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Monday, December 31, 2012

Love Your Neighbour

In my early twenties I was working in my father’s company when he lost all his money because of some wrong investments in North Yemen. He had already decided to declare bankruptcy, but it was an extremely difficult decision for him, because he identified himself completely with his professional life. He knocked at my door and asked me if we could carry on a little longer. I slammed the door in his face. I was mad at him for his failure. The memory of my gesture haunted me for years, until one day, some twenty-five years later, I told him how I felt.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said. “I don’t remember.”
He had forgotten, that is to say he had forgiven me a long time ago. At that moment I made peace with myself. I still think that my reaction was cruel, but at least now I now that I didn’t hurt him so much that he could not forget.                                            
However, the sense of guilt generated by this episode didn’t cure me of my selfishness. My son was the first and only person for whom I made sacrifices. I was incapable of loving anybody else in the same disinterested way. 

It was only after my conversion that I started to change. I decided to work once a week as a volunteer, feeding the poor. They gather every day in the basement of the local church and take turns sitting around a large table, waiting to be served a hot meal. People tell their stories and cry over their troubles, or remain silent, unwilling to share.  Many have small children, who chirp around the table like little birds, asking for more dessert. 
I had been there only a few times when, on a cold winter day, I had a chance to offer a new coat to a man dressed in ragged clothes. He declined, stating that he liked what he was wearing. I couldn’t help laughing: How could he like a jacket that was ripped off from top to bottom? A few days later I met that man on the street and I said hallo. He was acting in a strange way, and only then I realized that he was mentally unwell. I got scared and walked away as fast as I could. This episode made me reflect upon my attitude towards mental illness. Back in Italy, when I was in my thirties, I had cut off my relationship with two aunts, with whom I was very close, because I couldn’t deal with their erratic behavior. One of them had developed Alzheimer’s disease and was constantly calling me on the phone. The other one, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had suddenly stopped taking her medications. I changed my telephone number and disappeared from their lives: I didn’t want to be bothered. But this time I was moved by a stranger and I wanted to know more about him. I learned that he was a Vietnam veteran and believed in the existence of twenty-three hells. I’m sure he had seen plenty of them during that war, and they still haunt him. Now I call him by name and we talk whenever he’s in the mood. Behind that mane of white hair and that un-kept beard there is one of the sweetest persons I’ve ever met, a person who lost his mind because he didn’t want to kill.     

Today my husband is the main beneficiary of my conversion. Lucky for him, I’ve become so kind and forgiving that I almost don’t recognize myself. Unfortunately, he’s not willing to admit that I’m so much nicer  thanks to Jesus’ love. He thinks it’s because I’m aging, or because of whatever other silly reasons he can come up with. Yet, after twenty-five years of the same interaction between us, he’s learning to respond to the new me in a more loving way. Jesus has done for me what no one else has been able to do. This new faith is something powerful enough not to be dismissed as an illusion. 

I was only a couple of months into the process of getting to know Jesus when I read the first scholarly texts that depicted him as a failed prophet, but I went on in my search simply because I couldn’t let go. What was it exactly that I couldn’t let go of? It wasn’t the consolation that religion offers, and the curiosity about Jesus was only part of the reason for my perseverance. The truth is that I couldn’t let go of the new me. From the outside I’m the same person, only nicer, but inside I’ve changed. It’s not easy to change when you have repeated the same patterns for a lifetime. I had lived in a certain way for fifty years and in a different way for two months: Why was it so difficult to go back where I was? Because Jesus had become a tangible presence in my life. Today this feeling is even stronger, and by now I can only acknowledge that the irrational thing to do would be to deny him.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Reflections Under The Christmas Tree

I just came back from the Christmas' Eve Mass, which I love because I know all the songs and I can sing along! It was the children's mass, some of them sang and there were many babies dressed just like cute! I've felt Jesus' love and I've prayed for the well being of my loved ones, knowing that he will take care of all human beings.

