From an older man at a bus stop poignantly telling me that this was his last commute because he had retired today, to a Dutch guy working on a French campsite endearingly offloading all his woes every time I appeared to collect my little ones from the activities...his flip-flop strap was broken, the tent was so hot, the shops were far away and such other problems which seem small to me, but to a young adult away from home for the first time, can seem like heavy burdens which can be eased by sharing them with someone else's Mammy and have someone else's Mammy say 'There, there..' .
On another occasion, an older waitress in Pizza Express close to the Grenfell Tower in London came back to my table to tell me about her 11 year old who also loves ballet like my daughter and how she worries about her, two mothers with likely very little in common except the universal burden all mothers carry which is eased simply by it's acknowledgement by a stranger. I promised to pray for her and she asked the same from me.
Maybe I have a Mammy face, maybe I look safe, but my now young adult children never cease to be perplexed at the collection of people's burdens I collect as I go about my unremarkable days.
The first time I visited America was Autumn of last year. It was the first time I'd made such a big journey by myself. It was a funny journey because, as I had feared, I missed every single connection I'd booked. As it turned out, this ended up being a blessing which itself is a story for another day. Well anyway, while I was sitting in Newark airport waiting for my rescheduled flight, looking out over the Manhattan skyline, the ballgame on the TV screens, clutching my first ever dollars and struggling unsuccessfully to keep the smile off my face at the delightful reality that here I was, actually IN America, a waiter came over to assist me with the iPad style menu I was clearly having difficulty navigating (an innocent abroad for sure!). Within a few moments I found he was from Egypt...he had been in America for so and so years...he had a little boy...he worries about his son that he'll turn out well and so on. I thanked him for helping me with my order and gave him some encouragement regarding his son, namely that HE had to be a good husband and father and MAN so that his child would have a good template to imitate. He was so grateful I thought he was going to hug me. Such simple advice to be so gratefully received.
It set me thinking.
Why was I in America? I went to America to spend some time with my friend who had been unwell. Nothing more, just to sit in an armchair (eating Chick-Fil-A and Dunkin Donuts) and be with a friend who was suffering. This was a friend I first met in the comments box on a Facebook page for people carrying the same burden...the rare illness of their child. What started as a comforting reply to a question asked has grown into a lifetime dear friendship. Truly the internet at it's very very best. In spite of all the dangers and pitfalls of the internet, we have to also remember that the people on the internet are indeed real people whose burdens we are called to carry. As time has gone on and Facebook moved on from trading cows on FarmVille, I have uncovered some truly human consequences of online interaction. Before a trip to Rome some years ago I posted that I was going and that I would be carrying the intentions of my Facebook friends to the tombs of Pope St John Paul, St Josemaria, St Monica. I didn't expect to know people's actual requests but by that night, instead of packing for my early flight I was sitting at the computer crying at the heartbreak my friends were asking me to place at the feet of these great saints. Heavy burdens under which the most saintly would buckle.
If there's one thing we all agree on it's that life is no bed of roses. We've always known this. However, I have of late noticed a growing despondency even where it shouldn't be - among Catholics. I can understand this. Things are bad...they're very bad. Life is heavy. The world is heavy. People are carrying heavy crosses and there seems to be no place of respite because those places too seem to be disappearing in front of our very eyes. We've become afraid to share our burdens with the world because the world's answer to burden always seems to be death. Kill the child, kill the elderly, the sick, the lonely, kill the marriage, kill sports, privacy, innocence and ideas we don't like...kill whatever it is that causes us discomfort, that challenges us or prickles our conscience. Hey...Kill God, why not?
The world seems bad, it's as though the human race and Western civilisation is in a state of self deconstruction. Only Pollyanna cannot cry the words of Shakespeare 'Oh woe is me, to see what I have seen, to see what I see' .
I get it, many of us are indeed sad. We are burdened with the heavy world. Perhaps we should be despondent and fearful and sad. But should we really? Let's delve a bit. Saints indeed buckle. Jesus buckled under the cross, under the heavy heavy weight of our sins...three times. I often consider he fell to show us that getting up again and again, and yes, again, is the path he walked and the one we can indeed walk with him. Someone once asked Pope John Paul whether he got sad about the state of the world, about all the troubles and sufferings and all the people who do not love God? He replied God does not need a sad Pope, God needs a joyful Pope. When we think of John Paul, we think of his joy, his smile, how he embraced the world, kissed it even. The world is not bad. It is GOOD. God saw what he had made and it was good. The world is good, God said so.
After the disgraceful abortion referendum in Ireland last year, I think all of us, not just in Ireland, but across the world, felt so broken and buckled that to get up again seemed an unattainable task. I remember the afternoon of the result I opened my fridge and to my horror discovered that we needed milk!! I felt almost frozen in fright. Had my husband been home I would have sent him out into the big bad world like early man out to hunt the mammoth, to bring home the milk I needed for survival coffee. He wasn't home so I had to go out myself, among the savages and demons which were prowling the supermarket. (I'm nothing if not dramatic).
