Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Lessons from With God in Russia

“I felt I was destined to spend my life doing what I could for my ‘flock’ here in Russia who, as Our Lord had said, were lying like sheep without a shepherd.  Let the KGB do what they ‘must.’  The Lord was my shepherd.  He had proven that.”

One day in 1929, while he was in seminary, Fr. Walter Ciszek heard someone read a letter from Pope Pius XI.  In the letter, the Holy Father spoke about Soviet Russia, where religious persecution was rampant.  There, all the Catholic bishops had been arrested and sent to concentration camps. There, hundreds of parishes lacked a pastor.  It was illegal to teach religion to children.  Seminaries were closed.  The Holy Father expressed the urgent need for well-trained and courageous priests who would go into Russia, to this lost flock.

Even as Father Weber read the letter something within me stirred.  I knew I had come to the end of a long search.  I was convinced that God had at last sought me out and was telling me the answer to my long desire and the reason for all my struggles.   

Yet, while his calling was clear, the way was not.  Catholic priests were not permitted into Russian in 1937.  So first Fr. Ciszek was sent to Albertin, Poland.  He could not enter Russia, but very soon the Russians came to him: the Russian soldiers occupied Poland.  

At this time Russia was hiring workers from occupied territories to work in the Urals, a mountain range in western Russia.  Fr. Ciszek, along with another priest, proposed volunteering to work in the area.  The Archbishop cautiously approved of the plan, directing Fr. Ciszek to return in a year to report whether the conditions were favorable for ministering to the Russian people there.  

On the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19), the train carrying Fr. Ciszek, along with many other volunteer workers, passed into Russia.  

There was no way of knowing what the future would bring, but we were doing at last what we had dreamt so many years of doing.  It didn’t matter if no one else in that boxcar knew we were priests.  We knew it.  Crossing the border gave me a strange sense of exhilaration, and yet, of loneliness, of a beginning and an end to the life we had known. 

At the Urals, Fr. Ciszek worked as an unskilled laborer hauling logs from the river and stacking them over six feet high.  It was demanding labor, with no breaks, and he was paid based on how many logs he stacked.  He later worked as a truck driver, which carried its own hazards in a place where temperatures at times dropped forty degrees below zero.  One night the truck stalled and wouldn’t start.  He spent forty-eight hours sitting in the truck, his cheeks literally freezing, until someone came to help him.  

Fr. Ciszek found ways to continue his ministry as a priest.  He memorized the prayers of the Mass by heart, in case someone took his Mass kit away.  He would offer Mass in the forest after work, using a stump as an altar.  He befriended the children and teens at the camp, asking what they had learned about God in school (nothing) and answering their questions.  The teens especially were curious about religion.  Mostly though, he turned his demanding work into prayer.

Then, unexpectedly, in June 1941 at 3:00 AM secret police surrounded the barracks where he was sleeping.  They found two bottles of Mass wine, a half-pound bag of tooth powder, and a sheet of paper with letters on it, which Fr. Ciszek had been using to teach a little boy the alphabet.  The secret police claimed that the bottles contained nitroglycerin and the powder was gun powder: materials for making bombs.  The paper with the letters was a secret code.  In short, Fr. Ciszek must be a German spy.  

For two months Fr. Ciszek was imprisoned in a 30 by 30 foot cell containing more than 100 people.  

“Of course, there was no such thing as privacy, even to perform the natural processes.  Each evening we were led in groups to the prison toilet, but at all other times we had to use a covered barrel in the cell.  The odor in the room was foul.  Every afternoon, too, we were taken out in groups to walk in the courtyard for perhaps twenty minutes of exercise.  Otherwise, we were confined like sardines, with not even enough room to stretch out and sleep.  The only measure of privacy was to withdraw within yourself, as many did, or else to engage in conversation with one or two people nearest you and try to ignore what was happening in the rest of the room.”

Sometimes people were called out for interrogation.  Some never returned; some came back with bruises.  Fr. Ciszek himself was interrogated, sometimes for a whole day.  They knew far more about him than he ever expected.  They always asked the same questions.  Who were his contacts?  What kind of information had he sent to the Germans?  No matter how often he told his story, they refused to believe him.  He was hit, beaten with clubs, drugged, and put into solitary confinement: a cell of complete darkness. 

Fr. Ciszek spent four years at the famous prison of Lubianka.  For almost a year he lived in a room alone, speaking to no one.  He did his best to order his day around prayer.  He would scrub his wood floor twice each day for exercise.  He read voraciously, including many classic Russian novels.  Outside he could hear the sound of German planes dropping bombs onto Moscow.   

Still, the interrogations continued.

“The weary round of questioning continued; since there had never actually been any espionage or sabotage plot, they couldn’t prove anything, but they kept doggedly insisting.  Tired of the subject as I was, I was equally dogged in insisting that my only motives for entering Russia, or going anywhere in Russia--no matter where--had been purely spiritual ones, like those of priests anywhere.”

