Monday, November 11, 2013

A Broken Child, My Despair, Pope Francis, and a Prayer: Living as a Member of the Body of Christ

Last night, as I was cleaning up the house after bedtime, I came across the Sunday paper. It was lying on the dining room table, where my parents had left it after dropping off my older boys earlier that day. I had half a mind to just toss the whole thing in the recycling bin and be done with it so I could continue cleaning, but, out of a sense of obligation, I opened it and quickly began paging through it in order to remove this week’s sale ads and coupons.

As I was paging, my eyes came to rest on an editorial. The headline read “When will the cries of children be heard?” Immediately, I felt a knot tighten in my stomach. I knew I did not want to read the editorial, but something compelled me to pause and read. I didn’t even make it halfway through
before the tears began to fall.

Now, I can be kind of an emotional person.  Sometimes, I will get choked up during movies or in moments of happiness. In fact, there are movies I can’t even watch (ahem, the 2001 “Pearl Harbor” . . . yes that is me blushing) without a serious crying jag.

But this was no ordinary “crying jag.” Nor was it a few tears of emotion. This was full-out messy. Sobs coming up through my belly. Big, ugly tears streaming down my face. Nose running.

Hurting a child, neglecting a child, destroying a child ---- well, it destroys a piece of me. My reaction is visceral and like nothing I experience in any other context. I can’t explain it. I won’t try. It hurts me, wounds me, in a way beyond description.

I didn't used to be this way. In fact, I remember being rather callous. Even unfeeling, by some people's standards. The way I saw it, bad things just happened in the world. I didn’t like them, but I wasn’t responsible for them. In my book, a bad thing happening to a child was no different than a bad thing happening to anyone else. And, as to me, if I made good choices, bad things wouldn’t happen to me. Or so I hoped. Obviously, this was before my reversion to Catholicism. But, more importantly, it was before I had kids.

Kids. That one word sums up so much emotion in me now. Kids are beautiful. Kids are joyful. Kids are innocent. And kids love in a way that is so unbridled that it can only be experienced.

Even more, kids are eager to please. Their parents, their caregivers, the adults in their lives. They look to these adults for acceptance and approval. And they trust them. Bestowing trust and seeking approval --- these are products of their untainted and pure innocence. And, gosh, this innocence . . . it overwhelms my heart. I wish I could just bottle it right up and save it forever. So beautiful is that untainted and pure innocence.

Which is why it was so hard for me to read this article.  And why I couldn’t make it all the way through. I still haven’t made it all the way through. To hear of a child’s innocence being squandered, of his innate trust and desire to please being ignored and cast cruelly aside.  To hear of a child being made to suffer.  Abused.  Sedated.  Caged.  Left alone.  To know that this innocent child reached out---in the way that only a child can---for simple love and acceptance . . . And no one reached back.  Unloved.  Unwanted.  Unaccepted.  This child died with a broken heart, alone and lost, with no one in the world.  I just . . . I can’t bear it . . .

It is so hard for me to write about this.  It hurts.  I feel anguished. I feel lost. I feel despair and hopelessness.

As I put the paper down last night with the tears streaming down my face, I ran. First, into the family room to check on my baby sleeping in his swing. Then, into my older boys’ bedroom. I needed to see them, sleeping peacefully in their bunk beds/swing, to hear them breathe. I straightened their blankets. And I wanted to never leave their sides. To keep them safe, innocent, and loved forever.

And I thought to myself: Isn’t this how God feels? How can He bear it to watch his innocent children experience so much pain and suffering? He is a Father. How can He stand it?

I don’t have any answers. Sure, I have some understanding of the Catholic view of suffering. Suffering has a purpose. Suffering can bring us closer to God. It can purify us. Give us graces. Make us into the people God wants us to be. We can offer it up. And I also understand that God gave us free will as His gift to us, and, unfortunately, much of the suffering in this world is the result of free will.

But what of the suffering of an innocent child? What purpose can that possibly serve? If that is what happens when we exercise free will, then maybe God should take our free will away. Because, surely, nothing can be worth the cost of a child.  Right? And, if God can act in the world to answer prayers, how can He not come to the aid of a child? How can He restrain himself from reaching out and scooping up a child suffering so terribly? And rocking and hugging away all of that awful pain and suffering?

