Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Way of a Pilgrim

The day that I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, in the middle of a dirty hospital room, I plugged my headphones into a laptop and ignored the doctors out; trying to drown them out with the sound of music. I didn't want to hear them, I didn't want to believe it, and so after they left I began to break down in anger and frustration claiming that they were lying.

Later that day a young seminarian, who was helping the hospital out over the summer (on his break from his studies in Rome), came into my room and sat with me. He spoke with me for several hours. By the end of the conversation I had decided that I would listen to the doctors and take any treatment the doctors had in mind. I have never shared what that seminarian shared with me, because that was the moment my eyes were opened to joy.

I will share a small snippet of his words of wisdom. He told me to realize that life was exactly the way it was supposed to be. He said that, if I did not compare my life to something that was before or could be again, I would realize that this was the only way it could be. I am neither worse nor better than any other man, I am simply me, I am exactly what I am supposed to be. This is my normal. 

In the Russian Orthodox Church there is a text held in high esteem about a simple man seeking the meaning of St. Paul's command to "pray without ceasing". The Way of a Pilgrim, the title of said Russian text, paints a beautiful picture of a humble soul who learns that one cannot teach another to "pray without ceasing"- it must be learned through experience. But, through the lessons of experienced spiritual masters he learns, at least, the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!" The masters exhort the poor pilgrim to repeat these words over and over, without ceasing. By the end of the tale he is saying the prayer without even thinking about it and his mind is totally absorbed with the thought of Christ and the mercy he seeks from the good Savior. He is praying without ceasing. 

During Lent we all place upon ourselves outrageous or simple trials and tasks that seem appropriate for the fast, and often we stop living these penances on Sundays and stop living them completely when Easter comes. We follow these traditions only because they are the traditions, not because we wish to live better for love of Christ. We often forget that Lent is a time for learning, a time for learning how to serve God better in this world. 

If I spend everyday not eating meat, I will soon lose a taste for it. If I spend everyday not surfing the web, I will soon lose the need to do it so often. If I repeat the words: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me", I will soon be saying it every moment without difficulty. 

So I ask this of you: will you accept the new, more austere way that you live during Lent as your new every day existence or will you stop living it after Easter? Would you accept the new normal and not compare to the way things have been? Or will you pine after the earthly pleasures of days gone by?   

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Broken Hands

My nighttime routine is a long and tedious one; something that takes great will power to continue to do. I am beset with hand lesions that impede my ability to do manual labor with my hands often. These hand lesions require me to soak, scrub, and apply medicine to them every night. This threefold task is not pleasant and is often painful, but I know I must do it if I ever want the lesions to clear up.

There was a time when I blamed three people for my problems; God, my parents, and my caretakers (e.g. doctors). God for creating me and allowing me to suffer, my parents for giving birth to me and allowing me to take a breath of this foul world, and doctors for not being able to fix me and assuage my pain. In this world of blame I turned upon those who loved me and became unwilling to do my part in my healing, because I knew it would never fix the problems.

George Bernard Shaw, the great writer of the classic play Pygmalion, said quite aptly that "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it." We cannot truly be free until we realize that the only one responsible for our circumstances and our lives are us. It is true that we do not have complete control over our environments, but what we do with our environment shapes what our environment does with us. If I spend my life angry at others for an environment that no person has control over, then all I do is create an angry environment.   

St. Augustine once said "work as if it were up to you, pray as if it were up to God." God gives us this moment to live in and he gives us a choice we can either move forward positively or we can move backward negatively, we can apply the medicine to the lesions or we can go to sleep early because it feels good. We must remember this, though, when we decide to act negatively: if we do not like where we are and we do nothing to change it, it is only our fault that we remain in an unpleasant circumstance. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I am done on this side

Over the past year my life has taken a dramatic turn for the inactive. I once was an avid reader with a constant stack of books on my bedside table, but now only medicine bottles litter the oaken surface. As I have deteriorated into inactivity I have lost many assets that I once possessed, most importantly that ability to read. I have increased my book load in the past month from no-books to ten... it will indeed be a long and tedious effort to exercise my brain to the place where it will read like it once did.

In 2009 a film entitled (500) Days of Summer was released. The film tells the tale of a failed architect who is working at a greeting card company designing cards. Summer is the name of the girl he falls in love with, who dumps him long before the film is over. He takes this difficultly and falls into a deep depression. He quits his job and stops leaving his apartment. After a long trial of darkness he begins drawing again and starts working on architecture. By the end of the film he has many interviews with different architectural businesses. If not for the fact he had been dropped to the curb by the girl and gone into a deep depression he would not have attempted to become an architect.