Fr. Ciszek and the communists spoke different languages and by that, I do not mean English and Russia.  The communists simply could not understand the spiritual realm.  It probably would have been easier for Fr. Ciszek to make up a story and go along with their insistence that he was a spy.  But he spoke the truth and held fast to the truth of his spiritual motivations.  Our Lord said that the truth will set you free.  It would be many years before Fr. Ciszek would be physically free, but his soul was free .. and he continued to depend on God during those long years in prison, learning to abandon himself to Divine Providence.  

Lubianka was a hard school, but a good one.  I learned there the lesson which would keep me going in the years to come: religion, prayer, and love of God do not change reality, but they give it a new meaning.  In Lubianka I grew firmer in my conviction that whatever happened in my life was nothing else than a reflection of God’s will for me.  And He would protect me.

After being found guilty of espionage, Fr. Ciszek was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia.  There he worked as a coal loader, miner, and construction worker.  Many times he almost died: he was electrocuted and once the ceiling in one of the shafts of the mine almost fell on top of him.  But there were other dangers.  Many of the other prisoners were common thieves and fights would break out within camp.  In 1952 there was a revolt in the work camps and the Russian troops had to violently restore order.  

Here Fr. Ciszek quietly ministered to his hidden flock.  He would offer Mass in another priest’s barrack.  He would go on walks outside and seemingly “run into” a group of two or three men … and quietly distribute Holy Communion to them.  He heard confessions and even offered retreats.  

In April 1955 Fr. Ciszek was informed that he had served his sentence.  He was now a free man … but not really.  The KGB informed him where he would live and even how much money he could earn.  He also had to report to the police station and tell them his address. 

As soon as he was settled, Fr. Ciszek quietly resumed his priestly duties: baptizing, offering Mass, witnessing marriages.  His parish grew as more people came, seeking the sacraments.  They were starving for them.  And yet, just when his ministry was really thriving, the KGB told Fr. Ciszek he had to leave that city and move somewhere else, since he was “agitating the people.”  So he left, went to a new city, and began his spiritual work once again.

Eventually, in 1963, Fr. Ciszek was allowed to return to the United States, in exchange for a Russian spy.  As the plane took off leaving Russia, he made the Sign of the Cross over the country where he had been wrongly accused, sentenced without a trial, beaten, starved, worked mercilessly, frozen, and imprisoned.  But it was not a curse he offered for all that suffering and pain; he offered a blessing.  He was called to Russia to minister to the Russian people and that he did--in prison, in Siberia, in the cities controlled by the communists.  They were his flock and, trusting in Divine Providence, he was their shepherd.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Lessons from Middlemarch

Some say that Middlemarch by George Eliot is the greatest Victorian novel ever written.  Poet Emily Dickinson said of it, "What do I think of Middlemarch?  What do I think of glory -- except that in a few instances 'this mortal [George Eliot] has already put on immortality.'"  That is high praise.  And, in my humble opinion, Middlemarch is a novel worthy of such praise.

First a little background.  George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Anne Evans.  Evans originally envisioned two different stories, which she later blended into one novel.  Middlemarch was published in eight volumes from 1871-1872.

The title comes from the name of a fictitious English town.  Middlemarch has a very wide scope.  The complexity of the town is represented through a long list of characters, who come from all levels and aspects of society.  Eliot often uses the image of a web in her descriptions.  The citizens of Middlemarch are interconnected in various ways and the politics and gossip of the small, provincial town are also entangling like strands of a web.

It's interesting to compare Eliot with another famous English novelist: Jane Austen.  Every Austen novel begins with a single young woman and then follows said woman's journey to marriage.  Each novel ends with a marriage proposal.  Austen's focus is really courtship.  Eliot, however, has her two principle characters marry in the beginning, in the first section of the book.  Middlemarch then traces the journeys of those married lives.  Courtship is certainly adventure, but marriage not any less so ... maybe even more.

Marriage is one of the main themes of Middlemarch.  It's a little ironic, I think, since Eliot herself spent most of her life unmarried.  She lived in an adulterous relationship with a man for many years and considered herself married to him, though in fact, they were not.

Let's start by looking at one of the main characters, Dorothea Brooke.  Dorothea is an ardent, humble, compassionate, and generous young woman.  Eliot paints her as a kind of St. Teresa of Avila: a reformer.  Dorothea has great aspirations and hopes in her heart.  She would like to make life better for those around her.  

"I should like to make life beautiful--I mean everybody's life."

Initially, she does this by trying to create better homes for the poor tenants on her uncle's estate.  She realizes though that, as a woman, her ability to affect change is limited.  Hence, Dorothea looks to marriage as the way she can live out her desire to reform and help those in need.

Her sight is set upon Edward Casaubon, an academic about twenty years her senior.  Dorothea thinks that Casaubon will be the one to help her gain the knowledge and wisdom she lacks.  

"He thinks with me," said Dorothea to herself ...

She herself, as a woman, cannot become a learned scholar, but she anticipates that Casaubon may be both her husband and her teacher.  She perceives him as the guide who will take her along the greater path.  In turn, she is eager to be his helpmate and assistant.  Since he is older, Casaubon's eyesight is failing.  Dorothea desires to be his eyes and to help him in what she perceives is a task of great influence and important: writing his Key to All Mythologies.  

