Monks + Mermaids + Maureen Dowd

December 30, 2012


“Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. … Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God”.Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012


WHY GOD? by Maureen Dowd (The New York Times / December 25, 2012)

(thanks to Jim Forest)

When my friend Robin was dying, she asked me if I knew a priest she could talk to who would not be, as she put it, “too judgmental.” I knew the perfect man, a friend of our family, a priest conjured up out of an old black-and-white movie, the type who seemed not to exist anymore in a Catholic Church roiled by scandal. Like Father Chuck O’Malley, the New York inner-city priest played by Bing Crosby, Father Kevin O’Neil sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift. He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother’s hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael’s blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Father Kevin’s reluctance to minister to the dying. It tears at him too much. He did it, though, and he and Robin became quite close. Years later, he still keeps a picture of her in his office. As we’ve seen during this tear-soaked Christmas, death takes no holiday. I asked Father Kevin, who feels the subject so deeply, if he could offer a meditation. This is what he wrote:

How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?

The killings on the cusp of Christmas in quiet, little East Coast towns stirred a 30-year-old memory from my first months as a priest in parish ministry in Boston. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her.

They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief. The question in their hearts then, as it is in so many hearts these days, is “Why?”

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.

Implicit here is the question of how we look to God to act and to enter our lives. For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.


Remember! – It is Christianity TO DO GOOD always – even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace. (Charles Dickens on Christianity)

(excerpt from a post by Roy Peachey in “The Catholic English Teacher”)

One of Chesterton’s great strengths was that he was able to see Dickens’ novels in their broad historical context. In one of those marvellous, free-flowing passages of his, he argued that “for a few years our corner of Western Europe has had a fancy for this thing we call fiction; that is, for writing down our own lives or similar lives in order to look at them. But though we call it fiction, it differs from older literatures chiefly in being less fictitious.”
According to Chesterton, Dickens stood outside this tradition because he retained a link with the literature that came before the Realist revolution: “Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest.”
Dickens stood in a line of descent, through Shakespeare, with Chaucer and other great Catholic writers and so, Chesterton argued, whatever his own personal prejudices, his art drew upon all that was best in the pre-Reformation world: “He could only see all that was bad in mediaevalism. But he fought for all that was good in it.”
As we approach the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth next year, we do not need to be overly concerned by Dickens’ lack of “sympathy with the Romish Church”. As GKC puts it in his final paragraph: “The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant, and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant: that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.”
Or if that’s not punchy enough, we could look at the sign that hangs at the entrance to all Dickens’ novels, according to Chesterton, the sign that could equally well hang at the entrance to Chesterton’s own book: “Abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.”
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.  (I John I,1)
Christian revelation isn’t simply what we hear in Scripture, as the Protestants believe.  We also see it and touch it.  We can even smell it!!   And we can touch it.   As St Francis of Assisi said, the difference between believers and unbelievers is that the believers SEE and BELIEVE, and the Richard Dawkins of this world only see.   Christians hear, see, touch and smell.   For an integral Christian experience of the Truth, it is not enough to listen to the Bible read, or to read papal encyclicals and listen to the Magisterium.   It is necessary to see, to touch, to feel, to smell.   That is why Eastern Christians put such an emphasis on icons, and western Catholics and Maronites put such an emphasis on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; and why Christians of East and West put such an emphasis on the celebration of the Liturgy.  This is why the witness of the saints is essential for our understanding of revelation.  For this reason, reading the Scripture in a manner that is cut off from the Liturgy is not enough to understand what Scripture is all about.    Christ is God-made manifest in our embodied world.   Hence the word “Epiphany” and the word “Theophany” for the same feast.
I am very conscious of the fact that  our monastery is a holy place, not because we as individuals are saints, but because Christ is present in our common life.   By living a Christian monastic life, we have brought about a sacred space; and people come to it for that reason alone.   By the grace of God, by the work of the Holy Spirit, we have become an icon of Christ’s presence.

Maureen Dowd’s article shows us that God#s presence is shown in our loving presence.   Charles Dickens seems to turn Christianity into a mere matter of morality; but, in fact, it is only when we love as Christ loves that Christ, who is infinitely more loving and holy than we are, either alone or together, manifests his presence among us and calls the world to faith.

In a Year of Faith, we must always call to mind that words about faith are only a part of the story, no matter who says them.   To call the world to faith, faith must be LIVED; and then,calling the world to faith is no longer our work: it is Christ’s.

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