Monday, December 13, 2021

A Winning Approach to Defending the Catholic Faith

 “Roman Catholicism concerns me.” 

My acquaintance, a Protestant, proceeded to hand me a paper, peppered with Scriptural citations, explaining the major theological errors with Catholicism. I hardly knew how to respond. I desperately needed a toolbox: a go-to guide to help me formulate a Catholic defense to these arguments. 

Blue Collar Apologetics is that toolbox and its author, John Martignoni, is that adept guide. Martignoni has spent the past twelve years working in Catholic apologetics: he has led a weekly Catholic apologetics program on an Evangelical radio station, distributed more than one million audio copies of talks he has given, and hosted an apologetics show on EWTN.


Blue Collar Apologetics


We All Need Apologetics

You might object, “I don’t engage in theological debates with Protestants, so this book doesn’t apply to me.”

Martignoni makes it clear that he intends this book first and foremost for evangelizing Catholics. He writes, “You cannot explain what you do not know. You cannot defend what you cannot explain.” So Blue Collar Apologetics is first about helping Catholics know and understand their faith. No matter what your level of education or formation, we could all deepen our catechesis.

“Apologetics is too complicated and involved for me,” you may think.

If that’s your concern, then this book is perfect for you! Martignoni’s audience is the average Catholic. He writes in a very down-to-earth, approachable manner, so I never felt lost or intimidated while reading.


The Four Strategies

Martignoni uses common sense, logic, and the Bible in shaping his defense of Catholic teaching. He also employs four “strategies": go-to tactics you can employ individually or collectively when dialoguing with Protestants.

Martignoni calls the first strategy “The Ignorant Catholic.” If someone asks you a question about Catholicism and you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” But make sure to add, “I will find out the answer and get back to you” (and follow through!).

The second strategy is “How to be Offensive (Aw-fensive) without Being Offensive (Uh-fensive).” Stop being on the defensive; start asking your own questions to encourage the other person to consider his or her beliefs. If a Protestant says that we are saved by faith alone (Sola Fide), counter with this query: So do we need to love God in order to be saved? If the answer is yes, then we are not saved by faith “alone.”

Strategy number three—”It’s the Principle of the Thing”—pulls Catholic principles out of Scripture. For example, a Protestant may ask where one can find Purgatory in the Bible. While the word “Purgatory” itself doesn’t appear in Scripture, the truth behind that teaching does. You can point to a verse such as Revelation 21:27: “But nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven].” The principle underlying this verse is that no stain of sin will enter heaven.

Finally, the fourth strategy is called “But That’s MY Interpretation.” This centers on the question of authority. Protestant theology typically implies that each person has the right to read and interpret the Bible for him or herself. So, according to their own teaching, your interpretation has the same authority as theirs. Since they are fallible, that means anything they say to you could be the wrong interpretation.


Major Debates

Using these four strategies, Martignoni tackles the major topics of debate between Catholics and Protestants:

  • Authority
  • Sola Scriptura
  • Sola Fide
  • The Sacraments (Baptism, Confession, the Eucharist, and Marriage)
  • Mary
  • The Pope
  • Purgatory
  • Once Saved, Always Saved
  • The Rapture

Martignoni includes a third section addressing Eastern Orthodoxy and atheism as well.


Eye-Opening and Inspiring

This book led me to treasure and understand my faith in a more profound way. I specifically would like to highlight Martignoni’s discussion on marriage, which I found beautiful.

Beginning in Genesis, God reveals His three-step plan for marriage. First, man leaves his father and mother (making a total commitment), then man cleaves to his wife (giving himself totally and completely), and last, the two become one flesh. Matrimony is a process, which begins with the wedding ceremony, but is not completed until the husband and wife come together in the marital embrace. The marital embrace is a renewal of their wedding vows: a re-presentation of themselves to one another and to God.

Jesus also went through this same three step process for His Bride, the Church. First Jesus left His heavenly Father and His earthly mother (Mary) to establish His own family, the Church. Jesus cleaves to His Bride, the Church, giving Himself fully without reservation. Through His death, Jesus makes us one with Himself. The Bridegroom is presented to the Bride (the Church) at the Wedding Feast: the Eucharist, a re-presentation of His self-gift on the Cross.

Martignoni asserts that the Eucharist “is the ultimate marital embrace.” In this sacrament, Jesus plants the seeds of eternal life in our bodies. From this parallel, he proceeds to demonstrate why the Catholic Church teaches against contraception, something most Protestants do not understand. The root of the problem is that, lacking a Eucharistic theology, Protestants cannot have a correct theology of Marriage. 

Get a Copy!

