A message from God…

I must admit that I didn’t want to do it. And I had no good reason for not wanting to except a certain selfishness with my time.

I have made an effort to make Sundays my Sabbath. I go to church, I pray, I prepare meals, perhaps read or do some artwork. But it tends to be quiet time for myself in which I try not to let things like work or shopping intrude.

But no one was asking me to work or shop. I was invited to a special fellowship meal at my church after Liturgy, commemorating the one year anniversary of the passing of our late pastor, also my dear friend.

I was asked to help out in serving and cleaning. While I am naturally rather lazy, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to help out as much as I just wanted to go home and do the things I had planned to do. I hadn’t had much time to myself in recent days and felt the need for that.

And I did want to honor and remember our pastor but Liturgy felt like the place for me to do that. Or so I told myself.

However, I also knew that my feelings were generated out of selfishness and that once I got there, it would be fine. I love the others at my church and sometimes have to push past my introvert tendencies to remember that I will enjoy and benefit from their company.

The decision was complicated, however, by one other factor: a major snowstorm that had struck the area the night before. A foot or more of fresh white snow covered my driveway, with the icy crud left at its end by snow plows.

My last regular snow shoveler went off to prison. The one before that disappeared after years of service.

Well, I’ll try, I thought. If I can’t get the car out, then I’ll walk to a closer church but I need to try. I don’t want my selfish/lazy/introvert self to dominate my decisions.

And thus began a saga, not of my planning.

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I had backed out no more than 20 feet or so from the garage when the car stopped. I realized then that I was in deeper than I had expected.

Oh well, I thought. I’ll drive back into the garage on the tire tracks I just made. I’ll find someone to shovel for me later. I don’t know who or when, but I’ll find someone.

But the car wouldn’t move forward either. I didn’t like this.

I was stuck.

Having grown up in Minnesota, I learned early on some of the basics about unsticking cars that are stuck in snow. So I tried these steps, gently rocking the car backward and forward, by switching from drive to reverse and back again a few times, trying to get traction without burning snow into ice.

The only problem was that the car wouldn’t budge. Not even a little.

I was really stuck.

I could see that there was a lot of snow under the car, of course, as well as around the tires. I’ll just shovel a bit around the tires until my “rocking” tactic works.

I certainly knew that I couldn’t shovel the whole driveway – or, if I did, I would have to do it in small parts over the course of the day. In the past, I have sometimes found shovelers when someone walking down the street felt sorry for me and offered to help or a person in need came to the door hoping for a job.

So I shoveled a little and tried to move the car. Shoveled a bit more, still no movement. Got the smaller, lighter shovel from my trunk, still a no go. Hmm… getting tired, guess I’ll need to let it go for now.

My first sign that something was amiss was a bit of sparkling light in my visual field. I sat in the car for a couple of minutes to rest. I’ll go in the house, I thought, my hands are cold and I’m not getting anywhere.

Getting out of the car, that odd sparkly sensation in my vision and head came back full force. Taking care, I walked around the car and then rested with  my hands on the hood. The door into my house was about 20-30 feet away? Not far.

But then something really strange happened. I found myself lying in the snow in front of my car. I didn’t quite know how I got there. My clothes were wet from the snow. Oh well, I can change into something dry. I got up, brushed myself off and headed for the door again.

The next thing I knew, I found myself lying on the garage floor in front of my door. Hmm… very strange. Drawing my house keys from my pocket, I finally got inside.

Shortly after getting inside, I noticed my glasses were terribly bent out of shape and the right side of my head was beginning to hurt. I must have hit my head but when and on what I did not know. I had no memory of it.

I instinctively took off my coat and sweater to cool down and looked for a chair. The sparkly feeling in my head was gone and I was glad of that. After a few minutes, it occurred to me that I hadn’t locked the car. Oh… I don’t have my car keys. Where could they be?

Putting my coat back on, I ventured out. There they were, in the snow by the hood of the car where I had fallen the first time.