Did Jesus’ followers feel the love emanating from his person? Could he heal the sick through the power of his love? Many times in the Gospels Jesus says to those who are healed that their faith brought them back to health. Their sudden recovery, I believe, was not a reward to their faith, but its natural outcome. According to the evangelists, Jesus “was not able to perform any mighty deeds” in his hometown, because the people did not believe in him. He was unable to heal unless a wave of complete trust flowed between him and the seeker. Only those who went to him in desperation and certitude at the same time were healed, out of mutual love.
Jesus often speaks about the heart: Perhaps he could create feelings of love and compassion so strong that he could literally rearrange the physical matter. I often have the feeling that he “rearranges” my thoughts, my behavior and even the events that take place in my life. For example, considering how irresponsibly my husband and I have led our lives, it’s a miracle we still have a roof above our heads. In a certain sense we lived as Jesus preached, not worrying about tomorrow. I couldn't resist the appeal of an adventurous life with a man who pushed me over the edge, When I fell for my husband my friends asked me why I had ended an apparently perfect marriage to run to America with a difficult man, facing an uncertain future. My parents just couldn’t get over it. Well, I did it out of boredom. I had come to believe, since it had happened in all my relationships, that I couldn’t last with any man because I would invariably get bored sooner or later. I wasn’t happy about this, for I wanted true love and a child. I had a feeling that he was crazy enough to keep me interested, so I decided to leave everything behind.                                                                                          
We bought two plane tickets to New York, via Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. When we reached Dubrovnik, my future husband, pale as a ghost, got up from his plane seat and said to me:
“If you love me, you’ll get off this plane with me right now.”
He had been to America before, but always by boat. The mere idea of flying terrified him, however he thought he would give it a try. I said “Sure!” and followed him right on to the Yugoslavian land. Dubrovnik is a fascinating town on the Adriatic sea and we ended up having a wonderful time, giving very little thought to the fact that our resources were dissolving like mist in the sun.
Officially, we kept looking for a ship that would take us to America. After a while we heard that such a ship would leave from Hamburg, Germany. We happily boarded a train and reached Hamburg, only to find out that we had to go to England instead, and take the Queen Elizabeth to New York. Now, the Queen Elizabeth is a very expensive way of crossing the ocean. When finally reached Miami, our final destination, we were completely broke! 
According to Jesus, we don’t need to store treasures: God will provide for us. To the rich man who asked him how to gain eternal life, Jesus answered that he should give all his possessions to the poor and follow him. When the man left, Jesus turned to his disciples and said:
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter  the kingdom of God.”
Upon hearing this statement the apostles were scandalized. The Jews, maybe on the basis of a superficial reading of Deuteronomy, assumed that wealth was a sign of Yahweh’s favor, but Jesus turned this assumption on its head.   
But what does the establishment has to make of this today? Jesus didn’t give precise rules about money. He never asked his disciples to give up their possessions, like he did with the hypocritical rich man. The apostles had to leave behind their homes and follow him, although family and property carried for ancient Jews religious and cultural significance. To other disciples Jesus demanded only support and hospitality, so it seems that his attitude towards money was one of relegating it where it belonged, that is at the bottom of the scale of human values. If achieving wealth absorbs all our energy, then money is evil.

But we all agree that a Christmas without money is a sad Christmas. Let's not obsess over this incongruence, let's take the birth of Jesus also as a celebration of the abundant life He promised us. And will  excuse me if I stop writing. I'm going to have a wonderful Italian dinner and open all those colorful packages that are sitting under the Christmas' tree. But at midnight, we won't forget to put the Baby Jesus in the manger.                                             

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Forgiveness of Sins

One day after the most horrible crime ever committed in this country, the killing of twenty children in an elementary school at Newtown in Connecticut, a question comes to mind: How responsible are we for our sins? Are we going to be punished in the afterlife?  

For a moment, imagine that you have committed a horrible crime, but you were not aware of its gravity. A good example of this kind of situation is described in the movie “An American Crime“, a true story. A single mother of six, approximately from age seven to seventeen, hosts in her home two adolescent girls whose parents had to travel for work. The woman is good to her children, but she hates her life. She’s involved with a much younger man who uses her for money and sex, and she has to struggle to support her family. She starts to take out her frustrations on the two girls, and soon the prettiest one becomes her favorite victim. She
locks her in the basement and tortures her, telling her children that she deserves to be punished. All of them visit their victim together with their friends, and incredibly none of them fully realizes the horror that is being perpetrated on that girl. They take turns in torturing her, until one day she dies.

The thought that this really happened made my blood turn to ice. I wanted that woman and all those children 
to physically taste the pain they had inflicted on that poor girl. I wanted them to burn in hell. But then I tried to look at the movie with some perspective. The woman was obviously insane, or she would have realized 
that the parents of the two girls were going to return and find out about her crime. But she seemed to be oblivious of its implications, for which in the end not only she, but also her children were convicted. 
Those children… that is the most awful aspect of the story! None of them seemed to have a mind of their own. They thought what they were doing was OK because the adult in the house said that it was OK ( by they way, the whole family went to Mass every Sunday). So, ultimately, nobody was truly guilty, because they were all incapable of recognizing evil. Yet, if there is a divine justice, they ought to be punished for what they did.                                                                                                                              

Now imagine what would happen if, after we die, we would finally get in contact with our moral conscience. The awareness of a crime that we have committed, of the pain we have inflicted upon another human being, would be almost impossible to bear. That would be our punishment, it would be hell.

Let’s recall the only prayer that Jesus taught us, The Lord‘s Prayer: “ … forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”

 Maybe, in the afterlife, only the pardon of those we have offended will alleviate our pain. The good news is that they will want to forgive us, if they want God to forgive them. Nobody is completely without sin, not even a child. As soon as we acquire a sense of self, we become capable of faulty thoughts and behavior. If we have hurt many people, we won’t be able to heal until each and everyone of them will have offered us his or her pardon. Think of Hitler…he will certainly burn in his mental hell for a long time, as the millions of Jews he had burned in the gas chambers will slowly forgive him, one by one.