I have taken extensive notes from my reading of Blue Collar Apologetics. I highly encourage you to pick up this book! You never know when God will put you in a position to evangelize someone. Be prepared and confident for these opportunities, and in the midst of reading Blue Collar Apologetics, deepen your own love of the Catholic Faith.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

God's Hospital for Souls

Our children like to play a game where they dump as many toys as possible onto the floor. I knew they were in the midst of this game one day when I overheard our son say, “Mom’s not going to like this.” 

Indeed I didn’t. I entered the bedroom to find the floor scattered with dinosaurs, duplos blocks, and game pieces. 

I was — justifiably — angry. The children know that intentionally making a mess is wrong. They promptly apologized and I forgave them, of course. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story because the mess remained.


A Mess in Our Souls 

Something similar happens in our souls. 

When we go to the sacrament of Confession, God always forgives us our sins, removing eternal punishment and restoring our relationship with Him. But, like the mess in the bedroom, sin leaves a kind of mess in our souls. 

We may have a lingering tendency to commit the same transgression. Sins leave the soul lacking in love. Also, there is a need for correction. I forgave our children for the mess they made, but they had a punishment: clean it up! Similarly, as God’s children, we receive temporal punishment for our sins. We also need to be corrected through punishment when we willingly and knowingly disobey our Father. 

We all need purification. The question is: when will we be purified? Sometimes it happens in this life; other times, it’s in the next.


woman praying


All Saints and All Souls 

On November 1 we celebrate All Saints Day, thanking God for our friends in heaven (the Church Triumphant). The saints are our heroes: they’ve won the race and now cheer us on. They have been purified: there is no mess in their souls! 

If you look at the lives of the saints, you’ll find a common theme running through their varied stories: suffering. They united their suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross. They allowed that suffering to purify them. That suffering made them saints! 

They chose to be purified now, here, on earth. Through suffering they became detached from all sin and made reparation for any damage caused by their previous sins. Thus their love for God was so pure that, at the moment of their death, they entered directly into heaven. 

Then we come to November 2: All Souls Day. This is the day when we especially pray for the souls who were not fully purified here on earth: the souls in Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that Purgatory is a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” As the book of Revelation says of heaven, “nothing unclean will enter it” (21:27).


God’s Hospital for Souls 

Purgatory is God's hospital for souls. A patient in a hospital realizes that he or she is sick and needs a cure. He or she recognizes that a cure will come only through suffering — surgery or a medical procedure. The infirm person willingly proceeds with the suffering, knowing that it is for his or her ultimate good and in hope for full health one day. 

Similarly, the souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering) await the ultimate cure: the bliss that is the Beatific Vision. Father Benedict Groeschel writes in his book After This Life, referring to sinfulness, that Purgatory “heals it, cleansing the human soul, gently and lovingly making us into the beings God wants us to be.” 

Joyfully, Purgatory has just one exit door and that is to heaven. But until the purification is complete, the soul will experience a suffering "more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life" (St. Augustine). The souls in Purgatory suffer because they see so clearly the evil of their sins and sin's effects. 

While being purified, these holy souls in Purgatory cannot earn merit for good works: they cannot hasten their entrance into heaven.

St Teresa of Avila interceding for souls in purgatory


We Need to Help

We all have loved ones who have died. Don't assume that they are definitely in heaven already, because if they are in Purgatory, they need your prayers! Offering God your suffering, prayers, work, and difficulties for the souls in Purgatory is a way to show these departed ones your love.

My own family has gotten into the habit of praying for the souls in Purgatory immediately after we say our grace before each meal. We pray: “And may the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”

Consider having a Mass offered for someone who has died. Mass is the highest form of prayer and worship here on earth, so there are many graces that flow from this practice. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.”

We can (and should) remember the souls in Purgatory every day, but most especially now, in the days following All Soul's Day.

Each day from November 1 until November 9 we can gain a plenary indulgence for a soul in Purgatory. An indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. The Church has an infinite treasury of merit (good works) “stored” up, so to speak. These merits are from Christ’s Passion and death, as well as the good works of our Blessed Mother and the saints.

So an indulgence is the exchange of spiritual goods from the treasury of the Church to a particular soul — in this case, the indulgence could be applied to a soul in Purgatory. A plenary indulgence is extremely powerful: it removes all temporal punishment due to sin, allowing a soul in Purgatory to go to heaven!

In order to obtain this plenary indulgence, one must:

  1. Visit a cemetery (any cemetery will do; it need not be the one where your loved one is buried).
  2. Say a prayer for the particular soul for whom you wish to gain the indulgence.
  3. Attend Mass the same day (and receive Holy Communion).
  4. Go to confession within 20 days of the cemetery visit.
  5. Have a spirit of detachment from all sin.
  6. Pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the intentions of the Pope.

