Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lessons from A Tale of Two Cities

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh.  Six tumbrils carry the day's wine to LaGuillotine.  All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine.  And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror.  Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.  Sow the same seed a rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruits according to its kind. 

It is a novel much about death, but it left me pondering most about life.

A Tale of Two Cities is Charles Dickens' 1859 novel about the French Revolution.  The plot centers around the Mannette family: patriarch and ex-political prisoner Dr. Manette, his devoted and virtuous daughter Lucie, and her husband Charles Darnay.  Darnay is a French aristocrat who has denounced his heritage, tainted with the blood of abused peasants, and moved to England where he works for his living.  

While in England, the family befriends Mr. Sidney Carton.  Similar to Darnay in appearance, Carton contrasts him most strongly in personality and disposition.  Carton should enjoy the same pleasures and contentment in life as Darnay, but he does not.  Instead, Carton aimlessly passes his life in lost opportunities and lack of ambition.  His life is one of "could have beens."  

Climbing to a high chamber, in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.  Sadly, sadly the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

Though the family and friend live in England, France and its growing unrest is not far from them.  When Darnay learns that the just man who acted as a servant for his malevolent, aristocratic uncle has been jailed by the patriots, guilt weighs upon him.  Darnay has renounced all the evil in his family's past, a past that habitually preyed on those less fortunate; however, Darnay's relocating to England has not righted the wrongs committed.  And here is a concrete plea for help, directed at Darnay, the sole person (as inheritor of his family's estate) able to do so.

With that intent in mind, Darnay returns to France and quickly finds himself imprisoned, with no trial, for breaking a law he did not realize even existed.  

Dr. Manette, Lucie, and Sidney Carton soon arrive in Paris, in the effort to free Darnay before he, like countless other innocents, is brought before the guillotine.  There, the French women peasants knit as they gaze upon the scene, goading on the instrument of death that will exterminate a class that so often starved, raped, stole, imprisoned, and murdered them.

It  [the guillotine] was the sign of the regeneration of the human race.  It superseded the Cross.  Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.  It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red.  It was take to pieces, like a toy-puzzle for a young Devil, and was put together again when the occasion wanted it.  It hushed the eloquent, struck down the powerful, abolished the beautiful and good.

Death is everywhere.  Blood marks the weapons sharpened at the grindstone.  Blood stains the shoes that dance the Carmagnole, the hideous mockery of dancing that revealed "how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become."  Blood flows in the streets like wine, broken from its cask, which the starving people feverishly collect and greedily consume.  

There is darkness and terror, even more frightening for the reader because it is true.  Yet, amid this, Dickens draws forth the theme of life.  

The first book of the novel is entitled "Recalled to Life."  Dr. Manette, a prisoner for eighteen years in the Bastille, has been freed, but is a shadow of his former self.  He sits, making shoes, withdrawn and unengaged with the world around him.  He lives, but not really.  

It is his daughter, Lucie, and her unswerving, ardent devotion and love that bring him back to life.  As the book progresses, Dr. Manette develops from a weak victim to a strong advocate in fighting for his son-in-law's freedom.  

Most powerfully, however, is Sidney Carton's recall to life.  Before the return to France, while they still reside in a serene home in England, Carton visits Lucie and confides to her that he loves her, though he realizes she should never return the sentiment toward him: he is undeserving of it.  Yet, he wants her to know that she has inspired him to consider striving for something higher...though that inspiration will have little bearing in reality.  Before he leaves her, Carton tells Lucie:

"...think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!"

When Darnay is sentenced to the guillotine, Carton employs his ingenuity to devise a means to save his life.  Taking advantage of their similar appearances, Carton takes the place of Darnay, sacrificing himself for Lucie's love.

He dies and, in dying, he finds Life--everlasting Life.  

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

Darnay has been saved and is able to return home to his love; Carton has likewise been saved and is able to return Home to his Love.  

Carton's sacrifice of his life gives hope that anyone may be recalled to Life.  Amid the great darkness of mob brutality and capital punishment, Dickens places the moment of triumph and victory.  It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

There is the foil of Lucie, weaving her golden thread of love and mercy, and Madam Defarge, knitting her record of aristocrats targeted for death, who is filled with revenge and hate.  Yes, even a Madam Defarge may be recalled to life.

Dichotomies abound in A Tale of Two Cities, but the darkness does not diminish the light.  It helps one understand the evil, recognize and name it, in order to resist it.  We are all capable of it.  The guillotine has come in many forms throughout history; we have crucified God, haven't we? 

