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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Why did Jesus Say “Tell No one?”

In yesterday’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:40-45), Jesus heals a leper, but then warns him “sternly” to not tell anybody what happened.  This happens many times in the Gospels, and I’ve always been mystified by it; if I were the leper, I would probably go right ahead and tell everyone, too.  Why wouldn’t Jesus want us to witness to his mercy and his healing power?  My priest, Fr. K., finally cleared this up for me, and it suddenly answered a lot of other questions I had.  According to Fr. K., Jesus didn’t want the news of his healing miracles spread around because he didn’t want people thinking that physical healing was his main purpose.  He came to save us from Hell; any other miracles that he performed were really extras.

I often struggle with the fact that God is able to save us from all our sufferings, to answer all our prayers for healing, but he doesn’t.  He only heals sometimes. Then I noticed that in the Gospels, even when Jesus was walking around and directly healing people, he still didn’t heal everyone; as far as we know, he didn’t fill up his 33 years with healing everyone he could reach.  Instead, he healed some, and he preached to more; but he came to save everybody. 

In the Jewish Passover ceremony, we recite a litany with the refrain “dayenu–it would have been enough for us, it would have sufficed us.”  Had the Lord saved Israel from slavery, but not opened the Red Sea for them, it would have been enough.  Had he led them through the Red Sea, but not given them manna in the desert, it would have been enough.  Had he given them manna, but not allowed them to reach the Promised Land, it would have been enough.  In the same way, had Jesus redeemed us by his death, but not saved us from earthly suffering, it would have been enough.

For me, this is the only answer to the question of why God allows suffering; but it’s not the end of the story.  In the Gospels, Jesus is often “moved with pity” (Mark 8:2) to go above and beyond his original mission.  He wants us to remember that God does not owe us anything, and that the enormous gift of Heaven is more than “enough for us;” but he loves to do extra things for us, too.  So go ahead and pray for whatever you want!  But if God doesn’t respond, remember that what he has already given us what we need.

Sometime this week I’d like to follow up on this theme, as a remedy for existential crises.  Stay tuned!

Finding Proof in the Storm

I have always wanted to write about the poetry in Bruce Springsteen’s work!  Thank you for giving me the opportunity.  Let’s start with the beautiful “Living Proof,” written after the birth of his first son.

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord’s undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother’s arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty, so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof.

The spare imagery and description in the first verse is so effective: you can picture the light from heaven, embodied in the moon-filled boy, breaking through the dusk. I remember as a teenager drawing a Christmas card with this lyric and a picture of a ray from heaven breaking into the darkness of the stable. The image of the “fiery” moon is so interesting. To me, it evokes a memory of high school, when I was pretty depressed, staring up at the cold, beautiful, aloof moon and feeling wounded by it. “It was all the beauty I could take.”

…Well now all that’s sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin’ in our bed
Tonight let’s lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we’ll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It’s been a long, long drought baby
Tonight the rain’s pourin’ down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

I love how Springsteen doesn’t go overboard and act as if all his existential problems are solved with the birth of the baby.  Life is still “fragile,” and he still feels like a “thief” who hasn’t really earned this blessing.  In other songs, Springsteen talks about a tentative hope or a belief in redemption and God’s love that keeps him going, but it’s never enough to take away the feeling of “dancing in the dark;” stumbling through the pain of life without despair, but without certitude and peace either.  In “Atlantic City:” “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.”  Maybe.  But to stop searching for the meaning in life is unthinkable–Springsteen often references the living death of an unexamined life.  In “The Promised Land:”

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning, go to work each day
but your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometime I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart.

The only way for him to live with himself is by leaving the town and going out into the wilderness:

I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the deams that tear you apart….

He rejects the false “dreams” that kept him pacified, but there is nothing except blind “faith” to replace them.  This reminds me of what I remember from reading Camus in college: even if you’re not sure that there is any transcendence in the world, the most noble thing you can do is to live as if there is.  [I am aware that this may be a totally inaccurate description of Camus!  It’s been a long time.]  The speaker in “Born to Run” doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s got to escape the “death trap” of the town.  Because he’s unsatisfied with his false life, he’s “born to run,” just like the speaker in “Hungry Heart;” “like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing,” he’s compelled to keep running until he finds his true home.  Like Aeneas, he has to go down into the underworld before he can discern the path to his true destiny.

After re-reading this post, I realize how unusual “Living Proof” is; it begins with the same theme of being lost in the “drought,” but goes one step further by recognizing actual proof of God’s love–not just some nameless hope.  He may be missing the words to the prayer he needs to make, but the innocence of his son completes it for him.  One final quote from “Living Proof:”

You shot through my anger and my rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys, no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars.

Next time I write about Springsteen, I’d like to continue talking about this theme in the song “Tunnel of Love.”  I’d better stop for now because I could do this all day.