Later I was talking to my husband about this. I surmised that this very mindset was a huge temptation when we perceive the world to be bad and people to be bad. The temptation is to withdraw into our Catholic cave. Set up our Catholic camps and circle our Catholic wagons lest we be tainted by big bad world. I see precisely this happening in a creeping way. Catholics are withdrawing from mainstream society and intentionally circulating in ever more puritanical Calvinistic circles in the name of Catholicism. We are withdrawing our children from schools (often rightly so), we are abandoning our parishes in droves in favour of those we feel to be more 'Catholic' (absolutely fine since we are free to attend wherever we wish, however the church by and large is territorial, we belong to the parish in which we live. Our Parish Priest is responsible for us as father even of his Church building is bland and even if he is bland). We are cutting loose family and friends who do not have our world view.
I am noticing a perceptible Catholic drift away from the world as it is and into an idealised version of the past. Most worryingly, I am noticing, especially among young Catholics, an increasing preoccupation with demons, exorcists and demonic activity sometimes to the point that their faith seems ever more fearful, concerned with avoiding demons rather than pursuing and embracing Jesus Christ who loves us and who died for us. This is not right. In fact it is very wrong. Focusing on Satan and his demons gives them a dignity they do not deserve. Satan is NOT the equal opposite of God. He is a creature, created by God and who subsequently in his (small h, notice) inflated pride rejected God and chose himself. God did not create Hell or send Satan and his pathetic Wormwoods there, they freely and knowingly chose it. If a man sins, it's not because he is possessed by a demon; we are well able to sin off our own bat. Satan can suggest, stir up, remind. He cannot make a single person commit a single sin. Our sins are well and truly our own. Our sins are what nailed Christ to a cross. We don't need Satan, we're only too delighted to sin. Bless me Father for I have sinned, and I'm not really all that sorry...it was only venial after all...and so satisfying to say that thing...or do that thing...or not do that thing...
The saints remind us that Plenary Indulgences are not all that easy to gain, precisely because detachment form sin is a difficult lifetime task, sin is sticky.
I was in a beautiful Church last All Saints Day with my 9 year old daughter. She spotted a statue depicting Our Lady and under her foot the writhing serpent. What a curious sight for a little girl, she asked me about it so I told her about the sin of Eve and how God promised he would send us a New Eve, one who would crush the head of the serpent. More importantly, I told my daughter to look at the demeanour of Mary. How powerful: Mary is paying zero attention to Satan, he doesn't deserve her attention. In Mel Gibson's Passion of The Christ opening scene we equally see Jesus not giving Satan the dignity of his gaze, just as later he didn't dignify the impure depraved Herod with the sound of his Divine voice. SO...don't dignify demons with too many of our thoughts. That's the example of Jesus and Mary and probably what we should do too. That said, you know who is real, be alert.
Where is all this leading to? This is what I'm trying to say...we are losing our JOY. This is not right. Joyless fearful Christians are questionably not Christian at all. Sure times are bad, have there ever been times which weren't bad? The 4th Century contemporaries of St Augustine thought that their times were bad: 'Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well and times shall be good. We are the times, such as we are, such are the times.' St Teresa of Avila called her times 'A bad night in a bad inn', not too flattering to her times. Whoever penned the Salve Regina in the 12th Century saw fit to call the world 'This Valley of Tears'.
The world has always been a mix of bad and good, sufferings and joys, sin and virtue. It will always be that way. If I had a penny for every time I've seen somebody comment 'Come Lord Jesus' on reports of the newest political and ecclesiastic equivalent to celebrity gossip, well I don't know how much I'd have, a good bit. I'm guilty, I've thought it myself. Come Lord Jesus, come and save us from this messed up world, come and smite them all down!! How gleefully I'd watch 'them' get their comeuppance, the villains well and truly vanquished.
Lets have a close look at 'Come Lord Jesus'. Just why do we want Lord Jesus to come? Truth be told, I'm guessing we want Jesus to come because what lies ahead looks a bit too much like hard work. Come and relieve me of this uncomfortable task, put me into Heaven already!! Come Lord Jesus because I'm too lazy for my times. Why didn't you put me into a time of ease, like the heyday of Christendom, the times when government, Kings, writers, architects, composers and craftsmen were glorifying your name? I'd have been great in those times, I'd have been 'stunning and brave ', going along with the river of Christians, being Christian. Why, oh why, oh why did you put me in these rotten times Lord? But Augustine tells us we are the times.
