Sunday, November 2, 2008

"To shed them because Love is not loved"

Sylvester Tan, currently in philosophy at the University of Toronto, a member of the Southern Province of the Society of Jesus, offers the following as a reflection on the feast of All Saints and in lieu of the death of two Jesuits in Moscow.
Today the Church celebrates all of her saints. It is a great feast—in heaven and on earth. Heaven inclines towards us: is it made up of the stuff that the saints have brought to heaven with them from earth. The rose-petals that St Thérèse of Lisieux promises to rain from heaven after her death are the ones that she brought up to heaven with her from the simple little life that she lived. We have all of eternity before us, but we are given only one life that can be brought with us into that eternity. This should make us especially aware—as Ignatius was—of the importance of the life that we have been given. Everything that we do in time has an effect on eternity.

On the flipside, from eternity the saints reach out to us today by means of their earthly lives—the way Thérèse does with her rose-petals—and our lives are changed by theirs. Especially here at the mass, we should be particularly conscient of this. Along with the Lord, the saints are here, not only in spirit, but also in this room, right now. As Christians, we are called to live in heaven on the earth. But today we are tempted to separate heaven and earth in a way that is alien both to our scriptures and to our Catholic tradition. Heaven comes to us nowhere else but in the concrete realities of the earth and yet—irony of ironies—we often cannot see heaven because we can see nothing more than the earth in what we are given. We have lost a good part of our sense of Providence. And we are blind to a good part of our Church if our Church is made up of only of those whom we can see. Alongside us in the Church are the saints—in fact, they are the Church par excellence. To understand what Church is, we must also look to them, and realize that even—perhaps especially—in the concrete circumstances of our lives, they are there. Like the Lord, they too can be tough on us. We should not be surprised if Ignatius is no less tough on us now than he was to his companions in life. But he wants to show us that we ought not take the first place: that place belongs to the Lord. If the Society were ever to tire of Ignatius and just toss him aside, it would cease to be the Society of Jesus. Just so, our understanding of the Church is incomplete if it does not recognise that we walk together with all the saints, even today.

What the saints want us to see is how the Lord shines through them. The saints never draw attention to themselves, except insofar as doing so would draw our eyes to our Lord. In the same way, their thoughts do not revolve around their own person, but around the Lord. They love him. What kind of spouse spends all of his time being worried about whether he is a good spouse without hardly giving a second thought to the one he loves? A very self-centred one. We want to do well and serve the Lord and so on, but we end up focusing on ourselves and not the Lord. If being a saint means being perfect the way Michaelangelo's David is perfect, then the Lord does not want us to be saints! But that is not what it is to be a saint.

What is it, then, to be a saint? It is to stop being the centre of your own attention so that the Lord can take the place in your heart that can never belong to the Beloved if it is already taken up by oneself. It is to stop shedding tears because you are not perfect and to begin to shed them because Love is not loved. It is to stand in awe before the Lord and praise him for his greatness. Where temptation is too great for us and we do fall, it is not to hide from God as Adam does in the garden, but to run to him in tears and tell him that we are sorry, and then, to go on with our lives, trusting that if we make an effort to do the right thing, then Jesus will help us to be like him in the way that he wishes, in his own time—but that we are not there yet. We have not arrived. None of the saints have ever arrived. A struggle yet awaits us, and if we are following the Lord, then we are already in the midst of it. It is the struggle to do that which is simple, but not necessarily easy. Nothing could be simpler than the Beatitudes. And yet living that beatitude is nothing short of a miracle.

After having seen the great multitude of those who had been sealed in the name of the Lamb, John is told by one of the elders: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

The Christian life is an ordeal: Christ himself promises no less, and we do no one any favours by trying to run away from that fact. The savage murder of our brothers in Moscow offers us a brutal reminder of this. How do we react to the death of our confrères? We are saddened naturally, and perhaps a bit angry. Perhaps we look for someone to blame, or perhaps we indict the world of the great evils of intolerance and injustice. In all this, our reaction is no different from that of those who do not know Christ. And yet, when the early Jesuits ran the English college in Rome in the 16th century, did they not gather all of the seminarians together in the chapel to thank God and praise his name by singing a Te Deum whenever one of their own was martyred? We are called to see martyrdom as a great gift: not in the way that suicide bombers see it —as a ticket to heaven—but as something far more profound.

We are to work for a more just society without letting a merely human view of justice that might keep us from love. It is only through the spilling of our own blood that true justice can come about. I am a Christian, because some Christian, in a time and place long forgotten, let himself be stuck-down by one of my ancestors. This is true, not only for my Vietnamese forebears, but also for my Frankish ones. It was a grace to have been the one who struck down that Christian, because, for having struck him down, that person tasted—and was converted—to the Love that let itself be struck down. Even in my own life there are those who turned the other cheek when I struck them down, and through their suffering I discovered love. This is an aspect of the redemption that Georges Rouault depicts in plate forty-seven of his Miserere collection: the inscription is, “The just, like sandalwood, perfumes the axe that strikes it.”

The blood that is spilled ultimately is not our own: it is Christ's blood spilled out for us. Though we do indeed crucify the Lord, he does not hold this against us, but rather, he loves us all the more for having suffered for us. So let not our blood be held against those who spill it, but may it rather be our gift of love to them. For they do not take our lives from us, we give it to them in the grace of the one who gave us life through his own blood.

To live in this way calls for profound liberty and humility. It calls for the recognition that, in a sense, the mission to which we are called—which is absolutely essential—is also unimportant. For when all is said and done and we have bathed our robes with the blood of the lamb that pours forth from our own slain bodies, then our reward will be precisely that of not being in the centre. It will be to be part of the great multitude in which each one surrenders the palm and the crown that he has been given in order to glorify the lamb that was slain. Each one in that crowd will have fought and conquered—with God's help and grace—that spirit within himself that would have placed himself instead of the Lord at the centre of his own heart If this is not what we want, then we should at least ask ourselves whether our hearts are truly free to desire it. If we discover that they are not, then let us ask the Lord for the freedom to desire nothing less. In doing so we are never alone, for the Lord is with us—and with him, we walk in the midst of a great multitude. May we come to know and love the saints among whom we walk, and may we be borne by their prayers. Amen.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


Anonymous said...

What a pile of Catholic crap..... a martyr is killed by the dark forces of the world and is not a blessing for anyone.

Anonymous said...

Great article by a budding theologian.....