The Personalist Project

The human significance of suffering

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.  Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.  Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.  And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

In remarks before public prayers in St. Peter's Square yesterday, Pope Francis made a point about the Gospel of the day that had struck me too at mass. Always before I had focussed on Thomas' fault, his unbelief. "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." This time I noticed the remarkable tenderness and condescension of the Lord in accommodating Thomas' personal need. Here is the Pope [my emphasis]:

“Thomas is a person who is not easily satisfied, a seeker who wishes to check in person, to attain his own personal experience. After his initial resistance and uneasiness, he too finally reaches the point of believing. ... Jesus awaits him patiently and is attentive to the difficulties and insecurities of the last man to arrive. … [Thomas] was able to 'touch' the paschal Mystery that fully demonstrates God's salvific love, rich in mercy. And like Thomas, we too, on this second Sunday of Easter, are invited to contemplate, in the wounds of the Risen Christ, the Divine Mercy that overcomes every human limit and shines through the darkness of evil and sin”.

Jesus seems to be much more concerned with answering human needs than he is correcting human faults. And then, when those needs are met, they become a source of particular grace and strength. The other Apostles may have believed more readily in the resurrection. But none of them had proclaimed with such clarity and conviction the truth of Jesus' divinity. "My Lord and my God."

I know I'm not the only one who was raised to despise weakness and need, in others and in myself—to rest my hope on my strengths. Slowly but surely, I'm learning better.

We "make up what is lacking in the cross of Christ"—we help heal and redeem the world—exactly by our wounds.

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If there’s a cardinal sin against personalism, it might be manipulation. Treating a person as a tool rather than a subject is just what we’re all about not doing.

So what to make of the attempt to manipulate God? Maybe that sounds implausible. We think at least we know better than that. We’re not like some pagan tribesman, trying to appease the deity of rain by doing a particular kind of dance. We’re beyond that.

Or are we?

In Jacques Philippe’s latest book, Thirsting for Prayer, there’s a helpful section called “When God does not seem to hear us.”  There I found this:

God does not always answer us in the way we would like, since sometimes we need to realize...that we cannot manipulate God. That is what all pagan forms of worship attempt to do.

I would include in “pagan forms” the prosperity gospel, too, the “name it and claim it” people, with their stunted idea of God as a force to tap into, or a vending machine to serve us, rather than a Person to know, love and serve. A prosperity-gospel mentality, though, can slip into the minds of believers of all stripes—not just the disciples of Joel Osteen.

Even if your theology doesn’t begin and end with “What’s in it for me?” it’s surprisingly easy to imagine you're safely immune to that approach.

Fr. Jacques explains:

We can obtain everything from God by trust and prayer, but God remains the absolute master of his gifts, and they are always totally gratuitous—unmerited and given at his choosing, not outs.…God does not lend himself to any kind of manipulation, blackmail, human mode of calculation, or claim.

Human beings, on the other hand, are calculating creatures--susceptible to manipulation and blackmail ourselves, and constantly tempted to engage in them (though not always in obvious ways).  If we rationalize treating other human persons that way, we become perfectly capable of treating God that way, too. We become the kind of person who does that. We can't turn it on and off, magically transformed into someone who wouldn't do such a thing when the target is someone we care about, or even God Himself.

Fr. Jacques again:

Here is one of the paradoxes of Christian life: we are called to live with God in a tender familiarity that gives us full power over his fatherly heart; but we can only enter into that familiar relationship with absolute, sometimes agonizing, respect for his sovereign transcendence and freedom.

…It is salutary for us to maintain a lively awareness of the absolute gratuity of God’s gifts at all times. Otherwise our relationship with him, as well as with other people, can get on the wrong track that leads the logic of love to deteriorate into the logic of human calculation.

If our calculations were truly logical, they wouldn't lead us to try to manipulate Someone all-powerful and all-loving, anyway. We'd see how silly that is. But we keep losing sight of it. So resisting the impulse to manipulate our fellow clueless would-be puppeteers is good practice.

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Yesterday I picked up a book recommended by a friend: The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Dutch priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen. It's a commentary on his encounter with Rembrandt's famous painting.

It begins with the familiar passage from the Gospel. Something about its first lines startled me this time:

The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

I noticed what the father didn't do.

He didn't say no. He didn't ask his son what he planned to do with the money. He didn't lay down terms and conditions. He didn't offer advice, or express doubts or disapproval. He just handed his wealth over and let his son go.

Two avenues of reflection opened for me. The first is a familiar one to me: How radical is the freedom God bestows on human beings in handing us over to ourselves.