My mother used to repeatedly remind me and my siblings that God places us in precisely the time he wants us in. For you and me that means now. Withdrawing from the world as it is today is rejecting God's wisdom in placing me here and now. What an honour it is to be chosen to live in difficult challenging times, what an honour to witness to Christ when the world is not singing Glory to God in The Highest but rather cursing him, denying him or, even more likely, plain shabby old apathy toward him. It would be so easy and comfortable to withdraw into our cosy Catholic citadels and let the wolves devour the world. One problem with this though, that would not be Catholicism. Pope John Paul spoke about this in Crossing The Threshold of Hope. Some Eastern religions have the aim of going deeper and deeper into ourselves and there finding the divine, the small d divine which is our own self awareness to the exclusion of the world. This is not compatible with Catholicism. Each of us has a task given to us by nature of our Baptism, it's not inward, it's OUTWARD. The nature of God is out and out and out, an ever flowing torrent of outward, creative, life-giving love. An outward flowing of Joy. Therein lies the secret...JOY. Not the 'kind we might call physiological good spirits-the happiness of a healthy animal...happiness that comes from the abandonment of everything and the abandonment of yourself to the loving arms of Our Father God' (The Way 659).
Each of us is called to make holy our times. We aren't called to preserve the purity of our personal air, we're called to purify the air of those around us. How can we win hearts if our own heart is miserable? How can we place Christ as the pinnacle of the world if we think the world is bad? How can we point to Heaven if our own view of Heaven is obscured by the shadows of demons? We cannot. We don't need to carry the sins of the world, of ideologies which cause so much division. We don't need to take upon our shoulders the sin of Eve, or the neglectful Adam who just stood there. Jesus has already carried those sins. The weight of the world is too heavy for us, the entire world and it's sinful history is not our cross. Our cross is today, it's the weather, the neighbour, the school run, the aching back and the traffic jam. Pick up those crosses with a smile and we will surely change the world.
Until we realise that God is Joy, that we have a Happy God who wants us to be happy, not just in Heaven, but on Earth too, we will be bogged down in the mire of the world, our feet weighted like lead, unable to soar, unable to raise our hearts to God, unable to taste the sweetness of his love. We have a God who delights in making us happy, who lavishes us with beauty in every form. Creation is beautiful. It doesn't just look beautiful, it smells, sounds, tastes and feels beautiful. God wants us to be happy today he wants us to be joyful. Only Joy will win hearts. Only joy will remedy the joylessness of the world. A miserable Christian is a paradox. A fearful, suspicious Christian is a paradox. Authentic Christianity shouts it from the mountaintops. Open WIDE the doors to Christ, not barricade them in case the world gets in.
Today I can climb my mountain...that mountain of ironing I could so easily curse, or the mountainous effort to limit my phone addiction and be present for the very people right in front of me. Maybe that mountain is a hospital bed, or a graveside. Or maybe it's faithfulness to an undeserving spouse, or autism, or depression...any one of the myriad problems that go with the human condition and wherein we can witness that YES, we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song...even when sung through life's tears. Those witnesses can speak louder than the best apologists or the slick debaters.
As Christmas approaches you are guaranteed to see the annual scrooge articles, condemning the world, the trappings, the food, the glitter of Christmas, even Santa Claus gets it in the neck . To these party poopers I say this...Merry Merry Merry Christmas!! Catholics should have the best banquets. I attended a Christmas meditation some years ago in which the priest related the story of being on an outing with a number of men when one produced some fine Cuban cigars. Each cigar was worth a hefty sum of money. What struck the priest wasn't the cigars but the box in which they came. It was of the finest wood, smoothed and polished to perfection. A fitting presentation to a fine cigar.
I passed the Tiffany & Co store in Harrods a few years ago, how I looked so longingly at the beautiful sparkling display. A woman emerged from the shop elegantly dangling the recognisable turquoise bag from her hand. If ever I get a gift from Tiffany I will dangle the bag elegantly from my hand for the next year, even if it is only to carry my car keys and my receipts from Lidl! I'll want everyone to know I got something from Tiffany, that someone loved me enough to give me such a gift. You see, we put precious gifts in precious packaging. The more precious the gift the more effort we put into the packaging. What greater gift has ever been given than the gift of God the Son. God made man and given to an undeserving bunch of sinful miserable complainers such as us for no other reason than that he loves us and that he told us he would. What packaging we should prepare!! The best for Jesus. The Catholics should surely have the best parties, the Bridegroom has come, we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song! There is no compatibility with Alleluia and Bah, Humbug! We are the ones who know who and why and who wins in the end. We know whose head gets nonchalantly crushed under the pure heel of Mary, we don't cower at his ugly name. We're not afraid or ashamed and we're not going to reject or retreat from this world and this time we have been put into. How can we not look into the eyes of Christ, who loves us and our hearts not soar like a bird?
St Peter tells us 'Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer' (Rom 12:12)
The times are what they are and all we can do is be holy, be saints, be the joy that attracts the world. and 'always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you' (1 Peter 3:15).
So there you have it...be joyful, keep praying, be hopeful. And be a saint, a happy saint.
And if my husband is reading this...don't buy me Tiffany, just ask them to give you the bag!