Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Setting Their Hearts Free

On Wednesday afternoon I was invited to reflect with the Catholic Hospital and Prison Chaplains of the Archdiocese of Boston on the Subject: Setting Their Hearts Free: the Ministry of the Catholic Chaplain.  Here's a copy of that address.

I begin by saying thank you.  Thank you for inviting me, but even more, thank you for the work you do every day, going, as Holy Father Francis would describe it, to the the land of the forgotten...the nursing home, the jail, the intensive care unit, or the isolation cell.  

You go there because you have read the answers to the final exam in the Gospels and you have had the good sense to seek out the face of the Lord not just in tabernacles or beautiful Churches, though he is assuredly there, but in the imprisoned, the sick and the dying, where you gaze on his face, take his hand and let him heal you.

So what do I have to offer you, good Catholic Chaplains who care for the sick and imprisoned form morning till night, and sometimes in the middle of the night?  What do I, a pastor, now shepherding a new generation of pastors, have to say?  What do I have to say?

;I have chosen to reflect on freedom, as described by the Lord Jesus in a paraphrase of Isaiah, in a sort of mission statement for his Messianic mission:  God, he says, has “anointed me to bring good news to the bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound...”

To set them free: the poor, the prisoner and the sick.  To set them free.

;Free from Time, Free from Suffering, and Free from Getting my Own Way.

;Freedom from time
Its not a coincidence that serving a prison sentence is called “doing time".  And how many patients have you seen struggle with the question of how to “pass the time” while waiting for the next gaggle of technicians and doctors to poke and prod them.

;For the patient and the prisoner time takes on new becomes more tangible, more capable of description.  My sentence might be 18 months and then I know I will get out and return to the real world.  My condition might (by the grace of the insurance company) require three days in the hospital and then two weeks in rehab.  When I was out in the real world, time was measured by the calendar and an appointment book.  But here in this other world, outside forces have imposed their timetables on me and others determine when things end and begin.

Even my daily pattern of existence, once determined by work, by whim or by social obligations, is now regulated by forces I do not fully comprehend.   When I can get out of bed, or go for a walk or have visitors is fully regulated and I can be constantly tempted to think that me, my life and even how I pass time all belong to the hospital, the doctor, the warden and the judge.

Which is why Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his Jubilee letter to prisoners, reminds us that “time belongs to God".  And he suggests that for the prisoner or the patient, there is a unique opportunity to understand this important insight which is often too hard to grasp for those of us imprisoned by the apparent freedom of daily life.

;...those who are in detention,” the Holy Father suggests, “must not live as if their time in prison had been taken from them completely: even time in prison is God's time. As such it needs to be lived to the full; it is a time which needs to be offered to God as a occasion of truth, humility, expiation and even faith. The Jubilee serves to remind us that not only does time belong to God, but that the moments in which we succeed in "restoring" all things in Christ become for us "a time of the Lord's favor".

;I recently turned sixty, and in the same year buried my Father.  Such events have a way of fixing the mind on the passage of time, especially when you work full-time with seminarians, many fresh out of College.  I recently lamented to a friend how I was old enough to be their Father.  “No, James,” he gently chided me, “you are old enough to be their grandfather!

Sickness and lack of liberty focus the mind in a wonderful way as well.  The great seventeenth century Poet John Donne was thrown in prison due to a political dispute.  By the way, his estrangement from his wife brought forth that exquisite expression of despair:  “John Donne/ Anne Donne/ Undone.”

Donne later wrote a series of reflections on suffering, including the brilliant insight that sickness focuses the mind on the use of our time, our priorities and our spiritual condition like almost nothing else.  

Time was created by God and some day will end.  Like all of creation, it is given to us as a gift, to be used for God’s glory and to be filled with never-ending moments of seeking his face, loving in his name and growing closer to his Cross.  Time is our rehearsal space for an eternity of timeless praise of God in union with all the angels and saints.  And whether that time is given to us in prison or a classroom, in an ICU or a cubicle at work, in a home or a deserted space is almost irrelevant.  Time is still God’s gift and when we embrace it as gift, we are set free to be the children of God that we are called to be.

Thus are we freed from the bonds of time and drawn closer to God.

;Freedom from Suffering
And then there is the cross.  The Cross of learning that its malignant, that you are guilty, that your old life is over, at least for a time, and that now you must enter this monastic enclosure called Cardiac Care or the House of Correction.

;Like all Crosses, it demands detachment: a letting go of what has been.  Like all Crosses, it is mounted on a Good Friday as the sky goes black and all seem to have turned against you.  Like all Crosses, it faces a vast darkly empty tomb, across which they plan to roll a great big stone to seal you in.