These souls in Purgatory will be so grateful for your prayers! As Venerable Fulton Sheen said,

As we enter Heaven, we will see so many of them, coming towards us and thanking us. We will ask who they are and they will say: "A poor soul you prayed for in Purgatory!”

 Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,

and let perpetual light shine upon them.

May the souls of the faithful departed,

through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

My Guardian Dear

 A messenger

I sat in the quiet Adoration chapel very early one morning during my college days. Just myself and an elderly woman were there, as per usual, and my heart felt particularly heavy that day with a pressing problem. Suddenly the chapel door opened and a young man, around my age, entered. He knelt a few pews behind me and I wondered who he might be — I had never seen him there before. A few minutes later, to my great surprise, he walked up to me.

“This is from your Mother,” he said, placing a Miraculous Medal in my hand. “She is praying for you.”

He abruptly left and I never saw him again.

Did you know that the word angel means "messenger?"


Angels really exist

Do angels really exist? Aren’t angels fantasy or myth, the topic of Lifetime movies or children’s stories?

The Bible is very clear about the reality of angels. At the major moments of salvation history, angels were present. An angel guarded the gate to the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Man. Angels appeared to Abraham to share the news that he and his wife would bear a child. Later, an angel stayed the hand of Abraham when he prepared to sacrifice his son. The archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would become the Mother of the Savior. Then, at the Savior’s birth, angels danced and sang for joy in the midnight sky. Angels ministered to Jesus after Satan tempted Him in the desert. They likewise comforted Him during His agony in the garden. The morning of the Resurrection, an angel announced that Jesus was alive. When He ascended into heaven, an angel encouraged the apostles to return to Jerusalem and their ministry. An angel aided St. Peter in escaping from prison. When Christ comes again, the angels will trumpet His glorious return.

Church Tradition has similarly been clear about the existence of angels. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.”

But, if we need further evidence, just consider for a moment the order and hierarchy of the natural world. Think about all of the creatures that exist, starting with a single-cell organism, all the way up to the complex human person. There are so many creatures along the steps of that hierarchy. Analogously, why wouldn’t God do the same in the supernatural world? At the bottom is man (body and spirit); at the top is God (perfect Spirit). What fills in the space between those two? Angels.


Gerard David,, "Virgin and Child with Four Angels" Public Domain


What, exactly, is an angel?

Angels are all around us, even though we may not be aware of them. Most times, we cannot see them. Unlike humans, angels are pure spirit: they have no body, no physical matter. Because they have no body, angels are neither male nor female. They also can never die, since they have no body that can be destroyed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.”

Sometimes people think that we humans become angels after we die. However, an angel is an entirely different species from people. Humans can’t become angels, though it would help us to try to act like them!

We often think of angels as chubby little cherubim, sweet and innocuous. But in reality, angels are supremely powerful, fearful (in a good way) and “awe”-some. Consider this: just about every time an angel appears in Scripture to someone, the angel immediately reassures, “Do not be afraid!”


stained glass window depicting archangel Gabriel, 1552,, Public Domain


Angels are pure intellect: they know perfectly and immediately. (This is why, in art, angels are sometimes depicted as heads with wings on either side!) Our knowledge is gradually acquired, but an angel knows instantly. As Peter Kreeft in his book Angels (and Demons) writes, “They are more brilliant minds than Einstein.”

As I mentioned, the word angel means “messenger.” It describes more what angels do, than what they are. As messengers, they have various roles. Actually, there are nine different levels (or choirs) of angels, from the seraphim at the top to the guardian angels at the bottom. 


20211002 CSpellman 2


Angels are God’s gift to us

Your guardian angel is an incredible gift from God! Just think: from the moment of your conception, there is an angel by your side at all times. That angel’s whole purpose is you! God has created an angel for the sole purpose of protecting, guarding, and watching over you!

Sometimes angels intervene in our lives in a miraculous way. When angels appear this way, it’s as though they are putting on a very realistic costume. We see this in Scripture in the Book of Tobit, when the Archangel Raphael appears as a man to help Tobias and his family.

More often though, angels help us behind the scenes in quieter — though no less potent — ways. Your guardian angel may give you strength in a moment of temptation. Or maybe sometimes you’ve had a sudden inspiration or idea. Its source could be your guardian angel! Also, your guardian angel prays for you before the throne of God in heaven.

The Church has two special days devoted to angels. September 29 is the Feast of the Archangels (Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel) and October 2 is the Feast of the Guardian Angels. These are good days to thank God for the gift of the angels! And remember, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2). 

