Only Heaven

I like to sing hymns to my babies at night: they make nice lullabies, and they’re a good shot in the arm for an exhausted mama.  Tonight I was singing “…and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day,” and I thought sure–on the very last possible day.  I’m not trying to be funny here.  Sometimes it feels like God waits until the last minute.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s is progressing terrifyingly fast, and every morning she suffers through an attack of spiritual doubt and misery.  This morning she told me “everyone keeps talking about mercy…all about mercy….”  She couldn’t finish her sentence, but I thought I caught the implication: where’s the mercy for me?  I didn’t know what to tell her.  I believe in God’s mercy on the last day, but I don’t know why, for some people, He doesn’t send it earlier.  Where is the mercy in my brilliant, wise, eloquent mother spending the last ten years of her life in confusion and humiliation?

I know I’m missing something here.  I know–I believe–that a life of hardship can have more joy and peace than just the promise of heaven.  But I don’t see it right now.

Sometimes a crumb falls
from the tables of joy,
sometimes a bone
is flung.

To some people
love is given,
to others
only heaven

–“Luck” by Langston Hughes

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Mama Church

Speaking of trust, one of my readers pointed out that distrust in medical and government authorities seems to be connected to distrust in religious authority.  I think she’s on to something: the same attitude that leads people to reject medical recommendations just because they come from a big establishment leads people to reject the authority of the Church because they don’t want to accept any ideas that they didn’t arrive at on their own power.  I’m not quite sure that I convinced myself with my last post about governmental authority, but I do know that I love the authority of my mother Catholic Church.

This is something I didn’t realize until recently.  I didn’t really understand what the Church’s motherhood had to do with her laws, and I accepted her authority readily, but never thought of it as an object of affection or love.  Now I do.  I’m extremely grateful for the fact that I don’t have to figure out end-of-life decisions, or the question of when life begins, or who’s a real priest and who’s not, or what exactly is wrong with gay marriage, or what is necessary for salvation, or ANYTHING about sex, all by myself.

Is this because I’m slavish or intellectually lazy?  I don’t think so.  I still try to understand these things as well as I can, when I have the time and energy; and I am still not at peace with all of the Church’s teachings, although I accept them.  But it is such a relief to have a trustworthy authority to fall back on.  I don’t have to be constantly worried that I made the wrong decision, or that I don’t know what to do, or that I just don’t understand enough to make the right choice.  God gave me the comfort of an authority that will never betray or mislead me, that will be there for me until the end of time.  Isn’t that generous?  I can very well imagine if He hadn’t decided to institute the authority of the Church, but it makes perfect sense to me that He did.  It’s a gift.

“The Sweet Spot of the Faith”

 

Pope Francis with a Filipino girl who asked him why children suffer.

A few words of comfort from Pope Francis, both old and new, for people walking in the dark.  From an old interview, “A Big Heart Open to God,” on seeking God in blindness and doubt:

…in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good….The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties….Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance….

I find this so consoling!  When you are in a state of doubt and walking blindly, it’s very easy to feel that you are far away from God.  I was surprised to see Pope Francis say that people in this situation are not only on the right track, but are actually closer to God for their uncertainty.  If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that the uncertainty is a positive thing because it acknowledges the mystery of God’s plan.  By seeking and following God even when we can’t see where he’s taking us, we are making that uncertainty a cause for trusting a providence that is far larger than our range of understanding, rather than a cause for mistrusting God.  I was reminded of this passage a few days ago when I read a very recent interview, where the Pope talks about what it means to have stability in faith, even when you don’t feel God’s presence:

In some moments we are conscious of the presence of God, other times we forget about that….How to be consistent in the faith? If you do not deny feeling it, you are going to feel it very close to you, you are going to find it in your heart. Another day, it is possible that you do not feel anything. And nevertheless faith is present, right? It is necessary for one to get accustomed to the faith not being a feeling. Sometimes the Lord gives us the grace to feel it, but faith is something more. Faith is my relationship with Jesus Christ, I believe that he saved me. That is the sweet spot of the faith. Go and seek the moments of your life in which you have felt bad, where you were lost, where you did not hit the mark, and look how Christ saved you. Embrace it, that is the source of your faith. When you forget, when you feel nothing, embrace that, because that is the basis of your faith….At the end, faith is a gift, it is not a psychological attitude….