But the same God calls us to Life and Carton, moments before his death, could foresee a time with the streets of Paris would be free from blood, when Lucie's son who would bear his name could stand there in peace and freedom, remembering Carton's sacrifice.

We can foresee a time, too, when there will be no fighting, no war, no more death--when we will all be recalled to Life.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Forgiving ... With or Without Forgetting?

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." -- the words of Christ

The standard by which God will forgive us is determined by us.  That is both a hopeful and frightening thought.  

Forgiveness can be challenging.  To really, truly forgive someone from your heart is a grace that takes work and time, especially when the offense is quite great.

Sometimes I think I've forgiven someone, but then the devil starts encouraging me to replay the mental video tape of past hurts and wounds, thereby stirring up the old feelings of resentment and anger.  I have to will that videotape to stop and choose forgiveness...again and again.  

My Mom once told me that she read somewhere that praying for the person who hurt you, daily for two weeks, is very healing.  And that certainly does help; I can attest to it.  

Praying for that other person--for his or her happiness and salvation--softens your heart.  You remember this is another soul created by God, loved by God unconditionally and eternally.  You remember Christ died for him or her, too.  Every night I pray for the person who hurt me, for her final perseverance and that one day she can be with God forever in heaven.

I think the aspect of forgiveness with which I struggle the most is the forgetting part.  Should you forget the hurt and injury?  

I once thought so.  Let bygones be bygones, so to speak.  Turn a new page!  Start again!  And that is how I acted in this particular relationship.  There was an injury, the offender apologized, I accepted the apology, and the relationship was resumed.

I worked very, very hard to put that injury behind me.  But, sadly, a couple of years later the offense was repeated--on a much larger, more serious, and more hurtful scale.

So I find myself back in the familiar spot of: I need to forgive and I'm praying for the grace to keep forgiving.  

This time, however, I don't want to forget. 

I don't want to harbor a grudge (and this is hard not to do sometimes).  Yet, I don't want the memory of what happened to completely vanish because I don't want to leave myself vulnerable again.  

I want to keep my boundaries up because I've learned that this relationship is one that is very dangerous for me.  I wanted the relationship to work, and that desire encouraged me to believe things were healthy and the relationship was normal.  I forgot how unhealthy things had been before, and how incredibly easy it is for things to fall back into that unhealthiness.

It's difficult because this is a family relationship, so I feel responsibility and the demands of charity on one side of the equation.  Yet, I see on the other side many hurtful words and wrong behavior.  

So I'm in a place where I'm trying to forgive.  And when I think I have forgiven, something triggers past memories and I have to work to forgive all over again.  

I'm also in a place where I'm working to balance letting go of past wrongs...while remembering them enough to realize I need very strong, very firm boundaries.  

Is this how God forgives?  I don't think God puts up boundaries, do you?  

However, while God wipes our slate clean after confession, forgiving totally, there are still repercussions to our sins.  Our trespasses have consequences and God doesn't wipe those away.  There is still temporal punishment, which we pay through suffering in this life or in Purgatory.   God loves us, He forgives us, but He is merciful and just.  

Perhaps that is somewhat analogues to this.  I should forgive whole-heartedly.  Yet, the offense, while forgiven, incurs a kind of punishment, in the terms of boundaries and keeping distance.  One could maybe say boundaries are an act of charity, in the way of preventing an occasion of sin if the offender has a particular vice in this area.  

God forgives, but does He forget?  I have absolutely no theological citations or references for this, so please do not accept my musings as fact.  But I wonder if He does not forget.  The claim of justice seems to warrant remembering...remembering that there was a wrong done that needs to be righted.  Otherwise, if a murderer goes to confession right before dying, would he appear before Christ, who would say, "Go right into heaven!  I don't remember any of your sins!"  That doesn't seem right.

God forgives in mercy; He remembers in justice.

The trick, of course, is remembering without bitterness, anger, and resentment.  God remembers with love and sorrow.  So, I suppose when I remember a wrongdoing--in the effort to keep the right boundaries in place--I should remember in sorrow that this person committed such a sin.  I should have remorse for her, not bitterness, and the memory should prompt a prayer on her behalf.

Loving someone at a distance, a very far distance involving no communication, is a challenge.  I don't think I am doing it as best as I can.  But I will keep trying and pray that God will also have mercy and forgive me for my shortage of love.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Lessons from Persuasion

Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father's ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister;--but Lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain.  She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing--indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it.

When is it right to be persuaded?

Jane Austen wrote Persuasion when she was in her twilight years of life.  It was her final complete novel before she passed away at the age of 41.  Austen was ill during the time of writing and did not have the opportunity to do a final edit, which prompts some critics to say that the work isn't as polished as her other novels.

