Bible, and I found out that this letter of yours is 2,422 words long?
St. Paul: Really!
Blogger: You’re surprised?
St. Paul: I’m surprised that someone would have counted. A person doesn’t have much time on that side of heaven.
Blogger: Well, it would have been counted by a computer.
St. Paul: Ah, of course.
Blogger: But don’t you think that’s a lot of words?
St. Paul: It’s a good length.
Blogger: It must have taken a while?
St. Paul: Yes, but it was worth it. I’m just glad that the letter didn’t get lost on the way, after all that writing.
Blogger: Did that ever happen?
St. Paul: Yes.
Blogger: Oh, that would have been a disappointment.
St. Paul: It was hard at the time, but I never lose things anymore. (Smiles.)
Blogger: No, I guess not!
St. Paul: Heaven is really incredible. It’s even better than I said.
Blogger: I bet it is.
St. Paul: You should come!
Blogger: I will! But first I have work to do.
St. Paul: Blogging?
Blogger: Yes, and other things.
St. Paul: Like what?
Blogger: Gardening, cooking, to name a couple. And with cooking, I’ve been trying a new thing lately.
St. Paul: A new thing?
Blogger: Yeah, it’s really exciting. I switch countries as I go through the week. Sundays is Polish and Ukrainian food, and Mondays is Spanish and South American food. On Tuesdays I do Korean and Asian food, and so on.
St. Paul: No Mediterranean food?
Blogger: Oh yes, that’s on Thursdays. It’s usually Italian, but last week I did Greek.
St. Paul: I like olives.
Blogger: Do you eat them in heaven?
St. Paul: Of course! All varieties, including some I had never tasted while on earth.
Blogger: Wow.
St. Paul: It’s pretty amazing. Eye has not seen.
Blogger: Ha ha!
St. Paul: Seriously, you should come.
Blogger: I will, I will. I just want everyone to come as well.
St. Paul: Don’t worry. They will, eventually.
Blogger: Sigh. Yeah, but to watch them, you’d think they have no plans.
St. Paul: Ha ha, I know. But God has plans; it’s okay.
Blogger: And he’ll get his way!
St. Paul: Absolutely!
Blogger: Okay, I guess we should keep going. Where was I? Oh yes, I was saying that the sentences are so dense. Take the last sentence, for instance. Pardon me for saying it, but by the time I get to the end of the sentence, I feel like I’ve lost the thread.
St. Paul: Really?
Blogger: Maybe it’s just a different style.
St. Paul: A different cuisine.
Blogger: More olives?
St. Paul: More olives.
Blogger: And feta.
St. Paul: Can’t forget the feta. Goat cheese is always a classic.
Blogger: And was it a Jewish style? I have heard that in the oral tradition, it was typical to rely on repetition. The speaker would say things three times in order to make the details stick?
St. Paul: Well yes, of course. It’s a good tradition. Always repeat. Repeat and repeat. People need that.
Blogger: People get distracted, and they forget.
St. Paul: Exactly!
Blogger: But to return to this sentence, it seems to me that the heart of it is: “For he has made known to us the mystery of his will, to unite all things.”
St. Paul: Yes, things in heaven and earth.
Blogger: But your version has so much extra. Yours is: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
St. Paul: (Smiles) It’s a good sentence.
Blogger: But it could have been more simple, easier to read!
St. Paul: Each sentence should be an elegant meal. I have included all of the ingredients and combined them just so.
Blogger: You wanted to make beautiful, elevated sentences?
St. Paul: Precisely! To encourage, to inspire! I poured myself into those letters. Like a libation.
Blogger: But you don’t talk like that now.
St. Paul: I could, but I’m talking to you, and you, well, you aren’t drawn to that style.
Blogger: No. It’s kind of, well —
St. Paul: But you do use a lot of words.
Blogger: Well —
St. Paul: 2,422 words is a short blog post for you.
Blogger: But they’re not complicated words, with so many clauses! Not usually, anyway!
St. Paul: Ah, I see.
Blogger: Are you allowed to tease people when you’re in heaven?
St. Paul: Ah, well, interesting question. The verb “to tease” is not complicated, but the subject can be. Jokes in heaven are never offensive, and are never hurtful, but there are jokes in abundance. Friendly, funny banter is a source of great amusement, and we enjoy each others’ sense of humour. We’re all really relaxed and we laugh a lot. Jokes are part of the fun. Ear has not heard . . .
Blogger: Sounds delightful. But I should continue with your letter, because those parishes that read the longer version will read verses 11, 12,13 and 14 as well. Shall we proceed?
St. Paul: Yes, please!
Blogger: In the next section, you make a distinction between the very first believers in Christ, and those who have come to believe later?
St. Paul: Here I have used two parts, but the reward is the same.
Blogger: It says that those “who first hoped in Christ” have been “destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory,” and that those who believed later, are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” Then you switch again to the “we” form, saying that being sealed with the Holy Spirit is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.”
St. Paul: Yes, we all share in the reward.
Blogger: Of the promises of Christ.
St. Paul: Of the promises of Christ, and, through Christ, his bride, the Church.
Blogger: Heaven being one of the promises?
St. Paul: Heaven being one of them.
Blogger: How does this excerpt from your letter fit in with the Gospel and the other reading and Psalm?
St. Paul: I thought that was for you to figure out?
Blogger: Well, yes, I was working on it, but since you’re here . . .
St. Paul: Very well. Christ has chosen some to hear the word first, but of those who believe, there are some who are then sent to bring the message to others. We see that Amos was called in a unique way, and Jesus also sent the twelve out with specific instructions. Yet in another sense, everyone is ‘sent,’ because we are all called to bear witness with our lives that we are faithful to Christ, in accordance with our state in life and our circumstances.
Blogger: You said “in accordance with.”
St. Paul: It’s a good phrase.
Blogger: I’m at 4,334 words.
St. Paul: Can I add something?
Blogger: Of course.
St. Paul: The other element here is the overflowing goodness that God has in store for those who turn to him, which are shown by the words of the Psalm, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” The imagery suggests both bounty and providence, for it says, “our land will yield its increase,” and accordingly, about the ground, the psalmist says, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,” and about the sky, the psalmist prophesies: “Righteousness will look down from the sky.” It is about an end to corruption and unfaithfulness. The psalmist says, “Yea, the Lord will give what is good.”
Blogger: You say that the psalmist “prophesies,” so this is intended to tell us about the future, or has it already happened, with the arrival of Christ?
St. Paul: The words of the Psalm are mysterious; certainly the arrival of Christ is a fulfillment of the words, but the Psalms are never ‘exhausted,’ as it were, and all who believe in him can look forward to “our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,” as I told the Ephesians. The words of the Psalm can be understood as describing not only the reign of Christ but also the Christian inheritance, the idea of “heavenly places.”
Blogger: I understand. Thank you, St. Paul.
St. Paul: You’re very welcome! Thank you for having me. Best wishes with your cooking, and all else!
Blogger: Thank you!

Nice fellow. Very congenial. Surprisingly easy to talk to. I like him.

And I like Amos too. Amos, herdsman, dresser of sycamore trees, prophet.