 " ... it always seemed to me that the use I should like to make of my life would be to help some one who did great works, so that his burthen might be lighter."

Her relatives and friends all discourage her from pursuing a marriage to Casaubon, but Dorothea ignores their advice.  She is a very headstrong woman and, once she becomes passionate about an idea, she is hard to deter.  

Eliot makes it clear from the beginning that this marriage will not be easy.  The issue is that, when a man and woman enter into marriage, they both have expectations of what that married life like will be like: what they desire and hope from the other.  What happens when those expectations don't align?  People often talk about finding their "soul mate."  But what if you marry someone who isn't your soul mate?  What what happens if you marry the wrong person?  

She was always trying to be what her husband wished, and never able to repose on his delight in what she was.

Mr. Casaubon's expectations are entirely different from Dorothea.  First, they have contrasting personalities, which are not complimentary.  Where Dorothea is passionate, youthful, and lively, Mr. Casaubon is slow, aged, and deliberate.  Even his mannerisms are tedious: Eliot describes him as slowly nodding his head in assent.  His knowledge is characterized as a "lifeless embalmment."  He describes himself thus:

"I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with the dead.  My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes."

As a husband, Mr. Casaubon is pathetic.  He takes Dorothea to Rome for their honeymoon, but spends the day in the Vatican libraries alone, pouring over research and compiling notes for his always-ongoing, never-completed book.  When they have an argument concerning that very book, Dorothea is the first the apologize, with tears of remorse, but Mr. Casaubon offers no apology for his wrongdoing.  He is emotionally vacant and physically distant.  

"What is that, my love?" said Mr. Casaubon (he always said "my love" when his manner was the coldest).


It feels like Dorothea loses herself in this marriage.  It's a question that I often pondered as I read Middlemarch.  Obviously as a wife, you should give yourself to your husband, serving him generously and selflessly.  But, on the other hand, you aren't called to be a doormat, to entirely ignore your own needs and dreams.  In my past life, I found that I would revert to whatever another person wanted, keeping my own desires silent, for the sake of "people pleasing."  If someone were to ask me what kind of movie we should see, I often would reply, "Oh, whatever you want" -- as though my opinion didn't really matter.  I'm not so sure that this is virtue; it feels more like low self-esteem, shyness, or lack of fortitude.  Dorothea seems guilty of this, too.  For example, during their engagement, when Mr. Casaubon asks her how she would like her rooms decorated in their home, she responds that she prefers whatever he would like.  

Dorothea lives her marriage in complete submission to Mr. Casaubon, as a kind of virtue.  Renunciation and duty are the driving forces for her marriage.  Perhaps this would lead to a healthy and loving marriage, if her husband acted the same in return.  Such is not the case, however.  

When would the days begin of that active wifely devotion which was to strengthen her husband's life and exalt her own?  Never perhaps ...

Dorothea's expectations of married life are entirely dashed.  Mr. Casaubon is not at all interested in elevating his wife's knowledge.  He does not consider her someone capable of learning such as he.  But just as devastating is Dorothea's gradual realization that Mr. Casaubon's lifelong labor of love, his Key to All Mythologies, is irrelevant and needless.  She learns, from Mr. Casaubon's cousin, that the German scholars have long since discussed this topic and have shifted the intellectual debate to a new angle.  Casaubon's unfinished work will add nothing to the conversation (especially since he cannot read the German texts).  So, what great task, what lofty work, is there for Dorothea to even assist in?  It is all for naught.

... had she not wished to marry him that she might help him in his life's labor?—But she had thought the work was to be something greater, which she could serve in devoutly for its own sake. Was it right, even to soothe his grief—would it be possible, even if she promised—to work as in a treadmill fruitlessly?

Eliot, however, is brilliant in her writing because, as horribly as she paints Mr. Casaubon, she doesn't make him the villain; she makes the reader actually sympathize with him.  Though his behavior toward Dorothea is despicable, Eliot changes the perspective and reveals that Mr. Casaubon had his own expectations of marriage.  He wanted a wife who would sit in awe of his writing and academic efforts.  

Instead, Dorothea's efforts to assist and encourage strike him as a critique and interference.  When she urges him to at last finish his book, he reacts defensively.  Who was she to know when his notes and preparation were ready?  He already felt internally insecure about his project ... he didn't even want to voice to himself that his book would never bring him the fame and respect he desired.  How much worse to have his wife, whom he expected to be his ally and supporter, be the judge--she who knew so little?  


He distrusted her affection; and what loneliness is more lonely than distrust?


Dorothea's character finds a parallel in the figure of Tertius Lydgate, a newcomer to Middlemarch.  Lydgate is a doctor who, like Dorothea, hopes to do great things to help others.  He desires to advance in the medical field, to help others through his research.  He cares for his patients and sincerely seeks the best remedy for their conditions (not just prescribing medicine in order to get some extra cash in his pocket, as his colleagues do).  

