Our normal lives involve, constantly, a trading of one good for another. I work, and you pay. I’ll buy you pizza and a beer; you help me move.
(JustOne has a truck, and he says people say to him, “Hey, what are you doing next weekend?” But it’s a trap, because if he says he’s free, they say, “Great! Can you help me move?” Mind you, he understands; he says it’s the price you pay for owning one.)
Even marriage, which is supposed to be based on unconditional love, has this aspect of bartering too. Those who enter would admit that they have no idea of the curve-balls that life will send them, and they would further agree that probably their spouse will (or won’t) change, but having said that, they are still hoping to be more than be a giver in the adventure called marriage; they hope to receive. And I think in most cases, it goes beyond hope and into the territory of expectation. They look forward to a good measure of earthly happiness, in exchange for their commitment. And the more of a consumer mindset the spouses hold, the greater the dissatisfaction when those curve-balls and changes come (or don’t). Some people want a refund or an exchange after a few years. Turn back the clock so I can choose differently!
And those who have children are often also hoping for a measure of happiness in exchange for their parental sacrifices. They are looking for some kind of pay-back, some tangible sign of gratitude from their children.
But it’s not always like this. How admirable some couples become in the very last years of their lives together! There are scenes hidden from almost everyone, where one spouse becomes the caregiver of the other – feeding them or helping with other basic bodily functions.
And similarly, most parents do learn to sacrifice, as the popularity of early-morning kids’ hockey proves. (How anyone can regularly wake up on Saturdays at 4:30 a.m. to drive to an ice rink across the city is a mystery to me. That must be true love.)
And this parental sacrifice goes beyond the day-to-day and into the heroic. When tragedy strikes, many (most?) parents would be willing to give up their own lives in order to save their child’s life. In prayer, a parent of a terminally-ill child might offer his own life to God as a ransom for the life of his child.
It’s a shocking offer, but it happens all the time.
Consider – right now in some place, there’s a parent making this very offer.
Interestingly, sometimes this offer seems to be ‘accepted.’ The parent is soon diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and dies, but the child manages to pull through and live. The amazing story gets told from person to person.
When faced with a story like this, the agnostic says that this is: 1) something with no explanation – pure coincidence, 2) something with a natural explanation, such as the stress of the situation exacerbating a pre-existing condition, or 3) something with a supernatural explanation.
He doesn’t choose, but he leans towards 1) or 2).
The atheist, by contrast, reduces the possibilities here (he ‘shrinks’ the world, as Chesterton says in Orthodoxy). The atheist says that there’s no such thing as a supernatural explanation, and therefore it must be 1) or 2).
(Chesterton said, decades ago, that even the concept of atheism has become too theological, and indeed, the average person nowadays is rarely discussing these topics to the same extent that previous generations did. I once asked a non-native English speaker if he was Orthodox. He said no, and even though his English was good, he struggled to grab hold of the word “atheist.” Probably he has rarely or never heard or spoken the word in English. Having said that, he might not need this word in the future, because he also said that as he gets older, he has increasing doubts about atheism.)
But anyway, the parent who is praying in this way for his terminally-ill child is being selfless, but is nevertheless still praying for an earthly thing – that his child would have a chance to live a ‘normal’ life. And he prays for someone who is his own flesh and blood.
So when you read the lives of the saints, you’ll see that they go beyond this, by a good margin. In the first place, they are willing to suffer for a non-earthly benefit. They are trying to prevent the loss of a soul. The thought of eternal damnation for anyone causes them a deep sorrow, and far from gloating at the thought, or exulting in it (in the way that weak Christians do), they want genuine repentance for all who are headed in the wrong direction. But because this goal is spiritual, these saints might not have the gratification of seeing tangible results.