🐑 🐑 🌳 🐐 🐐 🌳 🐑 🐑

 

Post 293

Seven Steps: Reflections on Being a Prophet

Here’s my WikiHow guide to being a prophet, inspired by the readings for tomorrow, the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Without intending it, I’ve got seven steps on the seventh day of the seventh month.

Step One
There is no step one. There is no reliable way to be ‘prepared.’ You never know when God might call you. More importantly, you never know how. By that, I mean that God’s plans for you will very likely run in a direction quite opposite to the one you thought you were going. When he calls you, he may ask you to begin doing something that you didn’t think you would ever do. Moses viewed himself as someone unable to speak well, yet he was called to speak to the Egyptian pharaoh, and he spoke many, many times after that, to all of the people of Israel. David was a shepherd boy when he was anointed king. St. Joan of Arc was thirteen years old, standing in her father’s garden, when she received visions of angels. There are so many examples. Furthermore, only God will know whether you are the type of person he wants for a particular mission. You may not think you are good enough, but he has plans for everyone.

So carry on. Do whatever you are doing. Preferably, do what you’re supposed to be doing, but God may still call you to be his prophet even if you’re doing what you’re not supposed to be doing — just ask St. Paul.

Oh, and another thing. Know that God calls everyone for something. He may not call you to be a prophet in the specific Jonah-in-the-streets type of way, but there are many job openings in God’s business, and he is always hiring. Wherever there is a scrap of good will, God will use it. You are mistaken if you believe that you are ready to do God’s will, but that he hasn’t yet noticed. He knows, and he will use you to your full potential.

Step Two
Receive the invitation. In the first reading for tomorrow, God says to Ezekial, “I send you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The people also are impudent and stubborn.” (Ezekial 2:3) God is complaining that his love for his people has not been returned, that everything has been entirely one-sided. He is, in many ways, a lonely God. He confides in the one he sends.

The invitation may have supernatural qualities. (Generally, the more unusual the mission, the more likely that it will be accompanied by supernatural elements.) You may be shown a vision of something or you may hear God’s voice. When you have a vision, it can be that you picture it vividly in your mind, the way you can picture something in your imagination when you want. The difference is that when you imagine something, you are the artist; you are the director. You decide what elements to include and exclude. You make it the way you want. When God gives you a vision, you do not choose what the elements are. It appears before you as if you are watching a story. As a result, you don’t always know the context. You don’t know the context because you didn’t build the scenes. Most significantly, there is no date-stamp on visions. You almost never know when these things will happen. Indeed, a vision can include information about something that has happened, is happening now somewhere you cannot humanly see it, or something that will happen if certain other things do or do not happen. A vision is mysterious in the sense that it signifies more than can be understood by the recipient. Like a poem, some of the meaning is obvious and other parts are perplexing, but complete understanding is elusive, and may not come for quite a long time. Moving on to the idea of a voice, sometimes called “interior locution,” God’s voice is usually not audible on the ‘outside,’ through the sense of hearing. Yet it is best understood as hearing because usually there are words. These words could, in theory, be written down as they are received. However, sometimes the meaning is made clear, but in order to write it down, you would have to choose your own words to reflect the meaning. For this reason, you will see that the saints will use phrases like, “I was made to understand.” It’s a way of expressing that God revealed or explained something, but that the words are your own.

The reason that God uses supernatural signs and wonders to begin a mission is that they signify, in a memorable way, an alteration of the normal course of events. They serve as a way to strengthen and prepare the one he has chosen, and over the course of time, the memory of the supernatural invitation can serve as a comfort when things become more difficult.

Step Three
Follow the instructions that God gives. These instructions may be quite specific, but they may also be open-ended. He may set you loose upon the world to do what seems to you to be right to do. He may even reassure you that your own preferences and instincts (for lack of a better word), are in keeping with his will, along the theme of “love and do what you will.” Both styles of mission, the specific and the general, have their challenges.

Step Four
Enjoy the interaction with God. In this one verse, at 2 Corinthians 12:7, St. Paul twice wrote the word “elated,” when describing how it felt to receive “the abundance of revelations.” While it is true that people can pray and try to understand what God is saying in response, often this is difficult. Personally, I used to regularly consult people who I felt were wise and holy. It was comforting to be able to question someone in person. I believe that it was a good practice and supplement to prayer, and I am thankful that God used those people in my life as a source of advice. When you approach someone with good faith, hoping that God will speak through them and enlighten you, then it is unlikely that you will be disappointed. In any case, prayer is, for most people, hard work, because you have to concentrate on what you are trying to say to God, and when you think that you know what God wants, you may still question whether your understanding is correct. We perceive a ‘divider’ between us and the supernatural God — you could call it a veil or a lattice. What a change, then, when this veil is moved aside somewhat, for just a moment or on several occasions. What a change to be able to converse with God in an easier way, where answers are more distinct. Of course St. Paul is elated.

Step Five
Experience the suffering. When people talk of the suffering of a prophet, they refer to the idea of being kicked out of town, or generally hated. We’ll get to that, but right now I want to explain something else. In the same way that there are supernatural gifts, there are supernatural sufferings. God does not give supernatural gifts without a counterbalancing component of supernatural suffering. This suffering is not the typical kind, that we all receive as we live out our lives. These are sufferings which are hidden and painful for an entirely different set of reasons. As an example of a type of supernatural suffering, I could give the example of heightened sensitivity to sin and evil — supernatural vision, if you will. That may not sound too bad, but here’s my analogy. When I was a child, I once asked my father whether he thought it would be neat if we could see (with our unaided eye) germs (bacteria, viruses). He said no. And indeed, if you stop and picture it for a moment, you can see that it would be horrible. But you see, sins are like germs, and being able to see them more clearly can be a kind of supernatural suffering. But there are many other types of supernatural suffering. St. Paul refers to the way that he suffers, and the following words have caused a lot of speculation: “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).” People wonder what kind of suffering he had. They have latched on to the word “flesh,” and said that probably St. Paul suffered from some type of lustful temptation. That’s not it. Lust is a normal temptation, along with greed and envy and all the other germs. It’s normal to be tempted by lust. I think for a man, hormones produce an almost-constant background noise, and for a woman, hormones produce a powerful cyclical gift/problem. St. Paul was not referring to this. The word “flesh,” is there to show you how close the problem is to him, and how painful it is. He’s making an analogy for something which is so difficult to express: “A thorn was given me in the flesh” is something that people can understand, even if they cannot understand the spiritual version of it. Who wants to have a thorn in the flesh? Being pricked by a rose thorn is painful; imagine if the thorn stayed there for any length of time. St. Paul is referring to a kind of spiritual suffering, and I think it is the constant harassment of a spiritually evil being, a demon who is given permission to harass and annoy with all manner of methods. The description that St. Paul uses is, “a messenger of Satan.” I don’t know what type of harassment he received from this being, but it was bad enough that he asked God, three times, to remove this suffering.

