Friday, January 25, 2013

Radical Grace: Music of Hope for the Sorrowing

Today was the 39th annual March for Life in Washington, DC. I participated in the occasion only by the grace of technology, sitting at my computer watching EWTN ("the Catholic channel," the only network to give "airtime" to the entire march, for which I and many others are deeply grateful) and reading (and writing) posts on Facebook. I assumed that at some point later in the day I would end up posting some sort of reflection here in response to all the thoughts and feelings stirred up in me by the day's events.

During a break in EWTN's focus on the march, I took a break too and noticed that my Australian friend Renato Bonasera of the group Radical Grace had "liked" a comment I'd left on his Facebook page a few days ago in response to his invitation for friends to review his soon-to-be officially released album His Grace Is Enough. I decided to seize the moment and write down my thoughts as I listened again to these songs I had downloaded from iTunes some months ago. As I did so, I discovered, to my delight and blessing, that I was listening to songs with a message perfect for today.

If I had to sum up His Grace Is Enough in one word, it would be hope, and each of this EP's five meditative songs will inscribe that word's meaning onto you, whether you listen to them once or over and over, as I sometimes do.

The song that shares the album's title describes empathetically how I have felt many times in my life—"all alone ... strength has gone, the flames extinguished in the night," etc.—but then reminds me what has sustained me many times before—"His grace"—and not because I have remembered where to turn, but because "someone calls your name from a distant place," and I reach out, not so much to take His hand as to let Him take mine. This is the grace: not that I seek Him, but that I, the lost sheep, am sought and found—and not just once, but again, and again.

"How sweet the sound" indeed is the album's fifth track, "Amazing Grace," a fresh, soothing rendition of a song that was already etched as deeply in my psyche as a song first heard before I could sing it could go—I had thought. I am inexpressibly grateful to hear it again today—the Feast Day of St. Paul, one of the most famous and important recipients of the grace that invites conversion; and a day on which I am powerfully reminded what it means to be "a wretch like me."

The album's middle song, "The Joy of Loving Jesus," not only calls us to be joyful in our faith, but actually imparts that very feeling—in "mind and heart and soul"—by means of its memorable melody, layered harmonies, and bouncy rhythm. Its lyrics, borrowed from the Scriptures, remind us who we love with such joy, and why: He is "the rock of salvation" (Psalm 18, Matthew 7:24-27, 1 Corinthians10:4) and "the peace He gives" is "one that the world cannot give" (John 14:27), and "where can I hide from his love?" (Psalm 139:7). Psalm 139 is, appropriately for today, the psalm that prays to God, "You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.... When I was being made in secret ... your eyes saw me unformed" (verses 14-16). To discover that treasure hidden in the field of this song is an unexpected blessing.

The album's fourth song, "Our Lady of Sorrows," offers its hope in the form of reminding us that even when we, like Our Lady, stand at the foot of the Cross, suffering "along with her son," she is there with us, "sharing the Passion of our Lord," and ours. Before today, I realize now, I hadn't really seen in this song's lyrics the gift that Mary's union with her son in His Passion offers to a mother whose only child's life also ended with him bleeding and broken, leaving her own soul "pierced by a sword."
Imagining the face of her baby
Slumbering, protected from harm
Watching your son, two hearts beating as one
Shedding His blood, redeeming the lost
This Mother's Son shed His blood to redeem the mother of mine.

Finally, the album's second song, "No Need to Fear," sums up, in my view, this EP's message of hope. It is musically the most beautiful piece in the collection, I think (because of its violin and guitar interludes). It is Bonasera's worthy contribution to the music of Divine Mercy, a prayer to which I happen to know he is quite partial.
All your miseries my child
like a twig in a roaring fire
have been consumed
in the flame of my love
Your heart is known to me
Satisfied it will not be
but by my love alone
And there's no need to fear
no need to worry
when there is mercy in your soul
And there's no need for despair
no need for anguish
My heart is mercy for your soul
Let no fear or disturbance be
Let your soul draw near to me
though as scarlet be your sins
Souls who place their trust in me
graces in abundance see
and wonders unimaginable
A twig I am indeed, but the roaring fire I all too often experience is not the the flame of His love but instead my own pain, fear, and anguish. Thank you, Renato Bonasera and Radical Grace, for giving me a new prescription for the medicine of Divine Mercy, Joy, and Hope.

It is with unimaginable wonder that I recommend to you tonight His Grace Is Enough.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Many Women Will Still Choose": Choose What?