I'm far from an Austen scholar, but I would beg to differ.  I think Persuasion is as impressive as Mansfield Park or Pride and Prejudice.

It has a distinct tone, however, from Austen's earlier writing.  Persuasion is set mostly in the dreariness of autumn and bareness of winter.  The protagonist, Anne Elliot, is not a budding young lady, but a twenty-seven year old woman whose chances for marriage are bleak.  Her opportune time is just about past.

In her biography of Austen, Claire Tomalin asserts that Austen's final novel was a present to herself and to other women, like her sister Cassandra, "who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring."  Austen, one might note, never married.

Anne Elliot's second spring was tenuous.  She had once known love.  When she was nineteen, Anne met Captain Frederick Wentworth.  Similar in temperament and interests, they were quickly enraptured by each other and Wentworth proposed marriage.

The circumstances of such a marriage, however, were dubious.

Wentworth was fully confident that his hardwork and good luck would soon equate to a favorable position in society and strong financial status.  However, at the time of his engagement to Anne, he definitively lacked both assets--he had no strong connections and was employed in a tenuous profession.  As a naval officer, Wentworth's chances at success depended on numerous, uncertain factors, such as safety at sea and engagement in battle.

Where Anne sought encouragement for her marriage, she found only discouragement.  Her vain father disparaged Wentworth for his more lowly birthright.  Anne's mother had died years before and, in her place, Anne turned to her friend and advisor, Lady Russell, who adamantly opposed the union.  Anne was thus persuaded: she turned away the man she loved.

Eight years did nothing to lessen Anne's feelings for Wentworth.   When her father must rent his great estate, Kellynch Hall, because of financial strain, circumstances work to bring Anne and Wentworth back into the same social circle once again.  

It is far from a joyous reunion, however.  Wentworth resents the fact that Anne was weak in her conviction and allowed her feelings for him to be overridden by the influence of others.  He perceived her as feeble and timid.  After great success at sea--achieving all that he had promised her he would, eventually, achieve--Wentworth has returned home to find a wife.  And she may be anyone, save Anne Elliot.

...there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.  Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.  It was a perpetual estrangement. 

Anne is still fully in love with Wentworth and must watch as he acquaints himself with the other available ladies in the room.  She plays the piano, suffering silently, as Wentworth dances with a possible bride-to-be.  Anne's situation is sympathetic, no doubt.  It is even more sorrowful because Anne does nothing to advance her cause.  

There are no grand lamentations before Wentworth, begging his forgiveness.  She doesn't throw herself at his feet, explaining herself or defending her actions.  In short, she doesn't try to persuade him.

When Anne and Wentworth communicate, it only happens because circumstances work out in their favor.  Anne is walking down the street and Wentworth passes her way.  While attending a play, Anne is sitting at the end of the aisle and is thus free to speak with Wentworth as he stands near.  Wentworth happens to be present in the room when Anne is engaged in a conversation about the differences between how men and women love, providing Anne with the opportunity to emotionally assert, "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone."

I remember, when I was of the dating age, constantly trying to maneuver and manipulate events to my favor.  If the boy I was interested in was attending a certain class, I would just "happen" to pass by the room at the exact time said class was dismissed.  No coincidence, just conniving on my part!  And interestingly, those relationships never really worked out.  But, when I finally lifted up my hands and said, "That's it!  I'm done!" I received an email from Chris.  

Anne did not advocate her cause.  But Someone else did.  

I still question whether Anne was right to be persuaded into not marrying Wentworth when he wasn't yet established financially and socially.  Anne later explains to Wentworth that, had she gone against her family and Lady Russell, she would have been troubled in conscience.  However, I consider eight years of lost time.  Was it justified?  Anne knew he was her vocation; did her conscience need to be bothered?  Perhaps she should have taken a leap of faith and trusted God to provide.

I conclude with my favorite passage from the book, which is a letter Wentworth secretly gives to Anne after he overhears her claim that women love the longest.  Austen never provides the dialogue between Wentworth and Anne when they finally reconcile.  However, she provides this letter, with words so loving and passionate that it more than suffices ...  Now this is romance!

"You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope.  Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.  I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you.  Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant."

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lessons from In This House of Brede

Vocations can come to the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances, and there's no resisting.  It's as if God put out a finger and said 'You.'

My father's aunt was a religious sister and I have very fond memories of visiting Sister Rose at the convent.  I was always intrigued and awe-struck by her habit: rosary beads dangling from the black cord around her waist, the white whimple underneath a black veil, and a silver Latin cross sharp against the black of her long dress.  

