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 family...me.