It is moments like these when I feel that my faith is the most challenged. It makes me angry with God. A self-righteous, boiling-point, type of anger. A rage. It almost seems to come from somewhere outside of me.

Realization begins to dawn.  What if it is coming from somewhere outside of me?  What if it is coming from God?  His anger.  His rage.  His hurt.  All-consuming.  Could it be?  Is it directed at me?

Enter Pope Francis.  On July 8, 2013, on the island of Lampedusa off the coast of Italy, Pope Francis gave a homily in which he reflected on the many refugees fleeing North Africa and seeking a better life in Europe.  They were exploited.  Trafficked.  Many of these refugees attempted to make the dangerous voyage from North Africa to Lampedusa.  An estimated 17,000 of them have perished.

The pope asked, "Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours?"

He answered:
Nobody! That is our answer: It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me.
Yet God is asking each of us: "Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?"
Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: "poor soul…!", and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged.
The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!
The culture of comfort.  Soap bubbles.  Globalization of indifference.  All-consuming anger, rage, hurt.  Those emotions make sense now.

See, I am His Body. I am part of the Body of Christ. I am. But . . . I stood by and let this child suffer.  (And those refugees.  And, frankly, everyone else the world over who suffers.  The child might be more innocent, but he is a metaphor, a microcosm, for what happens every day in every part of the world to the poor and oppressed.)  All of us did, all of the members of the Body of Christ did. Was it intentional? Of course not. But it happened. We didn’t stop it. I didn’t stop it.

I pause. “But, God, I didn’t know this child was suffering. I didn’t know it! How am I supposed to stop what I didn’t know was happening?” “My child, how could you not know? Children suffer every day in the world. You have travelled. You have seen it. How could you not know?”

It is more than a fair point. I know. How could I not?  And, yet, I do nothing. Not only don’t I do anything, but I resist the urge to even think about them. I don’t want to think of how they are suffering. It hurts too much. And I am not alone. The Pope certainly doesn’t think I am.  The Body of Christ is expansive. So many people. In every part of every city, county, state, country, and world. We are supposed to be Christ to those around us, to care for those in need, for the ‘least among us.’ Yet, we stand by and allow children—beautiful, joyful, innocent children—to suffer. We do. I do.

Sure, we are busy living our lives. I sure am. There are very important things on all of our “To Do” lists. Taking care of our families, our own children. Working to support them. To build a home for them and put food on their table. Navigating the resulting day-to-day stresses. These are all good things. Important things. Worthy things. But they obscure our vision.  Certainly, they obscure mine.  So, I do not look outside my home, my world, my safe, little environment.  I have all I can do to keep my home, my world, my safe, little environment moving forward,  So my focus is there.

But what of those people beyond our immediate view? Beyond mine? What about them? The call in the Gospels to take care of ‘the least among us’ could not be clearer. It is repeated so often. But how to respond to that call? This is where I struggle. This is where I feel lost. Am I doing it? Am I living it? Am I doing enough? How can my contribution best be used? Where should I step in and contribute?

In my own selfish mind, I think, "God, I am answering your call by being open to life and bearing children when it would be so much easier for me, my family, and my career to just listen to the wisdom of the world and use contraception. I am open to life. Isn't that taking care of 'the least among us'? I am raising my children up in love and in accordance with your plan for them. I am teaching them to be Catholic. Isn't that enough? Isn’t that what you are asking of me?"

Or am I just letting myself off the hook too easily? Isn’t that what Pope Francis is saying?

In my heart, when I experience such profound sadness and loss in reading about this poor child, I think the answer is “yes”. Children are suffering. Innocent children. They are going unwanted and unloved. The innocent trust they place in the world to care for them is destroyed daily and, in turn, they perish. It crushes my soul. It stifles my spirit. How can I be doing enough? If I were doing enough, they wouldn't suffer. Or, at least, maybe not as many of them would suffer.

So, if I am letting myself off the hook too easily, then what more should I be doing?