Equally striking was the sound of the convent: silence.  No matter the time or day of our visit, we would walk the halls to go to the Chapel or visitor's room and hear...nothing.  No television, radio, or shouting.  Silence.  

And this wasn't even a cloistered community!   I had no experience and little knowledge of that particular vocation, so I was excited to read In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.  

At times I felt as though I were reading an enlightening behind-the-scenes documentary about cloistered nuns; other times, I was gripped by a riveting narrative about women of various personalities and talents living out their vocations together; then I was spiritually moved within my soul and even brought the themes and ideas to my prayer at night.

Godden spent three whole years living in the gatehouse of an English Benedictine Abbey to acquaint herself with life behind the gates of a cloister.  That experience and first-hand observation breathes truth and validity to her novel.

Former Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire, the real-life model for Brede Abbey

It is, indeed, a fascinating novel.  The whole concept of living in a cloister--spending one's life behind a gate, never to move about in society--is curious.  How do they do it?  Why do they do it?

The idea is that the world needs people of prayer.  The Kingdom of God needs the power of concentrated, dedicated prayer.  In a sense, cloistered sisters do not leave the world; they are physically removed, but they imbue the world with their intercessory presence.  This work they carry on while on their knees in their community's chapel is quiet, perhaps largely unrecognized.  But what would the world be without it?

Indicatively, there is one particularly powerful scene in the novel where one of the nuns--Dame Philippa--learns that a former co-worker (Penny) is in a near-death situation after complications following an abortion.  Now, should Penny bleed to death in the hospital room, she may die with that mortal sin on her soul.

Philippa reaches out to her fellow nuns, requesting their prayers for Penny.  Philippa herself passes most of the night in the chapel, pleading that Penny will live.  She is not alone; instead, a quiet train of nuns come in and out of the chapel as the hours of the night pass, Penny's life wavering between this world and the next.  

The nuns storm heaven; they keep vigil for Penny, even though none of them save Philippa even know the girl.  They love her though: they love all people the way they are called to love God.

The nuns in Godden's novel are Benedictines and, according to the Rule of St. Benedict, take three vows upon profession: stability, conversion of manners, and obedience.

It is the final vow that I've been considering most of all, especially in my prayer.  

"Dame Philippa won't have won until she can do what she is asked, what is needed, without a battle." 

Do I always do what God asks of me?  And if I do, is it done reluctantly, begrudgingly, only because there is no other option?  Or do I embrace God's Will ... without a battle?  

The greatest beauty of this book, in my opinion, is witnessing how the protagonist grows spiritually and learns to obey fully, giving herself to God and to her community.  As one of the nuns quotes St. Basil:

"When you have become God's in the measure He wants, He, Himself, will know how to bestow you on others." 

How Philippa is bestowed on others is inspiring, fulfilling, and a great witness to God's working in our lives.  He has the perfect plan, as long as we respond to the fullest to our vocation.

The book is unabashedly Catholic, as one should expect of a novel about cloistered nuns!  And it's very catholic (universal) in its Catholicity, which I find particularly interesting.  A cursory glance at some online reviews revealed that the book's appeal is far and wide.  Professed atheists recommended In This House of Brede, explaining that they read it even multiple times.  

Perhaps such enthusiasm stems from the supremely engaging plot.  Godden presents a cast of characters who are alive with their faults and uniqueness.  They interact, argue, comfort, and forgive.  The nuns all wear the same habit and have the same vocation, but they are each written as individuals.  

The structure of the plot is similarly appealing.  It is not chronological, but rather weaves back and forth from past to present, from scene to scene, as well as from nun to nun.  It is the steadiness of the liturgical year and daily cloister timeline, marked by the chapel bells, that structures the skipping narrative.  It is the House of Brede that anchors the book--as well as the lives of its inhabitants.

Bowls of flowers surrounded the high altar; the candles made points of flame above them, and, in the centre, the disc of the white Host was enthroned in the glittering monstrance.  Was it fancy because she was so tired, thought Philippa, a mere illusion, or was the Host penetrated with a light of its own?  A kind of window through which, had she the eyes, she could have looked straight into heaven...

Godden converted to Catholicism one year before In This House of Brede was published.  Reading this book has made me a better Catholic.  I suppose that is the highest praise a book can receive.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Honor Thy Father

I've had many fathers in my life.

I thank God for the gift of my father, Joe, who has taught me a strong work ethic, faithfulness, forgiveness, and honesty.  I am the person I am today because of him.

But I also am who I am because of Father Vaughan, Father Yanas, and Father Torres, among others.  