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom God's love commits me here,
ever this day, be at my side,
to light and guard, rule and guide.


Monday, September 13, 2021

Can You Defend Your Faith?

“Do Catholics worship Mary?”

Our third-grade daughter heard this question posed to her by a friend one day as they played on the swing set together during recess. She told us about the conversation later that night over dinner.

“What did you say to him?” I asked, hoping my voice remained neutral. Our children did not attend a Catholic school and we had wondered whether conversations such as this might arise between our children and their classmates.

Our daughter took a bite of her taco. “I told him, ‘Yes!’”

My husband and I exchanged glances. Oh dear.


A Strong Catholic Formation

As Catholic parents, we desire many things for our children: health, friendship, academic success, a thirst for knowledge, a positive sense of self. But first and foremost of all is that we desire them to become saints. That is, after all, the reason that God entrusted them to us. During a Catholic wedding ceremony, the celebrant asks the bride and groom, “Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” This is the duty of each Catholic parent: it’s what we promised to do!

A Catholic formation begins in the home. Saying grace before meals, a regular tradition in Catholic families, is itself catechetical, teaching children that God is the giver of all gifts, even one’s taco at dinner! Catholic textbooks, catechisms, and storybooks help form children in the Faith. Catholic toys like a pretend Mass kit or a magnetic church have entertained our kids, while teaching them as well.

Sometimes though, a strong Catholic formation doesn’t only come from teaching our children what our Faith is; sometimes we need to teach them what it is not. And that’s part of apologetics.


family at the dinner table


Apologetics: Our Defense

Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which means “to explain and defend.”  It is one thing to know one’s faith; it is another to be able to attractively explain those beliefs to another person and to counteract any challenges to them. 

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. (1 Peter 3:15)

Many non-Catholics of goodwill have misconceptions about the Catholic faith.  Inevitably, at some point — if not already — your children will cross paths with these brothers and sisters of ours. These conversations are opportunities to evangelize and correct any misunderstandings. 

Unfortunately, if our children aren’t well-versed in their faith, such conversations may pose danger, causing them to question and doubt … maybe even leading them away from the one true Faith. A strong education in apologetics, however, helps arm our children so they will stand firm in their Catholic faith, enabling them to lovingly and gently spread the truth of our faith to others.


Form an Apologetics Group!

As my husband and I discussed that conversation our daughter had on the swing set, we knew we had to do something. After a search online, I found a program for a Catholic children’s apologetics group, written by a Catholic homeschooling mother. I decided to use her notes, but adjusted them here and there, included some more interactive activities, and added an extra session. I also referenced the Friendly Defenders cards, which are helpful for dialogue with Protestants as well as non-believers.

A few other Catholic families attend the same school as our children and we invited them to participate with us. Once a month, the children and their parents gather in our living room. 

We have a wide span of ages, from children as young as four to 13! Our monthly topics include: Scripture and Tradition, faith and works, the papacy, our Blessed Mother, saints, and the Eucharist. Each session the children have one or two Scripture verses to memorize pertaining to that month’s topic. I print the verses on laminated cards, attached to a keyring. Our daughter told us that one boy keeps his verses in his desk in school, in case he ever needs them!


bunch of happy children


Generally, our sessions followed this format:

  • Opening prayer
  • Apologetics practice: I divide the children into groups and have them practice the different objections and Catholic defenses we previously discussed. Then everyone has a chance to present what they prepared.
  • Lesson: Using my notes, I introduce that month’s topic, beginning with the Catholic teaching and then discussing some objections non-Catholics might raise.  
  • Snack and memory verse game: To make it interesting, we have the children compete against the adults in trying to remember the verses we memorized! It is so helpful to have Scripture verses at-hand to use in our defense of the Catholic faith.
  • Craft: I added a craft element to each session to make it fun, but also because I wanted there to be something tangible the children could hold and keep, to help them remember the lessons we discussed. So, when we talked about Tradition, the children used salt dough to make an imprint of their hand: Tradition is, after all, the “handing on” of the Faith. For the papacy, the children painted rocks, since Peter is the rock on which the Church is built. When we discussed the Blessed Mother, the children decorated pots and planted a marigold (“Mary’s gold”) in them … and we prayed that their love for their heavenly Mother would grow each day.


Strong Armor

“Everything God wants us to know is in the Bible.” 

“Only the Bible is infallible.” 

“I know for sure I’m going to heaven.”

If someone made these statements to you or your children, would you be able to respond to them? Apologetics is the strong armor we need to engage with people of other faiths or no faith at all. It confirms us in our beliefs and gives us confidence to charitably converse with others.  