Jules often quotes a passage from Kierkegaard's Papers and Journals, which we first heard in a class with Dr. Crosby in Liechtenstein. It's about how God's Omnipotence is displayed precisely in his making creatures free.

The greatest good, after all, which can be done for a being, greater than anything else that one can do for it, is to make it free. In order to do just that, omnipotence is required... Only omnipotence can withdraw itself at the same time it gives itself away, and this relationship is the very independence of the receiver... All finite power makes [a being] dependent; only omnipotence can make [a being] independent... It is incomprehensible that omnipotence is not only able to create the most impressive of all things—the whole visible world—but is able to create the most fragile of all things—a being independent of that very omnipotence. Omnipotence, which can handle the world so toughly and with such a heavy hand, can also make itself so light that what it has brought into existence receives independence. Only a wretched and mundane conception of the dialectic of power holds that it is greater and greater in proportion to its ability to compel and to make dependent. No, Socrates had a sounder understanding; he knew that the art of power lies precisely in making another free. 

The other avenue—the one that dominated my thoughts yesterday—was how very unlike this father so many human parents are! (I am thinking mainly of myself.)

A beloved friend of mine—a mother of many children with a deep, intuitive spiritual life—tells me that a priest friend of hers reminds her frequently that she has to leave her children free, even free to sin. "God gives us that freedom." She is grateful for the reminder, because she knows how difficult it is to live by. We see how aggressive "the world, the flesh, and the devil" are, and how much damage sin does in human life. We love our children and we feel the terrible risks involved in leaving them free. Our natural impulse is to ring them round with protection; rein them in with rules. Stay in charge; keep control; tell them what to do and what not to do; punish them if they stray outside our will for them.

It's not how God treats us, though, is it? He is Omnipotent and all loving. And He leaves us free.

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A while back I wrote a post trying to show what's wrong with defining love as an act of will. A fresh example of how the problem manifests in practice was recently in the news.

The story broke that the Archdiocese of San Francisco had installed a watering system to prevent the homeless from sleeping in its cathedral's doorways.

“They actually have signs in there that say, ‘No Trespassing,’” said a homeless man named Robert.

But there are no signs warning the homeless about what happens in these doorways, at various times, all through the night. Water pours from a hole in the ceiling, about 30 feet above, drenching the alcove and anyone in it.

The shower ran for about 75 seconds, every 30 to 60 minutes while we were there, starting before sunset, simultaneously in all four doorways. KCBS witnessed it soak homeless people, and their belongings.

According to the rector of the cathedral, Auxiliary Bishop William Justice, the system was modeled on similar systems used in the city's financial district.

The story predictably caused widespread outrage. The Archdiocese explained itself further in the National Catholic Register.

San Francisco’s cathedral installed a special sprinkler system to wash out “needles, feces and other dangerous items” from its doorways and never intended to remove homeless people sleeping there, the archdiocese explained in the face of media attacks.

“The problem was particularly dangerous because students and elderly people regularly pass these locations on their way to school and Mass every day,” San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop William Justice said March 18.

“The purpose was to make the cathedral grounds as well as the homeless people who happen to be on those grounds safer.”

What grates, first, is the disingenuousness of this explanation. A sprinkler system doesn't  sanitize. If sanitation were the aim, it would have been much more economical and effective to hire someone to clean the steps properly each morning. What the sprinkler system does—what it's plainly designed to do—is prevent the homeless from taking refuge in doorways. 

In other words, a Catholic cathedral treated concrete human beings as a pestilence. It is the very antithesis of love.

The bishop's apology was too weak and self-serving to undo the impression.

Bishop Justice apologized that the cathedral’s intentions had been misunderstood and described the sprinkler system method as “ill-conceived.”
“It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do, and for this, we are very sorry.”

He noted that the San Francisco Archdiocese/St. Vincent de Paul Society is “the largest supporter of services for the homeless in San Francisco.”

He doesn't apologize for the abusive treatment of the "poorest of the poor," or for having taken cues from the financial district rather than the gospel, giving scandal and bringing the Church into disrepute. Rather, he says, the cathedral's intentions had been misunderstood. Then he touted the programs for the homeless offered by the Archdiocese.

But when it comes to caring for the poor, beneficial programs are not enough. They're not even the main thing necessary. The main thing necessary is love, which is to say, openness toward and concern for concrete individuals. Love is always directed toward individuals, whom it sees as precious. So the apology rings somewhat hollow.

Suppose the rich man in the Gospel who daily spurned the beggar Lazarus at his doorstep had defended himself by pointing out that he gave generously to the poor through programs at his Synagogue. Suppose he had claimed that he had only refused to help Lazarus, because he was concerned that the place in front of his door was unsafe. 