When my father is too old and frail to care for himself, I will care for him.  Why should it be any different for my spiritual fathers?

I met Father Ryan in 2008 when he would sometimes offer Mass at my parish, Sacred Heart in Troy.  He faithfully carried a stack of books with him and his eyes had that Irish twinkle in them when he made a joke.  Then I stopped seeing Father Ryan, and I assumed perhaps he moved to another parish ...

But Father Ryan had become ill and could no longer live by himself.  He went to a local nursing him and it wasn't until a few years later that my path crossed his once again.

My friend, Louise, invited me to go with her to visit the sick and elderly priests at a local nursing home.  When I saw Father Ryan, much had changed.  He was wheelchair bound and needed assistance with even basic tasks.  But much was the same: he was still my spiritual father.  

How often had those hands, wrinkled and frail resting on his lap, healed others through the Sacrament of the Sick?  

How often had that voice, now muffled and worn, spoken the words of consecration?

We sat in the group dining room and Louise encouraged Father Ryan to lead us in prayer.  As he prayed aloud, I realized that I was the one being blessed, not the other way around.  Elderly and infirm, here before me was still an alter Christus, another Christ, Christ Himself in His holy priest.  

Father Ryan passed away not long after that and I am grateful I could be there during those final months.  It was just being there: my presence was enough.  Enough for him to know he was remembered, he was valued, he was honored for his priesthood.  

Our priests in nursing homes and hospitals have given everything for us, the Church, acting as channels of God's grace.  That doesn't suddenly stop when they retire.  By sanctifying the suffering of old age, they continue to be conduits of grace. 

Sometimes suffering born with patience and acceptance, offered to the Lord, speaks more eloquently than any homily. 

Yet, how many of our ill and elderly priests pass their final years on earth largely alone and forgotten?  Our priests have been there for us: the day of our baptism; when, crippled by sin, we desperately needed to hear the words of absolution; the day we said, "I do" to begin a life as husband and wife; when we had to bury our loved ones.  

As of December 2014, there are 88 retired priests in the Diocese of Albany.  They have served us; how can we serve them as more and more enter nursing homes or are hospitalized?

We can be present to them, as they have been to us.  Visiting the sick is a Corporal Work of Mercy.  Today I visited Father Rooney in a nursing home.  I received his blessing as I said goodbye and seeing his grateful smile filled me with joy.  It felt as though I was the recipient of the Work of Mercy.

Most importantly, we can all pray.  We may no longer see their faces from behind the pulpit, but we cannot forget our elderly and infirm priests.  Pray for them to have strength, to receive consolation, and be blessed with the grace of a holy death.  

They have given us the sacraments; they have brought us Christ.  As they face the final years of their lives, let us bring them our concern, respect, love, and prayers.  

Let us honor our Fathers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lessons from The Betrothed

"...the worst thing that can happen to you isn't suffering or being poor; the worst thing is doing what's wrong."

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni was recommended to me by Pope Francis.  Well, he recommended it to me and to everyone else who read or heard his general audience address back in May.  Pope Francis specifically encouraged engaged couples to read the Italian novel as a source of edification before marriage.

Verdi, the Italian opera composer, called Manzoni's work "a gift to humanity."  For the Italians, The Betrothed ranks as one of greatest examples of Italian literature--second only to Dante's Divine Comedy.

Though named after the couple who represent the novel's principle characters, the work is more historical fiction than romance.  The work is set in northern Italy (mainly Milan) in the early 1600s.  

The Betrothed begins with the anticipated wedding of Renzo and Lucia.  When Renzo approaches their parish priest on the day of the wedding, cowardly Don Abbondino suddenly presents a host of excuses and declares that the wedding simply cannot happen that day.  Renzo eventually learns that a wealthy aristocrat, Don Rodrigo, has threatened the priest.  Rodrigo has his eyes set on Lucia and is determined to have her as his own, through threat and force.

Renzo and Lucia must flee their small town and part ways, a separation that spans two years and most of the novel.  

"Farewell, my mother's house, where I used to sit, with a secret in my heart, listening to the ordinary sound of ordinary people's feet...Farewell that other house, to which I am still a stranger, and at which I have so often glanced out of the corner of the eye in passing, with a blush; in which my heart thought to find a tranquil, lasting home with my husband.  Farewell, little church, where my soul so often recovered its peace, singing the praises of the Lord; where a certain rite was prepared for me, and promised to me; where the secret desire of the heart was to be solemnly blessed, and love was to become a holy duty; farewell!  He who gave you so much joy is everywhere; and he never disturbs the happiness of his children, except to prepare for them a surer and greater happiness."