(And here I must interject that measuring the success of a religion is not the same as measuring the success of a restaurant or a political party, for example. I feel like the media always misses the point of faith. The most important results of a good religion are not things that can be weighed or graphed. All the hospitals and schools, and scientific and artistic contributions of the Catholic Church are incredibly vast, and always forgotten and dismissed using false stories, but these things are not the primary purpose of religion, and are in fact nothing compared with the spiritual benefits that have been bestowed over the past 2000 years. When I think of all the spiritual assistance I’ve received over my life so far, for example, I see it’s enormous, and I’m only one person.)
In the second place, the saint’s sacrifice is bigger than that of the parent in my example because usually the saint is making his sacrifice for someone whom he doesn’t even know, for someone who won’t even appreciate it, for now. The saint’s love is so great that it includes all people – both saints and sinners.
The saint is united with Christ in his thirst for souls, and so he is willing to suffer in concrete ways (physical illness seems to be the most common way, but emotional and spiritual suffering is written about as well) in exchange for supernatural benefits for people that he hasn’t even met. He wants to re-bind everyone to God (the word religion comes from re-ligare, and ligare is like the word ligament – something which ties together), and if he has to suffer for it, well, he’s willing.
The saints believe in a supernatural interconnectedness between people and events in the universe. What you do will affect me, even if I don’t know what you’ve done, and what I do will affect you, even if you don’t know what I’ve done. I can pray for you or offer sacrifices for you, and this will have a positive result for you, either in this life or the next or both.
Many saints wrote God a ‘blank cheque,’ offering to suffer anything in order to save the souls of sinners. At the same time, they knew that the ‘beneficiaries’ of their prayers were most definitely not asking for any help. One saint (was it St. Therese of Liseux or St. Teresa of Avila?) said, Lord, I know the strangeness of my request: I am asking you to save those who don’t even want to be saved. She was willing to endure any suffering in order to save souls. The amazing thing is that these ‘beneficiaries’ would not have known about her suffering, and they probably wouldn’t have cared even if they did know.
St. Therese of Lisieux couldn’t offer herself as a victim of God’s justice, so she offered herself as a victim of his love:
In 1895 I was enabled to understand more clearly than ever before how Jesus longs to be loved. I was thinking of those souls who offer themselves as victims to the justice of God, so that, by drawing it down on themselves, they turn aside the punishment due to sinners. I thought this a noble and generous offer, but I was a long way from feeling that I should make it myself.
. . .
O Jesus, let me be Your eager victim and consume Your little sacrifice in the fire of divine love.
-Autobiography, Chapter 8
But later, she experienced a great suffering, and it was that she lost the sense of heaven. She had gone her whole life with a very “clear and vigorous” faith about the next world, but then this was taken from her, and thinking about heaven made her feel even worse. She experienced how it felt to not believe. She called it a “pitch-black darkness,” a “sunless tunnel,” a “dense fog,” a “wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars.” However (and this is a big ‘however’), she willingly accepted this suffering if it would help others to be able to sense heaven. She wrote that she was “ready to shed my last drop of blood to declare there was a heaven,” and she said she was “well content” if she could no longer “see with the eyes of the spirit the heaven which awaited” if it meant that Christ would open Heaven to those who did not believe (Autobiography, Chapter 9). The salvation of other souls meant more to her than her own most painful suffering.
And St. Padre Pio said the same thing:
. . . I suffer cruel torment, for my thoughts go out to the great number of those who are not in the least concerned about these heavenly delights, and to the many unfortunates who through their own fault will be deprived for all eternity of tasting even a drop of this bliss . . . I would willingly sacrifice the delights of my soul’s repose if I might hope to enkindle in other hearts the desire for this happiness which makes one blessed.
– Letter from Padre Pio to Padre Agostino, October 4, 1915
In reply to this letter, his spiritual director reminded him that the sufferings are all connected to the time that Padre Pio offered himself. Padre Agostino replied:
Continue, then, to envelop yourself in this state of affliction and pray for all, especially for sinners, to make up for so many offences committed against the divine Heart . . . I know that you once offered yourself as a victim for sinners. Jesus accepted your offering and he has given you the grace to bear the sacrifice entailed. So have courage a little longer . . .
