Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Daily Bread Addendum

Do you recall that favorite professor of mine, alluded to in yesterday's post?

He wrote a powerful and inspiring response to my reflections about daily Mass, which I would like to share with all of you:

The theologian Nicholas Lash once wrote that the word "and" is often the most important word in Catholic theology. I find him correct on that account. In my favorite modern work on the Eucharist, "The Sacrament of Charity," Pope Benedict XVI explains how the Conciliar emphasis on full and active participation in the Eucharist by the laity "must be understood in more substantial terms." It must be founded "on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated AND its relationship to daily life" [article 52]. 

The first part of that statement reminds me that the Eucharist is first and foremost a "mystery to be celebrated," not primarily a dogma to be understood. It remains a dogma whether or not I understand it or even if I'm inattentive. Some mornings I'm not even sure how I got there. But it's never about me; it is about the mystery, the sacrifice, the meal. Somehow, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ is made available to me. Do I understand that? I never have; but the rest of my life, with all its beauty, is poor without it. 

The second part of Benedict's teaching is one I often overlook or trivialize: "AND its relationship to daily life." This is why what you and Kathleen [a teacher who brings her second grade class to Mass] have said is awesome in the true meaning of that word. For some reason the Lord wants us to bring OUR daily life to the Eucharist, not just vice-versa. Our daily lives are, in some fundamental way, related to the enactment of the Eucharist. Don't know how. That blows me away. It is Mary with her clanking pail and Peter with his interrupted nap that both perfect perfection. 

I am certainly no authority on how others view their need for forgiveness (my confessor calls me "over scrupulous," so what do I know?), but I see Kathleen's very presence with those 19 children as INTEGRAL to that particular Eucharistic celebration. Mozart shrugged off Protestantism because he thought it was "All in the head." Mystery strikes us everywhere in Catholicism; it assaults our senses in a joyful way. I believe God is delighted by the presence of 19 children simply there at Mass. He made them; I think He likes it when they swing by the house. 

It was Flannery O'Connor who said that Catholics should be taught to distrust their feelings in relation to sacraments. Ex opere operato is not just a dictum that allows us to flatter bad priests, it has another side that we don't often consider: sacraments do not work because of the righteousness of the RECIPIENTS either (CCC, 1128). 

When I walk through that door each morning, I am taking a huge risk. I may find myself looking into the eyes of that extraordinary minister who REALLY believes she is offering me Christ. When I place myself in the mystery simply by putting my shoulder to the door, sometimes unkempt, often half conscious, always kind of suspicious that His grace is sure to catch me off guard again, I am exactly where He wants me. Nobody should ever deprive oneself of that chance. Bring them all, every time. It's His house, not ours. We're just fortunate enough to have been given the gift of knowing we're on the guest list. When we seriously consider it in relationship to our daily lives, we know he wants us to be the ones who give others the chance of learning that staggering fact for themselves.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Daily Bread

Is it even worth it?

I couldn't help but ask myself the question.

It was a Friday morning and I was sitting in my car, exhausted and frustrated after going to the 9:00 Mass with my two little companions.

It had been a gargantuan task to get all three of us ready on time.  Mary had found a toy that kept her quietly playing independently and it was all I could do to get her to leave her bedroom.  (Normally I would rejoice that she was playing, alone and content.)  In the end, I agreed to let her bring her tin pail and shovel to Mass.  Well, that turned out to be the wrong concession to make.  Tin pails make a lot of noise.

We sloshed through the cold and snow, across the parking lot and into church.  

Per usual, we arrived just before the Gospel.  So much for the first reading and Psalm...not that I can really give them my full attention anyway.

The remainder of the Mass was passed by simultaneously nursing Peter and holding Mary on my lap...not always successfully.  And cringing every time I heard Mary's tin pail clanking against the pew in an unacceptably loud manner.

No time for a thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion, as Peter was absolutely spent and needed to take a nap NOW, indicated of course by loud wailing.  He would have nothing to do with the pacifier, so--beckoning Mary to follow me down the aisle, pail and shovel in hand--we made a hasty exit.  At least Mary and I genuflected on our way out of the pew.  Well, I think we did at least.

And thus I sat in the driver's seat, Mary clanking away with her pail and shovel, Peter crying.  We were going to a friend's house and of course I forgot the directions in my haste to get to Mass on time--an effort, as I explained, that was somewhat futile, since we were late anyway.  

So I started driving, hoping I would remember the way.  And I started praying.  

Lord, I think you really want us to be at Mass.  I'm really trying to make that happen.  But this is just so hard.  Should I really be doing it?  Is it even worth it?

My mind started ticking off all the reasons for not going.  Dragging the children out early in the morning--usually a very cold, sometimes snowy morning.  Asking too much of a toddler to sit through Mass every day.  Interrupting a potential nap for Peter.  Always arriving late.  Not being able to hear the readings.  Distracted so much I can barely pray.  No time to even make a thanksgiving after receiving the Eucharist.  Causing too much noise for other people at Mass.