Historical circumstances magnify the conflict when a famine hits the area.  Renzo finds himself squarely in the middle of the bread riots in Milan, where the peasantry balk at the high prices and violently rebel.  Bakeries are looted, scapegoats targeted, and Renzo has a warrant for his arrest as the authorities try to set a deterring example to the rioters.

Later is the threat and destruction that accompanies the German army as it passes through the region on its way to Mantua.  To supplement their already low pay, the German soldiers consider treasures along their way assumed supplemental income.  Homes are invaded, made filthy, and ransacked.  Property is destroyed, fields and crops decimated by the ranks of men looking for food.  The Italian folk must flee and seek refuge elsewhere, many of them eventually returning to nothing.

And most heart-wrenching and destructive is the wave of the bubonic plague that rages in northern Italy from 1629-1631.  History calls it the Great Plague of Milan.  Up to one million people, or 25% of the population, may have perished.

Manzoni's depiction of the plague is grippingly horrifying.  He describes the appatorie, bell ringers who lead the carts of corpses, warning those still alive that the pestilence is approaching.  

Behind him came two horses, stretching out their necks and digging in their hoofs as they strained their way forward; and then a cart laden with dead bodies, and another, and another, and another, with monatti walking alongside the horses, urging them on with fists, whips and oaths.  Most of the bodies were naked, though some were carelessly wrapped in a few rags.  Piled up and interwoven together, the dead looked like a cluster of snakes slowly reviving in the warmth of spring, for those grisly heaps stirred and slithered horribly at every jolt.  Heads wagged, maidens' lovely hair fell this way and that, arms freed themselves from the tangled mass of limbs and dangled and beat against the wheels.  

Renzo, two years estranged from Lucia, searches for her in the lazaretto, a quarantine station.  The local officials turned over care of the lazaretto to the Capuchin friars because no one else would assume the responsibility, which was akin to a death sentence.  Manzoni states that during the seven months that Fr. Felice oversaw the lazaretto, some 50,000 people sought shelter there.

The Lazzaretto in Milan in 1880, a few years before it was demolished

In the midst of extreme suffering, motherless babies suckling goats for milk, and thousands dying all around, Renzo seeks out Lucia, not certain whether he will find her dead or alive.  Yet first, he learns of another's presence in that den of death: Don Rodrigo, the assailant that tore the lovers apart.  If not for his lust and injustice, Renzo and Lucia would be husband and wife, united even if in death.

Father Cristoforo, the saintly friar who acts as a spiritual guide and mentor to the betrothed couple, admonishes Renzo when he vindictively threatens to quash the remaining bit of life in Don Rodrigo.

"You know," continued Father Cristoforo, "that God can hold back the hand of a bully, and you've said so yourself many a time; but remember that he can also hold back the hand of an avenger.  And because you're a poor man, because you've been wronged, do you think that God cannot protect a man--a man whom he has made in his own image--against your vengeance?  Do you think he'll let you do whatever you please?  Never!  But do you know what you can do?  You can hate your neighbor and lose your own soul.  By indulging that one feeling you can lose all hope of God's blessing.  For however things go with you hereafter, whatever fortune may befall you, you can be sure that everything will be as a punishment to you, until you forgive him..." 

For all that Lucia and Renzo endure, as a couple and individually as they struggle to reunite, their suffering is far better than that of Don Rodrigo.  The former is redemptive, if put to good use; the latter damning, if not repented.

My mother has often echoed that sentiment to me.  Often, when something is challenging or just not going as planned, she will reflect to me, "Well, at least we didn't sin."  

Manzoni's novel is a tale of persevering love, of a promise made between two betrothed that the violence of history threatens to sever.  It is full of sinners and saints both: not all of the clergy are saints, though some are; not all of the sinners are beyond the scope of God's mercy.  Justice and forgiveness play their part as the weight of Renzo and Lucia's promise to marry is tested, strengthened, and purified through the fire of suffering.

"God is the God of the poor as well as the rich; but how can you expect him to help us if we sin against him?"

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Victim Soul

I went to visit Michael at the hospital this past Sunday.  

It was a pristine fall day.  You could tell it might well be the final day of warm temperatures and being able to run outdoors without a coat or hat.  As Michael told me, observing from his hospital window, "It's a perfect day."  

I picked Sunday to visit him because the next day he was having an esophagectomy.  It is the surgery we tried to avoid as long as possible, ever since Michael received the diagnosis of achalasia back in 2005.  An esophagectomy is the surgical removal of the esophagus.  The surgeons move the stomach up, connecting it with the neck, to become a neo-esophagus.  Most candidates for the surgery are those with esophageal cancer.  But some achalasia patients, whose esophaguses have deteriorated too much, also require it.  Such is the case with Michael.