This is a world of complacency, we can only get jobs that pay minimum wage and when we get sick we most often decide that it is just the way that it is. There is a powerful scene in The Passion of Christ, when Christ is being scourged and has been beaten to the ground, he looks upon the face of his persecutors and feels only compassion, and in realization of his purpose of forgiveness he stands erect that they may beat him more. We are not called to be complacent but to constantly strive for something better; to fulfill God's will as perfectly as we can.

A great saint, a man of great courage and fortitude, was being burned on a grill and had only one simple remark to make to his murderers as he lay there: "Turn me over, I am done on this side." I believe this is the attitude we should all have when faced with great stress, with great pain, or great persecution, "...I am done on this side." When things become difficult we should only hope that we are strong enough to accept whatever else will come down upon us and strive to overcome the difficulty and be more than it could ever be... so that we can attain that which awaits us at the end.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lose the Battle, Win the War

Ingmar Bergman, the director of The Seventh Seal, released a film called Winter Light in 1962 about a priest suffering through despair . The film tells the story of how the priest is called upon by a suicidal man to help him see the light in the world, which is on the verge of nuclear war. The priest can offer no aid to the broken man and ultimately helps remove the man's dead body from the road after he ends his own life. The priest can offer no encouragement because he feels no hope himself and is searching for the light in the world which seems so dark.

At the end of the film the priest is preparing to offer Mass and his sacristan, a broken down man with a hunched back and constant pain, comes to the priest and begins speaking to him and brings a conundrum to him:

"This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn't have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me - but in my humble way, I've suffered as much physical pain as Jesus.... and his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather? I feel that he was tormented far worse on another level. Maybe I've got it all wrong. But just think of Gethsemane, Vicar. Christ's disciples fell asleep. They hadn't understood the meaning of the last supper, or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away. And Peter denied him. Christ had known his disciples for three years. They'd lived together day in and day out - but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful. Realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on - that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worst was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross - and hung there in torment - he cried out - "God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?" He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him... The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship... God's silence." 

When the winter sets in and the cold touches my body I feel a great deal of joint pain and can barely walk. I have been blessed by God to be without ulcers for many winters, but this winter I have not been so lucky. There is a foolish idea amongst Christians who believe that awareness of God is emotional ecstasy that praying will make things better, that if I simply ask God with tearful eyes and faith He will take my pain away. Rather, I have found, that when I pray for God to give me rest He allows me yet more pain.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, quite aptly, that the thought of suicide helps many men through many a sleepless night. If you awoke every morning for two years and were tortured for 12 of the 24 hours of the day and then after two years you were asked if you wanted to suffer the torture for five more days or end it by ending your life... which would you choose? You are told that there is a possibility that you will suffer after your death, but you were guaranteed to suffer for five more days if you lived... would you not choose to end the pain you are sure of? I am not advocating that as the right choice, do not get me wrong, but one has to admit to the appeal of the choice.

Physical suffering is terrible and the longer one has to live through it the more the pain seeps into a person's emotional and spiritual life. It is easy to come to the conclusion, when the pain has reached our souls and brought us to despair, that the way to beat suffering is to stop your body from having the ability to suffer.

Paramore, a rock/pop band who is known for writing the pop hit CrushCrushCrush, released a song this past week, a much more mature anthem than previous works, which contains the words: "lose the battle, win the war." I believe that that is the mentality one should have when faced with endless suffering. We are usually beat by our own physical limitations and emotional instability, but when we allow those things to simply be and realize that in losing this I gain something more we grow in strength. "For that which doesn't kill us only makes us stronger."

As much as we feel abandoned by our friends, our families, and our God simply think of Christ on the cross. In Christ's terrible suffering he was ultimately beat to death by the men he came to save... a loss if there ever was one. But, only in losing the battle did Christ win the war. We are not Christ and we are not here to save men from sin. Our suffering really does not make sense in any way to us, except in that we are taking part in Christ's suffering and being tried by fire to be pure like diamonds, but when we look at the death of Christ we see three things: Peter (Christ's friend), who stood up and drew His sword to protect Christ, even at the price of his own life; the Blessed Virgin Mary (Christ's family), who watched with her heart being shattered as her son was beaten and crucified, the most humiliating death; and the Father (God), who watched from Heaven, who allowed His son to be fully man and to experience human pain fully, and watched His son reach the peak of physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering...