Maybe, I started to ponder, it's just better to stay home and use my effort and energy to be more charitable and patient.  What good is Mass if it just makes me stressed and feels like a huge hurdle to jump through every day?

And then, in my mind, I felt an answer to my questions.  There were no words spoken, but instead I received an inspiration.

Jesus was happy that we were at Mass that morning.  Mary, Peter, and I being present at that Mass brought God great joy.

God wanted us there--clanking pail and all.  Let the children come to me.  Their noise is a joyful noise to Him.  In fact, in my heart, I could almost see an image of Christ smiling, from the altar, at us.

I realized that Mary and Peter were the only children at that Mass.  They are almost always the only children there.  

Going to Mass isn't about me and how it makes me feel.  Certainly, it is helpful and inspiring to have a peaceful, prayerful, contemplative Mass where you can truly enter into the mystery of the sacrifice.  It's great when you leave the church with warm, fuzzy feelings.  

Yet, I have to remind myself, Mass is primarily about God.  It's not mainly how I feel afterward or how well I can pray.  It's about what I am giving.  I'm giving God my time.  I am giving Him my physical presence.  My attendance at daily Mass is telling God, each day, You matter to me...I want to be with You...I want to worship You.  

In return, God gives me something of unsurpassable value: Himself.

My favorite college professor, a theologian, once related to our class how, if not for the Eucharist, he wouldn't bother going to daily Mass.  He could always read the daily Scripture passages on his own.  But it was the fact of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist that brought him to Mass, every day. 

Jesus gives me Himself at Mass and the overflowing grace that accompanies that gift is not affected by my trying to nurse Peter or asking Mary for the tenth time to please be more quiet.  

As my job as a mother has become more challenging with two children, one of whom is a full-fledged toddler, I recognize that I need the Eucharist.  Daily.  As much as possible.  

Yes, of course, it's easier just to stay at home and keep the children in pajamas until 10 AM.  But, in truth, my job of parenting these children is harder when I'm spiritually operating on empty.  

A person trying to run a marathon cannot do so if he or she were to eat only once a week.  The individual's body would be too fatigued and exhausted to maintain the needed stamina and physical excursion demanded of such a task.  

Well, raising children with the goal of helping them reach heaven is much harder than any marathon.  I know that, for myself, the Eucharist just once a week doesn't cut it: my soul hungers for more.

As I pondered all of this, I reminded myself that, if God truly wants us to attend daily Mass, He will provide the grace to do so.  Then, suddenly, as though giving me a confirmation, Peter stopped crying and fell asleep.  Mary quietly and contentedly was looking out the car window.  And I found our friend's house without a single wrong turn or misdirection.

After discussing the topic with my very wise husband, I came to see there are ways I can make daily Mass more manageable.  We created a "Mass bag" for Mary with special books she can only look at during Mass (these books being, of course, on topics of the Faith).  Needless to say, the pail and shovel stay at home from now on.  I recognize that we need to get up a little earlier in the morning.  Five minutes can make a big difference!

And I pray.  This morning as I got out of bed, I prayed: "God, I want to make it to Mass.  But You're going to have to help me."

We got there.  Three minutes early.

Of course, there are days when we can't do it.  When we had some -12 degree mornings, I couldn't justify bringing out the children.  The same thing happened when we had colds.  One must use reason.  I also know that if I have another major commitment that morning (such as a doctor's appointment), it might be too much trying to squeeze in Mass as well.  Prudence is required.

No one is ever obligated to attend daily Mass.  Some weeks, we only make it a couple of days and, if we miss Mass, I simply make a spiritual communion instead.  But if we can make it to morning Mass, I try to go because, well, love isn't about obligations.

It has been seven years now since I began attending daily Mass.  When Mary was first born, I was tempted to stop and just go on Sunday when I had Chris there to help me.  With Chris's encouragement, however, I persevered and, in time, it became a great deal easier.  I hope that it will get easier in time with two children as well.

As we go out the door on our way to Mass, I tell Mary, "Hurry up!  We're going to go see Jesus!"  I know, in my heart, as challenging as it may be, this regular time at Mass is shaping and growing her faith, especially her faith in the Real Presence.

Because if Jesus really, truly is present in the Eucharist--body, blood, soul, and divinity--why wouldn't we try to do everything we can to be there to see Him and to receive Him, as often as possible?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Lessons from The Count

If you could magically possess any one of God's characteristics, which would you choose?

There are some heavy contenders: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, existing outside of time...

I would probably choose the one quality that is definitional when it comes to God, which is being able to love perfectly.  

But for Edmond Dantes, protagonist of Alexandre Dumas' classic The Count of Monte Cristo, it is God's justice he admires and, in facts, seeks to dispense.

"...I betrayed, sacrificed, buried, have risen from my tomb, by the grace of God, to punish...He sends me for that purpose, and here I am."