"There is no law that will end the practice of abortion, only laws that can protect a woman’s right to choose it...."
Choose what?

In yesterday's New York Times, author Kate Manning described at length a variety of gruesome ways in which women would "end a pregnancy" before the legalization of abortion. (She is wrong, by the way, when she says "the United States Supreme Court made abortion legal on Jan. 22, 1973"; even the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute acknowledges that "legal abortions were already available in 17 states under a range of circumstances beyond those necessary to save a woman's life" at the time of the Supreme Court's ruling, which "made abortion legal nationwide.")

As I read her several opening paragraphs that ask "Why would a woman" do this, that, or another thing to herself, the image that came to my mind was of a woman sitting in a bathtub of hot water and slitting her wrists with a knife and bleeding out into the water. Why would a woman do this to herself? She would do it because she wanted to die, or at least as a cry for help, as a way of screaming, "I hurt!"

I've known women who cut themselves just to feel the pain and see the blood, because they needed to experience something louder than all the pain they were already feeling and felt helpless to end. When a woman who feels this kind of pain and engages in this kind of behavior does get someone's attention, every effort is made to help that woman find healthy means to end her pain and her self-abuse.

Yet when a "desperate" pregnant woman is willing to do dangerous, damaging things to herself (not to mention to her prenatal baby, which of course Manning doesn't mention, not even once, not even by any of the common euphemisms, such as fetus), some women would encourage her and even help her to do it!

What if Manning had written an article listing the many ways that a "desperate" woman "determined" to end her life's pain could do so by ending her life? What if she had included a rant against social, religious, and governmental efforts to prevent women in such pain from killing themselves? What if she had raged against social, professional, and legal efforts to provide help for women suffering mentally and emotionally, and advocated for government funding of programs to help women end their own lives? (Sadly, this may not be so far-fetched in a world where the legalization of assisted suicide is an increasing possibility.)

Why indeed, Ms. Manning, would pregnant women do all the horribly dangerous things you have listed? The only reason you have given is "to control their own bodies."


Again, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute (in a 2005 report), the most frequently cited reason for abortion in 2004 was that "having a baby would dramatically change my life" (74%); the second most common reason given was "can’t afford a baby now" (73%); and the third reason identified was "don’t want to be a single mother or having relationship problems" (48%). The only body-control related reason given was "physical problem with my health," cited by only 13 percent of respondents (and what is meant by that is not clear).

If a woman wanted to kill herself because a health-related issue would "change her life" or because she was having financial or relationship problems, would Ms. Manning recommend that she just go ahead and kill herself so she could end her suffering? Wouldn't she instead give or find help for her to live with her health issue and solve her financial and relationship problems? Then why not do the same, in every instance, for every woman distraught because she is pregnant?

Back to the question of the day: What does a woman who chooses abortion actually choose? According to science (and understood intuitively by most individuals, societies, and religions for millennia), abortion ends the already underway life of a new, unique human being who is being nurtured and protected within his mother's womb as he grows and develops to a point when he will be physically able to breath air. Abortion kills that human being either directly (as in "partial-birth" late-term abortion) or by removing the child from the source of his nutrition, sometimes dismembering him in the process.

That is what a woman chooses when she chooses abortion. And there's a reason that abortion, even a legal early, chemically induced one, is so dangerous to women: it forcibly interrupts a natural process. Like cutting and suicide, it is an act of violence—against a woman and her prenatal child. It is an act of violence not only against their (the mother's and the child's) bodies, but also against the mother's mind, heart, and soul.

This is why people like Manning focus on "the pregnancy" and "the procedure" and on such bogus reasons as the need to control one's own body: so they don't have to say—to themselves or to others—what abortion really is and what choosing it really means. Rather than offering women and their children life-supporting options and support, they ignore the real reasons that women with little human beings growing inside them become desperate and determined and willing to risk their lives (legal abortions still sometimes cause the death of the mother) in order to end their own children's lives.

In the process, they abandon women who need help and turn them into women complicit in murder, thereby adding to their burdens rather than easing them.

I have every right to comment on this topic, because I was one of these misguided women, and although I have found peace in my soul through my faith in the forgiveness offered to me through Jesus Christ, I carry, and will carry with me every day of my life, the burden of my own complicity in my child's death. It is a cross that I am willing to bear (and to accept help to carry) rather than lay down prematurely, because by carrying it I remain always conscious of the consequences of what I did and am motivated by that stinging awareness to do whatever I can to help others hold out for real help rather than accept the lie that abortion is the answer.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Epiphany Is (or Should Be) a Pro-Life Holy Day

"Be a star and, like the Magi, lead others to Jesus and His Mother."

