Speaking about human suffering Pio said: “Jesus does not ask us to carry the heavy cross, but a piece of his cross, the piece that consists of human suffering.”
Suffering has shaken the faith of many.
When good people suffer we question, we’re puzzled.
Yet Jesus always taught his followers to expect it, not to run from it, but to pick it up, carry it and follow after him.
It’s very clear that Jesus believed suffering to be an essential element on the path to salvation.
He even goes as far as calling Peter’s objections the work of Satan!
Jesus teaches that if you try to avoid suffering – the stuff that just comes your way, uninvited – which he calls wanting to “save your life” you will actually lose your life; losing your life here (in this context) means losing salvation.
Catch a hold of that! The refusal to carry the suffering you can do nothing about means the loss of salvation, the loss of the next life!
It’s a teaching that couldn’t be more opposed to the whole euthanasia and assisted suicide movement.
It’s a teaching that couldn’t be more opposed to the often voiced preference for a bullet rather than a care home.
It’s a teaching that puts most people offside!
Jesus goes on; if you embrace your suffering, seek to carry it for the sake of Jesus and the gospel (in the worldly sense “losing your life”) you’ll save it, you’ll merit salvation – heaven.
There is no resurrection for Jesus without the passion.
There will be no share in that same resurrection for you and for me unless we also share in that same passion, in whatever format it comes to each one of us.
In 1947 forty five people, most of them war orphans between the ages of four and thirteen lost their lives at sea, shipwrecked less than 100 metres from shore off the coast of Italy.
When Padre Pio was asked about the tragedy he replied:
“It would do you well to listen. There is a mother embroidering. Her son, sitting on a low stool, watches her work, but he sees everything backwards. He sees the knots of the embroidery, the confused threads. So he says: ‘Mother, what are you doing? Why is your work so unclear?’ Then his mother lowers the frame and shows the other side of her work, the fine part. Each colour is in place and the variety of threads is composed neatly and harmoniously.” Padre Pio concluded, “Down here we see only the reverse of the embroidery. We are sitting on the low stool.”
Things kick off over ritual washing before eating, and there’s mention of the tradition of washing after returning from the shops because they’d been “contaminated” by the people they’d mixed with.
There are some interesting lessons to be learned from Jesus response.
He doesn’t dispute their distinction between clean and unclean. In fact he accepts it.
Clean and unclean stand for Heaven and hell, being fit for Heaven or fit for hell, creating Heaven or creating hell.
But Jesus has a very different understanding about what makes a person clean or unclean, fit for Heaven or fit for hell.
It’s what’s in your heart that decides whether you’re fit for Heaven or hell and he lists the way-markers on the road to hell which are actually qualities that abound, and apart from the obvious like murder, he includes fornication, adultery, theft, avarice, malice, deceit, envy, indecency, slander, pride, folly.
What happens if you put theft in Heaven? What happens if you put envy in Heaven? Avarice? Malice? Deceit? That’s not Heaven, that’s hell.
You can’t put theft in Heaven because it’ll create hell, no more than you can put envy or avarice, or malice, or any of the qualities listed by Jesus.
Can you see why these qualities are way-markers on the road to hell?
And can you see that it’s what’s in our hearts that determines how God receives us?
We want God to do it all for us but it’s not like that. It’s what’s inside us that determines our future.
Do not pay lip service to God. When you pray 🙏, pray from your heart. When you worship, worship from your heart. Otherwise it’s worthless.
Which begs the question: Mass and your heart; what’s the story there? If the worship of God is boring it’s because your heart is not in it!
He further advises:
The commandments and the law of God are more important than human tradition; more important than any human law.
Overall, he’s saying; if you truly loved God, if your heart was really in it, you’d know all this!
The peoples response to Jesus teaching is: “This is intolerable language.” But what provoked such a strong reaction?
Whatever way Jesus delivered this teaching – which is obviously about the Eucharist – he left the people in no doubt that he wasn’t speaking symbolically, and he wasn’t speaking about signs.