This is where it gets hard for me. Because, if I’m honest, I feel like I cannot take on anything more. I feel like I am at my breaking point. My family needs me, my firm needs me. How can I be asked to do anything greater, bigger, or larger than what I am doing in each moment of my every day life? I feel discouraged. Trapped. Lost. And I don't know what to do to reach out to those in need. I cry out to the Lord: “What should I do?” And I don't know the answer to that question. How can my meager contribution ever be enough? Could it ever be enough? I cannot save everyone, and taking the small step to save even one seems so overwhelming to me. I think there is something in God's call for me that I need to discern. But I don't know what it is. Or how to start. And, truth be told, I am afraid of what I will find if I discern it.

The irony is that, in the Bible, the three words that are repeated more than any others are “Be Not Afraid.” It is a simple message. That it is repeated so often speaks to how important it is. And, yet, I am afraid. I find myself constantly paralyzed by fear. I don’t know how to reach out to others. I’m afraid of what “people” will think. I’m afraid of “rocking the boat”. Probably especially at work. And, in my whole life, I am trapped by what I see as my priorities and goals.

How can I be the Body of Christ to ‘the least of those among us’ if I am trapped in this way?

I don't know the answer. Or maybe I do know it, and I just don’t like it. Because it means I will have to let go of my fears, my comfort zone, my safe life.

As I write these words, I just don't know what God is asking of me. I feel lost when I contemplate all of the suffering in this world, particularly the suffering of children. Because it is not just this one child, but so many children. The children who are kidnapped and brainwashed into becoming child-soldiers in the Sudan. The children who are starving in third world countries. The children who are dying of illnesses that modern medicine cured decades ago because they cannot get access to good medical care. The children who are suffering abuse and violence and neglect at the hands of the parents and families who are supposed to love them.

I know I need to reach out. But how? And to whom? There are so many in need. There is so much hurt in the world. I don't know where or how to help. Where do I start? And how will I “balance” (there’s that dreaded b-word again) the other things in my life?

'To whom much is given, much is expected.' But how much? That is selfish, but I struggle with it. I struggle with how much is really being asked of me. And am I doing enough? Or is God asking more of me? Am I allowing myself to be handicapped by worldly pursuits, and, if so, how do I cut those chains that bind? Am I the only one or are there those around me are similarly handicapped? And what should we be doing? For the least among us, I fear we are not doing nearly enough.

If this child---this hurt, suffering, broken child---were standing in front of me right now, what would I say? How would I answer the question of why I did not help him? Are any of these words/excuses really enough? Or are they just as woefully inadequate as they seem to me?

Pope Francis concluded his homily in this way:
“Lord, in this liturgy, a penitential liturgy, we beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters. Father, we ask your pardon for those who are complacent and closed amid comforts which have deadened their hearts; we beg your forgiveness for those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies. Forgive us, Lord!”
And so I pray:

Dear Lord,

Please help me. Please strengthen me. Please show me your will for my life. As a child does, so do I want to please you. I want to do all that you require of me. I just don’t know how. Help my eyes not to be clouded by worldly desires and pursuits. Help me to be the beacon of strength that my family needs, while still answering your call to help those outside of my home, in whatever ways I can. Please show me the way. Please show me how I should contribute.

My life feels overwhelming right now, Lord. As I write this, I am home with a sick child and feeling guilty that I am not at work, and, dare I say it, guilty that I am writing to You now instead of working remotely. This is my daily struggle. I feel that I am constantly being forced to choose between serving You, being a mom, and being an attorney; between home, work, and church; between love and money. I usually choose being a wife and mom. And so I worry about jeopardizing my job, which provides a livelihood for my family. And I worry that I am not doing enough to serve your Kingdom. And even the prospects of eternal damnation. It feels like I am digging a hole for myself. With each shovelful, I fear what I will find.

Please guide me, Lord. There is suffering all around me. You must be asking more of me. I am a member of your Body, the Body of Christ. I know I do not get off easy. ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ Show me how You want me to reach out and serve.

And, in showing me how to serve, I would only ask that You take care of me. Please do not overwhelm me. I am afraid of being overwhelmed. Of trying to do too many things and doing them all poorly. I can have a short temper. Nurturing my family does not always come easy to me, and this is particularly true when I am stressed. Please give me Your grace, so I do not fail You, the family You have given me, or the members of Your family that You need me to serve.

Lord, please help me to clear my focus so that I can see You and Your will for me. Please do not allow me to drown in this ocean of despair and regret. Please throw me the life preserver that I so desperately need and Your map and compass to guide me home to You.

I ask this in the name of your most precious son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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