This sentence from the homily I heard at the Epiphany Mass I attended on Sunday morning has been replaying in my mind ever since.

Until now, I have never wanted to be a star, preferring to work behind the scenes, building the set, sewing the costumes, setting the stage, finding the necessary props and providing them to the players at just the right times. To be the kind of star this sermon calls us to be, however, is not, it seems to me, inconsistent with my natural tendencies and preferences. This kind of star anyone can be, even someone who builds sets, sews costumes, and provides props as needed by those who like the spotlight.

In the Epiphany story, the star and the Magi are inseparable. If there had been no Magi, seeking a sign and willing to follow it, the star would have gone unnoticed, its purpose lost. And if there had been no star, the Magi would not have known which way to turn.

What was the star, really? There are theories, some science-based, some not, but ultimately it matters less what, technically, the Magi saw, and more that they saw and responded—out of their belief and faith.

Yesterday's homily also made the point that the Magi found not only Jesus, the child Messiah, but also His mother. This is important not only because the Church teaches that Mary was and is a necessary part of the Incarnation and God's plan of salvation. It is also important because it reveals that we cannot and should not see and respond to any child—whether prenatal or born—without seeing and acknowledging the dignity of his or her mother, and vice versa: we cannot and should not see and respond to any mother without seeing and acknowledging the dignity of her child—including and especially her prenatal child.

To treat a mother with dignity means not telling her that her prenatal child is a soulless clump of cells that can be gotten rid of with the same attitude as one would excise a tumor. It means treating her the way Mary's husband, Joseph, did—doing whatever it takes to support and protect her and her child. It means seeking and finding her and her child, bearing gifts, in order to honor them both.
O, while the star of heavenly grace
Invites us, Lord, to seek Thy face,
May we no more that grace repel,
Or quench that light which shines so well!*

* From "What Star Is This, with Beams So Bright," Charles Coffin, 1736.
** Revised approx. 8:53 pm.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

This past Saturday, January 5, the twelfth day of the Christmas season, was the Feast Day of St. John Neumann. The child of a German father and a Czech mother, Neumann was born in Bohemia (which now constitutes the  central and western portions of the Czech Republic). He knew early on that he wanted to be a priest. I was intrigued to learn that, as a seminarian, his studies included not only theology but also astronomy and botany. In 1836, he came to New York, where he was finally ordained a diocesan priest in June of that year. In January 1842 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, a community of priests and brothers known as the Redemptorists. He remained in the United States for the rest of his life, dying suddenly on January 5, 1860.

There are several ways in which, in a sense, our paths have crossed.

(1) The parish of which I am a member bears his name.

(2) Like my polyglot father, Neumann learned languages with ease, eventually hearing confessions in at least six languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, and Gaelic.

(3) In 1852, four years after becoming a U.S. citizen, Neumann was made Bishop of Philadelphia, where I spent more than twenty of the earlier years of my life. During his tenure, he built dozens of churches and nearly one hundred schools. His body is buried in Philadelphia, at a shrine dedicated to his memory.

(4) In 1976, shortly before I was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Temple University's Newman Center, the Center's new building was dedicated. Cardinal John Krol presided over the dedication ceremonies. During the reception that followed the dedication Mass, the Cardinal wandered among the participants introducing himself. When he encountered me, he asked, "Is your name Dolores?" When I replied that it was not, he told me he had been watching me sing in the choir during the Mass and had wondered if my name was Dolores because I had "such sad eyes." He then handed me a small plastic box containing a medal a little larger and fatter than a silver dollar. On one side was a picture of the Cardinal, on the other, a picture of then Blessed John Neumann, who was fully canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1977.

In a sermon titled "God's Will the End of Life," Neumann spoke of the question that some of us have asked after realizing "the vanity and unprofitableness of the world": "Why then am I sent into it?"
"The world professes to supply all that we need, as if we were sent into it for the sake of being sent here, and for nothing beyond the sending.... O this curious, restless, clamorous, panting being, which we call life!—and is there to be no end to all this? Is there no object in it?...

