The simple and tender words of Jesus instructing us to “love one another as I have loved you” have taken on a deeper meaning for me over the past few weeks as the coronavirus has spread throughout the globe.
I have witnessed love of neighbor in action from every end of the earth, and in my own backyard. And if this love had a sound, that sound would be silence: quiet classrooms, empty offices, and desolate parks. The silence is powerful. It is the sound of love. It is the sound of Isolation, sacrifice, and self-denial for the health and safety of humanity. What a beautiful movement in a defining moment.
Odd as it may sound, there is an immeasurable amount of beauty in all this suffering we face. As I look in my daughter’s closet and see her dresses for prom and graduation hanging up, now never to be worn, I can’t help but feel a twinge of pain and sadness for the memories she and so many others will never create. But she is living in a moment she will never forget. A moment that none of us will ever forget –when the world came together and love spread faster than a virus. That is the most extraordinary memory to keep. That is what makes this time of pain and loss extraordinarily holy.
Like many people, I hope that when love and prayer and science conquer this pandemic, life does not return to normal. I pray kindness and compassion will continue to overflow this earth. I pray the pain, sacrifice, and hardships we are all enduring softens us – softens our hearts, our actions, our thoughts. I pray that each of us will appreciate our blessings in life a little more, that our faith will become a little deeper, that our love for each other will grow a little stronger. My hope is that the little things in life become the bigger things in life, as our appreciation for everything around us flourishes. I pray that we fully understand what it means to love each other as Jesus loves us and actively live this love, because we are all in this beautiful life together.
©Mary Therese Emmons is a busy mother of four teenagers. She has spent more than 25 years as a catechist at her local parish, teaching the Catholic faith to young children. She lives with her family in Montana, United States of America.
I had the most extraordinary experience of love of neighbor with a Hindu family. A gentleman came to our house and said, “Mother Teresa, there is a family who has not eaten for so long. Do something.” So, I took some rice and went there immediately. When I saw the children, their eyes were shining with hunger. I don’t know if you have ever seen hunger, but I have seen it very often. The mother of the family took the rice I gave her and went out. When she came back, I asked her, “Where did you go; what did you do?” She gave me a very simple answer: “They [a neighbor family] are hungry also.” What struck me most was that they were a Muslim family. And she knew. I did not bring any more rice that evening, because I wanted them - Hindus and Muslims - to enjoy the joy of sharing. Those children were radiating joy - sharing their joy and peace with their mother because she had the love to give until it hurts. You see this is where love begins - at home in the family.” [Excerpt from “A Call to Mercy” by Mother Teresa] This happened at a time when religious violence was prevalent in India, and thousands of people died in the riots between the Hindu and Muslim communities. The unselfishly generous gift this poor woman unhesitatingly gave to her hungry neighbors, who happened to be a Muslim family, deeply touched Mother Teresa. She often looked to the poor; for their love was simple and their hearts were full of joy. Mother Teresa invites us to learn from the poor and receive their joy by sharing our blessings generously. “Not all of us are called to do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Mother Teresa
I have always loved the Acts of the Apostles and have often recommended it to those who are approaching the Bible for the first time. Filled with colorful narratives, adventure, martyrdom, persecution, and journeys by sea, it makes for stimulating reading indeed. But I love it especially because it shows us the excitement of being a follower of Jesus. Long before there were parishes and dioceses and the Vatican and other institutional structures, there was this band of brothers and sisters who were so overwhelmed and energized by the fact of the resurrection that they went careening around the world and to their deaths with the message of Jesus. It also features some wonderful exemplifications of Christian preaching, for it relates to us some of the earliest kerygmatic proclamations of the apostles. If we attend carefully to these speeches, we can learn a lot about good preaching, but also a lot about the nature of Christianity. A particularly fine example is the sermon given by St. Peter on Pentecost morning and described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. We hear that Peter stood up with the Eleven and raised his voice. First lesson: all legitimate Christian teaching and proclamation is apostolic, which is to say, grounded in the witness of the first intimate followers of Jesus. Bishops are entitled to preach precisely because they are successors of the apostles; priests and deacons are formally commissioned to preach by bishops. This is to assure that what preachers say is not just a matter of private opinion or the fruit of the present cultural consensus, but is rather rooted in the experience of those who knew Jesus personally. So what does apostolic preaching sound like? Peter says, “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Notice, first, the strength, confidence, and edginess of this proclamation. There is nothing weak, vacillating, or unsure about it. This is not a preacher sharing his doubt with you or reveling in the complexity and multivalence and ambiguity of faith. This is a man speaking (in a loud voice) about his absolute conviction. And what is he convicted about? “That God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Christos, the Greek term for Messiah from