And like all Crosses, there are two ways it can be approached: as a captive or a free man.  As a captive, I go to the gallows bound and gagged, never gently into that good night, but fighting for my life.  Alternatively, I choose to received the cross with open arms in imitation of the one who taught me how to mount the tree and accept every cross as a participation in his.  The first is coerced.  The second is the act of a free man and life with meaning.

But its hard to be a free man and to accept the suffering as they drive the nails into your wrist.  Our every instinct is to struggle to get away.  Only faith opens our arms.  Only faith makes us free.

Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, Doctor of fruitful suffering, once reflected: 

;“Today the passion of Christ is being relived in all the lives of those who suffer. To accept that suffering is a gift of God. Suffering is not a punishment. God does not punish. Suffering is a gift.  Though like all gifts, It depends on how we receive it. And that is why we need a pure heart- to see the hand of God, to feel the hand of God, to recognize the gift of God in our suffering. Suffering is not a punishment. Jesus does not punish. Suffering is a sign-a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross, that He can kiss us, show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His passion. In our home for the dying it is so beautiful to see people who are joyful, people who are lovable, people who are at peace, in spite of terrible suffering. Suffering is not a punishment, not a fruit of sin, it is a gift of God. He allows us to share in His suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.” 

Or, as Saint Josemaria Escriva once wrote:

;“If we join our own little things, those insignificant or big difficulties of ours, to the great sufferings of Our Lord, the Victim (He is the only Victim!), their value will increase. They will become a treasure, and then we will take up the Cross of Christ gladly and with style. And then every suffering will soon be overcome: nobody, nothing at all, will be able to take away our peace and our cheerfulness.”

Thus are we freed from the bonds of suffering and drawn closer to God.

;Freedom from Getting My Own Way
No one plans to get sick.  No one aspires to go to prison.  So there is a certain element of surprise in the life of each of your clients.

;And I suppose a bit part of the sorrow experienced by the man in the cell or the woman in intensive care is that this is not what I had planned!  And what makes it even worse if that if this is not what I had planned...what’s next?!  I have lost all control, all ability to steer my life.  My life is no longer my own.

Which is why I suspect that if the Lord had a bit more time to write his sermon on the mount, he would have included the sick and the prisoners.  For like the poor, the broken hearted and those despised for the sake of his Holy Name, the sick and the prisoner have just been rather rudely awakened to the new that they are no longer in control of their life.

;And that is why they are blessed...for unlike you and me, who go about incessantly trying to prove to ourselves that we are  in control, they have been given the great good news that we’re not!

And that, believe it or not, is good news!  For God’s plan is the whole reason we were made, and the sooner we let go of our way and embrace his, the happier we will be!  Now, of course, for those He really loves, God’s way leads to the cross.  When he holds us close to his heart, we are given a full portion of sacrificial suffering to go along with it.  But once we recognize His embrace, even that suffering turns to pure joy.

But we gotta let go first.

I always loved the story told by Somerset Maugham about the janitor at St. Peter's Church in London. It seems that once the vicar found out the old man was illiterate he threw him out on the street.  However, the resourceful fellow took the little bit of money he had saved and bought a tobacco stand, which was so successful that he opened a shop, and then another one and another one, until he had amassed a fortune of several thousand pounds.  One day the man’s banker asked him, "You've done well for an old illiterate, but where would you be if you could read and write?" "Well," he thoughtfully replied, "I'd be janitor of St. Peter's Church in Neville Square."

Think back on your own life.  How many times did you face failure or ignominy or run right smack into a brick wall, convinced that God had made one first class mess of your life...and then it happens...once you’ve let go of all your presuppositions and glorious plans, God shows you the way he had planned...more glorious than anything you could have dreamt up in your wildest dreams.  

And so it is with the person lying on a bed of pain, convinced that God is just toying with them or perversely punishing them for some long forgotten sin.  But then if they accept the cross, open their arms upon it, they suddenly discover there is always meaning in suffering, and hope in  pain.  Good Friday never passes without the Easter morn.

Thus are we freed from the bonds of our brilliant plans and drawn closer to God.

The Roman Missal
Such sentiments are succinctly expressed in the prayers of the new Roman Missal in the Masses for the Sick and for those in Prison.  Take a look, for just a moment, at the prayer for those in Prison:

Almighty and merciful God,
to whom alone the secrets of the heart lie open,
who recognize the just and make righteous the guilty,
hear our prayers for your servants held in prison,
and grant that through patience and hope
they may find relief in their affliction
and soon return unhindered to their own.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

“to whom alone the secrets of the heart lie open”  
God alone is omniscient and only he, not the lawyer, not the judge, and sometimes not even the prisoner, know the whole truth.  Only God, just judge and all merciful, knows and loves the heart of every prisoner.

