Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Compassionate and Merciful Listening

  This blog post is meant to build upon the last two entries  on this site, the ones on mercy and on anger and forgiveness.
   Two seemingly unrelated incidents caught my attention this past week.  One is the terrible violence that is happening in Baltimore, the latest in a string of incidents involving African Americans and the police.  The other is the declaration by former Olympic gold medalist, Bruce Jenner, that he is now a woman.

   What the two situations have in common is that too many people are jumping to blame and judgement.  In the case of the urban rioting there is no doubt  in the end, somebody(ies) to blame. Bruce Jenner's situation is different, but people are still "blaming" him.

   What both situations most have in common is suffering.  In Baltimore and other cities the police have suffered and the African American community has suffered.  Both sides have suffered not only the violent incidents that exploded forth, but have suffered misunderstanding and mistrust. As for the other situation Mr. Jenner has suffered throughout his life. (By the way his choice is to keep using masculine pronouns for the time being, so I will as well.) 

   Without getting into moral arguments about things like gender altering surgery I want to share with my readers that I have over the years listened to the stories of several  people who have spent a lifetime struggling with the belief that their real sexual identity was other than what their physical sex was.   Years ago in New York while serving at my Franciscan province's church on West 31st St. A woman came in and asked to speak with a priest.  I was the one "on duty" that day.  She came in and prefaced our meeting by saying, "Father, I'm not seeking moral guidance right now.  I am far from any decisions.  I just need someone to listen to my story.   She spoke for over an hour about how she felt like a man in a woman's body and how she had suffered with that feeling since childhood.  I did not say a word during that time except for briefly encouraging her to continue.  When we were done she gave me a hug and told me that I was the first one who had every really listened to her story. She told me as well that she couldn't express how much that meant.  This was, for me, a beautiful and humbling moment. I do not consider myself to be a naturally good listener, but she had set the agenda and that made it possible for me to do.  I don't know what decisions she may have made about how to dress or possibly to have surgery.  What I do know is that God granted her a deep level of healing through our meeting.   That meeting has guided me in 2 other similar situations as well as others where listening was the first order of business.

   I would suggest that across the land both police officers and African Americans need to have someone simply listen to their stories and understand that hurt, fear, mistrust, etc. that all have experienced.  I know listening is only a first  step.  Decisions have to be made. Nonetheless without really listening to one another's stories we are doomed to keep spinning the same wheels.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rage: On the Road and in Cyberspace. A Call for Healing

  In the past few days two people connected to my home city of Boston have been convicted of murder.  One is Dzhokar Tsarnaev, perpetrator of the terrible bombing at the Boston Marathon 2 years ago. The other is Aaron Hernandez, a former star for the New England Patriots who was convicted of one murder and awaits trial on 2 others.  Let me say right from the start that I have no sympathy for either of these characters, but I am troubled by some of the reactions I am seeing on social media, though those reactions do not surprise me.

   What troubles me is the level of vitriol expressed.  Certainly any American, and especially the citizens of greater Boston have every right to be angry about the bombing.  What troubles me is people spewing not just anger, but vitriol over it using curse words and suggesting what kinds of torture these people deserve.  I see similar responses when people are displeased with politicians and athletes.  The phrase, "Get a Life!" applies here.  Have people nothing better to do. Anger is a normal human emotion.  It's purpose is to help us to seek justice. whether in big court cases such as the ones mentioned here, or in our own personal affairs.  Once the conflict is resolved the anger is no longer useful to us and it becomes resentment and bitterness.  It has been said that resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.  Both of these criminals will spend life behind bars. One may be given the death penalty.  I am opposed to that, but that is for another blog post.  Wishing all kinds of evil upon them will do nothing to hurt them.  It will make the person who does this even more unhappy even if it brings temporary relief.  As people in 12 step programs rightly observe resentment is a sure way back to the bottle.  That is because resentment is a drug that gives temporary relief.

   There is also here a sense of moral superiority.  Getting on one's high horse over the evil and wickedness in others is a way of saying, "I might be bad, but at least I'm not like that."  When it comes to attacking politicians and other public figures angry ranting takes the place of reasoned argumentation.  I look forward to items on line that point out disagreement with a position and that state why.  Just calling someone an idiot is useless. I would ad that everything I said here applies to road rage as well.

    What to do about this.  Remember that forgiveness is not necessarily about compassion for the wrongdoer.  It is about compassion for oneself.  Please don't give Tsarnaev or Hernandez any rent free space in your head.  Commend them to God and get on with your life.  If you don't like a politician don't vote for him/her the next time.  Perhaps write a letter or send an e-mail expressing your disagreement.   Also, realize that almost all of us carry a lifetime of grievances with us.I call these our "anger bag."  When useless anger about the past arises I ask God to take it from me. I still have a few more things to let go of but I am a much happier man today because of practicing this discipline.

   Finally,  I will be praying for the above mentioned criminals as I do for all prisoners.  I pray that whatever evil entered their souls will be cleansed and healed during their days in prison.  After all that is why the Church provides chaplains there.



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pour Oil on it, A Reflection on Mercy

       This Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, has come to be known as Divine Mercy Sunday.  The focus of this Sunday has generally been to encourage people to go to confession and celebrate the Lord's wonderful gift of merciful forgiveness.

     I would like to use the occasion of this day to focus on some of the broader aspects of mercy, for though forgiveness of sin is truly a manifestation of God's great mercy it is only one aspect of it, though indeed an important one.

     You will notice that the image I have chosen for this article has the Greek words Kyrie Eleison which means Lord, have mercy.  Recently I discovered that the imperative verb eleison is derived from the word elios which means oil, especially olive oil.  To have mercy then is to pour oil on troubled situations to smooth our the friction.  To ask the Lord top have mercy on us is not only to ask forgiveness of our sins but to smooth over the pain and hurt in our life and in society.

      Cardinal Walter Kasper who is very close to Pope Francis has written a book on mercy.  In it he says that mercy is part of God's very nature.  He points out that over the years we have treated mercy as an attribute of God rather than as an aspect of God's very essence.  I think that an observation of nature manifest this very quality of the Creator.  Have you ever noticed the forest turning green rather quickly after a forest fire, or land ravaged by a storm or a flood naturally restoring itself.  To me this reflects God's way of acting.  Things will break and get destroyed, but they will always renew. We humans, when things break down, tend to get caught in fear that it will always be that way.  The Paschal Mystery of the Lord's Death and Resurrection teaches us that God's way is bringing new life from old even when we don't see it coming.

       Like many of you I have been quite distressed by the recent spate of incidents between African Americans and the police.  Depending on the incident I have seen fault on both sides.  How can mercy be applied to these situations. First of all instead of immediately looking for someone to blame we should ask, "What's the deeper problem?"   Also, "What is the truth?"  It seems to me that many on both sides really didn't want the truth.  They just wanted what put them in a better light. It is obvious that there is a lack of trust on both sides--not necessarily with everyone, but widespread nonetheless.  Might we pray for guidance ask ask God in His mercy  to show us the way through this impasse, to pour His healing oil over the situation.  This doesn't mean that some people might need to go to jail, but it moves beyond simply finding out who to punish and seeks to avoid the problem in the future.

     This same approach might apply to any number of conflict situations in our own lives,m in our families  and in society.   Pray for wisdom, pray to face the truth even if it is unpleasant. Ask for mercy to find the way from darkness to light.  Kyrie EleisonLord have mercy.

Moving Out and Moving Ahead Cautiosly