When he’d finished his teaching they clearly understood he meant actually eating his flesh and drinking his blood and they found it “intolerable language” and concluded, “How could anyone accept it?”
Remember the reaction wasn’t just words, they didn’t just talk the talk, they walked away. They were clearly shocked, possibly even disgusted!
And Jesus didn’t even try to stop 🛑 them!
He didn’t try to stop ✋ them because the teaching he’d shared was the truth. He was saying “this is how it is in Heaven and I can’t change it.”
This is my Fathers will, that you eat my flesh and drink my blood; that you celebrate Eucharist. But we must celebrate it in such a way that we’re actually eating and drinking him – and the bread and wine are not signs or symbols but his actual body and blood, his very self.
Jesus makes no effort to soften his teaching: “Does this upset you?” he says, and pushes on trying to open up the huge expanse that exists behind his earthly body, the spirit that’s behind the flesh. “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer” he says. Yet we spend so much time focused on the flesh – and money too.
Then Jesus states that we cannot come to him unless the Father allows it. Once again we’re told that there’s order to all this, that not all are admitted to the kingdom of God – qualifications are required – that there are some who will always be outside it because they remain “lost” in their own flesh which Jesus says “has nothing to offer” – it ends in dust! This is Peter’s point at the end: “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life.” Without you, we’re just dust!
In the end, having lost large numbers, Jesus turns to the twelve; “What about you, do you want to go away too?”
Jesus offers the twelve something beautiful, their freedom, their freedom to walk away from him and his teaching about the Eucharist. Is it a reflection of how Jesus offers people today the same freedom to walk away from Mass? Are the people who walk away from Mass today using their freedom in much the same way as the people who walked away from this teaching about the Eucharist?
What always strikes me about Mary is the hidden-ness, the anonymity of all that’s happening; the unseen but nonetheless huge activity of God. Get that; on the one hand God is hugely active in human affairs, on the other it’s unseen. That’s something of the power of God, the genius of God.
Unseen and unrecognized for 9 months within the womb of Mary apart from the few, the hidden-ness of his birth apart from the few, thereafter the years of hidden-ness from new born infant to toddler, from early to middle to late childhood, from adolescence to early adulthood, completely hidden apart from the few, right up to his public ministry when he just launched into public life out of what seemed to most to be out of nowhere.
But it wasn’t out of nowhere, was it? The people were just in a different living space!
Then when he launches himself publicly – apparently “out of nowhere” – he is met by the twin responses of unbelief and belief, unbelief that varied from indifference to incredulity to outright and open hostility; and belief that was so slow to grasp the full implications of Jesus life and teaching. We still struggle to grasp it because it’s just so big.
But none of this was out of nowhere because for several decades God had been hugely active under the radar. That hasn’t changed!
Furthermore, it wasn’t out of the blue for some; some were close enough to God to have been allowed to glimpse at least something of the magnitude of what was happening. Nonetheless, such was the magnitude of all that Jesus was claiming – about himself and the “next” world – that the people struggled to grasp it. It was just too big for their little minds. This too hasn’t changed!
This is familiar ground because Mary has been hugely active in recent centuries just as she was in the beginning, and we’re every bit as unsuspecting. She’s been so – so – active but you’d never know!
Lourdes in and for the 19th century.
Fatima in and for the 20th century.
Medugorje in and for the 21st century.
Remember, these are not just places of pilgrimage – each was given for it’s time.
When all that Medugorje is prophesying begins to unfold in world history it’ll seem to many to have been as equally hidden in its preparation and as unexpected and dramatic in its arrival. It will seem to have come out of nowhere and the responses of unbelief and belief will be largely the same.
But nothing of all this will be out of the blue because it’s right here, right now, under our noses.
The only thing that’s out of the blue, out of synch so to speak, is the human ego!
Try to receive your suffering as a privilege, or as the Medugorje visionary Vicka who suffers so much herself has said, as a gift from God.