"If there was one among the sons of men, who might allowably have taken His pleasure, and have done His own will here below, surely it was He who came down on earth from the bosom of the Father, and who was so pure and spotless in that human nature which He put on Him, that He could have no human purpose or aim inconsistent with the will of His Father. Yet He, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, came, not to do His own will, but His who sent Him.... He came on earth, not to take His pleasure, not to follow His taste, not for the mere exercise of human affection, but simply to glorify His Father and to do His will. He came charged with a mission, deputed for a work; He looked not to the right nor to the left, He thought not of Himself, He offered Himself up to God.... He sacrificed every wish of His own; that we might understand, that, if He, the Creator, came into His own world, not for His own pleasure, but to do His Father's will, we too have most surely some work to do, and have seriously to bethink ourselves what that work is....

"God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, He lodges it in the body, one by one, for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need, every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do His work, we must rejoice in ours also."
He ended this sermon with a prayer:
"O my Lord and Savior, support me in that hour in the strong arms of Thy Sacraments, and by the fresh fragrance of Thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me, and Thy own Body be my food, and Thy Blood my sprinkling; and let my sweet Mother Mary breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious Saints, and my own dear father ... smile on me; that in them all, and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in Thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love."
May this desire and this end also be ours.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

Yesterday, January 4, was the Eleventh Day of Christmas. It was also the feast day of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first person born in the United States to be declared a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

In Emmitsburg, Maryland, there is a basilica—a very large, grand church—dedicated to honoring the life and legacy of this woman. It is built on land where St. Elizabeth worked, died (on January 4, 1821), and is buried.

In early October 2012, I spent a couple of days in Emmitsburg, and more than a few hours in that basilica. At one point, I entered a small prayer room outside the main sanctuary. On the wall to my right, written large, was this quote from Saint Elizabeth Ann: "If it succeeds, I bless God, if ... it does not succeed, I bless God, because then it will be right that it should not succeed."

These are countercultural words in a world that measures human worth on the basis of "ability to succeed," and attributes success (and failure) to human effort (or lack of effort) alone. But the Office of Readings for yesterday tells us to "work in the world yet without becoming immersed in it" and without "adopting" the "spirit of the world," "for the world in its present form is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31).

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's comfortable world "passed away" with the "failure" of her husband's business and his early death due to tuberculosis, which left her with five small children and no money to support them. She turned for help to God and His Church, becoming a Catholic in March 1805. For the rest of her life she made doing the will of God the scale of her "success."

I sat for a while in that little chapel at the basilica and thought about the many "failures" of my own life. When I finally stood up and turned around to leave the room, I noticed another quote written big on the back wall: "Be but faithful to God with your whole heart, and never fear. He will support, direct, console, and finally crown your dearest hope."

The word that jumped out at me from those two sentences, and still does, was "console." Merriam-Webster's defines "console" as "to alleviate the grief, sense of loss, or trouble of; comfort." If wholehearted, fearless faithfulness enables us to receive God's support, direction, and fulfillment of hope, then why is consolation necessary?

Because for now we experience God only "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12) and thus our faith is not wholehearted and fearless, and we fight constantly against that darkness in ourselves.

In a talk given to her "spiritual daughters," Seton once said,
"We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life, that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.

"But we lack courage to keep a continual watch over nature, and therefore, year after year, with our thousand graces, multiplied resolutions, and fair promises, we run around in a circle of misery and imperfections. After a long time in the service of God, we come nearly to the point from whence we set out, and perhaps with even less ardor ... than when we began our consecration to him."
This is why (as God knew and knows) we needed and need Jesus to "show us the Father" (John 14:8). In John 14:7-11, He said
"If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.... The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these."
This is why (as the Church knows) we also need the witness of the Saints: because they show us the truth of Jesus words, "whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these."


Thursday, January 3, 2013

On the Tenth Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

Writing for the Twelve Days of Christmas has been a one-day-at-a-time educational process. I haven't (mostly) peeked ahead, but have let each day's focus be enough for that day.

This morning I awoke several hours before I needed to and couldn't get back to sleep for at least an hour, so I began to make use of the time, as I often do, by whispering Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Be's until my mind wandered, pulling myself back into prayer as soon as I realized my thoughts had drifted. One time when I caught myself, it occurred to me that I could just call out (quietly, of course) Jesus' name over and over, so that's what I did, and soon I was sleeping again.

When I found out later in the morning that today the Church would celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, I felt like I'd been hugged by invisible arms.

I was seventeen and in my first long-term relationship with a "boy" (a young college man, actually). A few months after we'd started spending time together, he asked me one day, "Why don't you ever call me by my name?" People, he said, like to hear others say their name. Don't just say, for example, "Good morning." Say "Good morning, Paul."