Step Six
Experience the suffering. And yes, I repeat this intentionally. In addition to supernatural suffering, there is, invariably, suffering which is not viewed as supernatural, because it is familiar. It happens. The life of a human person does involve a lot of suffering — ask Jesus. We too often forget that, as a person, he would have experienced all of those problems that we do. He would have had, at some point, the hiccups, and not known how to get rid of them. He would have sneezed; he would have coughed. He would have gotten cold and had goosebumps. He would have gotten too hot and had beads of sweat on his skin and in his hair. When he drank water, sometimes it would have gone down the wrong way. He sometimes would have stubbed his toe or gotten a pebble in his sandals. He would have dropped things and had things fall on him. He would have been thirsty and he would have been hungry, sometimes. He would have had skin rashes and scrapes. God allowed him to experience all of our weaknesses. But in addition to all this, he suffered all of the hardships associated with being a prophet. He would have suffered all of the rejection referred to by St. Paul: “insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” Notice especially the word “contempt,” in the Psalm. Contempt means something more than hating. It suggests hating something that is beneath you. The hater perceives himself or herself as ‘above’ the other. When you feel contempt for someone, then you have no mercy, and you feel that there is no need to show any kind of respect. In Psalm 123, the speaker begs God for an end of this kind of suffering: “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud.”

In the Gospel, Jesus experiences suffering of this kind. Notice that Jesus “marvels” at how people in his home town reject him. Amazement is also a human experience, and Jesus clearly experienced it sometimes. God is all-knowing, but God did not reveal everything to Jesus all the time. Jesus also experienced the ‘veil’ of separation from God. Jesus was not quite expecting the experience that he had in his home town. Naturally, in addition to being amazed, he was also saddened, both for them and for himself, and would have felt the feelings described in the Psalm. (It is no accident that the Psalm is paired with this Gospel reading.) Jesus was not someone without feelings. He was not untouchable. Both physically and emotionally, Jesus could be hurt.

The people of his home town rejected him because they knew him. They believed that they knew everything that there was to know about him, and so they were confused about the gifts that they saw. Notice that they speak among themselves, and do not ask Jesus their questions. They acknowledge his gifts and his abilities: “And many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands!” (Mark 6:2) However, Jesus is spoken about in the third person. They do not speak directly to him, because they do not want to praise him or even interact with him. So their questions remain unanswered. If their hearts were not clouded with jealousy and contempt, they would have seen that there are two possibilities to answer their question. The first is that Jesus had more abilities than they realized, that these gifts had been hidden for many years. The second is that Jesus was called for a special mission.

Exclusion is a powerful tool, and is often immoral. It is, for example, always immoral to banish or forcibly remove someone from their homeland. Our home country is closely tied to our identity, and to require that someone leave the region that he calls home is a violation of human dignity. Exclusion from a group is also serious, and those who exclude wrongly, pleased with their own power, will one day have to account for their actions. It will not go well for them, because, in addition to answering for the suffering they caused the one who has been excluded, they will also need to answer for the gifts and graces which they lost the group as a whole. We are, after all, meant to share our gifts with one another, and those who prevent this from happening will have a great deal to answer for.

What I find quite interesting is how painfully OBVIOUS it is to the home town detractors that Jesus is nobody special. They feel that their proof is conclusive: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” They are so entirely certain that they’ve got him completely figured out. The fact that they can name his parents, his relatives (incidentally, “brother” in Scripture ≠ “brother” in modern usage), and his occupation translates, for them, into knowing who he is and what he can do and — more importantly — shouldn’t be allowed to do. What arrogance! Who can really know another person? Who can really know how another person is called? By putting Jesus into a box, they put God into a box. In the same way, if we wrongly discredit a prophet, or someone who is called by God for a particular role, judging that they are acting of their own accord, and not in accordance with God’s will, then we limit God. You say, “Certainly God would never choose him; he’s a such-and-such.” You say, “Anyone can see, from such-and-such, that she is sinful,” but you are blind to the truth, and the kingdom of heaven has caught you unawares. Trust me, God can paint with colours you haven’t seen, and speak with words you’ve never heard. Who would have predicted that the rosary would one day include the mysteries we call ‘luminous’? Similarly, maybe one day there will be not just an Old Testament and a New Testament, but also a whole other section, making it a tripartite holy book. I can’t say; I’m just saying that the future is impossible to predict, and God can do what is so unthinkable that we don’t even stop to consider whether such a thing would happen or not. While we’re wondering whether the answer will be A or B, God suddenly brings about Δ. And the corollary to this is that God uses whomever he chooses. When we look at Scripture, or read about the saints, everything seems normal now, and we can tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys, but when it was happening, everything was far less clear. There was no Voice-Over Narrator or Ominous Music. Events and individuals were not yet unpacked. Nobody knew that the sea would divide, and nobody knew that the girl was going to lead an army. Believe me: God loves the element of surprise, and he loves the element of Right Under Your Nose. He can hide his chosen people in plain view. Bethlehem was bustling the night Jesus was born. When the King of Kings entered the world, who paid attention? And consider Mary, who went about her day without fanfare. The Mother of God had no paparazzi.

Jesus’ words, in the face of rejection and disbelief, were about the plight of the prophet: “And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house'” (Mark 6:4).

Step Seven
Receive your reward. By “reward,” I do not mean a human reward. There may appear to be no human reward at all. Look at the readings. In the first reading, God says that the people may not listen. He says, “And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that there has been a prophet among them.” God is no fool; he knows that the people may refuse to hear. In the Psalm, the psalmist talks about receiving contempt over an extended period of time. In the second reading, St. Paul talks about weakness that shows no signs of leaving: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” And in the Gospel, Jesus leaves his home town without much in the way of miracles. You would say, in all these cases, that the missions have the appearance of failure.

Yet the prophet is not motivated by a reward. The prophet is motivated by a desire to do the will of the God who sends him. Sometimes God sends his message through angels, sometimes there is a miracle, sometimes people have dreams, and sometimes there is writing on the wall — just ask Belshazzar. And of course, there are more ways; God is not limited to a certain number of styles or formats. Being a prophet is about cooperating with God to say what God wants to say at a particular time to a particular individual or group of people. For the prophet, the message is actually secondary, and so are any of the supernatural benefits or sufferings. The prophet’s focus is on saying or doing whatever God wants said or done. It’s for this reason that St. Paul can write, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . when I am weak, then I am strong.” Living this is difficult, but he knows the proper response.

Nevertheless, God is good, and he doesn’t forget his prophets, who look to him. He doesn’t forget about those who have done his will. Having learned not to put his faith in human beings (I sometimes say, “They’re all bad, but none of them are all bad”), the prophet looks to God for mercy, and hope in God is never misplaced. Despite what appears to be excessive delay, God is eager to help those who look to him. As a matter of fact, he is the generous gift-giver who can hardly wait for the day that you open your gifts.

The Psalm talks about the servant watching and waiting for God to act. The servant here represents the prophet, who attentively watches for any sign that the time has come for his promised reward. Between you and me, I might be tempted to suggest, instead of the word “servant,” the word “dog,” because it would help with the visualization — is there a creature as attentive as the indoor dog, who watches your every move for a sign that it’s time for a walk or a treat? — but the point is that the prophet waits. “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he have mercy upon us.”

Post 292

Canada Day 2018

Someone found me yesterday
I was the one who had sent a letter at Christmas to his father
Year after year
His father died in 2002
But I sent my greetings not knowing
That the man who had married my aunt had been buried at sixty

Merry Christmas I said every year to the Hindi man
Who had smiled a wide smile many years past
“Baby Duck is just water” as he filled up the glass

He couldn’t find me on Facebook couldn’t find me online
But he carried a folder with received letters and photos
The address was there; maybe she was here?