I entered Michael's hospital room knowing what lay ahead for him in the next twenty-four hours.  A seven-hour surgery...the removal of a major body organ...extraordinary pain...a long recovery.  The knowledge weighed on me and, though I haven't cried in the past few weeks--even when Michael had his life-threatening bleed--I felt teary-eyed walking into his room that Sunday afternoon.

Michael knew he would be having surgery and told me the doctors would be taking out the bad part of his esophagus so he wouldn't keep getting sick.  He was peaceful and sat chatting with me as he completed his fifty-piece tiger puzzle.  A scarecrow from our Aunt Cindy decorated his little shelf and his calendars hung on the wall (Michael loves calendars and owns probably seven or eight).  

The same Aunt Cindy had brought him some pictures of when we were kids and I looked through them.  There was one labeled, "Cassandra's Baptism Party, October 1984" and there was Michael as a two-year-old, with suspenders and a big smile.  And I thought: he's the same person.  Here he is, thirty-three, and in so many ways he's exactly the same.  That untouched innocence, trust, simplicity, joy.  My life and sins and transgressions have tarnished and clouded my soul.  His?  His is still pure.  

We had a nice visit and I kissed him on the top of his head as I left, telling him, "I love you, Michael."  It was in the isolation of my car that I felt I could cry.  My heart was so sad for him.  He was happy with his puzzle; I was sorrowful for what I knew lay before him the next day.  

"Lord, to whom shall we go?"  

I don't understand this.  I don't like this.  I want health and stability and healing for Michael.  Why more pain, more surgery, more uncertainty?  Would he even make it through the surgery?  Was this Sunday afternoon visit my last with Michael?  God can call any of us home, at any point.  But Michael has come close to death many times now.  

Still I returned to: "Lord, to whom shall we go?"  And I said aloud in the empty car: "Lord, I believe that you love Michael.  I believe you love Michael more than any of us could possibly love him.  I believe you have a plan.  I don't know why and this makes me so sad.  But I believe you.  Jesus, I trust in you."

Sunday night we were uncertain as to whether the surgery would even take place.  Michael's prep for the surgery had been problematic; he had a fever, his blood pressure was low, and he had vomited.  Either avenue was paved with suffering: a serious surgery or the waiting game where his esophagus could potentially bleed again, at any point.

My parents arrived at the hospital at 5:15 AM Monday morning.  Michael was sound asleep; his night had been peaceful, thanks be to God.  The surgery was on.  When he awoke, Michael talked to my parents about how he was looking forward to Thanksgiving.  He was content, trusting.  

Monday was a long, long day.  I've read in books about keeping presence of God, but I don't really think I practice it all that well most of the time.  Well, Monday I kept presence of God.  I was thinking of Michael, of my parents, of the surgeons all day.  They never left my mind and my prayers continued through breakfast, through laundry, through grocery shopping, through cooking...  

I knew this surgery was complicated and complex.  I also knew there were so, so many people praying.  And it was freeing because I knew this had to be.  There were no other options for Michael.  We had tried everything else and this was all that remained.  So there was a sense of surrender.  And there was a realization that Michael's medical case had become so high-level that only God could direct it.

He was in the OR for ten hours.  Finally I heard from my Mom that the surgeon said Michael had done well and the doctors were pleased with how the surgery went.  He had made it through; he was still with us and the surgery was done.  Thanks be to God!

A blanket of grace covered Michael.  Of that I am sure.  Monday night things seemed quite bleak, as Michael was in extreme pain.  We called upon our friends and family to continue their prayers.  On Tuesday morning, my parents visited him in the surgical ICU.  In my Mom's words, the change in Michael was "remarkable."  He was alert, his pain was manageable, and by noon he was happily watching "The Price is Right."  

Later that evening, Michael's primary care doctor went to visit him and prepared himself as he rounded the corner to Michael's room.  As he entered, he was astounded to hear a cheerful, "Hi, Doctor Costello!  How are you?"  Michael presented so well that the doctor even had to question him as to whether the surgery had indeed taken place!

I'm not sure what people do when they face suffering like this, in the absence of faith.  I know God never abandons anyone, but I also know that Michael was, and continues to be, surrounded with the power of prayer.  My Mom told Dr. Costello that she attributed Michael's condition to those prayers and he replied, "That's the only explanation."

Michael has a long road ahead of him still.  Today his feeding tube wasn't functioning and they had to place a PIC line in so he can receive nutrition.  On Monday he will attempt drinking something for the first time and the doctors will watch how the liquid moves through his new digestive track.   