Lydgate doesn't intend to marry, since he wants to devote his energy and time to the medical cause.  But then he meets Rosamond Vincy.  She is Dorothea's foil; where Dorothea constantly gives and gives of herself, Rosamond seeks to gain.  Her expectations are to climb the social ladder of society and, similar to Dorothea, she cannot do that on her own as a woman.  She needs a husband who will elevate her to the upper echelon of society.  Rosamond sets her sight on Lydgate, whom she believes is wealthy and from a high, respectable family.

Rosamond and Lydgate

Rosamond is a pupil of a woman's school and knows just the right way to turn her delicate head to give her profile its best advantage.  She has rejected all the Middlemarch suitors: she wants an outsider who will get her out of this provincial town.  She acts as though she is playing a part in a play ... and she is the star.

Lydgate completely falls for her charms.  He marries Rosamond, confident that he has found "perfect womanhood."  His expectations for marriage are high.

[Rosamond would be an] accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair's-breadth beyond—docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from that limit.

Lydgate, never before concerned about financial concerns, piles up a large debt in buying and preparing a new home.  Soon both he and his wife find that their expectations are far from being met.  They are unhappy.  Rosamond is devastated when Lydgate reveals they must economize and even purposefully thwarts his effort to put their house up for rent.  Lydgate finds that Rosamond is repulsed by his research and scientific talk.  She is not a docile wife; despite his pleas and rationales, she calmly and collectedly does what she wants.  


Between him and her indeed there was that total missing of each other's mental track, which is too evidently possible even between persons who are continually thinking of each other.


Marriage is such a fascinating relationship.  Two people can be bound together in the closest bond possible ... and yet, sometimes, that closeness makes the distance between them even greater.  At one point, Lydgate tells Rosamond, "When I hurt you, I hurt part of my own life."  What a beautiful way to describe marriage: their hurt is always shared, because husband and wife are really one.  As frustrated as Lydgate is with her, he sympathizes with Rosamond.  He knows she married him, not fully realizing what married life with him would be like.

Just like with Mr. Casaubon, Eliot elicits sympathy for Rosamund, despite her selfishness.  Perhaps she was not suited for marriage.  Maybe she would have risen through society on her own merits and abilities--if she had been a man.  Rosamond is trapped in her marriage, in its self-suppression and submission.  This is not what marriage is intended to be, but it is the reality for Lydgate and Rosamond.

Perhaps you are wondering, in these dismal portrayals of difficult marriages, whether Eliot offers any hope.  The answer is: yes.  Rosamond has a brother named Fred, who is in love with a girl named Mary Garth.  They were childhood playmates and grew-up as friends.  That solid friendship provides a strong foundation for their relationship.  Fred wishes to marry Mary, but she sets very clear expectations.  Fred has not finished school, struggles with gambling, and hasn't proven himself dependable.  Mary tells him he must finish school, pay his debts, and hold down a solid job before they can marry.  There is romance, prudence, and--with clear expectations--they are able to enjoy a married life as husband and wife.  

Eliot's Middlemarch is a fascinating read and certainly gives the reader much to ponder, especially regarding marriage.  Dorothea and Rosamond find themselves in similar, dismal marriages, but they handle it in contrasting ways: Dorothea by self-sacrificing her desires to serve her husband; Rosamond by asserting his own desires to the detriment of her husband.  No marriage is without its time of struggle and pain.  But, as Eliot poignantly writes, it is always an epic journey.

Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic—the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Lift Up Your Hearts

When you hear the word “heaven,” what do you picture in your mind?  Fluffy clouds, bright light, cherubs, or pearly gates?  Regardless of what we see with our mind’s eye, we don’t really know what heaven will be like.  St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (2:9).  Heaven is greater and more perfect than anything we could begin to imagine.  

However, that being said, we do know for certain one thing about heaven, namely, there are two human bodies there: the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ.  It is Christ’s physical ascent into heaven that we celebrate today, in the feast of the Ascension.  With the Ascension, humanity is forever part of heaven.  As theologian Peter Kreeft writes, “Christ’s Ascension brought his human body and soul to heaven into the Godhead forever.”


I once viewed the Ascension as a mark on the roadmap between Easter and Pentecost … not really a major event itself, but more as preparation for the bigger feast of Pentecost.  Well, I was wrong!  Consider this: the Catholic Church teaches that the Ascension is not just a moment in the life of Our Lord.  No, it is actually part of His redemptive action.  The Paschal mystery doesn’t end with the Resurrection on Easter; it includes Christ’s Passion, crucifixion, Resurrection, and the Ascension.  (This explains why it is a holy day of obligation!)

The Ascension is the last act of Christ here on earth.  Interestingly, it parallels in some ways His birth, His first act on earth.  In both cases people look to the sky (shepherds and the apostles).  Angels act as messengers, directing, explaining, and encouraging.  And both moments focus on Christ’s physical body.

Why, exactly, did Christ have to leave?  What other marvelous deeds and mighty acts might He have done had He remained here?  