The next day after that swing set conversation, our daughter approached her friend and said, “Do you remember what you asked me yesterday about Catholics worshipping Mary? I actually said the wrong thing. We only worship God. But we really, really love Mary!”

We don’t have to get it right the first time, but we should keep growing in knowledge of our faith. And don’t forget that the Holy Spirit will always be there to guide, inspire, and direct our words!

Friday, September 10, 2021

Lessons from Left to Tell

 “I have killed 399 cockroaches,” said one of the killers.  “Immaculée will make 400.  It’s a good number to kill.”

In high school I read a historical fiction novel by Michael Shaara about the battle of Gettysburg.  I don’t recall the lines verbatim, but there is an exchange between two characters that has always stayed with me.  One soldier quotes a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "What a piece of work is man ... in action how like an angel!" His companion, in a dry tone, responds that if man is an angel, then he is a murdering angel.  (Hence the title of the book, The Killer Angels.)

It does seem that at times man is capable of tremendous acts of sacrifice, virtue, and goodness—even comparable to an angel.  Yet, there are seemingly as many examples of man committing heinous atrocities like brutal violence, rape, and sacrilege—much like a devil.

Both of these extremes of goodness and evil are present in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s biography, Left to Tell, which tells of her experiences during the Rwanda genocide in 1994.  The book is gripping and astonishing.

Sadly, Rwanda’s history—like many African nations—was altered for the worse due to the colonizing interference of outside countries.  Rwanda was composed of three tribes: a Hutu majority, Tutsi minority, and a small number of Twa (forest dwellers).  Originally, Rwanda enjoyed many years of peace under a monarchy, ruled by a Tutsi king.  However, German and then Belgian colonists purposely altered Rwanda’s social structure for their own personal benefit.  

Pinning the tribes against each other, the Beglians promoted the minority Tutsi aristocracy, providing them with a better education so they could run the country well … thereby earning more money for their Belgian rulers.  The Belgians distributed identity cards as a way to distinguish between tribes.  The Hutus grew resentful, an anger that perpetuated through the future generations.

When the Tutsis sought independence from Belgium, the Belgians turned against them, supporting a Hutu revolt in 1959.  The revolt overthrew the monarchy and killed many Tutsis (more than 100,000).  This was just the beginning.  In 1962 Belgium officially left Rwanda, leaving a Hutu government in control, which continued the persecution of Tutsis.

Immaculée and her family belonged to the Tutsi tribe, although, as a child, she was unaware of any such differentiation.  Her parents, faithful Catholics and leaders in their community, welcomed everyone into their home and extended a helping hand to those in need, regardless of tribe.  In reality, very little separated a Hutu from a Tutsi.  Due to intermarriage, their physical features often appeared identical.  They spoke the same language and shared a common history and culture. 

Nevertheless, as Immaculée grew, the discrimination against Tutsis began to affect her life in a more direct manner.  The Rwandan government had an “ethnic balance” plan to ensure that the Hutus received a better education.  So although Immaculée finished second in her eighth grade class, she did not receive a scholarship to high school, due to her being a Tutsi.  Her parents had to make a significant financial sacrifice to afford her continued education.

Things escalated in October 1990 when Rwanda was attacked by a group of Tutsi soldiers (called the Rwandese Patriot Front, or RPF).  These soldiers had been living in neighboring Uganda.  Grown children of previous Tutsi refugees, they sought to return to their home country.  Fighting spread and continued, on and off for years, in the north of the country between these Tutsi rebels and the Rwandan government soldiers.

Meanwhile, in local communities, radical groups sprang up.  The President of Rwanda encouraged the formation of these Interahamwe, meaning “those who attack together.”  The Interahamwe attracted homeless teens, many of whom were drug addicts, and became a Hutu-extremist militia.

While away at university one day, Immaculée received an urgent message from her father, imploring her to return home.  She had originally planned to wait until Easter break, but decided to answer her father’s request and arrived home early, armed with books for continued study.  Immaculée joined her parents and two brothers for what seemed like a regular family dinner at home.  Yet, after the jokes and shared stories, her older brother, Damascene, broke out:

“No, I’m not imagining things,” Damascene said, getting to his feet and speaking with urgency.  “And that’s not all I saw.  They have a list of names of all the Tutsi families in the area, and our names are on it!  It’s a death list!  They are planning to start killing everyone on the list tonight!” 

