Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Being Catholic and Living with "Why?"

Tuesday greetings to all.

The past few weeks have not been easy ones for me, for a number of reasons. At the tail end of my trip to Italy, I received an e-mail from my sister, letting us all know that her cancer, which has been fairly well "contained" for the past four years, has spread to her spinal column (later we found out that it has also appeared in her skull and ribcage). This was deeply troubling news, of course. I had a long conversation with a good friend of mine, a believing Catholic, about all of this. I said that as I have grown older, I have learned to live my life in a way that celebrates fully those moments, places, people, and times when my heart is filled with joy. And to let those moments of grief and sadness be times of feeling that grief deeply and that sadness acutely. In other words, I can't let the sad news diminish the joy, nor let the great joys obliterate the sadness. Ironically, approaching my life in this way has resulted in a certain even-ness of spirit and mental outlook.

This past weekend, while leading the retreat with RCIA ministers in Brooklyn, New York, I was speaking with them about the eucharist as a table of reconciliation. During that presentation, I invite people to think about those whom they consider have done unforgivable things. And then I ask them to envision these people around the table of the eucharist and somehow to imagine that the immensity of God's reconciling love is too vast and too deep for us to come close to grasping. I told them that I believe this is one of the most challenging aspects of the eucharist; I asked them to ponder what it was that Jesus did with Peter around that charcoal fire on the seashore following the resurrection. Peter, this "rock," who only days before said about the Lord, "I don't even know the man," is now reconciled around this charcoal fire with bread and fish on it with the words, "Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?" Scholars have often pointed to this little charcoal breakfast fire with bread and fish on it as a kind of eucharistic meal. Who do you need to be reconciled with around that charcoal fire?

As I spoke these words on Saturday, I couldn't help but recall a conversation I had recently with the husband of a woman who has unfortunately lived with three debilitating diseases in her life. "How," he asked me, "can a loving God give my wife these three diseases? She is such a good person with so much to give; why would God do this to her?" Of course, I know that God does not "give" anyone diseases. But as I sat there with this struggling man, I knew that there were no ready answers for him. And I told him so. I told him that it just was aweful. But I also told him that they both were surrounded by people, family, and a parish that loves them. His was a simple question, without a simple answer.

And all of this comes to a head this morning as we see images and hear reports about the unimaginable devastation in Oklahoma wrought by tornadoes. Parents of dead children are asking those same questions, all revolving around that one word: "Why?"

So, here I am left with the fact that I have been preaching and teaching about the immensity of God's reconciling love and, at the same time, trying to work through ultimate questions about the nature of God and the mystery of sickness and evil. I guess this is the kind of thing that keeps a person of faith going; engaging in the challenging and very difficult questions. It was all so much easier when I was younger and people around me didn't have cancer, when natural disasters seemed so much farther away, both physically and emotionally, when the world seemed to me more of a place of goodness and peace.

Feeling the movements of the 22nd Psalm today, which begins:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?

And continues:

My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.
Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft.
My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me.

As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue sticks to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.

 Then goes on:

Many dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me.
So wasted are my hands and feet

that I can count all my bones.
But then ends with this:   For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.

I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.

Feel like my own life is buried somewhere in the words of this psalm today.   Let's pray for all who suffer, especially today for those in Oklahoma.   Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


Jennifer Odegard said...

Thanks, Jerry. This was good for me to read. The "whys" are what get me every time. Without being in denial (or at least not completely), I have tried to avoid the why of devastating things lately and instead try to focus on the "So, what are YOU going to do about it?" Actions (crying, hugging, praying, sleeping, donating, treating, laughing, remembering, believing, hoping, learning) tends to dull the hurt for me, at least for a while. Most of the time. I am starting to look at life as if it truly is a battle between Good and Evil and even though the evil exists, the good is bigger and stronger and better, not necessarily stopping the pain or the bad experiences, but by being there to help clean up the mess.

Erin Pascal said...

Thank you for sharing this very well written post. It's very heart breaking for me to hear news about what has happened to Oklahoma. I offer my family's prayers to them especially to those who have lost their loved ones because of this horrible tragedy. I hope many people will support them, even through prayers.

Anonymous said...

Prayers and thoughts with you... to those who read your blog, I recently purchased a book titled, "Where in the Hell is God?". It's an easy read, that the author (a Jesuit) tries to explain from his own experience involving a tragedy with his sister and his mother turning to him in the hospital asking, "Where in the hell is God?".

Clare said...

Thanks, Jerry, for voicing the search and questons we often live with. Some time ago, when I was grappling with my daughter's young and difficult life and the struggles she goes through, a wonder-filled friend helped me move from the "Why?" to "What am I to learn from this?" and "How can I grow from this?" Sometimes even those questions do not have immediate or apparent answers. The change in questions does put me more in the driver's seat of the search -- and helps me to live more gently with the questions and the mystery.

Sweetpea1900 said...

My prayers go out to you, your family and especially your Sister, Jerry. It's been a very hard week for those who've lost everything in Ok. Suffering seems to be all around us these days. As Catholics we must stand ready to offer prayers and assist those in need if we can. A Fervant Prayer Availeth Much so it says in Scripture. I just found this blog of yours and so far I have enjoyed your writings and everyone's comments. God Bless & Keep You. ❤