Firstly, Christ ascended because earth was no longer a suitable dwelling place for Him.  Remember that scene at the empty tomb when Mary Magdalene realizes that Jesus is standing before her?  Our Lord tells her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17).  His body is now a glorified body: He can enter closed rooms, suddenly disappear, and no longer physically suffers.  This is a glorified body that belongs in the glory of heaven, where the angelic hosts can adore and worship Him!  

But Christ ascended because it was also better for us for Him to leave.  At the Last Supper, Jesus said to His apostles, “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.  For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

God always does what is best for us, even though at times we may not recognize it.  In the instance of the Ascension, Christ left this earth so He could be with us in an even better, more intimate way.  He is intimately with us—within us—in the Eucharist.  Pope Francis said, “The Ascension does not point to Jesus’ absence, but tells us that He is alive in our midst in a new way. He is no longer in a specific place in the world as He was before the Ascension. He is now in the lordship of God, present in every space and time, close to each one of us.”  In heaven, Christ continues to help us here on earth.  Seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ is our Eternal High Priest, interceding for us.

Perhaps this new, continuing presence of Christ is why our Blessed Mother and the apostles left the Ascension “with great joy” (Luke 24:52).  The Ascension is not a sad moment, but one of joy!  Jesus is with us in a different way, but still here.  And with His Ascension, there is the wonderful expectation of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit who will inspire, guide, and direct the apostles in their mission.

Indeed, at the Ascension, we see the shift from the ministry of Christ to the ministry of the Church.  We can view the Ascension as the connecting link between these two ministries.  Perhaps that is why St. Luke included the Ascension at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.  In His final words to His followers, Jesus says, “ … you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  The power of Christ is now given to the Church.  Christ’s apostles and their successors will bring the Good News of the Gospel to all corners of the earth.

That is the same ministry that we, members of the Church, are called to exercise.  How are we witnesses for Christ—in our families, workplaces, friendships, and community?  After Christ ascends into heaven, the two angels who appear exhort the apostles, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11).  Let’s not forget that Jesus will come again—not as an unassuming, helpless infant, but coming out of the sky in all His majesty and glory, the hosts of angels announcing His Second Coming.  He will come to earth again, but we know not the hour.  Are we ready?  Are we conscientiously doing the work He has given us to do?

In the middle of each Mass, the priest calls us to “lift up our hearts.”  Every day and every moment we should lift them up … all the way to heaven.   

Friday, April 10, 2020

Lessons from Vipers' Tangle

A few years ago, our oldest daughter, Mary, attended Vacation Bible School at our Catholic parish.  As she and the other children practiced one of the VBS songs, I heard this line: "You are good, when there's nothing good in me."

I cringed inside.  Nothing good in me?  It immediately didn't sit right with me, especially coming from the mouths of children!  Even adults, capable and guilty of mortal sin, even at our worst moments ... do we ever reach a point where there is "nothing good in me?"

The VBS program was Protestant and that's where this kind of theology came from.  Martin Luther asserted of man, "He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit; a dunghill, and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, explains that man is created by God and for God.  He is made in the "image and likeness" of God Himself.  God can only create good!  Man is intrinsically good, though sin has corrupted his nature.  Saint Thomas Aquinas explained that evil is choosing a lesser good over the greatest good (God).  So even when a person sins, he or she is still trying (wrongly) to pursue a good.

But what about when someone loses sight of this inherent goodness and all that he can see is evil ... the dunghill ... the tangle of vipers?

I felt, I saw, I had it in my hand—that crime of mine. It did not consist entirely in that hideous nest of vipers—hatred of my children, desire for revenge, love of money; but also in my refusal to seek beyond those entangled vipers. I had held fast to that loathsome tangle as though it were my very heart—as though the beatings of that heart had merged into those writhing reptiles.


Vipers' Tangle, written by Nobel Prize Winner Francois Mauriac in 1932, takes the form of a letter, written by embittered, resentful Louis to his wife, Isa.  He is dying of a heart condition and he sets out to air his grievances toward her and to explain why she and their children will not inherit his massive fortune. 

Louis describes his childhood: he came from the peasant class.  His father died when he was very young, leaving him to be raised by an overprotective, doting mother.  He was a socially awkward boy, never able to joke around with others or bond with friends.  

My youth was nothing but one long suicide.  I hastened to displease on purpose for fear of displeasing naturally.

Things seemed to change when he met Isa.  At once he experienced the sensation of being wanted and loved.  His perspective, warmed by this affection, broadened.  Love whispered of Love ...

I suddenly had an intense feeling, an almost physical certitude, that another world existed, a reality of which we knew nothing but the shadow ... 

Shortly after their marriage, it abruptly ended.  One night, laying together in bed, Isa confessed to Louis that, before they met, she had been in love with another man.  Louis concludes that he was the one Isa had settled for: her second choice, her last-ditch effort at marriage.  She must have never really loved him.  

Already the infinitesimal space that separated our outstretched bodies had become impassable ... already I was asking myself: "Less than a year after this great love, how could she have loved me? ... It was all a sham ... She lied to me.  I am not set free.  How could I have thought that any girl would fall in love with me?  I am a man whom nobody can love."