Now to the average person, it would probably seem rather obvious that I should call 911. Something major just happened here. But I come from a stubborn stock, “Oh, I’ll be alright”, we say. “No need to go through all of that.”

So I sat and thought about it for a short while. Finally, common sense won out and suggested that I at least call them. Maybe they wouldn’t think it was necessary to send someone out…

Needless to say, I spent the afternoon in the emergency room being monitored and scanned.

And, of course, not doing any of the things that I had wanted to do instead of serving a meal to my friends at church.

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It is now two weeks since all of this happened and I am fine. But I must confess that it took me much longer to recover than I thought it would.

It is interesting how easily we minimize the impact of damage to our bodies. “I should be back to work in a day or two,” I thought. Try a week.

I have a real feel now for people who resist going to the hospital with signs of a heart attack or stroke. While I understood it intellectually before, I now get it. We don’t want to believe that anything is seriously wrong and so we assume that we’re okay.

Thankfully, nothing truly serious was wrong with me. No hematoma in the brain. No abnormalities in my heart. But there could have been.

This is just one of the small lessons learned in this rather fascinating experience of mine.

Allow me share a few of God’s messages that came through to me.

Perhaps the first message to enter my mind came in the form of a vaguely remembered passage from “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis. The uncle was instructing the apprentice demon – “Convince them that their time is their own.”

I had fallen into the trap and I knew it. I had been imagining that my time that Sunday afternoon was mine and I didn’t want to give it up or even share it.

I wasn’t thinking about my life belonging to God – or at least not my time, which is basically the same thing.

So God reminded me.

Now, in the past, when praying, I have asked God to knock me in the head if I start wandering away from Him – “never let me be parted from you, O Lord”, I would pray.

Well, He answered my prayer – and quite literally. Since this occurred, I have considered that I may want to reword that prayer a little in the future. 😉

Of course, I’m not suggesting the God caused me to hit my head just to teach me a lesson. But He allowed me to choose foolishness and then taught me through it.

This was just the first of the lessons, the “messages”, if you will, that God has been sending me in the last couple of weeks.

Another, very obvious one, was simply how much I have to be grateful for. Grateful for all that could have happened and didn’t. Had the blow to my head been a couple of inches to the side where the skull’s bony structure is thinner, my temporal artery could have been ruptured and I might not have woken up. I could have broken bones. I could have frozen to death. I could have had a serious heart problem. The list goes on…

In addition to what didn’t occur, there is much cause for gratitude for what did happen. So many people, friends and strangers alike, were so very kind to me. From EMS and ER personnel to Uber drivers and neighbors I’d never met (they shoveled out my driveway the next day without me even noticing).

A friend drove me around and was willing to drive me more, acting as though I was doing her a favor by allowing her to help me. My brother texted me to check on me when he was busy with many things to do. And so on.

I am grateful. I am so very blessed – and I have done nothing to deserve it.

Another wonderful message from God was an increased awareness of what an amazing thing my body is.

While all of the medical procedures will likely cost me thousands of dollars, it occurred to me that none of them (except the ice pack given in the ER) had any role in healing me. They were all performed to make sure that there wasn’t something else wrong.

My body has been healing itself – and it has been fascinating to watch and learn.

You may be wondering, as did I, “Why did you pass out in the first place?” While the final word isn’t in yet, the most likely explanation is vasovagal. I fainted. Standing still after exerting myself caused blood to pool in my lower extremities and away from my brain.

I read online that the very best thing to do if you feel like you are going to faint is to lie down. This restores balance to the blood flow so that the brain isn’t short-changed, thus preventing the brief loss of consciousness we call fainting.

Since I didn’t know to do that, my body did it for me. In passing out, I was left in a prone position so that my brain could get the oxygen it needed. Getting my head whacked… well, that was just an unfortunate side effect to my ignorance.

In addition, for the last two weeks, I have been watching the amazing display of swelling and colors that have moved me from having a “goose egg” sized bump (I now know what they call it that) to a deep purple swollen eye to various shades of yellow, green and blue on various parts of my face.