This man from the east
Stopped people on the street
Showed them my photo as he got nearer and nearer

Have you seen this woman?
He asked two different people
Because my address confused — a place and a way and a wynd

They looked at him — elegant garments, gemstones set in golden rings, and an iPhone for each hand
They said they’d never seen clothes such as these
Where are you from?

This man is from India
He brought me overly generous gifts in multitudes of three
And we talked until nearly midnight

At midnight there were signs in the sky
Fireworks to mark the day of a different kind of birth
He apologized for not telling me the news of the death
He wanted the letters to arrive uninterrupted
The letters that said Merry Christmas to the Hindi man
Year after year

Post 291

All That Noise: Reflections on Envy

The Gospel reading for tomorrow, from Mark 5, is the one where Jesus cures the daughter of Jairus.

The theme of God being opposed to death appears in tomorrow’s first reading from Wisdom 1 and 2 (“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist”), and this ties in with Jesus wanting to rescue Jairus’ daughter from death. That all makes sense.

What caught my attention, however, was the notion of envy mentioned in the first reading: “but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.”

In the past, I did not understand the power and prevalence of envy, and how it acts almost as a fuel in the very bodies of so many people. It spurs them to action in the worst ways, and poisons their words. An envious person sees threats all around, and is in a constant state of competition. An envious person is unhappy when others are praised or exalted for their honest achievements or gifts, and an envious person is usually reluctant to praise or offer genuine compliments to others. The thing about envy, however, is that until you know what it looks like, you won’t even see it. It’s a very, very hidden thing, one that people will rarely admit to.

And envy does not occur very much in the stereotypical pattern of a poor person envying a rich person, for the reason that they usually live worlds apart (with the notable and dangerous exception of the impoverished nanny who works in the home of those who hire her). One of the main components of envy is proximity. A middle-income man will be more envious of his middle-income neighbour than he will be of the rich fellow who lives in the gated community across town. He rarely thinks about the person he doesn’t often see, but this neighbour with the new car is right before his eyes. For this reason, family relations that are not insulated with abundant love can be poisoned by envy. A mother can envy her daughter from the very earliest years. A woman can envy her sister-in-law. A cousin can envy a cousin. The frequent interaction brings information and opportunities to compare, which has very negative effects in envious people, and so the most competitive dynamic is often between women who are in the same workplace or social group, whether it’s a religious group or a soccer mom gathering at a child’s game. Who has the biggest diamond? Who has the most talented children? Who took the best vacation? Who is the prettiest? But even without physical interaction, there can be envy of people who are ‘proximate’ in terms of backgrounds or situations; how many women watch Meghan Markle and wonder why she has ‘succeeded’ where they haven’t? And of course, social media is set up in such a way that it fosters envy while bringing people together. It gives people the time to study the lives of others (as they appear to be), when the truth is that it would have been better for these people to know less about their ‘friends.’

Anyway, after reading the first reading, I looked for the theme of envy in the Gospel reading that I have heard so many times. I’ll show you what I see. Here are the lines: “While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.

It’s easy to consider the words of these people, notifying Jairus that his daughter has died, as being purely informational. But let’s slow this down. Jairus is well-respected in his circles. He is one of the leaders of the local synagogue. Humans being what they are, these two elements would be enough to incite envy among others, but we do not need to rely on that, because a moment spent in consideration of their words will reveal quite a bit. The speakers know that Jairus is in distress. This man has left his home to go looking for Jesus. Jairus is well-known, and if he seeks Jesus, the fact will be public soon enough. Jairus believes that Jesus has power to restore health to his daughter, and Jairus is single-minded. He is going to find Jesus and he is going to make his request. As Jairus hurries to find him, does he not pray that he will be fast enough? Does he not pray that Jesus will say yes? Then he sees him! He wastes no time. Not only does he make his request, but he also “fell at his feet.” What would that have looked like? That is more than bowing. He is kneeling at Jesus’s feet. Scripture says that Jairus “besought him,” in other words, pleaded with him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” His words echo the words tucked into Psalm 30 for Sunday’s Mass: “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be thou my helper!”

Anyone who knew Jairus would know that he is absolutely desperate for the life of his daughter, and that he is now hoping for a miracle.

How long has his daughter been ill? It would have been well known that Jairus was very concerned about her. His concern has reached an all-time high, sending him out into the streets looking for Jesus. Yet in this context, some people come from his house and, interrupting Jesus, give him the devastating news. They bluntly inform him of his daughter’s death, “Your daughter is dead,” and then, without missing a beat, talk about how Jairus should not inconvenience Jesus. Do you see it? Do you see the lack of compassion for Jairus, disguised as a high regard for Jesus’s time? In the name of not ‘troubling the Teacher,’ they tell Jairus that everything he feared has already happened, and that his efforts are futile. There is no sympathy here for Jairus; there is only feigned sympathy for Jesus. Perhaps some of these speakers were afraid that Jesus might be able to help Jairus, and they are trying to block Jairus from receiving any further assistance from Jesus. It’s actually very evil, and their words are recorded here for more than just information.

What does Jesus do? He ignores these words. It is because their words are neither good nor neutral. They are lies. Specifically, they are suggesting to Jairus that he is being a pest, that he has already troubled Jesus too much, and that if he continues to hope for Jesus’ help, then he will be troubling Jesus “further.” In other words, they are telling him that he has been doing the wrong thing by seeking Jesus’ help, who they respectfully refer to as “the Teacher.” They are sending the message that he is not worthy of Jesus’ help, due to the fact that Jairus is not himself at the same level as Jesus (he may be one of the temple leaders, but he is not “the Teacher”) and because his circumstances — a dead daughter who is now beyond help — do not merit further attention.

How often do we get the lie that God is not accessible to us? How often do we get the lie that we are too small — just one of the billions of people on earth — for God to care for us at all? Or how often do we get the lie that our problem is too small for God to care about? How often do we fear that God wants us to suffer? How often do we fear that God doesn’t mind if we live or die? How often do we get the lie that making a request will have no effect, that God doesn’t want to be ‘troubled’ by our petitions?

All of these things are lies, and the readings for tomorrow can go a long way to counter these fears and these lies. The readings tell us that God does not want death for us; he does not want suffering. A vision of what he wants is in the second reading, where we learn that Christ suffered so that we do not have to suffer. It says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This is mainly a reference to spiritual benefits, but understand that God cares about all aspects of our welfare. The more of our lives that we entrust to him, the better prepared we will be for receiving the surprises that he has planned for us.

In addition to ignoring the words of these advisors who give bad advice, Jesus comforts Jairus, who at this point, must be filled with fear that he has lost his daughter, and that his efforts were all in vain, and that Jesus is powerless in this situation. Jesus says to Jairus, as he says to us all, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Do not fear. Only believe.

Whenever you are afraid about the future, ignore the voice(s) that tells you all hope is gone, and things will go badly for you. Ignore the voice(s) that tells you that you will fail and that your efforts — past, present and future — are pointless. These voices come from the devil, the father of lies, who is, as the first reading says, full of envy. (The devil envies us because God loves us and because God is willing to be born as a human and die for us.) These voices are nothing more than noise.