For fifty years he nursed this grudge.  In his letter to her, Louis condemns her for ignoring him and favoring the children to his company, which she found boring.  He chastises her Christianity, purposefully eating meat on Friday to scandalize the family and refusing to go to Mass on Sunday despite his daughter's pleas.  Embittered, Louis clings to his wealth.

An old man only lives by virtue of what he possesses.  Once he ceases to possess anything, he is thrown on the scrap-heap .. Yes, indeed, I am afraid of being poor.  I feel as though I could never accumulate enough money. 

He is determined that his wife and children should not inherit his wealth.  One night Louis overhears them discussing his money and making plans for how they can secure it.  His family is a tangle of vipers, lusting after his gold.  Louis leaves unannounced the next morning, to meet his illegitimate son in another city and to arrange for him to receive his fortune.  

While Louis is away, Isa dies.  He is astonished: it never occurred to him that she would predecease him.  He was the sick one, not her!  All of his plans are destroyed.

I should never see my wife again. There would never be any explanation between us. She would never read these pages. Things would remain eternally at the point where I had left them when I went away from Calese. We could not begin over again, make a start on a new basis. She was dead without knowing me, without knowing that I was not merely that monster, that torturer, and that another man existed in me. 

Louis begins to realize that, all throughout his marriage, he decided how he would interpret all of Isa's actions and words--always to her detriment.  He only saw one side of her, the side that stoked the fire of his resentment.  

But there is always more to a person than his or her worst actions.  There is never a point where there is "nothing good in me."

We do not know what we desire. We do not love what we think we love. 

For most of his life, Louis believed that his love was his money.  On the day of Isa's funeral, he found that his attachment to money was no longer there.  He handed over the security deposits and bank notes to his children.  

One night, as the hail pounded against the house, like God's grace pounding against his sick heart, Louis realizes his error.  He had believed that his heart was that tangle of vipers: hatred for his wife and his children, desire for revenge, greed.  But that was all the sinfulness surrounding his heart, choking it.  He needed to go deeper, to cut past all of those vices.  He was more than his worst deeds.

He also had to do the same with those around him.  How often had he stopped at the mask people put up?  His son's mask of Christianity--dipping his hand in Holy Water while conspiring to seize Louis's fortune.  Or his granddaughter, Janine, saying that she performed her Christian duty, in the same tone of voice that she might say that she paid her taxes.  Those are masks, a false religion.  Louis had stopped at that, had criticized and ridiculed that Christianity.  The problem, however, is God is something more than that mask.  

Before we can reach others, we must penetrate their masks.  Before we can know ourselves, we must penetrate our mask.  We have to cut through the tangle of vipers.

Have you ever seen yourself on video?  I remember watching myself on a video one day and thinking, "Oh.  So that's what the back of my head looks like!"  I was so accustomed to seeing one perspective of my appearance in a mirror, that seeing myself from a new angle was almost jarring.  That person ... is me?  

It is so hard sometimes to see ourselves and others correctly.  But when we can cut through the masks--the sinfulness, resentment, the hurt--there is a child of God.  There is good inside of me, inside of you.  And in this novel, a book that spends the majority of the time demonstrating how vile and disgusting a character Louis is, by the end, you realize he is good, too.  As his granddaughter writes to Louis' son, her uncle:

But let me tell you why, finally, I think that he was right and we were wrong.  There where our treasure was, there was our heart also.  We thought of nothing but that threatened heritage ... Will you understand me if I tell you that, where his treasure was, there was not his heart also?


Friday, March 27, 2020

Lessons from Father Elijah

"It is a dark century ... To look into this darkness and see there the victory of Christ is the essence of hope."

My life today feels very different from the way it was just two weeks ago.  Two Fridays ago, I took our youngest two children to a science museum.  It was a carefree, leisurely outing.  We saw butterflies and played with bubbles.  Our oldest two were in school.  We were looking forward to a weekend of getting together with some friends and attending Mass at our parish.  Life felt normal and comfortable.

Today I spent the morning homeschooling our oldest two since their school has been closed due to the coronavirus.  I have no idea when school will reopen--if it even will reopen this academic year.  No one has left the house all week, except to play in the backyard.  All plans, socializing, events, and gatherings are cancelled.  Life is completely abnormal and unpredictable right now.

In the midst of all of this, one morning the news reported an earthquake in our area (upstate NY, so definitely an unusual occurrence).  I remarked to my Mom whether this is the end of the world.  At the time, I was saying it in jest.  But now, with the world in turmoil due to the coronavirus ... I start to wonder.

Father Elijah by Michael O'Brien is a Catholic, apocalyptic novel.  One of the fascinating points made in the book is the concept that those who are living in the end times, may not actually recognize it as the end times.  The book of Revelation speaks of huge, jarring events, but this language is also symbolic.  The Antichrist is a figure that rises again and again throughout history.  We may be in the end times right now.  

"The spirit of Antichrist has been present from the beginning.  Saint John says to the believers of his time that they are living in the final hour.  In a sense, all of the Christian era is the last days."

