Saturday, February 25, 2012

Marriage is a Crucifixion

A few years ago, I was with a couple of friends who were having a conversation.  The one was in a relationship with a man and was sharing her deep longing for him to propose and for them to finally be married.  The other woman, a charismatic Filipino married two plus years, proclaimed, “Marriage is a crucifixion!”
A newlywed at the time, I was a bit surprised, if not a little concerned, by her declaration.  Marriage–a crucifixion?  I remember wondering to myself if things really got that bad once the honeymoon phase was over.
Fast forward two years and now I see exactly what my wise friend meant.  To say that marriage is a crucifixion isn’t equating marriage with drudgery and punishment.  No, quite the contrary: marriage, when fully lived out as it is intended to be, is one of the most profound expressions of love.
Marriage is all about crucifying your own personal interests, desires, ambitions…basically, your self-will.  You take all that you have and give it to your beloved.  You give your espoused your entire self out of love; you sacrifice yourself for him or her.  This goes from the menial to the extreme: from ironing his shirt to seeing him or her through a critical illness.
That is what the marital act is all about, too: it is a permanent, total self-giving to your spouse.  When a husband and wife are both 100% giving to the other, marriage transforms into a powerful expression of love.
The beauty of it all is that crucifixion leads to resurrection: crucifixion leads to new life.  The marital act, as a total self-giving, brings forth the new life of children. When a husband and wife put each other before their own self-interests, the marriage blossoms with joyful life.
Crucifixion is hard sometimes, but it is necessary.  It’s hard to deny yourself and put your spouse first, particularly during those times when you must deny your pride, your hurt, your anger, your impatience.  Yet, when you do so, new life of reconciliation, forgiveness, empathy, and love will flow from your act of sacrifice.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor

We have a lovely neighbor named Louise who lives across the street. She’s a gray-haired, broadly smiling old lady who is frequently spotted watering her geraniums by the back porch or pulling out of her driveway in a cherry red car. She’s amiable, always waving to us when we pass by, and was particularly helpful in directing us to a great garage sale a few weeks ago.
I like Louise.
The directive, “Love thy neighbor,” never really hit home to me until fairly recently. I understood how we should love the poor, the outcast, the people we really don’t care for all that much.
But loving thy neighbor in the most literal sense of the word has become one of my personal greatest challenges.
You see, we share a house. We are renting a lovely, one hundred year home that has three floors for three different tenants. Floor #1 is a non-issue: quiet college student who must be pretty studious, as she’s not home all that much and when she is, we don’t hear a peep from her. She’s kind of like Louise. I like her.
Floor #2 is us.
Floor #3 is trouble. I don’t like them. At all.
What makes matters worse is that we share a common door and staircase with them. So their comings and goings (and those of the dozen or so friends who seem to visit them on a fairly daily basis) are very apparent to us.
So why don’t I like them? It hits at the very bones of what I’m striving to do here. Pax et bonum! A home full of peace and goodness: that’s my mission!
Alas, Floor #3 is a thorn in my side. How in heaven’s name can I foster peace when they are throwing a raucous party at 1 AM? How can I promote goodness when I am stewing in anger, resentful that their yelling/laughing/obscenity shouting is keeping me awake during the early hours of the day?
Charity doesn’t mean being a pushover. We’ve taken various measures to try to keep their antics at a more reasonable level (ex: calling the police during a revelry last weekend).
Charity does, however, necessitate loving them. Ugh! Loving them? My mind rattles off a dozen reasons why every ounce of me should not love them. And should I forget, our kitchen ceiling—wet from when they irresponsibly let their water overrun—is a ready reminder of the grudge I should hold against them.
Yet…yes, even those electric guitar playing, dreadlocks-wearing neighbors…even them I must love.
How? That’s what I asked my husband, who didn’t seem quite as perturbed and unsettled as I. He asked me to put myself in their shoes. All night parties. Rock music (and not very wholesome rock music at that). Obscenities. Dubious behavior.
Do they know the joy that we have? You know, the joy that springs forth from a heart that’s close to the very source of peace and goodness?
While I don’t know for certain what exactly transpires on that third floor (and, thank you, I’d rather never know the details), I highly suspect that, no, they don’t experience at all the joy that we do.
And for that, I am truly sorry for them. So I’m not certain, but perhaps maybe that’s where love can begin.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Hope In Sadness