While it all looked rather gruesome, my body knew what it was doing. Sending blood to aid in the healing at the site of impact, clotting enough so as not to bleed too much, gradually spreading the blood back through nearby tissue to enable it to be reabsorbed. Quite an extraordinary process.

And the healing process made me feel out of it and more easily tired, a sure-fire way to stop me from disregarding the energy demands required by healing.

In the grand scheme of things, this injury was minor but its lessons were powerful.

To have my weakness pointed out to me. To be reminded that I am loved and that God is with me at all times. To be made aware of the value of gratitude for so many things that I take for granted. To be taught a greater empathy for the sick and injured who suffer daily, barely noticed by me. To be shown close up how wonderfully God made this body of mine.

Perhaps I should not change the words of my prayer after all. God, in His wisdom, knows just when I need a knock in the head so that I do not stray too far from Him.

All praise and glory to Him forever. Amen.

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2019… the word that found me.

Last year, it was “nothing”. (See my January 2017 post for background on the give me a word tradition.)

As December, 2018, was drawing to a close, I thought perhaps this word was choosing me again for the new year. Certainly I had not learned all that I could from its lessons. No other word seemed to be emerging.

Until it did. I recognized it because it had knocked on my door before. Before, it was not time. Now it is.

The word that has chosen me for 2019 has a visual to go with it:

My new word is, of course, curiously similar to last year’s. (Words from previous years never really leave me – they build on one another, all part of the “plot” God has to save me in my wretchedness.)

An interesting feature of my 2019 word, however, is that it may be understood as either an adjective or a verb. Experience has taught me that, when given a word that is a verb, I must prepare myself for change. And, quite often, it is not a change that I would have chosen.

I expect I will experience my word in varying ways throughout the coming year.

I may have the unpleasant experience of feeling empty inside, either on a worldly level or a spiritual level. Well… probably both.

As much as I do not enjoy this, I know it will be for my good if I recognize God’s hand in it.

To experience my emptiness is an opportunity to recognize how very much I need Him. If I remain filled with thoughts, emotions and activities, I can too easily slip into considering God just one part of my otherwise full life.

When I am confronted with the utter emptiness of my being, it is either God or despair. I pray for the grace to always turn to God at such moments.

As much as this adjective will likely follow me through the year, the verb is right behind it.

Just a day or two ago, I was reminded of these words of Scripture:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

        (Philippians 2: 5-8)

When I heard these words, I knew without a doubt that “empty” was my word. He emptied Himself.

In following Him, am I not also to empty myself?

His emptying was a lowering of Himself from His glorious power as God to become one of us.

My emptying will surely be of a different sort.  Yet there runs a parallel as I learn to accept the true lowliness of my being – to accept that I am not in control and that, at any moment, I may be called upon to surrender without reservation anyone or anything that I love.

This feels very scary.

And it would be scary if my emptiness were the final state of affairs. It would be scary if my self-emptying were merely part of a hard and cruel existence devoid of any meaning.

But I am embracing my word so that it might lead me, that in following the Savior I might empty myself out of love – or, perhaps better said, I give myself to Him completely that He might empty me.

For what He empties, He fills.

+All glory and praise to Him forever. Amen.

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Mother and Child

Once again, God has blessed me profoundly, more than I could ever dare ask for. Not only has He allowed me to render an image of Christ our Savior and His holy Mother, but He invites me more and more deeply into the truth which it represents.

The Theotokos of Vladimir was my first attempt at iconography. I knew that I was unworthy.  I knew that I was using nontraditional materials (pastels). But I prepared with reading and prayer and sacrament. Such a holy task cannot be undertaken without the help of God – and the holy Virgin herself.

I asked permission, reminding God that He knew how to stop me if I was not to do this. He could make me lose interest. (He did not.)

He could make it turn out so badly that it would be obvious to me that this was not His will. (He did not do this either but rather gave me great help.)