The protagonist, Father Elijah, is no stranger to suffering.  A Jewish boy living in Poland during World War II, he lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  He later became a political leader in Israel, but eventually found his way to the monastery at Carmel.  He converted to Catholicism and became a monk, separated from the world for twenty years.  

As the book opens, Father Elijah is summoned to Rome to meet with the pope.  Elijah finds the world much changed from how he remembered.  The culture of death looms large and there is a strong anti-clerical bias.  The President of Europe has captivated people, but the pope fears that his anti-religion message that deifies man, will ultimately destroy them all.  The pope asks Elijah to become acquainted with the President, to gain his confidence with the hope of warning him against this danger.  

"In those days the world had its evil masters, Nero, Tiberius, and Domitian.  But even amidst the collapse of civilization, the world was crawling out of darkness.  We are sliding back into it, and that is the difference.  Our autocrats are not vicious tyrants.  They are the architects of worldpower; and they manipulate all the resources of modern psychology to control the soul of man and make him an instrument of their purpose." 

Can Elijah convert the man who may be the Antichrist?  And, in the process, will Elijah lose his own soul?  This is rampant spiritual warfare.  In one gripping scene, Elijah is conversing with the Cardinal Secretary of State in secret, hidden in a private catacomb.  The door outside suddenly slams, extinguishing their sole candle.  The room fills with a horrid stench and Elijah's soul is filled with morbid dread.  

"It began in earnest some time ago.  The deadliest part of the battle is hidden.  Some of it is above our heads in the heavenly realms where the righteous angels battle against the demons.  But there is much unseen warfare on earth."

The President is an ominous foe.  His personality is effusive, dynamic, and compelling.  Elijah himself feels as though he falls under the President's power.  This President is also onto him: he is fully aware of Elijah's mission and plans, since he had a listening device secretly installed in the reliquary that the Cardinal Secretary of State keeps tucked against his chest.  

The President has his own ploy.  He would like to convert Elijah to his cause and the way to do that is through Elijah's heart.  The President solicits a world judge named Anna to secretly woo Elijah and made him fall in love with her.  

This is a spiritual battle on the grand scale (the world), but also on the individual scale.  There is a gripping scene--paralleling Dostoyevsky's the Grand Inquisitor--where Elijah dialogues with a bedridden, spiritually crippled atheist.  He is on his deathbed and Elijah fights for the man's soul as his death nears.  It is an intellectual back-and-forth of ideas and philosophies.  But it is an act of love only that can move this bitter man's heart.

Meanwhile, Elijah must face his own demons.  He has his own spiritual wounds.  Where was God during the Holocaust?  Even though God has given Elijah countless signs and graces, he still questions.  As the apocalypse nears, God asks him to step into the literal darkness and reach the dramatic point where he realizes--despite his accomplishments, his knowledge, his talents and gifts--"I know nothing."  And that is precisely when God says that Elijah has learned everything.

This is a novel that will stay with me for a long time.  From a literary point of view, it has passages that are suspenseful and page turning.  For example, at one point, Elijah finds himself wanted by the police for murder.  The political and spiritual threats are very real.  From a spiritual point of view, there is a keen sense of sacramental grace and heavenly assistance.  Some characters feel very familiar: the pope is modeled on St. John Paul II and there is a friar who is reminiscent of Saint Padre Pio.  The passages of prayer dialogue between Elijah and Our Lord are sincere and heartfelt.  For example, Our Lord says to Elijah,

I ask you to fear nothing.  I have brought you forth like a brand from the burning in order to address the foe and for the good of many souls.  I carry you always.  You must trust Me especially during times of desolation.

Today we are in the midst of desolation--a health and financial crises.  But it is also a spiritual crisis, too.  Our churches are closed.  There is no Eucharist.  The days feel dark. 

God wants us to enter into Christ's words, "I thirst."  We need to feel that thirst for God.  We can look into this darkness and see Christ's victory.  And that, ultimately, is the good news of the apocalypse.  

"In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the word" (John 16:33).

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Know Your Enemy

A family had just moved into a new home, which they were renting, when they quickly noticed some strange things.  There were noises in the night.  Inexplicable shadows appeared on the wall, but there was no light to cast them.  The family became so disturbed that finally, one night, the father got everyone in the car and started to drive away.  They were only in the driveway when the father suddenly got a call on his cell phone.  It was from the house number though no one was in the house.  He picked it up and heard, “Come back here.

Sounds like something from a movie, but instead I heard this story (based on a real event) in a homily, given by a Catholic priest on the first Sunday of Lent.  Have you ever noticed that this Sunday’s Gospel (the First Sunday of Lent) is the same every single year? We always hear about Christ’s temptation in the desert as we begin the Lenten season.  And in that Gospel passage, we hear about the devil.

We are beginning our 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  We will inevitably face temptation during this time: maybe to abandon our good resolutions, to compromise, or to feel defeated and discouraged if we stumble.  Sometimes we yield to temptation out of laziness, love of pleasure, comfort-seeking, and other vices. But sometimes the temptation to deviate from our good Lenten resolutions comes from a source outside of ourselves.