Immaculée was troubled, but her father reassured them that such news was being exaggerated and people were overreacting.  However, unbeknownst to them at the time, that was their last family dinner together.  The next morning news reports informed the citizens of Rwanda that the President was dead, his plane having been shot out of the sky.  The radio announced:

“Stay in your homes.  It is forbidden to travel.  Only military personnel will be allowed in the streets.  Do not go outside.  Public transportation has been suspended.  Do not leave your homes!”

The date was April 7, 1994 and the genocide had begun.  With it came evil of such magnitude, it’s hard to even comprehend.

Local radio stations immediately encouraged Hutu citizens to grab a machete and kill any Tutsi neighbors, no questions asked.  Government officials even handed out machetes at gas stations and the militia went door-to-door, delivering guns and grenades.  

The country came to a grinding halt: all phone lines down; businesses, stores, and schools closed; public transportation ended … all done so that every person could pour every effort toward the goal of wiping out the Tutsi population. 

The radio further instructed the Tutsis to seek refuge at churches and stadiums.  However, this was just a ruse: these became places of mass killings, as Hutus attacked the sites, burning the people alive inside and shooting anyone who attempted to escape.  

Ntrama Church Altar, where over 5,000 people seeking refuge were killed

Immaculée describes the Interhamwe as they scoured her neighborhood, seeking Tutsis to kill:

Hundreds of people surrounded the house, many of whom were dressed like devils … They whooped and hollered.  They jumped about, waving spears, machetes, and knives in the air.  They chanted a chilling song of genocide … These were my neighbors, people I’d grown up and gone to school with—some had even been to our house for dinner.

The evil directly attacked Immaculée’s family, who were all brutally and savagely murdered.  The genocide continued for three whole months and claimed the lives of almost one million Rwandans.  

And yet, through God’s grace, even in the midst of such profound darkness and pain, Immaculée found a way to find light and goodness.

The day the genocide began, Immaculée’s family, concerned what the Interahamwe would do to her (they were known to rape women before killing them), sent Immaculée to a nearby Hutu pastor’s house.  For ninety-one days she, along with seven other women, hid in the pastor’s bathroom.

The conditions these women endured are astonishing.  The bathroom was four feet long and three feet wide.  Near the ceiling was a small air vent.  The women couldn’t flush the toilet unless the bathroom toilet on the other side of the wall was being used.  There wasn’t enough space for them all to sit on the floor, so the tallest women sat with the shorter ones on top of them.  Every twelve hours they would stretch, but aside from that, they stayed in the same position day and night.  The women remained completely silent, communicating only via sign language.  They became emaciated, surviving only on the scraps the Pastor brought to them.

And yet, in this unlikeliest of places and such trying circumstances, Immaculée experienced a profound deepening in her relationship with God.  He became her refuge.  That tiny bathroom became a sanctuary for her soul.

Even as my body shriveled, my soul was nourished through my deepening relationship with God.

Immaculée centered her entire day around prayer.  After awakening, she would begin prayers of thanksgiving—for the Pastor who took them in, for the life she still had, for her faith.  Then she prayed the rosary, using the beads her father had given to her when saying goodbye.  She spent hours meditating on Bible passages, or sometimes even a single world like “hope.”  

God stayed with her and protected her.  When the Interahamwe searched the Pastor’s house, they originally bypassed his bedroom, thus sparing the women.  The killers vowed to return though and God gave Immaculée a vision of a wardrobe, pulled in front of the bathroom door, thus shielding their hiding place.

While war waged outside of the bathroom, at times it waged inside of Immaculée’s soul as well.  She clung to God because there were moments she was tempted to despair due to direct attacks from the devil within the interior of her soul.

I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me.  Everything strong and good in me—my faith, hope, and courage—was vulnerable to the dark energy.  If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to survive.  I could rely only on God to help me fight.

Her greatest struggle was being able to forgive the people committing the genocide—those who had killed her own beloved parents and brothers.  The devil taunted her as she called on God, mocking the hatred she had in her own heart and condemning her for her desire to destroy those who destroyed her family.  Immaculée at first couldn’t comprehend how she could forgive these killers.  She listened as, outside the window, the Interahamwe killed a young mother and left her baby alone, wailing the whole day, until the child’s cries weakened and then stopped, presumably dead.  Who could forgive someone callous and dreadful enough to commit such deeds?  Yet God spoke to her in prayer:

You are all my children … and the baby is with Me now.

Immaculée began to view the killers as children, children hurting others without thinking, hurting themselves in the process.  She began to pity them and to forgive them.

Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil.  Despite their atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy.