On Friday, February 3 a beautiful five-year-old girl named Madeline (Maddie) was diagnosed with an untreatable tumor in her brainstem.  This past Wednesday morning, five short days later, she passed away.
While I have friends who knew Maddie and are close to her family, I myself never had the privilege of meeting her.  Nevertheless, the lack of a formal introduction didn’t keep this little girl from touching my heart and influencing my life.
Maybe it’s because I am a mother now and have my own little girl, but Maddie’s story has occupied my mind ever since I first heard of her sad diagnosis.  It’s the kind of heartbreaking news that just leaves one absolutely confounded.  Why?  Why such tragedy and sadness, especially so sudden and so unexpected, for one so young and innocent?
On Wednesday morning I visited a nearby church and sat before Our Lord, thinking about Maddie.  I had just learned of her passing before I left the house.
As I knelt there, I prayed for her and for her family and friends.  And I reflected about what this little girl reminded me..
Her life reminded me that I need to always keep a broad perspective, to have an eternal view.  It’s so easy for me to forget that I wasn’t made for this world; I was made for a heavenly world.  This earth is just a passageway, not a final destination.  There is so much more beyond what we can see and experience here.  What comes next is unexperienced and foreign and so it slips out of our minds.  But it’s real–more real than this world even–and every day we should keep this eternal perspective.
Maddie’s story is scary in many ways.  It scared me at least.  As a mother, I have experienced a whole new kind of love.  The way I love our daughter is unlike any other love I have known.  The thing with love, however, is that it makes you very perceptible to suffering.  Should your loved one experience pain, you feel it, too.  Love makes us vulnerable.  I sat with our daughter, watching her sleep and thinking of Maddie.  What if something happened to our daughter?  What if she were diagnosed with a terminal, untreatable illness?
Maddie helped me remember: our children are not our own.  My daughter doesn’t really belong to me; she belongs to God.  Just as I do, as we all do.  In a way, we can think of our children as precious gifts, on loan to us from God.  He bestows them upon us and, while we are on this temporary place called earth, we have the job of helping each other grow in virtue to become the men and women we are supposed to be, the kind of people who, through God’s grace, could one day inhabit a heavenly homeland.  ”Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
If you saw a picture of Maddie, such as the one on her website, you see a broad-smiling, beautiful girl.  I am sure her parents were struggling with seeing her in pain.  I thought to myself how tragic that she should know such sadness in her young life.  And that’s certainly true–it is so sad.  But, as I prayed this morning, I thought there is something more than happiness.  I want our daughter to be happy, but I should want something more for her than this.
I want a happy daughter, but even more, I want a holy daughter.  I want a daughter who lives her life in communion with God, who loves Him who is Love itself and who reflects this Truth and Life in her words and deeds.  This is what Maddie’s parents, God bless them, did.  This past weekend, by special permission from the bishop, Maddie celebrated her First Holy Communion and was Confirmed.  She was, and is, a holy girl.  These parents did their best to make her days, even those when she was so ill, happy.  But they didn’t neglect the greater responsibility–to help her be holy, to prepare her soul for her Father in heaven.
This five-year-old girl, weak and frail from an untreatable condition, demonstrated to me something else of immense power: the mobilization of the Body of Christ, the Church.  There is a passage in the Acts of the Apostles that says the early Church “held all things in common.”  This refers to sharing earthly goods, such as food and shelter.  But I think it applied to spiritual goods, too.
The Church today held in common the pain and suffering of Maddie and her family.  Now, perhaps I spend too much time on Facebook and that’s why I witnessed this, but the outpouring of love, prayer, concern, and support for little Maddie was overwhelming.  There was a part of the Body of Christ suffering and hurt; we all felt it as though it were our own family and we all reached out because it was the most natural, instinctive thing to do.  Perhaps because, in a very real way, Maddie’s family is our family.
We are not alone.  Do you know what the shortest verse in the Bible is?  John 11:35.  ”And Jesus wept.”  Maybe it’s so short to make a point, to make us realize the significance of this brief passage.  Jesus wept at the death of His dear friend, Lazarus.  He knows our sadness and heartache.  He walks side-by-side with those experiencing loss…because He knows it, too.  He is close to us who suffer…because He suffered, more than anyone ever could.
And herein lies the greatest lesson Maddie helped me remember.  It all comes back to this–it has to.  There is always hope.  Death is never the final answer, but merely a transition.  From death, God brings life.  St. Francis referred to “Sister Death” because, for the one with faith, it isn’t the termination of everything.  There is a line during the Mass for the Dead that says “life is changed, not ended.”
For Maddie, life is changed.  While I have no ecclesiastical authority to definitively affirm this, I can say that dear Maddie, as one under the age of reason and having just received Holy Communion and Confirmation, was free of all original and personal sin.  So, I feel quite confident to believe her life has changed in a way more beautiful, profound, and incredibly blissful than we could even imagine.
The hope that belongs to those with faith is a priceless treasure.
Dear Maddie, I’m sorry that we never met.  But thank you for all that you reminded me and taught me of throughout these past few days.  I pray for your friends and family who mourn your passing.  May they know the consoling, healing, loving touch of God, who is with them in this time of sadness.  I hope, one day, we may all join you in our true homeland.