Whether we are always aware of it or not, we are all engaged in a battle.  We are in spiritual combat right now and there is an Enemy. One of the most important strategies of warfare is to know your opponent.  How well do you know yours? I don’t mean to scare you, but the Enemy certainly knows you.

He goes by many names: Satan, the devil, the serpent, the dragon, the accuser, the evil one, Lucifer.  But who is he? The devil is a fallen angel. Lucifer (meaning “light bearer”) was the highest of all the angels that God created.  However, he abused his freedom, choosing to disobey God. His “Non serviam!” (“I will not serve!) was the ultimate act of pride.  Milton in his Paradise Lost has Satan sneer, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

After his rebellion, Satan was cast out of heaven.  This was the first act of evil: evil was a historical event.  As we read in the book of Revelation 12:7-9:

“Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.”
As an angel, the devil has no natural body.  He is pure intellect. Unlike our minds, which are always acquiring new information and making connections, angels know fully and completely.  This is why, when the devil disobeyed God, it was a permanent choice with no possibility for repentance. Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, “Hence it is commonly said that while a man’s free will is able to alternate between contraries both and after a choice, an angel’s is able to so alternate only before choice.”  When an angel wills something, it does so entirely with full knowledge of its decision and so the devil will always be evil.
The devil now roams about the earth, “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  He actively works to lead souls away from God. That is what he did with Adam and Eve.  You’ve probably heard the saying that “the devil made me do it.” It’s a misleading notion, though.  God has gifted us with free will. We are responsible for our own decisions. The key, however, is that—when we are making those decisions—the devil is actively persuading us to choose the lesser good … in other words, to choose evil.  This is the devil’s whole agenda.
What can we do to protect ourselves from this Enemy?  Here are some suggestions.
  1. Don’t make the devil bigger than he is. Yes, Satan is powerful and active.  Sometimes we can look at the world around us, with its warfare, terrorism, discord, and violence and feel like the devil has won.  Don’t be discouraged or lose hope—that is what the devil wants us to do! He is the “father of lies” (John 8:44). Despite how difficult things may be, the truth is that Satan is defeated.  Christ conquered Him through the Cross! Satan is the loser and, through the grace of God, we are on the winning side. “Indeed the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
  1. Take the devil seriously. There are some who simply deny that the devil exists.  I had a professor, for example, who bluntly told me there is no Satan.  Some theologians assert that the language discussing Satan is simply myth or fictitious.  Christ, however, took the devil seriously and so should we. Satan is not an obscure ideology or psychological condition, but a true, active, and powerful reality.  Scripture and Church Tradition both confirm this. As Pope Francis teaches about the devil, “He is evil, he’s not like mist. He’s not a diffuse thing, he is a person.  I’m convinced that one must never converse with Satan—if you do that, you’ll be lost.” Pray the St. Michael prayer daily in your battle against evil.
  1. Know Scripture. This Sunday’s Gospel of the temptation in the desert shows us two things.  First, Satan knows his Bible. He has the audacity to tempt Christ (the Word of God made flesh) with the Word of God in Scripture.  Satan quotes Scripture and twists it, taking something good and trying to bring it to an evil end. (This is why, by the way, we are so blessed as Catholics to have the Church to guide us in our interpretation of Scripture, lest we be led astray by false ideas.)  Second, how does Christ combat the devil’s temptations? He quotes Scripture back to him! Scripture is a weapon in our arsenal against the Enemy. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
  1. Stay close to our Blessed Mother. She is the Second Eve who, through her humility, crushed the proud head of the serpent.  Satan fears Mary.  Father Gabriele Amorth, the former chief exorcist of Rome, described an exchange he had with the devil, who said of Mary, “She makes me angry because she is the humblest of all creatures, and because I am the proudest; because she is the purest of all creatures, and I am not; because, of all creatures, she is the most obedient to God, and I am a rebel!” Our Mother—the most perfect of all mothers— will protect us, as any good mother will do with her children.  Pope Francis reassures us, “Where the Madonna is at home, the devil does not enter; where there is the Mother, disturbance does not prevail, fear does not win.”  Pray the rosary daily and make a Total Consecration to our Blessed Mother.
  1. Guard yourself. Don’t open your soul up to evil spirits.  A ouija board, fortune telling, or seances might seem innocuous, but they are actually a way for the devil to gain access to your soul.  Playing a ouija board, by the way, is how the real life possession behind The Exorcist started.  Possession, though rare, does indeed happen. 
  1. Have recourse to the sacraments (especially Holy Eucharist and Confession).  They will give us the supernatural grace to resist the devil’s temptations!
Our Lord is with us as we begin this Lent.  He has fought the battle and won! He will help us in our fight, too.  When Lent is over and Easter Sunday has arrived, we will once again renew our Baptismal promises, which begin with rejecting Satan, his works, and his empty promises.   We need to know our enemy, but we need not fear. As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us in her Autobiography
“If this Lord is powerful, as I see that He is and if the devils are His slaves … what evil can they do to me since I am a servant of this Lord and King?  Why shouldn’t I have the fortitude to engage in combat with all of hell?”