But there is much hope and it's moments like Michael's unexpected, positive condition yesterday that remind me God is near.  And when those moments are dark and uncertain, God is even nearer.  We may not see the visible signs, but my faith assures me that He is.  

That Sunday when I visited Michael, the day before his operation, my Mom heard a homily that seemed to speak to Michael's situation.  The priest said that, in this life, sometimes the ledger will never balance.  There are some people who have to suffer so much--much more than anyone else.  It doesn't seem fair or to make sense.  Yet, we have to look at the big picture.  It doesn't add up in this life; in the next life it will.  Any suffering here on earth will be rewarded one hundred times over in the next life.

Another priest friend told us that Michael is a Christ for us: a suffering servant.  His suffering is calling blessings upon our family.  He is a "victim soul."  As Our Sunday Visitor defines it:

A victim soul is an individual who has been chosen by God to undergo physical, and sometimes spiritual, suffering beyond that of normal human experience. The victim soul willingly accepts this unique and difficult mission of offering up his or her pains for the salvation of others.

Through his suffering, God is working through Michael to sanctify this world...this  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

So Much Suffering

It's strange when a loved one being in the ICU feels familiar.  

Michael is my older brother.  He has a developmental disability and is the bravest person I know.

Five years ago I remember when Michael was placed in the Intensive Care Unit for bleeding in his esophagus.  Those three letters--ICU--sent a shockwave of terror through me.  The closed, locked doors to the entry to the unit ... the breathing tube and computer monitor carefully reporting my brother's vital signs ...everything about it screamed, "This is serious.  This is high level."

When my Mom told me on Friday Michael was in ICU for the same reason, my reaction was different.  I was far from nonchalant, obviously, but it was more, "I'm glad he's in the best hands."

Michael's health has always been complicated, puzzling, and saddening.  There was many a holiday or birthday celebration throughout my childhood when Michael was in his bedroom sick.  The list of his diagnoses is long: kidney disease, Addison's disease, achalasia...

It's the last one that has been the worst.  Achalasia is a disease of the esophagus.  The muscles stop working, so the esophagus can't push food down into the stomach.  But perhaps more damaging is that achalasia causes the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach to tighten.  

The opening narrows to such a degree that food, drink, and saliva can't pass into the stomach.  Everything sits in the esophagus, irritating and eroding.

Michael's esophagus is very damaged.  It's filled with ulcers and tears.  And sometimes those ulcers and tears begin to bleed, which happened this past week.  The bleeding was rapid, profuse, and almost uncontrollable.  At one point the nurses were running--running--my brother's hospital bed into the OR.

Yesterday Chris and I took the kids to a fall festival at a nearby parish.  Mary and Peter decorated pumpkins, jumped in a bounce house, and tried to score a basket.  

It was a beautiful, sunny, cool autumn morning.  Perfect for picking apples, which was our original plan.  It was supposed to be our annual family outing to Indian Ladder Farms.  Michael was especially looking forward to it.  

But instead he was in the ICU and he almost could have died the day before.

I sat with Chris and the children, eating lunch at the fall festival, and couldn't stop thinking about Michael.  He would have nothing to eat today.  Nothing to drink.  His esophagus is too fragile and the risk of another, potentially deadly, bleed is too high.  

My family has become so accustomed to these high-level emergencies that we cope by keep living, keep moving.  But sometimes the intensity of it hits me: he could have died.  Maybe I should be sobbing or shaking, but instead it's just a deep somberness inside.  

Somberness and profound puzzlement.  Why?  Why Michael?  Why is it that I could drive home, away from the hospital, windows down and music blaring, to enjoy a ham and cheese sandwich and warm cup of tea?  Why is it always Michael?  

So much suffering.  

And yet, he may be the happiest person I know.

He went five months with no food or drink, nothing except tube feeding overnight.  I cannot even fathom it, not for a moment.  No sip of water, no ice cream for dessert on Sunday, no warm bread with butter...  Nothing.  And Michael--not a complaint. No bitterness, no jealousy, no resentment.  Just acceptance.

The surgeon called my parents yesterday and related that, after Michael's breathing tube was removed and he could speak, one of the things Michael asked was, "What's your costume going to be for Halloween?"

I don't know why Michael has been given such a heavy cross.  But I do know that God is giving him the grace to carry it and that God is touching people through Michael's innocent and courageous witness.  

I still say, "Why?"  But maybe I should be saying, "Yes, Lord.  Yes to whatever You want."  

Because that is what Michael is saying.