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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Nativity Story film - refreshing our view of the mystery of Jesus' birth to a real human couple.

This film is a remarkable attempt to portray in a fresh way the great mystery of the Son of God coming to Earth as the infant of a virgin betrothed to a young man before they had come to live together. The sheer human drama of it has been found in every generation to be a gripping story that inspires the simplest and most sophisticated people alike. At Christmas we seem to catch a glimpse of what humanity could be all the time if we only came to accept one another as children of the same God and as brothers and sisters to each other.

When you first see the film, you may find some of your sensitivities shocked or surprised, because we become familiar with certain tellings of the Nativity Story and certain renderings of the details. It is like that with any element of our faith when in each generation it is reformulated so that it can be put in words more likely to convey to a new generation, for whom the usage of the language has changed, the full truth and wonder of the original events and divine revelation.

Check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church and what it says about the birth of Jesus. I seem to recall that our Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus, but that does not necessarily mean she was spared birth pains altogether. She who shared in Jesus' passion would most appropriately share in what women have inherited from Eve, so that as Jesus took on himself our sins; so his Blessed Mother took on herself what is proper to women, but in a way that restored, by the grace of God, what the Creator originally intended for women to be and experience in cooperating with Him for the creation and transmission of life.

In reviewing this film and discussing anything related to our faith with people of our day, I think we would want to avoid approaching people with wholesale rejections of anything in the culture
that is not a faithful and exact expression, interpretation, or quotation of our Church's teachings. It takes nothing away from our faith for us to appreciate the value of such a film on its own merits and to see how it can be helpful in our ongoing quest to understand the mysteries of divine revelation and of our salvation. I was attentive to the teachings of our faith while viewing the film and found nothing that manipulated or contradicted the Gospels.

The film is the best rendering I've ever seen of what it would have been like for Mary and Joseph to go about their business in Nazareth once word got out that she was pregnant, and word must certainly have gotten out once she returned from Elizabeth's after four months or so. In fact, I found the film quite edifying in showing Mary and Joseph as quite human, though she is without sin. She is never portrayed as sinning, even though she is shown as experiencing a wide range of emotional states as she lives through the amazing events within her and around her. I don't think it is an insult to our faith and Catholic dogma to say that Mary would have experienced some childbirth pains.

In the Book of Genesis, the Lord told Eve that her pains in giving birth would be intensified; so even the way God created the sinless first man and woman, there would have been some birth pains, which is only logical in considering that a baby must pass through the birth canal. Original sin intensified those pangs. Mary's sinlessness would have spared her the intensification and acknowledging the possibility that she may have endured some pangs makes it possible for her to be presented to people today as a real person and not as one who wasn't really or entirely human but almost angelic. John tells us that Jesus was human like us in all things but sin, so why should his blessed Mother be any different from Him, the sinless One?

Devout or inspired renderings of the nativity such as by Maria Val Torta or some saints suggest that Mary was taken up in a sort of ecstasy at the time she gave birth to Jesus, which is not an insult to human nature or science either. Ths film goes along those lines, where Mary has some pains, not particularly intense, and then there's a hint of ecstasy as she looks up to the light shining down from the star. Very plausible and very reverently rendered, I thought.

If we want to evangelize the culture, I believe we must not descend upon it like a SWAT team to pounce on every potential deviation from Catholic dogma, and rather approach it critically, appreciating anything that can contribute to our understanding of these mysteries (we have no direct reports about what Mary's experience of childbirth was like), and graciously pointing out anything that is ambivalent with regards to our faith and anything that is inaccurate, explaining why we believe differently and pointing out how the sciences, theology, Church teaching, and art can work together to present as ever fresh the truths revealed to us by God for the salvation of humanity. Otherwise, the people we try to reach will only see us as the fanatics we would be and would dismiss us as irrelevant. We would not be honoring the Lord or serving his Gospel very well then.

Monday, December 11, 2006

How to love enemies and deal with offensive people.

