We start Advent with some deeply disturbing news bombarding us from around the world, assuring us that all is not right. There is too much to report; these are the ones that jump out at me:
1. Wal-Mart employee trampled to death on Long Island as the store was opening. The man, 6 foot 5 inches, 270 lbs, was unable to stand up to the mob of 2000 people who broke down the door at 5am to begin their Christmas shopping. People were reported to be notably irritated when told they had to leave Wal-Mart because someone had died. After all, they hadn't trampled the poor guy!
2. The 101st Airborne Division is returning home as well as others, after having served at least 3 terms of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. Bases here at home are bracing for severe psychological disorders in at least 1 in 4 soldiers. I remember reading last year some startling reports on veteran suicide rates.
CBS did some studies on veteran suicides, submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense, asking for the numbers of suicides among all service members for the past 12 years. Between 1995 and 2007, there were almost 2,200 suicides. That’s 188 last year alone. But these numbers included only “active duty” soldiers. They then went to Department of Veterans Affairs where Dr. Ira Katz is head of mental health where they got little information. So asked all 50 states for their suicide data, based on death records, for veterans and non-veterans, dating back to 1995. Forty-five states sent what turned out to be a mountain of information. Some surprising results. In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.
It found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 than non-vets. (Veterans committed suicide at the rate of between 18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000, compared to other Americans, who did so at the rate of 8.9 per 100,000.)
One age group stood out. Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age. (The suicide rate for non-veterans is 8.3 per 100,000, while the rate for veterans was found to be between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)
I was appalled to read this, and am worried as men come home to their homes for this Advent and Christmas season. Not only for themselves, but for the pain and difficulty they will no doubt place upon their families as they work through severe mental problems resulting from the "War on Terror."
3. Finally, the El Paso Times reports:
The violence in Juárez continued to rage with at least 10 homicides occurring Friday.
Among the slayings were a triple homicide in the morning, a man gunned down outside a pool hall in the afternoon and a killing at a funeral home in the evening. Shortly before 6 a.m., two unidentified women and a man were shot to death in a PT Cruiser on Rusia street, Chihuahua state police said. At 2:30 p.m., Rodolfo Humberto Martha Jimenez, 27, was shot 13 times in the parking lot of the Pocket's billiards on Avenida de las Torres, police said. There have been more than 1,300 homicides in the Juárez area so far this year, including nearly 30 since Monday.
My parents report that violence continues to rock the city of Juarez, making their ministry to the poor in Mexico these days a rather dangerous affair. The city has been militarized due to the violence between the major drug cartels battling it out now in the streets and street corners of the city.
These three small news blurbs amidst many worse horrors in the world -- for instance, in Mumbai and the Congo -- have been in my thoughts and prayers much as of late. Not just to cast a dismal pall over Advent, but to remind me and all of us of the power of prayer and sacrifice. How much do I actually fast and do acts of mortification? I have realized lately that without an intentional lifestyle of mortification, actual acts of mortification easily slip out of my daily habits. And I'm not talking about scourging yourself or other such severe acts.
I read recently in the latest Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker an article written by a friend of Dorothy Day. She had confronted him when he had admitted to her that he showered on a regular basis. She then seriously convicted him of Bourgeois middle-class living. We don't often think in those terms, but yes, sitting in front of a TV every night, drinking a beer, showering every morning, such self-indulgent forms of lifestyle are extremely rare in the world, shared by an elite few like many of us living in the United States.
The only problem with being bourgeois middle-class is precisely that so few actually are, never mind those who are of the wealthy class. Jesuits are often mistaken for middle-class businessmen. They dress the same, often act the same. A rather glaring indictment, this points to the casual softness that can creep into any form of Christian life, particularly Religious life, if great care is not taken to keep that insipid evil out. Bourgeois living, if I had to name one, is one of the great evils of Religious life in the United States, and indeed of many who call themselves Catholic, primarily because it is so antithetical to the Personalist message of the gospel, whose entire attention is directed to the least of the brothers who is poor and needy.
Mortification is a Personalist act, directed not against the Body, but against the Person. Many disparage it I think because they miss this important distinction. And Advent is the perfect time to emulate the mortification of the Second Person, who chose to be born in a stable. In this way, those of us who are still alive, healthy, mentally stable, free from the desperate despair of Wal-Mart consumerism or the horrors of war in Iraq can choose voluntarily to fast and mortify our bodies on behalf of our brothers and sisters who suffer from these ailments. If we do these things, we will too find ourselves on Christmas day inhabiting a spiritual stable along with the Second Person, rather than sitting comfortably in the easy chair of many "Christian" lives.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