The process was prayerful, gazing on the image, entering the image and allowing Mother and Child to enter me.

Today, as Christ is born anew in my heart, I share with you what I was given.

A blessed Christmas to all!

All praise to Him, Father, Son and Spirit, now and always. Blessed be His holy Mother, our Mother now, and all the angels and saints. Alleluia!

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(My “Christmas card” this year is a small laminated print of this image. You are welcome to download the image for your personal use or I will gladly send a copy to anyone requesting one. Just email me at marykbenton(at)outlook(dot)com, using the customary symbols in the email address.)

“Come,” says my heart…

Hear my voice, Lord, when I call; 

have mercy on me and answer me.

“Come,” says my heart, “seek His face,

“Your face, Lord, do I seek…”

-Psalm 27:7-8

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By the grace of God, I find myself writing in a different way.

This way draws from something deep inside of me, cracking open a part of me that I didn’t know was there. Or perhaps I knew it was there but was afraid.

Yes, I think that is it… I was afraid.

Who am I to draw the Mother of God? Who am I to fashion an image of Christ Himself?

I am no one in particular, just one among many. My soul is stained with sin. My talents are modest at best.

I am grateful that I was forewarned. To write of God in image is quite different than pursuing art as a craft. Or at least it is for me.

Perhaps true artists see God in every image they bring into being. If so, they have greater souls than me.

I must be emptied out. I must fast and pray and give everything over to God.

To create a sacred image is to enter the sacred. I can only gaze upon holiness if I have allowed the Holy One to dwell in me – for I am not holy but He can be holy in me.

I know that I am not worthy. Please pray for me.

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Today, in the Western Church, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. As the feast approached, it occurred to me that “Christ Pantocrator” was the icon expressing His Kingship most fully.

My King. The Almighty. The All-Powerful. The Sustainer of all that is.

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,

the visible and the invisible,

whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;

all things were created through him and for him.

He is before all things,

and in him all things hold together.

– Colossian 1: 16-17

And yet fully human. Loving all of creation. Loving unto death and bringing back to life. My King.

“Come, ” says my heart. “Seek His face…”

And so I have sought – and continue to seek – and must proclaim what I see.
 

All glory and praise to Him Who sustains the heavens and the earth and brings my dead soul back to life.

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(Note: My Orthodox readers are likely to recognize this painting as a copy of a very famous icon, the oldest known surviving icon of Christ Pantocrator. For those less familiar, much is available online. Suffice it to say that the original icon clearly made the two sides of the Image differently, portraying the One who is both God and man, both Judge and Redeemer.)

Akathist of Thanksgiving

(Fr. Aidan Kimel was kind enough to post this beautiful hymn, composed by Metropolitan Tryphon, on his website. You may view his website here for the text. I decided to create a recording of it. I am not trained to sing or chant so I read it. I am not claiming to have read it well but I knew that I would enter more deeply into its message of thanksgiving if I read it aloud to you. Thanks be to God for His many gifts…)

 

 

Repeating myself…

(I have not written here in quite some time and it is not clear why. I can only hope that it is not the result of some negligence on my part, a failure to listen to the Spirit or a selfish use of my time. It could easily be both. Yet it also seems that God periodically puts me on sabbatical and gives me something else to do – or perhaps simply begs me to be silent. In any event, I have returned and we will see whether He permits me to write…)

I am getting older – which is what happens to all of us until we die – and I find myself cherishing the experience. I can probably only do so because my aches and pains are minimal. Not being at all good at suffering, I must enjoy my maturity while I can.

One thing that often comes with age is the tendency to repeat oneself. It seems to get harder and harder to track what I have said to who. I recall one dear patient so tactfully letting me know that I had offered them the same pearls of wisdom the week before – but, of course, it was good advice.

Now I often preface my words with “have we discussed this before?” or “let me know if I am repeating myself”. Although I may intentionally repeat a suggestion I consider of particular value, especially when it has not been heeded, I do not want to become a bore.