I don't know why I didn't do that naturally and needed to be so instructed, but I have never forgotten his words, or the lesson. As I began practicing what I'd been taught, I discovered I liked it—both ways: I liked saying other people's names, and I liked hearing others say my name. I still do (though I have to admit—and again I don't know why—I still have to practice this courtesy consciously, almost forty years later).

Jesus' name was revealed to both Mary and Jesus by an angel announcing His conception. "Everyone," says St. Peter in Acts 2:21, "shall be saved who calls on the name of the Lord"; and "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins," he says in Acts 2:38. The Apostles performed acts of healing "in the name of Jesus Christ" (such as in Acts 3:6); they suffered "for the sake of" Jesus' name (see Acts 5:41 and 9:16, for instance); and they "preached boldly in the name of the Lord" (as Acts 9:29 tells us). And in Acts 10:43, Peter teaches that "everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name."

Whether I speak your name, you speak my name, or either of us speaks the name of Jesus, why is there such power in it?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On the Ninth Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

"The bread which you use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit."
~ Saint Basil the Great

"God accepts our desires as though they were of great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love him. He accepts our petitions for benefits as though we were doing him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving. So let us not be apathetic in our asking, nor set too narrow bounds to our requests; nor ask for frivolous things unworthy of God’s greatness."
~ Saint Gregory Nazianzen

On this ninth day of the Christmas season, the Church calls attention to two fourth-century Greeks it has declared to be Saints: Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. It honors these men "on the same day," writes blogger Jean Heimann, in order to applaud "a virtue which has always been held in high esteem: friendship." The two men studied together in Athens, after which they both lived for some time as hermits. Basil eventually became Bishop of Caesarea and Gregory became Bishop of Constantinople.

Gregory wrote beautifully of their friendship:
"We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.... When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other....

"The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other's success as his own....

"Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.... our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians."
Jesus called us His friends (John 15:15), and I have been told by many a well-meaning Christian that He is the only friend I really need. St. Gregory's testimony reassures me, however, that sometimes He expresses His friendship by giving two people to each other, so they might inspire each other, learn to yield, spur each other on to virtue, practice love—and thus share the "great pursuit."


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On the Eighth Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

The Church celebrated two "feasts" today, the eighth day of Christmas: the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God; and the circumcision of Jesus.

First, the circumcision.

Leviticus 12:3 instructs the "people of Israel" to circumcise every male child on the eighth day after his birth. I found two sources particularly helpful in understanding why it is important that Jesus was subject to this requirement:
"In his nativity, God becomes human; in his circumcision, God becomes a Jew.... Jesus' circumcision wasn't simply a rote observance of an ancient and somewhat macabre ritual but was rather a necessary step towards establishing his 'street cred' as a Jew and a descendant of David, without which he could not claim the role of Messiah. Just the idea of the Ruler of the Universe being bound by his own laws provides plenty of material for reflection." (Anthony S. Layne)
"God chooses Israel centuries before he reveals himself in Christ and invites them to prepare themselves to be the means by which he would reveal himself to the world in an extraordinary way. Israel, throughout the long ages of its history, glimpses what God will do (that he will become a man) but when this revelation finally happens, the people of Israel are taken by surprise.... circumcision was the sign that Israel had been set apart from other peoples and nations for a particular purpose. In Christ, that purpose is revealed. Israel is the means by which God will reveal himself in the world, and the means by which God does this is by becoming an Israelite himself—being born into an Israelite family, learning its culture and customs, speaking its language, and living its unique way of life." (Father Steve Grunow)

Now, Mary, the Mother of God.

This is a title that pushes many people's buttons. How could this be?! (This question echoes Mary's own first response when the Angel Gabriel announced her pending pregnancy, to which the Angel replied, "nothing will be impossible with God," Luke 1:37). God created Mary; how could she then be said to have given birth to Him?

Of course she didn't conceive and give birth to the one who made her, but she is truly and wholly, no more and no less, the mother of His only begotten Son. "The person in whom Mary's act of conception terminates," writes Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P., "is the Word incarnate, a divine person. The divine maternity, therefore, is a relation, of Mary to Christ and of Christ to Mary."

In Luke 1:43, Elizabeth exclaims to Mary, "And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" The mother of my Lord! My Lord? My God! And Mary, she acknowledged, is His mother.

It's right there, in the Bible.

"Mary treasured all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

And so do I.