Left to Tell is a story of a genocide and it’s a sombering look at the egregious deeds man is capable of committing.  Yet, I don’t think Immaculée would want readers to walk away from her autobiography with only that message in their heart.  It is, ultimately, a story of goodness: God’s goodness that triumphs over evil, that loves and protects.  Even though Immaculée lost her family members in the genocide, God gave her a vision of them, joyful in heaven.  God took care of them, too.  Immaculée cooperated with God’s grace and emerged from an unthinkable experience stronger in her faith with forgiveness in her heart, breaking the cycle of hatred that perpetuates persecutions and genocides.

God is taking care of me and you as well.  Like Immaculée, we need to cling to Him and stay as close as possible through prayer.  God will give us the strength to resist our temptations, forgive those who hurt us, and grow in love if we lean on Him.  He will be our shelter, if we allow Him.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Lessons from Far From the Madding Crowd

They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends.  Theirs was that substantial affections which arises (if any arises at all) when two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.

When I was in college, I read a book about dating and courtship.  It had a graph in it, depicting the various intimacies a man and woman can develop: physical, emotional, and spiritual.  The author made the point that the physical element of a relationship is the easiest and fastest to grow; the other two require more time and effort.  Yet, when a man and woman focus on the physical piece, to the exclusion of emotional and spiritual intimacy, it won’t be enough to really sustain and foster a true relationship.  

I think Thomas Hardy, author of Far From the Madding Crowd, would agree.  He states that passion, without the foundation of mutual friendship forged through shared difficulties, “is effervescent as steam.”

Written in 1874, Far From the Madding Crowd is Hardy’s fourth novel and first major success.  The title is based on a poem called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which Thomas Gray penned in 1751.  It reads:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The adjective “madding” here means “frenzied” or “raging.”  Gray asserts that the countryside, in contrast, offers a peaceful refuge, where life is calm and unaffected.  Hardy sets his novel in the fictional location of Wessex, in rural southwest England.  The main location is a farm and many characters are at work shearing sheep, going to the corn market, or gathering crops.  These scenic pastoral visions may call to mind the idyllic conditions of country life.  '

However, Hardy employs this line as his title in a stroke of literary irony.  The characters in his novel are “madding.”  His Wessex is far from calm: rumors, gossip, and scandals abound.  Even nature becomes a tempest, between destructive fires, thunderstorms, and even sheep that rush headlong to their deaths, destroying one farmer’s livelihood.  

The flurry centers around the female protagonist and her three potential suitors.  Hardy gives his characters incredibly rich, symbolic names that provide the reader with insight into their natures.  

Let’s start with the protagonist: Bathsheba Everdeen.  When we first meet her, Bathsheba is looking at herself in a mirror, a strong reflection of her proud nature.  She treasures her independence, at one point declaring that she has no intention of marrying anyone.  When she inherits a farm from her uncle, Bathsheba insists on managing the affairs herself, an extraordinary move for a woman in Victorian England.  

The name “Bathsheba” is an allusion to the Old Testament Bathsheba, whose beauty allured King David, who subsequently committed adultery and then murder to have her.  David’s lust for Bathsheba became his downfall, which foreshadows the fate of some of Bathsheba Everdeen’s suitors.  Additionally, the Old Testament Bathsheba eventually became the Queen mother and, as such, wielded great power, similar to this Bathsheba and her power as ruler of the farm.

The word “Everdeen” looks much like “evergreen,” a plant that remains green throughout the growing seasons, even the most rugged ones.  Bathsheba experiences both highs and lows in her dating life, but she never seems to lose her appeal.  Merriam-Webster further defines “evergreen” as “retaining freshness or interest: perennial,” and “universally and continually relevant: not limited in applicability to a particular event or date.”  Hardy’s Bathsheba has lessons for readers today, not just for his audience in the late 1900s.  

Interestingly, Suzanne Collins, bestselling author of The Hunger Games trilogy, chose to name her protagonist Katniss Everdeen, a nod to Bathsheba Everdeen, in recognition of Bathsheba’s proud, independent spirit (and maybe her knack for getting entangled in multiple romantic interests).

A final note on Bathsheba’s name: oaks are considered a kind of evergreen.  This becomes interesting, as Bathsheba’s first suitor is named Gabriel Oak, to whom I will now turn.  Gabriel and Bathsheba are closely related throughout the narrative, and not just by the similar symbolism in their names.  Bathsheba intrigues him immediately.  While both are working in the fields caring for sheep and cow respectively, they become acquainted and Bathsheba actually saves Gabriel’s life.  Shortly after, he asks for her hand in marriage, which she refuses.  

Their paths intersect again later on, though under very different circumstances.  Bathsheba has risen in society, due to her inheritance of her uncle’s farm.  Meanwhile, Gabriel has suffered a terrible financial loss and ends up working for Bathsheba.  