+++

In my travels through life, it seems that I actually have less and less to say. One would think it should be just the opposite – so many experiences and thoughts catalogued for the sharing.

Those who have the misfortune of being trapped in the therapy room with me as I expound ad nauseam may question the veracity of this claim. What comes out there is, I hope, the Holy Spirit at work. If it is just me rambling on, I am certainly in trouble.

Part of the change, I sense, comes with learning that my opinions are of little significance. I remember being quite the debater of ideas when I was young. Thinking myself smart and wise, I would try to convince others to see things as I did.

How foolish and sinful I was.

I have learned that it is far more important to be understanding and compassionate than it is to be “right” in some contest of intellectual prowess. A victory in the latter is no victory at all, for who likes to be proven wrong? My victory, if there ever is one, creates someone else’s defeat.

Knowing this, so many opinions can now be set aside and replaced with genuine encounter. No matter how disturbing the thoughts or behaviors of another may be, I can strive to understand. I can cultivate compassion for those who are so very lost or spiritually ill.

And I can do this, not because I am in superior position, but because I too am lost and spiritually ill. I may not recognize that I am, anymore than does the person before me, but later it becomes evident to me that this was the case.

Later – when I have become a bit older.

To be understanding and compassionate does not require many words. There is not nearly as much to say as when my mind is full of opinions.

Indeed, stillness of mind often goes hand in hand with stillness of heart. Such stillness is a refuge and a joy. It is where true worship takes place.

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In my spiritual journey, I have also noticed that it seems that I have less and less to say to God. I may spend as much or more time in prayer but the content is rather sparse.

When I come across some of the prayers composed for the Church to pray, they sometimes seem oddly wordy to me. There are pleas for God to make us this way or that, or requests that God be mindful of our needs and suffering.

There is nothing wrong with these prayers. In our longing for God, it is natural that we tell Him of our needs and our desire for Him. But, of course, He already knows all of these things. He knows them better than we do.

Can I simply trust Him as loving Father to understand and be compassionate? To give me what I most need?

Indeed, if my faith means anything, it means this.

What is there left to say to God, after “I thank You, I trust You, I love You.”?

Yet fewer words does not mean less prayer. I could not bear it if it did.

Prayer is my sustenance, the only true means by which my heart can be fed the love that makes it grow.

And so I repeat myself.

Many times over, I say to God the few words I know: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This is not my only prayer – it is one of a small collection – but it is this prayer that teaches my heart to sing.

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We do not all pray in the same manner, nor do we approach prayer in the same way at different points in our lives.

What is most important is that we pray. God delights in any and all movements of our hearts toward Him.

Whether our prayer is simple and genuine, or painful and questioning, God welcomes it as He welcomes us.

He rests in silence with us when we are at peace but He also reads the long letters we write when we are far away.

People often wonder what the purpose is in repeating the same prayer over and over again. I have wondered this myself at times. Does repeating the Prayer mean that I must eternally beg God for mercy? Is He so stingy with this grace of His that I must ask for it over and over?

Certainly not. His mercy is without end and is given to us without hesitation when we least deserve it.

I do not repeat the Prayer because God needs to hear it. It is my heart that is in need. It needs to be opened, to be humbled, to be receptive.

And this is a prayer of humility. I acknowledge that the Son is God (and that I am not) and that I am in need of mercy. The Prayer finds its Scriptural roots in the plea of the Publican who, in the depths of his being, knew that he needed God – while the Pharisee thought God needed him.

The Prayer is not a magical formula. I can pray it with the driest of souls and experience not the slightest change in my state as I do so. Other times, it seems to pray itself with every breath I take.

To pray this prayer – or any prayer – with genuine tenacity is part of the asceticism that enables us to receive God’s gifts.

Too often we in the West think of asceticism as taking on suffering or deprivation, as though that alone could lead us to holiness.