             It is a difficult thing to deal with people who are offensive, manipulative, or simply disagreeable.  Everything inside us wants to escape, run away from them, and just get on with our day.  The longer we have to endure them unwillingly, the more likely we are to explode at them in anger, or if we can't bear to be angry with them, we may very well dump all our anger on the next most likely recipient, who usually turns out to be a person we love or are very close to.  Then they are shocked and wonder why we are treating them like that.  Where is the Lord when we need Him most?  What does the Lord expect us to do?            
             Believe it or not, when we are harrassed by such life situations, and they happen far more frequently than we want to admit, the Lord is actually providing us with a wonderful opportunity to make progress in all the areas of our life touched by all of this.  A lot of people struggle with similar issues but find it more difficult to make progress because the troublesome person has died and is no longer around for them to respond to in a different way, as they would like to have done earlier but were unable because they were too young or didn't know how.  Now that they are older, they see how they could approach it differently.
             Here is my suggestion.  While it seems to be so annoying or troubling for us to deal with an offensive person, the main part of our burden is that we allow ourselves to be drawn into the other person's agenda.  What I mean is that we respond to whatever initiatives he makes or words she says.  We are responding on their terms.  Instead, we can try the following.
             We can choose how we want to respond to the other person.  This is a way of practicing what Jesus said about loving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us.  Here is how the Lord has taught me to do it.  When such a person is coming "at me" I retreat inside myself to that place where the Lord is with me and I ask Him, "So, Lord, here he is again.  What would You suggest I do with him?  Here is how he makes me feel.....  I don't want to go there, Lord, but instead I want to remain peaceful in You.  Please show me how You see him and love him."  and so on.... 
             While you're doing this, you are removing your very sensitive self at least "one layer" away from the offensive person and choosing to walk around in that place where you can be with the Lord and notice your own thoughts and feelings. This is very important, because it is there that the best solutions will become apparent as the Holy Spirit sheds light on the situation and on your own thoughts and feelings and allows you to see the Father's will, just as He did it for Jesus when He walked this Earth.
             At some point, the offensive person will notice that you are not listening to him and will say something.  That will be the first time that he will actually be looking at you and listening to you.  That's when you can share with him something of what you have seen inside yourself of God's will and love for you.  What I usually choose to say to an offensive or disturbing person is something like "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but right now I happen to be late for an appointment (if this is the case.  Remember that it is important not to lie, not even little white lies, but always to remain in the truth.  Jesus said that only the truth will set us free.) and so cannot continue this conversation.  Don't call me, I'll call you.  If you don't hear from me a month from now, please do call and we'll talk about it then."  OR  (In the case of an offensive father.)
            "Dad, have I ever told you that I'm grateful for the gift of life God has given me through you and Mom?  Thank you.  I am content with what I'm doing to help myself right now.  I appreciate your concern, but it's all right.  I can handle this fine.  It's my life and I have to do this myself.  I have a husband now, and he is the one I look to for the help I need.  What I need from you, Dad, is.... (For example, "just pray for me", or just be supportive, and so on.)
             I would suggest other family members do the same thing.  It may sound stupid for me to say that we don't have to let people upset us, since we have no choice about the involuntary feelings that come over us just as an immediate response of our organism to what stimulates it.  It is true that our immediate gut reaction is involuntary and that we have no choice but to endure it.  This is something we all must endure and part of what Jesus means when He asks us to carry our cross.  Much of our cross is our own organism and all its inner workings which can be a burden for us each day. 
             What I'm suggesting above relates to another part or level in us deeper than the gut reactions of our organism.  It's the soul, which includes the faculties of intelligence to make sense out of what we observe with our senses and feel with our emotions.  It also includes our memory and imagination, our heart and soul, where the Blessed Trinity stay within us.  When we go into our soul consciously, then we go into a place where the possibilities are literally endless, because we are allowing the Blessed Trinity to partner with us, and we are being attentive to them.  We can begin to learn how to better notice the suggestions and inclinations they are giving us as guidance and as alternatives to the gut reactions we are making efforts to resist.  We want to resist our gut reactions so that they don't dominate our entire self.
             When we try to do this, this is what it looks or feels like.  You continue to be aware of your gut reactions to the other, but you begin to see that these are on the surface, like the storm on the surface of a lake.  You begin to feel less threatened or dominated by this storm of feelings and thoughts, as you discover the hidden depths within yourself, where there is a lot of room for refuge, and where you can find a few seconds to think other thoughts than the ones the offensive person wants you to have.  Then you begin to taste how good that freedom, however small, can be, and this strengthens you to stand more solidly on your own feet, and you can begin to think independent thoughts about even this offensive person, and feel pity for him, and gratitude for the fact that he cares, however inappropriate the means he takes to show it.
             The key is simply to do something to assert your independence and to practice relying on the Lord in each situation by pulling your attention away from the person trying to manipulate or control or persuade you and giving your precious atention to the One who will make better use of it, Jesus.  May you continue to walk in the Lord and make good use of this opportunity the Lord is giving you to allow that youthful part of us, what some call the "inner child" to pass through the threshold of the next generation, passing through the gate of youth into adulthood.  This is what adults do.  We stand on our own two feet, take responsibility for our own self, and face any and all comers, with the Lord's help, of course.
             Let us pray that we may all continue to find ways to enjoy the Lord's help and come to the satisfaction of finding our way through the thickets of obstacles in our life.  There is nothing sweeter than the satisfaction of doing something like this ourselves.  May we continue to have a meaningful Advent and peaceful, loving Christmas!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“Were not our hearts burning within us as He talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us

“Were not our hearts burning within us as He talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”  Luke 24:32

«Notre cœur n’était-il pas tout brûlant au-dedans de nous, quant Il nous parlait en chemin, quand Il nous ouvrait les Écritures?»  Luc 24 :32


l’abbé / Fr. Gilles A. Surprenant

Monday, November 27, 2006

Where is God when we just can't find work?

