Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Illogic of God's Justice

The founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, James Alberione always emphasized an attitude of studiosita, that is, to learn from all experiences in life.

While some of Alberione's teachings are not intuitive to me, this is one that rings true immediately. This is an attitude that I have always had; I think about everything that I experience and try to integrate it into my ideas and thoughts. If an experience clashes with my currently held beliefs and ideas, I wrestle with it until it is more or less resolved in my mind. Some things I have never resolved and these questions reemerge in my mind throughout my life in the hope that one day they will be resolved by prayer, an experience, a person, or a book.  I know some of my questions will never be answered until I reach heaven, but I like to try to work out whatever I am capable of working out, which probably is not much.

One thing that I have been thinking about is justice and fairness. As I live in community, I have noticed how consumed I am by these concepts. It is a necessary part of community life to always split up things; chores, work time in the book center, food, gifts from others. And I have found myself obsessing when I feel like something is not fair, maybe one person has asserted her needs over the needs of others, or another person got to choose something first before anyone else got a chance. Sometimes I am at the winning end of the situation because I have asserted myself or by sheer luck I ended up with exactly what I wanted and other times I am at the losing end.

The other day I was at the losing end of one of these situations. But before I voiced my complaint I checked in with Jesus in my mind and He clearly told me to keep quiet so I did. I did not vocalize that I thought the situation was unfair but in my mind I threw a serious temper tantrum and later when I was in the chapel I let Him have it.

"Why do I have to keep quiet Jesus? I'm so tired of compromise! I want to go back to my old life where I could do exactly what I wanted, when I wanted! Am I going to constantly be giving up my needs and wants for other people. I HATE THIS, it is getting old."  

As I prayed in chapel, I felt Jesus' empathy and sweet love. Jesus does not react to our anger in the same way that people do. In fact, when I am honest with Him, I can tell that He appreciates it. He likes it when I am real with Him, because lets face it, He can already see our hearts.

As I prayed, I was staring at the outline of a cross that stands up on the bottom of our kneelers. When I closed my eyes, the shape of the cross was etched in my mind, outlined in light. Suddenly, I realized what Jesus was trying to say to me.

"Was it fair that I died on the cross? I am God, your Creator.  I was innocent and I died on a cross to save you, a sinner. Fairness is not what I am all about Theresa. I came to serve. If you are going to follow me, you need to do the same."

I suddenly thought of when I was a child and I would split a dessert with one of my siblings. We would make sure that each piece was exactly even, not even a centimeter different. I thought of our society, how we are obsessed with equality, sometimes at the expense of everyone's overall well being. I realized that I was giving into the ways of the world and Jesus was pulling me back to the illogic of the Christian message - it is not about perfect equality, it is about serving the other in love.

As I return to my life after this prayer experience I am honest with myself. I am still going to throw temper tantrums, in my mind and probably out loud, (I apologize in advance to the patient sisters I live with). I am still going to assert my needs and I hope that Jesus helps me to discern when it is necessary. But I hope that from now on I try to see situations that are not fair with the eyes of faith.

Jesus allows everything that happens to us to occur. I have to believe that when I am on the losing end of a situation that I really am on the winning end, because Jesus is using it to teach me something.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Penance of Love

"So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love."      

Luke 7:47
Penance is an interesting word, it literally means the desire to be forgiven. Christians talk about it in the context of desiring to be forgiven by God for our many sins against Him and against others. 

But often, Catholics and other Christians use it as a verb as well as a noun. 

Please Note: I unwittingly began writing this post based on a thought that I had in prayer but as I familiarized myself with this topic, I realized that I was putting my little toe in the choppy waters of a pretty extensive and complicated theological battle between Protestants and non-Protestants. Please forgive this amateur's attempt to contribute a small thought to this discussion that involves far more complications than I can read and understand at this moment.

For those who do not know what I am talking about, I will summarize. Basically, the Reformers held that penance is a noun and there is no need for the verb or in other words, sorrow for one's sins is a necessary state of the mind and heart to be forgiven by God, but an act of penance is not required. Catholics hold that both are necessary, that we should act out our feelings of contrition in some way to demonstrate our sorrow for our sins but that we also must feel contrition in our hearts. Leave it to the Catholics to keep the suffering a part of their theology.

This whole difference of ideas hits on the old faith vs. works debate. I won't pretend to know a lot about this. But I will note that I am side-stepping the entire discussion as to whether or not acts of penance are necessary.  Ultimately I go with the idea that our thoughts and our mind and heart are inextricably connected with our actions. They must be bound together. Sometimes one acts without feeling or one feels without acting, but the ideal is that we do both, and that I think is something everyone can agree on. 

A New Idea of Penance

My ideas of penance are a mixture of the normal, the odd and the gruesome - fasting, self-flagellation, penitential self-discipline and wearing sackcloth and ashes. 

Fasting is a standard form of penance and one that all Catholics participate in during the season of Lent. I try to fast whenever I can. I have realized that it really is a powerful form of prayer that allows us to literally empty ourselves so that God can fill us. It is a way to grow closer to God and a very effective way to pray for our intentions and to fight evil.

But Jesus has been showing me something else about showing my sorrow for sin recently.

Every day the sisters at my convent meditate for a half hour on the Gospel reading of the day before we begin morning prayer. I have been very moved by how much more I get from the Gospel reading when I take the time to really think and pray about it, asking God what He has to say to me that day. 

A few weeks ago we read about the woman, traditionally believed to be Mary Magdalene, who goes to Jesus while He is at dinner and bathes His feet in perfumed oil and washes them with her tears. This reading has always stirred my heart. I recognize myself in that woman, someone who, in the face of the Divine presence of Jesus, sees her sins clearly and feels deep sorrow for them.

But when I meditated on this Gospel reading several weeks ago, Jesus' response to the woman snagged on the edges of my consciousness. His response literally means - "her many sins have been forgiven, seeing that she has loved much."

I was confused by this, what exactly did Jesus mean? It seems he is saying that she is forgiven because of her love. I was contemplating this when I noticed the words by the tabernacle in our chapel. 

In every Pauline chapel, the same words translated from Italian can be seen engraved - "Fear not, I am with you. From here I want to enlighten. Atone for sin." These are the words that our founder Blessed James Alberione heard Jesus say to him one day when he was praying before the tabernacle.

Suddenly the last phrase "Atone for sin" and my preconceived ideas of negative penance transformed in my mind.

The woman in the Gospel was forgiven because "she loved much." I realized at that moment that Jesus was telling me that I must show my love for Him and my thankfulness that He has forgiven me by doing my penance in love. 

We can practice aestheticism in our lives by fasting and doing penance "negatively" and these are effective ways to show God our remorse for our sins. But Jesus was showing me what my patron saint Therese of Lisieux knew long ago - that the fast that gets to the heart of who Jesus is and who He calls us to be is the fast of love.

Jesus is calling us to the penance of love.

He is calling us to love even when we do not want to, to love until it hurts, as Mother Teresa would say. He is calling us to love everyone including people who anger or hurt us deeply, people who are selfish, people who hurt those we love, people who have different ideologies than us, people who are our enemies and people who are enemies of God and the things in the world that are good. He is calling us to love in our thoughts, to never assume we know a person's motivations or the workings of their heart. No one is exempt from this fast. In fact, the people who we find it most difficult to love are often the people God is calling us to show love the most.

God is calling us to love others as He loves them in the hope and the knowledge that in seeing our love, God will forgive us for our many sins, those we know and those we do not know, and will love us in return.