True asceticism is a training of our hearts. As with any training, there are times when it feels rewarding and times when it does not.

But, unlike any human training we undergo, this training of our hearts prepares us, body, mind and soul, for an experience beyond any we can imagine.

It prepares us to enter and share in the life of God.

This truth is so full, so complete, that I have little else to say.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.

+++

 

The Scandal (Part 2)

(In Part 1 of this series on the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, I laid a foundation to promote understanding of the phenomena of sexual abuse and why it is often covered up, both inside and outside of the Church. Much of this information was drawn from my background as a psychologist. Here, in Part 2, I plunge more deeply into the faith aspects that have led me to remain a Catholic Christian despite the scandal.)

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“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69)

As I have been contemplating how to explain my remaining in the Catholic Church, these are the words that keep appearing and reappearing in my mind.

I think this means that this is where I am supposed to begin.

These words, of course, were uttered by Simon Peter when Jesus saw that many of His followers were leaving Him because they could not accept His teachings.

The circumstances of Peter’s proclamation are very different from my own. Jesus had just delivered what we now refer to as “The Bread of Life discourse”.

Those of us who are at all familiar with the New Testament know this discourse well – so well, in fact, that we can easily forget how very scandalous it was.

Yes, scandalous. There, in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus told His followers that, in order to have eternal life with Him, they must eat Him, flesh and blood. The Gospel tells us that the word He used for “eat” meant quite literally to “gnaw” or “munch on”.

It is not surprising that a good many people were shocked and decided that this was just a bit too much. It might have flown had He presented it as something symbolic, e.g. “I will give you living bread, even better the manna your fathers ate in the desert, because you will know that I am with you when you eat it.”

The only problem is that He didn’t say this. What He said sounded very much like cannibalism. It was, indeed, scandalous and many of His disciples left Him as a result.

But Peter stayed. Even though it must have sounded just as odd to his ears, he had come to believe that Jesus was the Anointed One of God, the Messiah. To whom else could he go?

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I realize that this Scriptural reflection may seem like a digression from the topic at hand.

The scandal I am dealing with today is about the sexual abuse of children and the cover up by clerics, not merely a difficult teaching given by Jesus.

But if I stop and consider this a bit more, it becomes apparent to me that this is about a difficult teaching of our Savior and whether I will continue to follow Him despite the seeming impossibility of what He asks of me.

May God guide me and grant me the words to explain.

The Catholic Church, as a human ecclesiastical institution, is made up of many, many sinners. In fact, every member of the Church is a sinner, including me. Undoubtedly, some of us are grievous sinners.

The message of the Gospel is for sinners, telling us that we are welcome, that we are forgiven, that salvation is ours – not because of any accomplishments of our own, but by God’s gracious mercy.

The Gospel also tells us that God wants none of us to be lost. He wants every human person He has fashioned to enter into the fullness of His healing, His mercy, His love – without exception.

When we hear this message for ourselves, we are much consoled. Whatever evils I am struggling with pale before this message. I may not feel like I am winning the battle but I know that God has not and will not ever forsake me despite my weakness.

This teaching becomes infinitely more difficult to my human ears, however, when the divine message is clarified: I am to offer everyone else, no matter what the state of their soul, the same mercy that I have received.

My instructions are to want for all others what I want for myself, to love them as I love myself.

Rather than raging at the sinners I see around me, I am to pray for them with heartfelt love, genuinely hoping that they emerge victorious in their battles, with Christ at their side.

Jesus did not make any exceptions in this teaching. He did not name a single individual, class of people or type of sinner that we need not love, forgive and pray for.

Not only that, but He demonstrated this in His own human life. He extended love and healing and mercy to some of the most feared and despised sinners of His time. He loved and embraced prostitutes, hypocritical Pharisees, Roman centurions, tax collectors and those possessed by demons.

He fearlessly touched the ritually unclean and made them clean. No longer was the leper to be cast out – he was to be freed of his leprosy.