The name “Gabriel”—reminiscent of the New Testament angel—means “God is my strength.”  Many times Gabriel comes to Bathsheba’s rescue, like a kind of providential angel in her life.  Indeed, Gabriel possesses a quiet, humble, inward strength that guides him throughout the novel.  He is a shepherd, a protective guardian who disinterestedly advises Bathsheba, even in her romantic interests, always desiring her good.  The oak tree is known for its very strong and hard wood, a symbol of Gabriel’s strength and virtue, as well as his enduring love for Bathsheba.

One day, acting on an impulse, Bathsheba decides to send a valentine to a neighboring farmer named Boldwood.  Her pride is wounded by him because she is the sole woman present at the corn market and, while the other men are captivated by her presence, Boldwood seems completely indifferent to her.  Bathsheba teases him by sending a valentine with the words, “Marry me.”  

What does Boldwood’s name tell us about his character?  The woods are typically filled with plenty: numerous trees, vegetation, and animals.  Similarly, Boldwood is an affluent farmer—the most sought-after bachelor.  But, like the woods where the trees are so numerous they become almost anonymous, nothing about Boldwood himself really stands out as special and attractive.  He isn’t really singular: nothing specifically about him really attracts Bathsheba, aside from his original indifference to her.  He is actually very replaceable.  His name also might reflect that, when Bathsheba first spies him at the corn market, he seems wooden—unmoved by her beauty.  

This markedly changes, however, once Boldwood receives her valentine and traces its sender to Bathsheba.  He is far from interpreting it as a jest; instead, Bathsheba’s flirting has spawned him from a quiet, taciturn, emotionless bachelor into a courter emboldened in declaring his complete infatuation for her.  Bathsheba finds herself in a quandary, responsible for drawing this man into passionate feelings for her, yet simultaneously not feeling an iota of passion toward him.

She said in the same breath that it would be ungenerous not to marry Boldwood, and that she couldn’t do it to save her life.

Bathsheba’s third and final suitor is named Sergeant Francis “Frank” Troy.  The city of Troy, of course, was the setting of the Trojan War, featured in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  It was a war of destruction over a woman, foreshadowing the projection of Troy’s feelings toward Bathsheba.  This military connotation of Troy’s name is also reflective of his position as sergeant.  As for his first name, “Frank” is someone who is literally frank.  He wears his heart on his sleeve: he is blunt to the point of rudeness and romantic to the point of indiscretion.  

And Troy’s deformities lay deep down from a woman’s vision, whilst his embellishments were upon the very surface; thus contrasting with homely Oak, whose defects were patent to the blindest, and whose virtues were as metals in a mine.

Bathsheba meets Troy in a very unexpected manner.  She is walking alone through the woods one evening and becomes  literally entangled with Troy, as her dress becomes caught in his coat button.  It is a very symbolic representation of their relationship: she becomes caught in her physical attraction to him, despite the impropriety or imprudence of it.  In fact, Bathsheba lays her independence at his feet, once so highly cherished, just in desperation to be with him.

Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance.  When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never felt any strength to throw away.

If this were the “Dating Game,” I think it would be fairly obvious which one of these bachelors—Oak, Boldwood, or Troy—is the winning match for Bathsheba.  Oak stands out as the man with the best virtues, who proves his genuine love for Bathsheba through selfless action and enduring friendship, which involves charitably correcting her for her wrongdoing.  But of course, Oak is not the man Bathsheba initially chooses.

Isn’t that a dynamic that happens over and over again though—maybe in your own life, or that of a family member or friend?  The man who would make the best husband is passed over for the attractive, enticing, romantic man.  What should seem so clear becomes muddled.  This is because, ever since the Fall of Man, our reason is not always in control.  Instead, our passions like to take over.  Without the reins of reason guiding us, passion is like a runaway horse, blind to prudence and decorum.  It runs the danger of being a headlong flight into destruction.

This is why, in a budding relationship between man and woman, it is wisest to focus on emotional and spiritual intimacy first, reserving physical intimacy only for much later.  With the clear sighted vision of reason, one can objectively observe a potential suitor, weighing his strength of character and virtue—essential qualities of any spouse.  A genuine friendship can blossom, one where both man and woman appreciate the other’s talents, as well as acknowledging their respective flaws (we all have them!).  Yet, in a physically-centered relationship, possession and obsession dominate, glossing over any defects in an effort to glorify the object of desire.

Though we live in a different world from that of Thomas Hardy, today we often find ourselves in a “madding crowd.”  May the true compass of reason guide us, particularly those like Bathsheba who are seeking someone to love.