It is no wonder that Jesus did not take these false advisors into the room. This is fitting because their efforts had been to prevent Jesus from coming to the home. So now there is a reversal. At first, Jesus is outside the home and the advisors were in the home (the Gospel says that these advisors had come from Jairus’ house), but now all the advisors and all of the false friends are put outside: “But he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.”

As further confirmation of the evil intentions of the advisors and crowds and all who made themselves comfortable in Jairus’s home, notice that the Gospel shows them laughing at Jesus’ words. When he says that the daughter is not dead but sleeping, they laugh at him. They laugh at God! Such people as these are, in a sense, dead, (“through the devil’s envy death entered the world and those who belong to his party experience it”) because they do not enjoy and proceed with their own lives. Instead, they are envious spectators of the lives of others. Neither do they have the spirit of sharing that is described in the second reading from 2 Corinthians 8; they cannot rejoice in the success and victories of other people. A person who is wholesome can enjoy the happiness of others. The accomplishments of others can be shared and appreciated by those who didn’t even have a hand in that accomplishment. Look at the words of the second reading, about those who have supplying those who don’t have. It is the opposite of the spirit of envy. A person without envy can partake, in a way, in what they don’t themselves have, and enjoy life even more. I can be glad that you can understand technology better than I can; I can be glad that you enjoy building roads better than I would. I can be glad for the people who climbed the mountain; I can be glad for the people who won the game against all odds.

So the people who habitually surrounded Jairus laughed at Jesus. These noisy friends, relatives, ‘helpers,’ and onlookers are removed, and the only ones left of that group are Jairus and his wife. They are the only ones who genuinely care about this girl, the twelve-year old that Jairus called his “little daughter.” The voices and the noise brought by everyone else is finally shut out.

The daughter is awoken (whether she was dead at any point, I do not know) and Jesus directs them to give her something to eat. This detail shows his kind thoughtfulness, and is meant to remind us that Christ thinks of such things. So let nobody doubt God’s providence and care. He wants what is best for us, and where there is suffering, it is for a greater purpose which is also for our ultimate benefit. So even if we are, like Jairus and his family, surrounded by those who hope for evil to befall us, and who delight in our suffering, there is nothing to worry about. If we call upon Jesus, he will come and disperse the false advisors, those who envy you and make plans against you. He will disperse these, and silence the tumult. Your foes will not rejoice over you, as the Psalm says. Indeed, they will stand outside while Jesus stands with you. So let us say, with Jairus, in the words of the Psalm, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may praise thee and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to thee for ever.”

Post 290

Because I Actually Like Quebec:
Reflections on the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Tomorrow, on June 24th, the Catholic Church honours the nativity of Saint John the Baptist. He is the patron saint of builders, tailors, printers, baptism, conversion to faith, people dealing with storms and their effects (such as hail), and people who need healing from spasms or seizures. He is the patron saint of a variety of places, such as Puerto Rico, Jordan, Quebec, Newfoundland, Charleston in South Carolina, Cornwall in England, and various cities in Italy. I got that from thoughtco.com because so far I can’t find an authoritative list.

The readings for this special day, which will be heard throughout the entire world, in so many languages, fit together in such a way that they can be understood as pointing to John and his mission.

The Gospel reading is about the time right after his birth. It’s good to think about St. John the Baptist as a baby. We tend to remember him as the guy from the desert who eats locusts and wild honey and who looks and sounds fairly wild. We remember him baptizing Jesus and maybe we remember that he was imprisoned and killed.

This Gospel reading (Luke 1:57-66, 80) brings us to the time when he was newly born. The topic in the room, on the day of his circumcision, was his name. A name, when inspired, signifies both mission and identity.

And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechari’ah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.”

There is so much to consider, even in this short segment from the Gospel reading.

Notice the simple bravery of the parents — St. Elizabeth and St. Zechariah. With their words, they go against the grain, confounding expectations. They do not allow their son to be given the name that everyone expects he will be given. Where do they get this strength? How is it that they act in this confident way, not taking their cues from those around them?

You can say that Zechariah knows what to do because Angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple more than nine months previous, which is true, but that alone does not explain everything. He does not gain strength just because something spiritually significant happened to him.  It doesn’t work that way. The average life is chock full of wonderful little coincidences, answers, signs, messages and meaning, which can be accepted (and pondered and treasured) or rejected (and reframed and forgotten). Even an angel appearing before your eyes can be believed or doubted, because believing is a choice. And as a matter of fact, Zechariah did not believe the words of Angel Gabriel when they were spoken to him, despite the supernatural circumstances. For this reason, Zechariah received a ‘souvenir’ of his encounter with the angel: his disbelief cost him his voice. Do not think that God was being cruel. The muteness that Zechariah experienced served as a constant reminder to him and everyone around him that something very significant had happened. The experience of sudden muteness confirmed that he didn’t just imagine an angel in the temple. So during the period from the angel’s announcement up until the day of his son’s circumcision, he was quietly learning that God fulfills his promises. He amended his views of God; he had previously made God smaller than he should have, doubting that God could give them a child at this late stage of life, and doubting that God cared for him as much as God did. So now Zechariah accepted the truth of what God would do for him. Now Zechariah drew strength in knowing how strong God was, and in knowing that God would be willing to do good things for him and his wife. Look at the words from the psalm — now Zechariah could say, “I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength.” So this is where both Zechariah and Elizabeth drew their strength to walk a different path. They knew that this is what God had called their family to be. Their family was specially chosen, and the proper response to God’s gift, invitation and benevolence was to follow what God wanted, not what others wanted or expected. The choice they made, to insist on the name “John,” was very significant, because it was a testimony of their choice to adhere to the will of God. It was, in fact, a test, and they passed with flying colours. Zechariah was given back his voice, and the passage following this one is known as the canticle of Zechariah. Zechariah was a man of good will, but God wanted him to grow in his faith and trust. Now Zechariah could say, as in the words of the psalm, “I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works!” And indeed, the proper response for everyone who learns of these events is to wonder and marvel at the ways of God. His ways are surprising, generous and wise, and we are supposed to be impressed; we are supposed to have a reaction of respect and awe. Here are the lines in the Gospel describing the reaction of the people: “And they all marveled . . . And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?'” Too often our attitude towards God is characterized by indifference and boredom; we treat him like a television show we’ve seen before. We figure that we know who he is and what he can do and — more importantly — what he can’t (#scienceisking). We act as though we know what he will and won’t do with our lives and the lives of those around us. We yawn. We don’t marvel. We don’t treasure or ‘store up in our hearts’ our memories of special coincidences, signs, and answered prayers. We were so grateful at the time, but now we let what was amazing slip out of our consciousness, and we act as if God isn’t looking out for us.