Try. It’s easer said than done! But it doesn’t have to be something big, it might be nothing more than having to endure several failed attempts to insert a cannula. Or an everyday difficulty.
Don’t waste your suffering as Pope St. John Paul once said.
We struggle to understand this because we do not have a deep connection with the person of Jesus, his life and teaching, and with the true meaning of Christmas and Easter.
We pay more attention now to mindfulness and various other spiritual practices – good in themselves… as far as they go – but we do not have a deep connection with Jesus born of Mary, the son of the living God.
Jesus born of Mary is Heaven torn open, exposed… the mystery revealed, waiting for us to jump in, he is God who came down, lived among us, attempting – and still attempting – to reach us, leaving us a rather detailed understanding of eternity, how it works, what it’s like, what to expect…
We have been formed by divine teaching… but you’d hardly know it. He has revealed so much of the mystery.
He taught us there’s a definitive standard – love – by which we will be judged.
He taught us that within this love there is ultimate justice and judgement.
He taught us that what we do to others we do to him… ouch 😣. Imagine the joy and the sorrow of that! Everything that happens on earth arrives into the heart of God.
He taught us that mercy costs, that forgiving an offense and embracing an offender is painful 😓. On a universal scale he illustrated this on the Cross.
Every time God forgives, the struggle and the suffering of the Cross continues… until the end of time.
Every sin creates a piece of hell on earth.
Every time there’s love – true love – the resurrection continues to happen on earth.
How much sin – offensive hurt – can a person endure before he turns? How much could you endure? Now apply the question to God.
For example, abortion alone – executed as a human right and which the majority have now decided is our choice – is horrendous suffering in the heart of God, beyond all human imagining.
Still, God remains gracious. It is grace beyond all human comprehension – a love so merciful that it astonishes even the angels – that prevents God turning, that prevents the partial and even the complete destruction of the earth 🌍.
At times it is Our Lady who is holding the line which is why she’s repeatedly asking for prayer and sacrifice – help me here! Sacrifice has a similar value to suffering in Heaven – provided each is freely offered.
The earth survives through the pure graciousness of God – but do not underestimate the cost.
When suffering comes our way we are given the opportunity to work intimately with God in the work of salvation, in sharing the burden of saving humankind.
When that suffering is borne or carried out of love for the Saviour – I want to help you Lord because I love you – we’re already well advanced in the communion of saints.
Sadly, for many it’s the deep connection with Jesus that’s missing when suffering comes our way and we’re left “like sheep without a shepherd…”
The more shocking the crime the more it will help us to grasp the full force of God’s love and the true meaning of mercy.
The hired man on hearing sentence pronounced is likely to add; “and I hope they throw away the key!”
The good shepherd on the other hand stands before the judge and doesn’t plead for leniency or mitigation but rather offers himself – his life – to take the place of the guilty prisoner and serve the time on his behalf.
The hired man simply runs away. The good shepherd lays down his life.
This image also helps to explain the difference between our understanding of mercy and God’s understanding.
Our understanding is little more than mitigation, leniency, a lighter sentence whereas Gods understanding is paying the full price on behalf of another.
The pain and the price of injustice, of mercy, do not disappear magically, rather it is always being absorbed in human flesh and ultimately in the Godhead – there are no short-cuts.
So what do you think; are you more hired man or good shepherd? I think I’m more hired man!
Finally, the image helps to explain the difference between a job and a vocation.
It was a toxic mix of unbelief and sin that killed Jesus and it is another toxic mix of unbelief and sin that has killed the Catholic church in our time.
But where was Jesus between his death and resurrection, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? What’s that space like? Can you enter it? Cardinal Ratzinger described this space in terms of solitude – fascinating – because I’m now linking the fear of solitude and the fear of death, but that’s for another day. This time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a gestation space… and I believe the Catholic church and most if not all denominations right now, can be likened to that space between dying and rising, and we’re waiting, watching patiently at the tomb. It will come… as sure as dawn follows night. Besides, you can only truly kill what’s not of God.