In recent months, a number of parishioners first at Becket and now at St. Luke have shared with me the distress of being out of work for a prolonged period. During this time naturally they had recourse to God so that they might quickly find a new job and continue to be able to provide for their families. As the weeks lengthened into months and the months into, yes, even years, the searching, failing, and waiting takes a toll on the person we are and can actually shake us to the very depths of our identity and loosen the grip we thought we had on life, on our faith, on God, on ourselves, on our spouses, and on our families.
The very heart and soul within us cries out to the heavens in words and groanings like these: "Lord, where are You? Do you not care that we are without work? When, O Lord, will you answer?" Such heart wrenching prayers are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit himself, and we can find their pattern in the Gospel when the apostles were in the boat on the lake during the storm that threatened to sink and drown them, and in the Psalms, which are filled with such cries that come from the depths of the heart and soul in us.
I know from experience that the Lord wants most of all and actually does support each of us in our persons, in who we are within our situations. That means that the Lord does not always seem overly eager to provide the answer which may seem to us to be so obvious. It also means that, ironically, such hardships actually become occasions to find ourselves closer to God, as we discover that He isn't just a valet who does our bidding or a Daddy who in our child's memory gives us what we need almost as soon as we need it or even before we realize that we need it. That is what makes great parents wonderful, the sollicitude with which they brood over their children's welfare and push away harm and envelop them in good.
Still, even perfect human parents cannot push away all harm or provide absolutely all goods, or they would in effect end up living their children's lives for them. Something needs to remain for the children to do for themselves. That is the gray zone in which children begin to doubt their parents and parents suffer over their children, and why when we go through hard times God suffers with us and in us through Jesus, who though in glory remains quite human too and is exquisitely sensitive and compassionate toward us.
Over the years as people have shared their struggles and stories with me, I have discovered that when it seems most difficult to find new work, what is going on is that the familiar categories within which we were used to function are straining against a lack of opportunity, and as the strain increases, what often happens is that it is the categories that burst open to reveal new ways of doing, or new kinds of work, or hidden gifts and talents never discovered or long unused, and so on, but also opportunities to resist feeling sorry for ourselves, resist the temptation to worry over our welfare, and go in the very opposite direction and with determination continue to trust in the Lord and his guidance and do something completely out of keeping with the situation such as volunteer our time and attention to someone in greater need than ourselves or to a neglected family relation.
Such a time of difficulty can be transformed by God's almighty power into a wonderful encounter of love and service, or restoration of broken relationships and reconcilations, which is the stuff that Christmas stories are often made of. May I join you, Reader, and your family members in praying that the Blessed Trinity may glorify themselves in you and bring out of your distress in your seasons of difficulty this very kind of good news and make you a blessing in yourself, for your family, your church, and your neighbor!
It does not immediately recommend itself to us to share with others our distress, since there's quite enough bad news in the world without adding our own to it. Surprisingly, the very opposite is true. It is precisely when all is not well that the Lord Jesus wants us to tell others the good news that He came to bring to pull the world up out of the misery of relying only on itself. He told us to ever be ready to speak up for ourselves and for Him when we are pushed or persecuted or challenged in our faith. He told us not to worry about what to say because the Holy Spirit would give us the words to say in that moment.
The most unlikely moment to tell others about the good God is doing is precisely when He doesn't seem to be doing it yet and we are still waiting. That really gets other people's attention, because it is counterintuitive to be full of hope when there are no hopeful signs, but that is precisely what hope is, to believe in the good that is coming before there are any signs of its coming at all. Once we see it coming it becomes evident and past the time for needing hope, which is replaced by certainty and jubilation.
May you and yours have an amazing season of hope-filled waiting for the Advent of the Lord and approach with the fresh joy of childlike hearts the celebration of his coming to us as a blessing for the whole Earth during the festive days of Christmas and its extension in the long winter nights that will bring us to "Candlemas" 40 days later at the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd!

“Were not our hearts burning within us as He talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32

«Notre cœur n’était-il pas tout brûlant au-dedans de nous, quant Il nous parlait en chemin, quand Il nous ouvrait les Écritures?» Luc 24 :32