Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Cross

I signed up recently to get the e-newsletter of Canadian Catholic artist and writer Michael D. O’Brien. I have not yet read any of his novels, but have a couple of them on request through the public library. They seem to be popular; although I made my request a few weeks ago, they still haven’t arrived at my library branch. What interested me in O’Brien is the fact that two of his novels feature as their hero the fictional Fr. Elijah Schäfer, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a Carmelite priest. As some of my readers know, the current focus of my scholarly work is the association between music and conversion, and I have a special interest in conversion stories (interestingly, the Carmelite path is one that has traditionally brought Jewish converts into the Church, the most famous examples in our time being Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who was martyred, along with her sister Rosa – also become a Carmelite nun – at Auschwitz. Carmelite saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were also of Jewish extraction, though it was their parents who converted). O’Brien is also a wonderful icon painter who incorporates native Canadian techniques and iconography into his work.

His monthly newsletter arrived in my inbox this morning, and it was astonishing. He writes about the culture of moral relativism (i.e. the culture of death) in a fresh, illuminating way that transcends the defensiveness and partisan bitterness I’ve come to expect from American conservative Catholics, who sometimes have a bunker mentality when it comes to accommodation with the current state of things. One of the hardest things for me to accept in the wake of my own conversion from being a semi-glamorous and entirely selfish single New York singer is that the values I once held, while in keeping with this state of things, are antithetical to the way of life I now attempt to espouse. I often console myself for this by telling myself that the conservative Catholics around me are anti-intellectual Philistines who can’t possibly understand how important my life and work are (until I remember that arrogance and pride are among the defects I must work the hardest to conquer).

Reading O’Brien’s newsletter, however, has made me understand why my old values and lifestyle are not in keeping with the new life I stive for. “The economy,” he writes, “continues to inflate according to the now dominant model of family income: The majority of households in my country [Canada, though it might as well be the United States] are double-wage families with two or less children. The cost of housing, food prices, clothing, in fact the cost of almost everything, rises and rises. Contraception, sterilization, and abortion are the foundation stones of this economy [italics added]. So, too, is greed-profiteering, avaricious forms of speculation, and that old thing condemned by God... Usury. Yes, unfair interest, the backbone of our economy. . . . Those who do not play by those deadly rules have many crosses to bear. These extra crosses are due to the sins and blindness of others. Too often, a conscious or subconscious rationalism has infected the thinking of contemporary man, even men of good will, and one could go so far as to say many a churchman as well. In their assessments of what is 'reasonable' and possible for marriage in our times they have minimalized, or dismissed altogether, the factors of grace and the transforming power of sacrificial love. It's a temptation to get bitter about it. But we mustn't. The Cross is always unfair. Jesus's cross was the biggest unfairness of all time. But he bore it like a lamb and he turned it into a sign that confounded every device of the enemy. “

O’Brien goes on to exhort his readers to “do the impossible. Let us indeed do what rationalists cannot understand, that is, let us do the supra-rational thing, the eternal thing incarnated into the present moment. I mean, begin to praise and thank God for each and every one of the trials he permits in your life. Then watch what He does. He works everything to the good for those who love him. Don't give up, keep on praising and thanking, and locked gates will open, unhealable wounds will heal, the kremlin walls of hopeless situations will crack and let in light. One crack at a time, one brick falling at a time, one victory at a time. One step at a time and only enough manna for one day at a time, just as it was for our forefathers in the desert. . . . in this way we will advance in the Great School of the Soul that is married life and family. For none of us will it be easy. In taking our first tentative steps of radical trust, we will grow stronger, and I think wiser, and then our strides will become longer and more sure. Trust grows the more we practice trusting. And with it love grows, and in the process the unexpected occurs, the ‘impossible’ in the midst of the glorious ‘ordinary.’”