The next aspect of the readings is precisely about God looking out for us. The readings speak about his care for the infant in the womb. Understand that these readings are not only about Isaiah and John the Baptist. Look at all of these lines about the unborn baby. The first reading (Isaiah 49:1-6) says, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” The psalm says, “For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.” An unborn baby is different from a born baby in its quality of hiddenness. The born baby can show you how cute he is, how helpless and in need of your care. The born baby can impress you by opening his clear eyes for a moment and meeting your gaze. You can look at his fine hair and little toes. He can cry. The unborn baby, by contrast, is hidden. She doesn’t have the help of her cuteness to encourage everyone to admire her and want to care for her and protect her. She is silent and can be easily forgotten or dismissed in the way that a newly-born baby cannot. But we were all once like that; we were all once unborn, and God speaks to us about who we were then. Long before anyone knew us, God knew us. What does that say about God? What does that say about us? It says a lot. It reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and it reminds us that it was part of God’s design that we should exist. He wanted us to exist, even if nobody else did. Each person is part of the divine plan, and we are brought into being because we are part of that plan. Moreover, he has in mind for us more than our existence; he has in mind for us a wealth of good — an eternity of good — which will come about as we fulfill our mission. The idea of mission is contained in the idea of naming. “He named my name,” from the first reading signifies that he knows our identity and what we will be called to say and do.

In the case of John the Baptist, there are several events that are recorded in the Gospel. We hear of him first when an angel appears to his father. The angel tells Zechariah that he is to name his son, who is as yet unconceived, “John.” We hear of St. John next when he is in the womb. Upon hearing the voice of Mary, who carries within her the unborn baby Jesus, he leaps for joy in the womb of his own mother. However, it is not long afterwards in the narrative that we read that he is living as an adult in the desert. How long has he been there? The Gospel does not tell us, but it is safe to say that nobody would have predicted that the little baby named John would grow up and wear camel skins in the desert. With the early signs surrounding his birth, perhaps people expected that he was to become a great priest, or perhaps that he was the long-awaited Messiah himself.

Another story of John’s life has to do with his willingness to challenge the King. King Herod wanted his brother’s wife for himself, and he arranged things so that he could marry her, contrary to Jewish law. John spoke up against this illegitimate marriage even though it could be fatal to speak up against the king. This was bravery. The term bravery is applied broadly nowadays, and sometimes incorrectly. I heard of a pilot being praised for bravery by landing a plane that was damaged, but what should be praised in that case is skill, not bravery. Bravery is best defined as going from a place of safety to a place of danger, for a good reason. A pilot flying a damaged plane is already in danger, and his efforts are applied to get himself out of danger. I’m not criticizing the pilot; I’m just saying it’s not exactly ‘bravery.’

Bravery is correctly applied to anyone who speaks out against corruption or immorality, when speaking out is viewed as wrong or even untimely. Speaking up has its risks, and John knew that. But part of John’s life’s mission, in addition to preparing whomever wished to be prepared through baptism, was to denounce evil intentions when he came across them. The attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees was wrong; they had an attitude of entitlement and superiority. Instead of making a whole-hearted effort to be repentant, they rested on their genealogical and spiritual connections to Abraham and other holy men. They came for baptism out of curiosity and out of a sense that they deserved to receive anything good that the masses were getting. They played a role in society that was all pretence, and John knew it. John said, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7) What do you think would be the risk to John of speaking in this fashion to the religious elites? What happened to Jesus when he spoke in the same way? In the past things were as they are now: those who are accustomed to receiving respect for their wisdom and holiness become absolutely livid and filled with rage when anyone questions their motives or behaviour. They view themselves as above reproach, and are scandalized when anyone challenges them.

Yet speaking out and speaking up, whether it is viewed as ‘wrong’ or ‘rude’ or even badly-timed, is so often exactly what is necessary, and it is what everyone is called to do, at least once in a while. If you don’t speak up, then a particular evil may claim more victims. If you don’t speak out, more innocent people may be hurt. And if you don’t speak out, those who are doing what is wrong may not change. It is so good that movements have arisen where women feel safe to speak about abuse they have suffered. It is for the best, not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators to face what has happened. It is good for the public to get used to the notion that someone might be popular yet evil, or funny yet evil, handsome yet evil, and rich or poor or young or old, yet evil. Let what has been done in the dark come to light. Any contract that aims to buy silence is immoral, insofar as it prevents people from saying what is true. I was disgusted with Michael Cohen, lawyer for President Trump, when he gleefully announced that he had paid a woman for her silence. He was really pleased with himself because he did it without his client’s knowledge and used his own money. Like many people who have dulled their conscience, Cohen seemed to believe that the rules of the legal system are the only ones that matter. In a similar vein, I have heard people say that the only acceptable method for accusing someone of a crime is to use the legal system. How impractical! The legal system is not equipped to address many important types of wrongdoing and harm, and the legal system is often compromised. I say that if the words are true, then let the victim choose his or her forum. Do not place arbitrary restrictions on how and when someone can reveal what happened to them.

As the life of John proceeded, he experienced new and unusual things. He taught and he had disciples. Crowds came to see him, and one day, Jesus came too. John spoke with Jesus and baptized him. Who, in all of humanity, has had that honour? John did not know everything, but God allowed John to understand that Jesus was the Messiah.

In the end, John was killed. The daughter of King Herod’s wife danced for him, and King Herod rashly announced, in front of all his guests, that he would give her, Salome, whatever she asked. This is a promise that is invalid, but even if I had been there to tell Herod that he didn’t have to keep his ‘promise,’ he wouldn’t have cared. What he cared about was his reputation, and so when Salome asked for (on the advice of her evil mother, Herodias) the head of St. John the Baptist, cowardly King Herod went ahead and ordered the execution of the holy man, and his head was given as a gift to this girl who should not have followed the suggestion or direction of her mother in this case. King Herod was not brave enough to say the words that he should have said, something to the effect that “I spoke wrongly; I cannot give you absolutely anything you desire; I will not behead an innocent man.” He chose not to say the words, just because it would have felt Awkward; it would have been Embarrassing, and not quite as grand and generous as he wanted to seem. He didn’t have the nerve. So in the end, everyone did what was wrong. They — Herodias, Salome and King Herod (and, for that matter, was there nobody in the room able to exercise any influence to stop this idea from being carried out?) — could have chosen otherwise, but they didn’t, and St. John the Baptist’s life was cut short. The baby whose name had been foretold was sacrificed.

In honour of St. John the Baptist, let us practice bravery in speech. Say what everyone knows but doesn’t dare say. Stand up for what is right with just a simple word or phrase. Say “no,” if that’s what needs to be said. Say “no” as St. Elizabeth did when “they” wanted to give her child a name that was different from what had been foretold. Say “no” as St. Zechariah did when “they” wanted what they wanted, despite St. Elizabeth’s response. Say “no” to those who want to present a façade of righteousness or compassion while trying to silence those who know of their dark hearts and dark deeds. It’s a fact that it is better for your misdeeds to be known now than later. Now there’s still time to repent. Now there’s still time to say sorry. Now there’s still time to make things better.