Secondly, the creed tells us that He descended to hell during the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday meaning there is nobody beyond his reach – at a price, of course.
Thirdly, morbid applies only to hell, and those who describe even the slightest mention of death as morbid have yet to experience even the tiniest glimpse of Heaven. In fact, when they speak in this way, they unwittingly speak from hell’s perspective!
The debate about keeping our churches open for public worship continues to rage in circles, minority circles it must be said. When I tune into the debate there are several scripture passages that spring to mind.
Like so many others I think of Jesus reminder: “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matt 4:4. Taking this verse it seems safe to suggest that in the mind of Jesus, his person and his teaching are essential, at least of equal value to the food that we purchase from essential retail. The fundamental problem for Heaven therefore – brought into sharper focus by this pandemic – is that so many people do not consider the person of Jesus and his teaching to be as essential as their visit to the supermarket.
Of course, this is a faith position flowing from my relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. Realistically, at this point in salvation history I do not expect Government and its agencies to get this – and I certainly do not expect it to apply to all the people of Ireland. Faith in Jesus Christ and all that flows from faith, that which is often disparagingly referred to as dogma must be found within or it is not found at all. For every piece of dogma there must be a corresponding interior recognition in the depths of human freedom, a moment of transforming spiritual insight. I cannot stress this enough; dogma is found within, and insisting that people abide by a dogma that they have not found within will almost always result in rejection, even hatred. This has been the particular error of Irish Catholicism. A foundational tenet of the Christian faith is that God always respects human freedom. In the realm of God, respect for human freedom – even unto hell – is non-negotiable. As St. Augustine said: “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.”
Obviously, my freedom is convinced that Jesus and his teaching are essential. Indeed, I believe that humankind rises and falls according to our relationship with Jesus and his teaching. As Simeon said of the child Jesus: “you see this child, he is destined for the fall and the rising of many in Israel…” Lk 2:34. There is nothing as essential as Jesus Christ and his Gospel and since the Mass is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, his very person, I believe that Mass is therefore essential. As Padre Pio once said; “the earth could exist more easily without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
Nonetheless on balance I am inclined to support the moving of worship to online forums in accordance with NEPHET advice. It is important to stress that worship has not been banned and comparisons with penal times do not stand up to critique, no more than the idea that this is persecution; this is so far removed from persecution that it belittles the meaning of the word and the reality of true religious persecution in many parts of the world. Furthermore, for people prohibited from attending Mass all the effects of Holy Communion can be received through spiritual Communion. I do believe that we can gather safely in our Churches – I do not doubt it at all – but by remaining open for worship we might unwittingly facilitate after-worship gatherings that have potential to become super-spreader events. For me, the moral weight drops on the side of caution and online worship until NEPHET advises otherwise.
If our lives have been curtailed, they have been curtailed to teach us, and to prepare us for the future. These are not random meaningless events – these are soul teaching moments – another step toward our common future that is being determined one step at a time by our relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. These events might look like obstacles but in truth are stepping stones toward a time when humankind will fully understand that “the lamb will conquer and the woman clothed in the sun will shine her light on everyone.” Seriously do we really think that God is going to be defeated, removed from the face of the earth? The same God who standing before Pilate said: “You would have no power over me… if it had not been given you from above…” Jn 19:11. Why can’t we view the current restrictions in this way? The same God of whom John reminded the people coming for baptism: “God can raise children for Abraham from these stones.” Lk 3:8.
Similarly, those believing we are now seeing the end of the Catholic church in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter – the comment sections on social media are full of such remarks – are a version of those who observing the destruction of Jesus believed they were seeing the end of Him and his movement. It was a toxic mix of unbelief and sin that caused the destruction of Jesus, and it is another toxic mix of unbelief and sin that is causing the destruction of the church in our time, but the destruction of Jesus gave way to the risen Christ and the destruction of the church – or more accurately the destruction of all that is not of God in the church in our time – will give way to a risen Church.