Those severely possessed by evil no longer needed to live apart, for He cast the evil out of them. Christ saw who the person truly was and cast out the evil spirit that controlled them.

This is the Gospel. It seems impossible – perhaps even wrong to our human sensibilities. Surely Jesus did not intend this message for the likes of Stalin and Hitler. He could not have meant it for those who rape and molest children. He cannot have intended it to apply to His own priests who betrayed the Church He called them to lead.

And yet there was a betrayer among His closest followers – actually, more than one. Of course, Judas Iscariot betrayed Him. But so did Peter, the Rock, the one on whom the Lord promised to build His Church.

Peter, whom we just encountered proclaiming his faith in John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ arrest, denied even knowing Him – three times. But, unlike Judas, he returned to the Lord in humility.

And Jesus not only forgave him but again entrusted the Church to him, despite this terrible sin.

This is the Gospel and I must follow it. Despite my many sins and weaknesses, it rests in my heart as the Truth, the most fundamental Truth of my being.

I may not  live it perfectly, but it is the only way I know to live.

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I realize that there is a risk in writing so boldly of the mercy of our Savior. I risk giving the impression that I think that the child-molesting priests, having confessed and received absolution, should be free to carry on their priesthood.

Or that the members of the hierarchy who covered up for them, who sent them back to serve families and children with full knowledge of their deeds, should be given a slap on the wrist – or perhaps even praise for being “merciful” to the erring priests.

“What about mercy for the victims? Don’t you care about them? They were innocent children!”

I hear the raging accusations echo in my mind.

Be still, my accusers.

This is not my message and certainly it is not the message of the Gospel.

+++

When any of us sins, mercy is immediately available to us for the asking. Of course, we must ask with a contrite and humble heart, but forgiveness is not withheld to one who genuinely seeks it.

However, it does not end there. It is not that God’s forgiveness of us is incomplete. Rather, our sins have consequences and we still have work to do as part of our repentance.

Any sin, large or small, damages our souls and causes harm to the human community, even if it never reaches the public eye. I may not know what damage I have caused but it is there. I have added something to the evil that grips our world.

Doing the work of repentance is much more than saying a few prayers after my confession.

Indeed I must pray. I am not paying a price with a list of prayers but crying out to God with all my soul to be with me, to transform me, to grant me a new heart.

Not only must I pray, but I need to make amends to those I have harmed. Even if I do not see a victim before me, I must perform good works to help heal the community I have damaged with my sin.

And if my sin has harmed another grievously, I may need to devote the rest of my life to repentance, to forfeit my own wishes and will, to submit to confinement rather than risk repeating such a sin.

This, of course, assumes that I have the emotional and spiritual maturity to acknowledge the gravity of my sin and to repent deeply and genuinely.

With certain especially egregious sins or spiritual diseases, such as pedophilia, we can be reasonably certain that this maturity is absent.

When Jesus encountered the demoniac, He did not ask the man if he wanted to be freed, if he was sorry for his actions under the influence of evil. He knew the man was possessed and He took control, casting the evil out of him.

Similarly, when encountering those who are unable or unwilling to fully repent, Church leaders and civil authorities have to take control. They have a duty to protect the community by confining those dominated by evil, while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to turn to Christ and be restored to emotional and spiritual sanity.

This, of course, was the rationale behind the early penitentiaries. It is clear that we still need such places, absent the drugs and crime that have infested our modern prisons. Mercy demands the confinement of those who cannot be trusted to control themselves.

Like those who murder, those who sexually violate children need this confinement. And the Church, recognizing this, must not stand in the way of this consequence for such grievous sins. In addition to the obvious harm to more potential victims, neither the Church nor the offending priest benefit from denial or cover-ups.

If we know a brother or sister’s soul is in great peril, mercy demands that we confront them with this knowledge. We must not abandon our modern “demoniacs” to their diseases/sin, imagining that we are doing them a favor by remaining silent.