The Count of Monte Cristo was published serially from 1844-1846 and truly reads like the forerunner of today's soap operas.  Dumas weaves an intricate plot with many characters, who share surprising and intricate relationships with one another.  Within the pages of the book you'll find assassinations, extramarital affairs, political schemes, character disguises, suicide attempts, and even some secret treasure.

While taking the prize for being the longest book I have ever read (totaling some 1500 pages), it's simultaneously a fast read.  You can absolutely tell that Dumas wrote in installments: each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, which makes it pretty much always a challenge to put the book down.

The book grapples mainly with the ideas of revenge, justice, mercy, and forgiveness.

At the exact moment that everything is going exceedingly well in his life, Edmond Dantes finds himself inexplicably thrown into prison.  He later learns that he has been betrayed by three men (one who envies Dantes' professional advancement, one who seeks Dantes' betrothed, and one who goes along with the plan due to his state of intoxication) and unjustly treated by the chief prosecutor, who uses Dantes as a scapegoat to preserve his own career and power.

After 14 longs years in a dark prison cell--kept alive by his friendship with another inmate, who shares with Dantes his vast wisdom & knowledge, including the details of secret treasure buried on the nearby island of Monte Cristo--Dantes is finally able to escape.  By hiding himself in the burial sack meant for another prisoner, Dantes leaves the prison and, as he is assumed for dead, is thrown into the sea.

This harrowing escape is Dantes' "baptism" from an innocent and joyful youth who assumes the best of others to a vindictive, determined man bent on executing God's justice upon his enemies.  This transformation is accompanied by a change of name, as the protagonist takes the new title of the "Count of Monte Cristo."  Monte Cristo is an island off the coast of Italy and the place where Dantes finds his treasure.  The word itself means "Mount of Christ."  Accordingly, ruling from the judgment seat of God, well-supplied by his extensive knowledge & vast wealth, the Count plots his revenge.

The Island of Monte Cristo
It takes ten years for the Count to arrange everything in his plan.  For, you see, it wasn't enough just to bring his enemies before the law.  No: the Count wanted to destroy them and all that they treasured, just as they had done to him.  

Thus, like a chess board, the Count diligently arranges each piece, setting up the pawns just so and, when everything is in place, he lets the game begin.  The Count manipulates events to position his enemies in circumstances of great temptation, which exposes their personal greed, dishonesty, and hypocrisy.  

Throughout, the Count displays almost a supernatural power. He seems able to predict the future.  No expense is beyond his budget.  His contacts are vast and numerous.  He even seems to possess a way to thwart death itself.  In short, he reads like Batman's precursor.

The Count is convinced that this power has been given to him for the good purpose of bringing about God's justice.  But "let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).  

" God punishes the most thoughtless and unfeeling men for their indifference, by presenting dreadful scenes to their view.  I, who was looking on, an eager and curious spectator,--I, who was watching the working of this mournful tragedy,--I, who, like a wicked angel, was laughing at the evil men committed, protected by secrecy (a secret is easily kept by the rich and powerful), I am, in my turn, bitten by the serpent whose tortuous course I was watching, and bitten to the heart!"

What the Count comes to understand is that, while seemingly acting in the name of God, he really acts not as an angel of light, but as an angel of darkness.  Revenge becomes another enemy who threatens to destroy him: void of almost all loving emotion, he has become a driven man, bent on stripping his enemies of everything...even if such an undertaking involves sacrificing the innocent along the way.

That is the key question that drives the plot of the book: will the Count become victim again, this time to his own desire for vengeance?  Or will he realize that there is only one who can truly dispense justice...and when we seek to do so in His place, we can very easily become ourselves enemies of God?

Without providing the answer or explaining what ultimately happens to the Count's enemies, let me say that Dumas leaves his reader with two words: wait and hope.  

In the face of profound injustice, wait.  Wait because there will be retribution.  There will be inevitable, unavoidable punishment.

We have hanging in one of the rooms of our house an image of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.  It's a sobering reminder that Christ the King will "come again to judge the living and the dead" (Nicene Creed).  Some of souls will rise with the angels to the throng of victors surrounding Christ.  Others will be dragged into the fiery depths of hell.

And this is where the hope comes in.  Hope for ultimate justice?  Yes, but something more as well.  Hope for redemption, for conversion, for repentance.  

When one considers the punishment that awaits the soul that refuses to repent--eternal separation from God...from everything that is good and thus condemned to a state void of all love--can anyone in good conscience really wish this upon his enemy?

This is why, in fact, the Church teaches against capital punishment.  Yes, of course offenders must be justly punished and society protected from further evils from such an individual.  

However, as long as there are proper facilities to retain such an individual (which we do have here in our country), capital punishment must not occur, for the specific reason that it deprives a person of the opportunity to repent.  In killing the criminal, we kill the hope that the criminal will experience remorse here on earth and seek pardon from the ultimate Judge.

May you be spared suffering at the hands of an enemy, but if you find yourself in such a situation, may you resist the temptation to seek revenge.  

Forgive us our trespasses, as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.