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

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.

Vaccines, Police, and the Social Contract of Trust

A few thoughts on the social function of trust in the establishment.  I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I’m not 100% sure about this, but this is what I think so far.

My kids were riding their bikes with the neighbors the other day, and pretending that the cops were pulling them over for speeding.  “If you’re going too fast, the police will give you a ticket and take you to jail!” my son said.  “Yeah,” his friend chimed in, “or shoot you!”  His mother was horrified, and rushed in to explain that police only use force if it’s really necessary, and usually they’re very nice and they help people.  I’ve seen this reaction in kids before, especially when we lived in a couple of bad downtown neighborhoods–every time the police drove by, the kids would hide, or warn their parents.  We also had a friend from Rwanda who was terrified of the police, because in his country, if the police pulled you over, they were probably going to beat you up.  We had to convince him that things weren’t like that in America.  In America, you might run into an occasional bad cop, but he was the excpection, not the rule.  In America, we trust the police.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the function of trust in modern society.  We know that some policemen are corrupt or incompetent, but in general we trust them.  We know that the government can be corrupt or incompetent, but in general we trust it–or at least, we trust the FDA, the court system, the surgeon general, and other systems that keep things running smoothly.  Even a conservative who distrusts big government is likely to assume that, in general, our food and products are safe, our justice and voting systems are fair, and our police are lawful.  It’s almost like a social contract that keeps the whole system afloat.

I think the vaccine debate is a good example of the chaos that results when people are no longer willing to start from a default position of trusting the systems we’ve set in place.  I’m not advocating blind trust in the establishment; I try to do some research on my own, and question anything that doesn’t sound right to me.  But in general, I trust mainstream American medicine, and I trust the FDA.  Without a baseline trust in the FDA, we’d have to make every medical and nutritional choice on our own, and most of us are not qualified to do that.  (Plus, who has the time and energy?)  When I see stories like this, about the FDA, the Postal Service (!), and the Consumer Protection Branch of the DOJ exposing a man who sold commercial bleach as a miracle cure, I’m very grateful for the way our government functions.

It’s becoming fashionable to resort to a default of suspicion rather than trust when we think about the medical establishment.  Aside from the fact that very few of us are knowledgeable enough to reasonably challenge commonly accepted medical practices, this creates a huge practical problem–how can society function without this common ground?  How can our government or doctors be effective if they are constantly being forced to prove their qualifications?   Obviously, they must prove their fitness for authority before they are given their position; but once a doctor has earned his MD, or the FDA has rigorously tested a medical treatment and approved it, what sense does it make to assume they are out to get us, unless we have a good reason to think so?

 

 

“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.