So much about this debate reminds me of Peter who drew his sword to defend Jesus and his belief in Jesus because he could not see the bigger picture. Jn 18:20. There is a question here about the proper recognition of these events in salvation history, about our recognition that the civil power always functions unwittingly in the plan of salvation. Peter has an excuse for not seeing the bigger picture because the seminal action of God that we call the resurrection had not yet happened, but what is our excuse? That, as Ronald Rolheiser observed, our awareness of God and God’s plan borders on agnosticism?
God is almighty, totally in control, suffering, enduring, correcting, leading, even allowing restrictions on the public celebration of Mass, bringing human freedom to value Jesus and his teaching as much as the food purchased from essential retail, or he is not God at all. God’s victory is certain, but the victory is nothing more than the turning of hearts and minds to God. Even allowing for an act of God – an act that must respect human freedom – this is not likely to be an easy journey!
This journey is as certain as Jesus’ declaration that “till heaven and earth disappear not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the law until it’s purpose is achieved.” Matt:5:18. The only real unknowns are the exact contours of our journey toward valuing Jesus and his teaching. Make no mistake, this is our common future. This is a journey that will slowly – and somewhat painfully – shatter humankind’s propensity toward unbelief. Of course, some will always resist. It is going to be a seismic struggle between Heaven and hell, belief and unbelief, incarnate in history, possibly involving the persecution of religious practice for a time – are we not currently being prepared? – and undoubtedly paschal in nature. As it unfolds the proper role of the church will become evident; our primary role is not about putting the kingdom here and there – remember the lamb will conquer and is conquering – but to act as a bridge, for sure a compromised bridge, but a risen bridge capable of providing difficult passage for human freedom to reach the place where Jesus and his teaching is valued as much as the food purchased from supermarkets. Can we imagine a struggling and bewildered humanity in the future, including future Irish leaders, looking to the Catholic church – albeit a risen Church – for help and direction? No? Like Peter we are in for an unforeseen and unexpected fulfillment. We must let humanity walk this walk, we must respect our place in salvation history knowing that God is far from finished with us.
“Your kingdom come” we say in prayer – even as I write, even as you read, it is happening, right now, right here. Let us not seek however creatively or ingeniously, but very naively, to find ways around the soul lessons that this pandemic is intended to teach.
In my next blog I will try to tease out the soul lessons that come packed inside the current pandemic.
But every time I read the parable of the sower I’m struck by its reach. Is there a reason advanced for unbelief that’s not included in the parable?
Jesus compares people who hear the word to seed that falls on the edge of a path.
The seed of the word is sown in the heart but there’s no understanding. Where there is no understanding, abandonment follows.
The heart is simply not receptive – receptivity is the precondition of understanding – the heart is not open, and entry through anything that’s closed solidly is difficult. The word simply bounces off non-receptive hard objects and falls away.
Next, Jesus compares people who hear his teaching to the seed that falls on patches of rock. It lacks both rich soil and deep roots.
When confronted with human suffering and human failure including outrageous scandal – scorching sun – the faith of some people withers because it’s not deeply rooted in the rich soil that is Jesus Christ.
Scorching and withering – apt descriptions of human suffering and failure.
That objections to God using this very argument can attract millions of views on YouTube suggests that many have not taken Jesus and his teaching seriously. The God that many refuse to believe in is not the God found in the teaching of Jesus Christ. They dismiss a God unrelated to Jesus Christ!
Next, Jesus compares people who hear the word to seed falling in thorns; falling in the midst of the worries of this world and the lure of riches the seed is choked to death! A strong image, mind. Choked, and common parlance adds “the living daylights out of!”
It’s dramatic, but for most people the choking happens unconsciously. It’s simply that other stuff – the cares of this world (interests that are good and wholesome in themselves) and the pursuit of wealth – take our hearts. For many the interests become false gods.
Is there a source of unbelief that’s not covered in this parable?
It seems that many people attempt to believe without Jesus Christ and his teaching which means they end up struggling to believe at all.