What does the New Testament say about hell? St. Paul never hints at an eternal life of punishment for the sinners. He seems to believe that they will perish at death, soul and body. But in the Gospels, a recurrent image for punishment is that of fire. Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the valley south west of Jerusalem where, during the monarchy, children were offered in sacrifice to an idolatrous cult. In the synoptic Gospels the verses about Gehenna come after Jesus, who is sitting with the twelve, place a child in their midst and put his arm around him. He says:                                                                                                                            
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe (in me) to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
Then he threatens the sinner with the unquenchable fire of Gehenna. The New American Bible explains that the little ones were probably the lowly in the Christian community, but in my modest opinion a warning against sexual abuse of children can be read in Jesus’ words. He hugs a child and he threatens the hypothetical sinner with the fire of the place where children were offered in sacrifice. He lived in a time when the Romans regularly sold children as sexual slave. They even had them perform in theaters together with prostitutes. I believe it makes sense to conclude that Jesus was identifying the abuse of the “little ones” as the most horrible sin, one to be punished with eternal fire.

There are people who have a hard time coping with the menacing aspect of Jesus personality, but I don’t. He was an eschatological prophet and his threats were well deserved.  
Instead, I have a hard time coping with the fact that, in the wake of a crime as horrible as the one that was committed in Connecticut, there are so many Americans who still support the law that allows the purchase of arms. It's very simple: if that boy had not possessed a machine-gun, those children would still be alive. And the gun belonged to his mother!     

Monday, December 10, 2012

Is Satan For Real?

My readers will perhaps recall my post about my experience with an "evil presence". I'd like to say something more about this subject. (I would also like to list my posts under subject title, but I'm very stupid when it comes to computers and I don't know how to do it!). 

In my son’s eyes, the practice of exorcism is a medieval aberration. And yet, the contemporary psychiatrist Doc. Scott Peck made a distinction between demonic possession and schizophrenia. Of course he’s a Christian, therefore, in the atheist’s opinion, he believes in fairy tales. But what if his religious background allows him to perceive a hidden reality that the atheist, in his limited horizon, cannot see? When such serious problems are at stake, every possibility should be considered.
I’m watching my son walking back and forth like a tiger in a cage, condemning irrational beliefs and praising logic. Only yesterday he was a boy full of wonder who lived in a fantasy world. If I mentally put side by side my vivid memory of the boy and the young man of today, I don’t recognize them as the same person, but I love them both. This probably happen to a lot of parents, and it’s one of the mysteries of the world we live in. It’s hard to believe that our children, our loved ones, and even the young version of ourselves are gone forever.
My point is that if we look closer we can detect a supra-natural component in the context of our everyday lives. What’s wrong with exploring possibilities, even if fantastic? What’s wrong with giving credit to our feelings, even if they belong to a different level of perception? Are we putting our mental sanity at risk by doing that? I don’t think so. I think we are simply trying to look at reality from a broader perspective.

Satan can be a funny business if one doesn’t see him as a threat. When I was a little girl I dreamed of the devil twice. The first time he was hiding under a table. I lifted the table-cloth and there he was, nothing but a huge, red, grinning face complete with black horns. I think I screamed for quite some time after I woke up. My mother had to pick me up and carry me around the house to show me that there was no demon crouched under any piece of furniture.
In the second dream it didn’t look like the devil at all, but I knew it was him. It was hiding behind a curtain. I pulled it aside and I saw a rather funny creature entirely made of cobalt blue bones. Don't get me wrong, it wasn’t a skeleton. Those bones seemed to have been put together at random, as if to assemble a marionette. It was clumsy but in a terrifying way. There was no cranium, just a bouquet of small blue bones. I wonder, is that how one looks after having spent some time in the furnace?
Of course the Catholic Church believes in demonic possession. I think that there are both good and evil forces in our world. We should do our best to bring out the good, and one way to do it is to find meaning to our lives.                  

Msgr. Luigi  Giussani wrote in The Religious Sense that man responds to reason’s need for meaning. He said that if we didn’t take the world around us for granted, we would be amazed at its beauty and complexity. If we were to come out of our mother’s womb with an adult perception of the reality we would be in awe, not only of nature but also of human accomplishments. We would be astonished, incredulous, and we would know that this incredible world is not a meaningless place.

The human race can’t be headed nowhere. This statement doesn’t come out of fear, but out of  wonder. It is a reasonable response to our big questions. Acknowledging the reality of the  Mystery is reasonable, not irrational, because the very world we live in and our very selves are signs of this mystery. God is the most immediate implication of self- consciousness. Even the most passionate atheist must admit that we have an intuition of the Beyond. Whether we are afraid of death or not, we all perceive ourselves as part of something eternal. Chances are that we may be right.