“who recognize the just and make righteous the guilty”
What a curious turn of phrase!  Right after we speak of God as omniscient, in a prayer for the imprisoned, we would think to hear something about guilt.  But no, God is the one who recognizes the innocent, the just man, and “makes righteous the guilty.”  For us, wrapped up in all our needs for vengeance, determining guilt ”beyond a reasonable doubt” is what’s important.  But God is all about redemption.  Desiring not the death of the sinner, but that he might live: his goal is the making righteous of all who are guilty!

“hear our prayers for your servants held in prison”
They are not called prisoners, or captives or the, they’re called famuli tui, your servants.  For that is what they are: members of the household of God, those at the margins whom the Good Shepherd goes out to find, to redeem and to carry home on his shoulders.

“and grant that through patience and hope they may find relief in their affliction and soon return unhindered to their own.”
How do they find redemption?  Through patience and hope.  Through giving over all their sufferings and all their plans to God.  Only then will their affliction, their guilt, their imprisonment and their sorrow be relieved, that their might return unhindered, unchained and freed “to their own,” to those who they love.

And then there is the prayer from the Mass for the Sick:

O God, who willed that our infirmities 
be borne by your Only Begotten Son 
to show the value of human suffering, 
listen in kindness to our prayers
for our brothers and sisters who are sick;
grant that all who are oppressed by pain, 
distress or other afflictions may know that they are chosen
among those proclaimed blessed
and are united to Christ
in his suffering for the salvation of the world.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

“O God, who willed that our infirmities  be borne by your Only Begotten Son to show the value of human suffering”
The prayer begins by immediately tying our sufferings, all human sufferings to the Cross of Christ.  It is here, joined to his perfect sacrifice of praise upon the altar of the Cross that those who suffer find meaning.  For our sufferings are not just ours, but he has chosen to invite the sick to place them upon his shoulders, that he might bear them with his cross, take them down with him into the grave and rise in glory, vanquishing sin and suffering and even death itself.  It is this vision of the Cross which has opened the doors to a Kingdom where there will be no more suffering, crying out or tears, but only perfect joy in God’s presence forever.

listen in kindness to our prayers for our brothers and sisters who are sick; distress or other afflictions”
And so we ask God here and now to listen to our prayers for our brothers and sisters who are now suffering from sickness or pain, distress or other afflictions.  What do we ask for them?  That the pain might be taken away?  That the sickness might abate?  No.  Not in this Prayer.

may know that they are chosen among those proclaimed blessed and are united to Christ” in his suffering for the salvation of the world.
We pray that they “might know that they are chosen” to be among the blessed, united to Christ in his suffering for the salvation of the world.  

Notice that neither of these prayers of the Roman Missal for prisoners or for the sick ask for the easy thing: not for freedom from prison (unlock the doors!) or freedom from sickness (get me the magic pill!) but that the patient and the prisoner might grow closer to Christ and seek the deeper meaning and the opportunity to grow in conformity to him precisely as their present condition affords.  In freedom from all our foolish preconceptions of time and suffering and what we’re convinced God is supposed to be doing for us.

We need the sick.  We need prisoners.

Despite what all those folks say about how good you are to be a chaplain, about how the beatitudes were written about you, going to the hospital, the jail and heaven....despite your training, your expertise and all the background's really not you who are there for the prisoner: it is the prisoner of that bed or that cell who is there for you.

Those of you who have been doing this for a long time know how true that is.  Your salvation is worked out not because you are dispensing an act of charity, but because you have a job which lets you gaze on the face of Christ every day.  Like the cloistered nun before the blessed Sacrament, you see him...and he sees you.

Not a bad job.  Because such work with prisoners, the sick and the suffering changes you, it transforms you.  It makes you look like him.

It’s not unlike looking into the face of Blessed Pope John Paul II in those last years of his life. Remember how stooped and broken he was, his hands shaking, his words slurred.  But more powerfully than any sermon he ever preached, more eloquently than any Encyclical he ever promulgated, he reflected in those days the face of Christ in his suffering, his imprisonment and his dying.

He reminded me that this voice you have been listening to will grow weak in not so many years and this mind will grow dim.  These hands will begin to shake and sometime this heart will cease to beat.  In the end, this body will stop working entirely.  And I, who spend most of my waking moments in denial, need to be with sick people and prisoners who remind me “of the essential or higher things.  By their witness, by the liminality of their condition, they show that our mortal life must be redeemed through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.

They teach me how to join my sufferings to the cross of Christ.

They teach me what it is like to stand at the foot of the cross, like the great Mother of God.

They teach me that sickness and lack of freedom, a natural part of human life, is just around the corner.

But that with the grace of the children of God, even from time, from suffering, and from my own brilliant plans, I can be free. 

And so can they.