Nor must we abandon them once confined, as though our duty is now over. As followers of the Savior, we pray for the healing of both victim and offender and we minister to them and their families in their time of need.

All are God’s children – and it is His will that none of them be lost.

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I have written many words and it may seem as though I still have not answered my own question: why do I remain in the Catholic Church when it is evident that, at least in this one area (and likely many more), it has failed to live out the Gospel message as I myself have just described it?

I now return to the words of Peter:

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69)

I must follow Him, the Savior, the Holy One of God.

I can imagine what many may be thinking. “But you don’t have to remain a Catholic to do that. Join a different Christian church, become a Protestant or join the Orthodox Church. Or are you one of those Catholics who thinks only your Church is the right one, even when it is so obviously wrong?”

This is a very fair question – but I could not begin my discussion there.

With regard to Peter’s question, “to whom shall we go?”, many responses could be given – and, in fact, many different paths have been taken by others who once called themselves Catholic. Here are a few:

  1. I could become a Christian who believes but doesn’t go to Church. I can read the Bible and pray on my own.
  2. I might follow Buddhist teachings or practice yoga. Healthy stuff without all of the dogmatic baggage.
  3. I could investigate the various Protestant denominations, trying out churches where I know good people and see which one suits me best.
  4. I could become an Orthodox Christian. Those who have been reading my blog regularly know that I am already halfway in. 🙂

I have known some sincere, good and very holy people who have taken one of these routes, either beginning their spiritual journeys there or changing course in reaction to the scandal.

I love and respect these people – but cannot make the same choice. I will address each option.

First, I cannot be a Christian alone. I need community – and Christ has given us community in the Church. So many times over have I been comforted, forgiven and rescued from error because there were good and holy priests, religious and lay people offering me their love or simply modeling for me the Christian life.

Second, there is much truth and wisdom in spiritual traditions outside of Christianity. I learn from them and make use of them all of the time. But I cannot walk away from Christ. And I do not believe that there is any tradition or church in which there are no sinners.

Third, I have known and loved many in the Protestant denominations. Some of them certainly are holier than I am. But, once again, a different church would not deliver me from the company of sinners – nor should it. (As it has been said, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.) And I would lose something. I mean no insult to my fellow Christians, but I fear I would lose the fullness of the Sacraments as I have come to know them – the shared faith in the real Presence of Christ in Eucharist, the opportunity to encounter Christ in confession.

Fourthly, while I have come to love Orthodoxy, it is not my home. If I had to leave the Catholic Church, I would run to the Orthodox. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that we are one Church in the eyes of God, sharing the ancient Faith with the full expression of sacramental life. May we celebrate it together, openly, someday soon.

I did consider Orthodoxy, having entrenched myself in reading, online and off. I did not consider it because of the Catholic scandal – for they are sinners too – but simply because of how beautifully many of them express their faith.

But, at one point, when I was regularly reading an Orthodox blog, it seemed that other readers frequently described how they entered an Orthodox church and knew they were home.

As I reflected on my own life direction, God’s message came to me with uncomfortable certainty: “You already have a home.”

And I knew then that He wanted me to stay in the Church, in the home He had given me from my birth.

Because He is my truth, my love, the center and direction of my life, I do as He bids. And not with any regret as though a wish of mine had been thwarted.

I know He is leading me on a path, for my good and the good of others. I have seen so much evidence of this that I cannot deny it, though I take no credit for any of the good.

I often cannot see the good of the path, blinded as I am by my own sin and weakness. I often do not see where it is leading at any given moment nor do I have any confidence that I am following it faithfully.

I do not know the answers for the Church as a whole. How could I, not even knowing the answers for my one small life?

But I know what I am called to do – to live a life of repentance, of prayer and loving actions. I must not repent only for my sins but for the sins of us all. Lost as I am, I can only hope that there are others repenting for my sins too.

As our sins bring harm to one another, so also does our repentance build one another up in grace.

This is the life of the Church. This is the Gospel.

Thanks be to God for His gracious mercy.

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