It wouldn't have been terribly convincing, would it? We all know in our hearts that if he had really been concerned about Lazarus' welfare, he would have given him some personal attention.

Some are defending the Archdiocese on the grounds that the news broke as part of a vicious campaign to discredit Archbishop Cordileone, because of his recent insistence that teachers in Catholic schools promise to uphold Catholic moral teaching. But that seems to me beside the point. 

Or, rather, it's relevant, but not in the way the Archbishop's defenders seem to think.

We know that the entire moral law is summed up in one commandment: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. 

If our public strictness regarding moral teaching is coupled with a public witness of gross unlove, it is not surprising that we are despised as hypocrites.

Pope Francis keeps directing our attention to the poor. He keeps demonstrating by unprecedented papal acts and gestures—such as eating with the homeless, washing their feet, and supplying them with umbrellas and hot showers—that the gospel must be lived to be believed, and lived especially through concrete care for the poor. Otherwise our correct teaching and political activism will tend to backfire. 

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I'll confess up front that I haven't looked carefully into the controversy surrounding Indiana's new law protecting the religious liberty of business owners who are committed to traditional marriage. My general sense of it from a distance lines up with David French's take at the Corner. The hysterical reaction to a modest legal rear guard action against a pro-same-sex juggernaut exposes a "toxic combination of anti-Christian bigotry and sexual revolution radicalism." I also agree with Maggie Gallagher, when she says:

Pay attention: The Democrats are attempting to use their power in the mainstream media to get Republicans to retreat and mute the GOP on religious liberty or face being labelled anti-gay.

Even so, I can't seem to get too worked up about it. I don't feel like answering Gallagher's impassioned call: 

join me in whatever venue you have - your Facebook page, your radio show, a candidate forum, a letter to the editor, an Op Ed - to ask Republican candidates for president this key question: Why is Mike Pence the only Republican defending Indiana's new religious liberty bill?

Why? Am I lazy? Am I apathetic? Am I cowed by peer pressure? I don't think so. At least, not in this case. I have real reasons for my non-engagement.

1) It seems to me that the political battle to protect marriage is already largely lost. Legal efforts like this one in Indiana are small and marginal and perhaps not worth too much time and attention. Losing them won't make things much worse than they are already. Winning them won't hold back the fascist tide; nor will it establish any great principle. At best, it will provide a little temporary relief from violence. At worst, it will provoke more violence, sooner.

2) While I sympathize very much with Christian wedding vendors who don't want to be legally coerced into participation in the moral travesty that is same-sex marriage, I don't think laws establishing their right to refuse services are all that great. 

A) They do nothing to establish the truth about marriage in law.

B) The right to deny services is a strange thing for Christians to be fighting for, since we're supposed to be all about providing service. 

C) They give the anti-Christian left a cause to rally around. (The analogy with Jim Crow is bogus, but all too plausible to those who don't think carefully, which is to say, the great majority.)

D) They sap energy and drain resources for more effective efforts on the political and cultural fronts.

E) They depress the spirits of Christians, who need to live in hope and joy to be convincing witnesses of the Truth.

F) They seem to me somewhat out of step with the spiritual approach Pope Francis is calling for. 

That last point raises the question: What should we do in these circumstances?

To that, at the most basic level, I have a three-part answer:

1) We should live more deeply and witness more compellingly to the truth about marriage as a permanent, life-giving union and communion of love between a man and a woman. Let that light shine.

2) We should find ways to make the love and care we profess for homosexuals concrete and practical in the world. I have in mind things like Mother Teresa's houses for those dying of AIDS, and Courage.

3) On the political and cultural fronts, we should be prudent and discerning. For instance, we should support politicians who can be relied on to judge wisely above those who pay lip service to our causes, but who lack deep conviction. We should put more effort into laws that protect us from direct participation in intrinsic evil than those that protect us from indirect participation. We should draw more attention to the plight of children who are suffering from the collapse of marriage and the rise of consumer/owner approach to fertility and parenthood. We should find ways of helping true stories be told: stories of women who regret their abortion; stories of homosexuals who have found peace and healing in the Church; stories of adoption; stories of children raised by gay parents or born through IVF.

Above all, we should realize peacefully that we are living in a post-Christian society that we can't expect to think well of us or do right by us. We will have to learn to live more by faith in God, less by confidence in the American experiment. The best hope for the restoration of our nation's greatness lies in cultivating a religious revival. And the most effective measure toward that end is our personal witness of love and fidelity, not our political activism or moral outrage.

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