One is never abandoned, sometimes no one can help us, but they never stop watching and being pushed to great emotional pain by seeing our suffering... they want to watch us win, but sometimes in order to win we have to lose.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Was a Miner...

My niece, a bright eyed red-head with a wide, wide smile, came to my house the other day. She came into the house, with shoes that clip-clopped as loudly as grown-up high-heeled shoes, and gracefully walked in front of all of her uncles and aunts (on her father's side) and showed off her bedazzled shoes... and her glittery 49ers shirt. A two year old, whose glamorous style was obviously taken from her mother's side, said not a word as she displayed her support for her favorite team. She said not a single hello to any person until she reminded each of us who had won the game on Sunday... and who was going to the Super Bowl.

My nephew, a four year old maverick of industry... the industry of catastrophe, has managed to sport 49ers' gear every time I have seen him since football started this year (except for the days that the World Series was under way, at which point he showed off his Posey Jersey). He wears a junior jersey of his favorite player, the amazing Michael Crabtree. Having been told one day that he was going to play baseball, he began sobbing and informing his mother that he wanted to play football.

Those were my brother's children.

My sister's daughter, barely old enough to hold her head up, was at first frightened by the football game on the television, but soon became utterly engrossed in the game and wouldn't take her eyes off the screen. As my very small niece was passed from one person to another in the course of the gathering she simply stared wide eyed at the big football players on the screen... paying very little attention to all the people trying to get her to smile and make faces.

Many things change as generations pass. Genetics pass from one family member to the next and from one parent to a child even in mutations... but some things never change.

Who's got it better than us?

Monday, January 21, 2013


Mornings have become early trials; nightmares and pain bringing me to wide awareness in the cold, dark hours of the morning. The hour I awake ranges from three to four and comes on like an anvil falling on a cartoon character; making me miserable but not quite destroying me. Perhaps it is in my refusal to take pain medication that I find myself in this predicament, perhaps I would have flared up nonetheless and still spent many a restless night... God only knows.

I find that I have many hours to read and write in these hours and I try to take advantage. I write in a journal and read out of books of a spiritual nature. I pray and pace in my small room as I wait through the many hours it takes for the winter sun to rise. I have for so long felt resentment toward God for allowing my life to be so tiresome... but, I have learned a strange lesson.

It is only in the hours of sleeplessness that I cannot have an excuse not to pray and I do so freely. Though I am not fully aware, God is silently filling my mind and soul with His teaching and His love. God has answered my frustration with only more love; presenting me with a great opportunity to do His will.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Rosary Maker

I have a rosary that I have kept in my pocket for many years. It was given to me by an older fellow who used to make rosaries at our church. The beads on the rosary are that particular shade of blue that bring to mind the flowing scapular upon the Blessed Mother's shoulders. This rosary stemmed a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Mother... even in the years that I was without faith, I carried that rosary in my pocket and that shade of blue upon my spirit.

That kind old man has long ago passed away and this rosary is the only thing I have to remind myself of him; that man whose face I cannot even picture anymore. I am sure, as none other can be, that the old rosary maker is in heaven and is praying every day for the strength of my weak spirit. I hold that rosary every night and rub my fingers along its beads as I fall into the arms of rest.

I remember vaguely the day that I had that rosary blessed, I had the hardest time letting it pass from my fingers. My mother walked me to the sacristy and helped me to hand it to the priest, who with that kind glint in his eye managed to explain everything about the rosary to me while blessing the holy object. The exuberance and ecstasy at holding and having something that allowed me to everyday speak to the Blessed Mother gave me shivers of pure joy.

When I fell in love for the first time, a love preserved only for the youngest of hearts, I had that rosary with me every day. It was before a grand statue that the object of my affection and I would kneel and pray and ask for our Blessed Mother's guidance. The young lady I had fallen head over heels for would leave roses at the Blessed Mother's feet for me to find and I would leave red carnations, symbols of our undying affection.

Only when I fell into sepsis, a year ago today, was I without that beautiful object of blue. That horrible infection which I spend every day in fear of; unwilling most times to even leave the house for fear of catching a virus and falling into sepsis. I was given a gift those ten days in the hospital, a gift not physical but metaphysical in the most accurate sense of the word... I, for the first time, felt the presence of God.

I swore upon that bed of my illness that whatever was to follow, in pain and in fear, I would offer to His Mother and endure courageously. Now, though I have not been the most courageous in this path nor always had the capability to offer this suffering to our Blessed Mother... I believe that he who gave me the rosary has directed my foolish words, my anger, and my sadness inward and helped me to glorify God even when I was not. I believe that old rosary maker is praying fervently for me on my path.