Everyone is called to speak up sometimes. This is not just for those who are famous, or who see themselves as activists. This is not reserved for those with a special calling, and this is not reserved for the times when there is a popular campaign dedicated to speaking up and naming names. When you make a decision, as a person, to be authentic — when you make a decision to be completely truthful in your words — then you will soon find that you do not need to look for opportunities to speak. The opportunities will find you. By this I mean that God will arrange things so that your unique voice will need to be heard. Perhaps someone will ask you that honest question, and you will feel they deserve to know the truth. Or maybe nobody will ask the honest question, but the truth will still need to be heard. The important thing is to be decided, independent of social fashions, that you will follow your conscience and God’s expressed will to you. He’ll take it from there, giving you a variety of circumstances and situations where you will feel called to speak out. St. John the Baptist didn’t purposely try to learn about the details of King Herod’s immoral life, but he learned about them, and he spoke up.

Nobody wants to be chastised, and usually people don’t want to be the ones to chastise another, especially those who are enjoying power or popularity or both, such as a Bill Cosby or a Harvey Weinstein. My point is that you do not have to live an extraordinary life to be called in the same way that St. John the Baptist was called, because we are all called to be faithful to the truth.

I really like the first reading.

Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Post 289

Hidden Depths: Reflections on Identity and Suicide

People underestimate the complexity of each other. We meet someone and we immediately begin the process of analyzing them and categorizing them, according to the patterns that we have learned up to that point in our lives. Before long, we’ve given this new person a pigeon-hole, a file folder, a number, whatever. It’s sometimes provisional and it’s sometimes immutable. I suppose you could call it judging, but that does imply making a decision about their moral qualities, and often it doesn’t go that far. The process of sizing each other up is so natural, so second-nature, that I would say there isn’t anyone who doesn’t do it. We size up everything around us, so why wouldn’t we do it with respect to human beings? We need to assess our environment; we reflexively determine whether something is helpful or harmful to us, and we learn by comparing what we encounter with what we have encountered in the past.

I was once sent an email with a whole bunch of questions, and one of them asked what I notice first about a person. I thought about that for a while. I think that I answered it quite accurately, saying that I notice quite a few things almost instantaneously, without even really thinking about it. Upon meeting someone, I get an impression of their physical size, age, gender and race. When I can’t determine gender, I notice that I can’t determine gender. Later, other elements come into focus, such as style and demeanor.

We’re used to noticing quite a bit about each other without realizing it. There’s nothing wrong with having impressions, and there’s nothing wrong with having preferences, tastes, likes and dislikes. Why should I be apologetic about disliking a certain accent, or a certain type of clothing? You are the same way, having likes and dislikes. It’s even possible that your list of dislikes is longer than mine. In any case, the issue is not in noticing or not noticing. The issue is what you do once you’ve noticed. You’ve noticed that she’s the wealthy one, and he looks like he’s unemployed. Do you treat them differently? This man is a recent immigrant and that man is a popular soccer player; do you distrust one while idolizing the other?

What do you do with your impressions? That’s the key thing.

But my point right now is that our impressions of each other, even when they are gathered over repeated encounters, are still going to fall short of the truth.

There are a few reasons for this. The first element is that most people maintain an image. They want to be seen in a certain way. And the list of ways that they want to be seen is astoundingly long. You have in your mind a list of ways that you might want to be perceived, but people are very, very, complex, and there are some people who want to be perceived in ways you wouldn’t dream. For instance, some people want to be perceived as inept and incompetent. They nurture and foster this image because it is a way of getting others to help them, and do their work for them. Some people want to be seen as having mental issues, because it allows them a greater freedom to behave in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be tolerated.

The second element is that, in general, people don’t want to draw attention to themselves regarding things that they know to be wrong. Someone commits a murder or does some other horrific thing, and the neighbour is interviewed saying that the murderer was such a quiet man. They are shocked, of course. There’s the assumption that if a person isn’t acting wildly, then he’s safe and quite predictable. So we are surrounded by people who are thinking and feeling and wanting all kinds of things, but they blend in, because they are not acting wildly.

We are thus shocked when someone commits suicide. They seemed fine. They weren’t acting wildly or acting distressed. In order to understand what has happened, the new trend is to immediately blame mental illness. I disagree with this approach because it is illogical. Suicide does not necessarily mean that there was mental illness. Mental illness can increase the likelihood that one would be tempted to commit suicide, but it does not work in reverse, where you can conclude, upon hearing of a suicide, that the person had mental illness. It’s kind of annoying the way people without any clue of the circumstances start cooing about how sad it is that so-and-so had a mental illness. Suicide is not conclusive proof.

I actually believe that in the moments before suicide, God gives the person enough lucidity to make a real decision. I believe this because I believe that when the moral stakes are high, God doesn’t allow for random accidents. When the moral stakes are high, there are decisions being made and personal intention is at the forefront.

Suicide is a radically violent act. A person who commits suicide is a murderer. A person who commits suicide chooses to disregard the thoughts, feelings and desires of everyone in the world except his own. A person who commits suicide chooses to disregard the pain of all those who will be hurt by his death.

If someone commits suicide, and you are surprised, then I say that you did not truly know that person. You did not know that he had the ability for such violence within him, in the same way that you did not know that your murdering neighbour had the ability for such violence within him. You did not know, further, that he was capable of disregarding (or even intending) the pain of those he seemed to love.

When I learned, last month, of the suicide of 28-year old Tim Bergling, known as Avicii, I was brought back to April of 1994, when I was told that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. Cobain was 27 years old at the time. The name of his band was Nirvana, a word describing the ideal afterlife in Buddhism. I heard the news from a teenage fan of his, who was shaken and distraught.

I am not impressed with the choice of Mr. Bergling to commit suicide, especially in light of his fame. Nor am I impressed with Kate Valentine, otherwise known as Kate Spade, whose name appears on expensive handbags throughout the world, in her decision to commit suicide yesterday. Those who are very famous have a responsibility to not cause scandal. They influence others by their choices, and this means that they must be extra vigilant about their actions. I believe that in the case of famous people, God gives additional grace to prevent them from doing what is wrong and detrimental to society at large, and for this reason, it is far worse for them when they intentionally choose to do what is wrong. Committing suicide is wrong.

Who is the victim in a suicide? The idea that the person who killed himself must have been in a lot of pain, is neither a full answer nor an excuse. By that rationale, almost any crime or immorality could be excused. A murderer is often beside himself in rage or jealousy before killing his victim. That’s pain; that’s mental anguish. A woman who commits adultery is eaten up by lust before being unfaithful. That’s pain; that’s mental anguish. A man who wants the money for gambling is often fixated and without rest before committing his robbery. That’s pain too. Most serious acts of immorality are preceded by a period of obsessing and a form of distress.

The fact that there is a great deal of mental anguish or pain prior to the decision to do A, B or C, does not give license to relieve the pain in any way you would like. In what circumstances do we accept the answer, “I just couldn’t help myself”? It’s usually a highly problematic answer, being almost always false.

Human beings suffer agony in a million ways, but we still must choose what is right. Moreover, we are always given the ability to choose what is right.

This ties in with my point that human beings are more difficult to understand than we think. We think we know someone, and then they do something shocking. This shows that we did not know them as well as we thought. You thought this man was gentle, but nobody who commits suicide can be properly called gentle, in light of the violence and permanence of the action. You thought that man was happy, but if a person ends his own life and his closest friends didn’t see it coming, then he wasn’t as happy as he seemed. There were depths within that person which were dark and hidden. What does Avicii mean, after all? Avici refers, in Buddhism, to the lowest reaches of hell, where those who commit the worst sins go. It’s spelled with a single “i” ending, but apparently Tim Bergling was so enamoured with the word as a way to identify himself that he was willing to modify it to use it. Yet his excuse for not using his own real name was that “Tim Bergling” was already taken on Myspace. Was Tiim Bergliing taken too?