This is a good thing to remember when you’re in the lost, wandering state of uncertainty that he talks about in the first quote.  Don’t let the feelings going through your head convince you that God is not there!  “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side.”

Finally, here’s the Pope’s tender explanation of the gaze of Christ that consoles us in the face of incomprehensible suffering (from a 2013 interview):

One man who has been a life mentor for me is Dostoevskij and his explicit and implicit question “Why do children suffer?” has always gone round in my heart. There is no explanation. This image comes to mind: at a particular point of his or her life, a child “wakes up,” doesn’t understand much and feels threatened, he or she starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the “why” age. But when the child asks a question, he or she doesn’t wait to hear the full answer, they immediately start bombarding you with more “whys.” What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent’s face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the “why” prayer. Why Lord? He doesn’t explain anything to me. But I can feel Him looking at me. So I can say: You know why, I don’t and You won’t tell me, but You’re looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze.

I can imagine that a secular person might not find this consoling at all: even the POPE doesn’t understand suffering?!  But for me it’s a relief.  My peace of heart doesn’t have to depend on me figuring out everything by myself, because let’s face it, that’s never going to happen.  Instead, I have the gaze of Christ and his Church to return to when I feel lost.  My faith doesn’t have to be constantly defended against doubt or feelings of loneliness, because it all comes down to something unshakable.

 

 

 

How to Lose Your Faith in Human Nature and Find Your Faith in Something Else

Today’s a snow day, and I’m reading Hemingway for the first time and wondering when it became acceptable for the majority of 20th century stories and novels to end with those vague, inconclusive observations on the meaninglessness of life.  My husband thinks it’s a result of the disillusionment that followed World War I and II, the disorientation that resulted from feeling betrayed by the efforts of church, law, diplomacy, and authority in general to prevent war.  People had “lost faith in humanity” and didn’t know where else to look, so their literary heroes were just as lost and wandering as they were.  Later on, they placed their faith in evolution, acknowledging that human nature wasn’t to be trusted, but declaring that it would one day evolve past its flaws–whether into socialist man, or into the enlightened explorers of the Star Trek universe, whose technological achievements would free them from the need for hatred, greed, war, and so on.  (Of course, in order to make this believable, Star Trek had to transfer the dark side of human nature onto the countless less-evolved species that their new humanity encountered!  Even Star Trek didn’t seem to believe in the possibility of a universe where everyone is good. ) These days we don’t have the same faith in politics as the generation before the world wars, and the utopian promises of socialism and technological development have failed to materialize; but we still seem to have a vague faith in “human nature” that is just as vulnerable to betrayal.  Social media is full of stories of stupidity, inhumanity, or appalling ignorance labeled “just lost my faith in humanity” or “I no longer want to live on this planet.”  Meanwhile, stories of people sacrificing themselves for the sake of strangers, treating animals with humanity, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed are guaranteed to “restore your faith in humanity.”  We seem to be still suffering from the same problem as our turn-of-the-century ancestors; since our highest faith is in humanity and its accomplishments, it’s awfully easy to have that faith crushed. How can we inoculate ourselves against this constant, emotionally-draining tug of war?  Put a little less faith in “humanity” and a little more faith in something else.  Remember who made humanity, or at least remember the eternal principles of goodness and truth that human nature in action often falls short of.  But don’t be like the post-war generation, and let your exposure to the very worst side of humanity make you toss the baby out with the bathwater.  Find something unshakeable to put your trust in, and you won’t be stuck scrambling to find enough good people to tip the scale. Thank you for reading!  I’ve got a lot on my mind.   Please stay tuned for thoughts on Langston Hughes, Bruce Springsteen, therapy and self-help books, original sin, natural family planning, existential crises, why I love the authority of the Church, and probably more Star Trek.