Inspiring words, and strangely timed to coincide with similar advice I received yesterday. I had gone to the church in the garment district in whose thrift shop I bought my beautiful wedding dress (which I’ll blog about later), where I hadn’t been in almost three years. It’s a rather decrepit old church, which I suspect is on the archdiocese’s list to close, but it’s beautiful inside, filled with icons and lit with dozens and dozens of real candles. I got onto the confession line, and when it was my turn, was astonished to receive a simple instruction that was nonetheless radical and transformative. As some of my readers know, I experienced both an ectopic pregnancy and a miscarriage in the past year, and a priest in my parish told me that God might be chastising me for the past sin of abortion committed seventeen years ago, for which I’ve long since been absolved. When I asked him how such chastisement could be squared with God’s promise to Jeremiah to “forgive their sins and remember them no more,” this priest cautioned me against “taking scripture out of context like the Protestants do.” After several weeks of despair, I decided that this what he said was simply a lie, and it ruined my relationship with him, whom I had considered a friend.

The priest in the confessional yesterday, however, said something that changed my heart. What my parish priest meant, he suggested, was that God allows us to suffer so that we can join our sufferings to His on the cross and offer them to Him in reparation for our sins. This seemed so different from the punishment I had inferred from my parish priest’s words, so different from the cynical spiritual economy I had imagined as God killing two of my babies for the one I had killed. I decided to try it, and to experiment with the belief that God’s allowing us to suffer might be for our good rather than for our spiritual destruction. The arrival of Michael O’Brien’s newsletter today illuminated this theology of suffering for me in a timely and beautifully cogent way.


Tertium Quid said...

I know it's probably easier for you to sing than to write, but your blog posts are great. Don't worry if they are infrequent.

Your strivings to live a Catholic life as an artist in NYC are not in vain. Mother Teresa said that if a book saves one soul it is worth writing.

I became a Catholic partly because only the Church offered a satisfactory and mystical understanding of human suffering. Your candor about confession is something every Catholic needs to hear. How many people leave the Church because they don't want to confess a grave sin? How many people leave the Church because of what a priest might say during confession?

I couldn't be happier for you and your baby.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, T.Q., for your very kind words! They make me feel less bad for being such a desultory blogger.

I think the theology of suffering was also what drew me back to the Church five years ago, after many years away. I think that Christianity is the religion of almost absurd paradoxes -- as Jesus says in John 16:20, "Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy." And Michael D. O'Brien says that Christ is the "Master of the Impossible." Things I need to keep reminding myself.

God bless!

Veritas said...

I agree entirely with Tertium Quid's comment.
Isn't it marvellous how things happen - I mean the newsletter coming through the door the very day you needed to read it most, the priest making up so graciously for the ungraciousness of another....none of these things are mere coincidences, are they?

Your witness is a valuable one which will give heart to many a poor soul in torment.

Thank you for sharing your story and observations on the theology of suffering.

RA said...

Ah yes, the conversos and expulsados. Another lovely episode in the history of your church.

I'm glad you found a priest who isn't an idiot.

The mental gymnastics the more intelligent of you religious folk have to go through is always remarkable to me.

You'll always be semi-glamorous to me.

p.s. You did ask me to read. It's easy to leave comments on my blog, BTW.

Pentimento said...

RA, faith confounds reason, in spite of the fact that Aquinas sought to prove that faith was the culmination of reason. I look at my father, who stands next to you as one of the most brilliant people I've known, and, while he may not be the best Catholic, he believes. There is no explanation for that. Faith is a gift, but it's a harsh, stark gift; look at Simone Weil.

alfonso said...

As far as I know, there is basis to mantain that Santa Teresa's parents were converts from judaism. It is discussed if there were converts in her ancerstors. Probably there were, as in many other families.
The same could be said of San Juan de la Cruz.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for the correction. I thought that Saint Teresa had a Jewish converso father; is that not true?

alfonso said...

Clearly his father was not a jewish convert. Wikipedia talks about his great-grandfather... Even this sounds to me a little fictional. I'm not so sure that the ancestors of Santa Teresa are so well known.

Pentimento said...

This essay states that St. Teresa of Avila's grandfather was a Jewish converso.

Janet said...

I was looking for your first post on this blog (don't seem to be able to find it) when I read this. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the Tower of Babel (this has a lot to do with writing a paper on A Good Man is Hard to Find) and how we often rush over that story in Genesis, but how it is at the root of so many of our sufferings. It seems so impossible to communicate, even with those we love the most sometimes. It's such a blessing when the grace of Our Lord allows another human being to say exactly the thing that we need to hear.