Who is the victim in a suicide? Many are wounded. There are the close family members and friends. There are more distant relations and acquaintances. There are, in the case of the famous, the admirers. In fact, all who learn of any suicide are wounded, because suicide becomes more ingrained as a ‘solution’ for difficult times, and suicide becomes normalized, and — it’s painful to say it — even glamorized. And, in the midst of all this, what a shame that something so horrible and hopeless is whitewashed by people wanting to be or appear enlightened or sympathetic.

The one wounded most of all, however, is God. All sins are an offence against the Eternal God before they are an offence against mortal man. It’s God’s code that we violate when we go against what is right.

The reason for this, and also the reason that we cannot fully understand or appreciate one another (or even ourselves), is that each person is a mystery. When you consider the working of your own mind, and what you continue to learn about yourself, you realize that you are constantly rediscovering new things about who you are and what makes you tick. Marriage, likewise, is a process of continual discovery, where each spouse learns more about the other all the time. An individual’s personal identity is filled with so many aspects that the modern discussion has resorted to talking about identity conflict and changing one’s identity, the way we might talk about changing our outfits or style. Such talk is foolish. With new experiences and with new knowledge, we may change our perceptions and therefore our behaviour, for better or worse, but we are ultimately the same person. Our identity is our identity. Our soul is our soul. And body and soul, each person is a mystery that only God can understand, and those who cut short their lives or the lives of others, are preventing the mystery from coming to fruition (though it must be said that in his mercy, God always has yet another back-up plan; God can never be thwarted).

We are a mystery, further, because we do not know God’s plan for our lives. We do not know what he will make of the clay that is us. We do not know how he imagines us and how he will bless us and shape us. In the same way, we do not know what his plans are for everyone around us. All we can know is that his plans are for the ultimate benefit of each person, without the benefit to one person diminishing the benefit to another, as if God were constrained by human rules and limits. The path that he has planned is unique for each person, and each life story is an exciting one, with many twists and turns. Each life story is, in fact, amazing. The key thing to know, however, is that there are an endless number of variations on your life story, and the end result depends on your willingness to cooperate with the plan that he has for you. The plan is going to surprise you, because just when you think that you know the rest of the story, he’ll do a zig and a zag, just to see if you’re still following along. The plan will surprise you, because just when you think that you know what he wants, things will go up and things will go down, and he’ll show you that all he wants is for you to be willing to want what he wants. Consider Abram, who knew that he would never have a child from Sarah, his wife, the love of his life, and that he’d die in Ur, where he was born. Then he discovered that he was to leave Ur and go to an unknown place. He obeyed. Then he discovered that he was to have a son with his wife Sarah. He believed this too and it happened, and Abram’s name got changed along the way. Later he realized he would have to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed again, but at the critical moment, he was told that God didn’t want this sacrifice. Abraham never knew what was coming next, but he believed in God’s goodness. The knowledge of God’s goodness was his anchor. Abraham’s confidence did not come from thinking that he, Abraham, was good. Abraham’s confidence came from knowing that God was good, and that God would fulfill his promises.

If you read the bible carefully, you will notice that saints and prophets are praised when they believe that God will fulfill his promises, that God will be as good as he says he will be. It’s praiseworthy because it is difficult. When St. Elizabeth praises the Blessed Virgin, she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)

So let there be no room for despair. Hang in there.

Don’t be afraid and don’t believe the lies given to you by the devil, of unending suffering, impossible struggles, humiliation and defeat. Those are lies. All lies.

Wait for the plan of your life to unfold. Wait to discover the mystery that is you.

Know that God is good. He always has a plan, even when all seems lost.

Post 288

Up Late Last Night

Writing Again

Writing
What can I compare it to?
I say it’s like
A fire
Intensely burning
Yearning
To flash
To be bright
To give light
Writing
What can I compare it to?
I say it’s like
An ocean
Immeasurable depths
Down, down, down
And across
A crossword puzzle, I guess
Words this way
Words that way
And again
Writing
What can I compare it to?
I say it’s like
The wind
Pent up
Suddenly urgent
Then spent
Blowing free!

 

 

Saint Stunts

People mistake
‘bout the big league saints
Y’ know?

They figure
‘slike Batman
Super powers n’ stuff

‘cept with more prayin’
n’ rosaries
n’ stuff

Levatatin’
Bilocutin’
Readin’ souls
Conversin’ with the Lord
Stigmata n’ stuff

When y’ want

Visions
Healin’ powers
Miracles
Left right n’ cen’r
‘terior locution n’ stuff

When y’ want

Truth is
Well
Truth is

Ain’t like that
Ain’t like that
Just ain’t

The saints’d tell ya
They’d tell ya
It ain’t

It’s
It’s

Well, it’s diff’rent
I’ll tell ya
Diff’rent

It’s like
It’s like

It’s like
You’re not in charge, see
Don’t call no shots
Don’t press no buttons

Don’t get to choose
No timin’ on gifts
Or kind

That’s why they’s called
Gifts

God ain’t no vendin’ machine
Push this
Get that

And saints
Well
Saints got that

They get that
They’d tell ya
‘Salways surprisin’
When all sudd’n ya
Flyin’

 

 

FYI IFY

FYI
For your information

IFY
I forgive you

 

 

And That Was That

There was a time
When I said what I thought
And that was
That

They wouldn’t hurt me
On purpose

Not really and truly
On purpose

Who would hurt someone
Who meant well?

They just
Well
They just didn’t mean it
They just didn’t know better
They just didn’t realize
They just didn’t think it through

And failing that
Maybe

Maybe they were just a Little Messed Up

So let me say
That
It’s much easier to forgive
When the excuse comes first
When the sympathetic mind has defence after defence
And theories galore

So now has come a time
When I say what I think
And that is
That

It’s tougher
By a wide fucking margin
To forgive
When you happen to know
That

Choices were made
Words were calculated
Actions were planned
Stories were told
Facts were hidden
Falsehoods were spread

On purpose

And Messed Up
Isn’t the truth

To forgive
When you happen to know

They meant it
They knew better
They realized
They thought it through

It’s tougher
As I said
With emphasis

But it can be done
It can, in fact, be done
Many times over

Step out of yourself for a moment

See yourself from another angle
See yourself as someone you needn’t protect
See yourself as someone mortal

Who will die
Who, in a way, doesn’t matter
Who can be rejected and neglected, at least for now

Consider Christ
Who asks this of you
Out of love for him, you can say

It doesn’t really matter, in the end
What good or harm was intended for me
While I lived my life on earth

What matters is
What good or harm I intended for others
While I lived my life on earth

With your eyes on Christ,
You can say
I will do your will

You ask for this
You give the grace for this
So I forgive

 

 

Nevertheless

I won’t be seeing you
Anytime soon

Trust me
It’s for your good
And mine

Yours
Because
You might say something you regret

Mine
Because
Caution is a form of self respect