– Letter from Padre Agostino to Padre Pio, October 7, 1915
These saints, like so many others, wanted to imitate Christ in saving souls from eternal separation from God. I like Chesterton’s quotation: “Losing one’s own soul is not a matter of degree.” (Daily News, April 10, 1909) People who love Christ want to join their own sacrifice to his. They even welcome suffering, despite the pain!
It’s quite a startling outlook, and completely contrary to the modern view of suffering as something to avoid at all costs.
And most modern Christians don’t have enough love or faith to offer themselves as a sacrifice in this kind of way. If we pray or sacrifice ourselves for family members or for those we like, we consider that we’ve done quite enough. Sometimes avoiding a mortal sin is our greatest accomplishment. How far different are we from these saints, who suffered acutely, yet counted their own sacrifices as almost nothing. They were the ones who knew how to really live their Catholic faith. After all, the crucifixion and resurrection are the heart of this religion: instead of killing those who have don’t share it, you die to yourself, sacrificing as much as you can, in the hopes of obtaining it for them. This is how we’re supposed to be, and, as a matter of fact, this is a realistic goal, with the help of God.
Mind you, Chesterton has a most interesting passage about Christians who fall short of the mark:
Most Christians fail to fulfill the Christian ideal. This bitter and bracing fact cannot be too much insisted upon in this and every other moral question. But, perhaps, it might be suggested that this failure is not so much the failure of Christians in connection with the Christian ideal as the failure of any men in connection with any ideal. That Christians are not always Christian is obvious; neither are Liberals always liberal, nor Socialists always social, nor Humanitarians always kind, nor Rationalists always rational, nor are gentlemen always gentle, nor do working men always work. If people are especially horrified at the failure of Christian practice, it must be an indirect compliment to the Christian creed.
– Daily News, February 13, 1906
But anyway, when you consider the Christian’s understanding of suffering for others from the point of view of a non-Christian, this kind of talk must seem downright ridiculous and delusional. If there is a God, what kind of story is this? What kind of God would allow his ‘best’ or most devoted to suffer like this? (Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Jesus, if this is how you treat your friends, is it any wonder that you have so few?”) What kind of God would honour this kind of ‘bartering’? It probably all sounds like an illogical and almost childish oversimplification. Exchanges and bartering are perfectly sensible with ‘real life,’ but certainly they wouldn’t have any place in supernatural matters.
It occurred to me, however, that an atheist could easily test out this notion. Thinking of some person whom he loves, he could say, “This month, I offer myself as a sacrifice for his/her good.”
I wonder if you could get an atheist to try this.
Maybe you could dare them.
They’ve been asked such questions before. They’d argue it’s a silly and meaningless game.
On the other hand, what if you double-dared them?
That might work. Not just a regular dare, see. A double-dare.
And I wonder what would happen if they did say such words. What would happen if they did say that?
What would happen?
I know a Christian woman who, along with her children, dedicated one month for the good of a certain soul, and they wound up having a really interesting month, filled with unusual difficulties. Of course, the atheist would say that this is either 1) purely coincidental, or 2) easily explainable – perhaps, for instance, the family became hyper-sensitive to any negative events that month, and probably didn’t have more difficulties than usual.
So if the atheist did the same test, then he could use a more ‘scientific’ approach, some standardized way of comparing an average month with an ‘offered’ month.
I don’t know. I’m probably missing something, but it’s a rather new idea to me: the atheist and the great saint can say the same words: the atheist because he means them and puts so much weight in them, and the atheist because he doesn’t put any weight in them at all. To an atheist, these would be just superstitious words, attracting no consequence because there’s nobody on the other side to accept such an offer.
Meanwhile, the lukewarm believers in the middle can’t bring themselves to say such words, because they have enough faith to believe that God would accept their offer, but, sadly, not enough love to be willing to say them.
Hmm. Maybe they need the prayer dare more than the atheists. The double-dare, I mean.
Oh, why be choosy?
I double-dare y’all.