which we derive the English word Christ, has the sense of anointed, which implies the new David, which means the fulfillment of the expectation of Israel. Good preaching always puts Jesus in relation to Israel, for he makes sense only kata ta grapha (according to the Scriptures). A Jesus abstracted from the history of Israel devolves in short order into a mere religious teacher or teacher of timeless spiritual truths. And not only is he Christ; he is also Kyrios (Lord). This term had, at the time of Peter and Jesus, both a Jewish and a Roman sense. On the Jewish reading, it designated Yahweh, the God of Israel, for Adonai (Lord, in Hebrew) was the typical substitute for the unpronounceable tetragrammaton, YHWH. Paul, who continually calls Jesus “Lord,” says that Jesus was given the name above every other name, by which he means the name of God. Preaching that leaves the Divinity of Jesus aside or in the shadows is, therefore, not Apostolic preaching. Now Kyrios also had a Roman sense, since Caesar was called Kyrios, meaning the one to whom final allegiance is due. Do you see how edgy and subversive it was to declare that Jesus is Lord, and by implication, Caesar is not? And do you see why those who made that claim usually ended up imprisoned and/or put to death? A twentieth century Anglican bishop memorably expressed the insight as follows: “When Paul preached, there were riots; when I preach, they serve me tea.” Notice, next, that Peter is not tickling the ears of his hearers: “God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” He’s not pulling any punches or trying to win friends and influence people. About as bluntly and clearly as he possibly can, he names the sin of his audience. And this is precisely what “cuts to the heart” of his hearers. Trust me when I tell you that abstract spiritual principles, tired bromides, and timeless moral truths don’t cut people to the heart. And so they cry out, “What are we to do?” Peter’s sermon continues: “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” Every truly evangelical sermon should be a call to repentance, to turn one’s life around. If it doesn’t lead to contrition and a conviction to change, it has not cut to the heart. Mind you, this doesn’t entail moralizing in a brow-beating way, but rather the presenting of the message of Jesus in such a clear and compelling way that people naturally see how they’ve fallen short and want to change. Peter concludes: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Followers of Jesus are a holy nation, a people set apart. We have renewed minds and wills; we should profile ourselves distinctly against the backdrop of the world. If we think and act like everyone else, we haven’t taken in the Gospel. Relatedly, if all we hear from the pulpit is what can be heard on talk-shows and in discussion groups and in political conversations, we haven’t heard the Gospel. Finally, we are told that, “Three thousand persons were added [to the Church] that day.” I know that everyone and his brother tells us not to worry about numbers and there is indeed truth to that. For God wants us to be, not successful, but faithful, as Mother Teresa said. However, like it or not, the Bible is interested in numbers. And good preaching, if it is truly evangelical, is meant to draw people into the Church. That they are staying away from the Church in droves today says, I would suggest, something rather negative about the quality of our preaching. To all preachers, I might recommend a careful consideration of the kerygmatic sermonizing in the Acts of the Apostles. If you preach like Peter, they might not serve you tea after every homily, but they will know that they’ve been cut to the heart.
Ignoring the Obvious ‘He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So, the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation”’(John 11:43-48) I could never understand how the chief priests and Pharisees responded to witnesses reporting such a mighty miracle. How could they ignore the obvious conclusion? They could not deny the miracle. Instead, they adopted the absurd policy of denying the one who performed the miracle! Ironically, they were trying to save the man-made tabernacle (holy place) by destroying the true tabernacle (Jesus). Why couldn’t they recognize the Saviour they had long awaited? The answer is simple: They didn’t want to! Accepting Jesus as the Christ could cost them everything, so they wilfully closed their eyes to the Truth! Whenever we choose comfort and turn a blind eye to the Truth (knowingly or unknowingly), we are in the company of these people. Wilful blindness is a deeprooted problem in many of us. Is it a Right to remain Ignorant? Mr. M is a hardcore atheist. He says he believes in Science, but purposely avoids anything which Science struggles to explain. His wilful blindness doesn’t allow him to see things on their own merits. Everything is filtered through his ‘I know there is no God’ lens. Lately, I started recognising some ways in which I am wilfully blind. As an example, last week, a policeman stopped my car to test my breath for alcohol. As a non-drinker, I always considered myself a safe driver who doesn’t pose a danger to others. However, although my alcohol level is always zero, I have sometimes failed to get enough sleep before taking the wheel. A drowsy driver is as dangerous as a drunken driver! Wilful blindness can affect how a faithful Christian interprets Scripture. That is why it says the Gospel I read is my own gospel. Antony reads Antony’s gospel; Joseph reads Joseph’s gospel and Mary reads Mary’s gospel! Each one interprets the Scriptures in their own way! We tend to give greater importance to verses that give us comfort and overlook verses that could challenge us! For example - A nondrinker who sees the warning against the ‘drunkard’ and ignores warnings against other sins is wilfully blind. A husband who sees the ‘submissive wife’ in Scripture but misses the Christ-like husband, who must love his wife and give himself up for her, is also wilfully blind (and vice versa). A preacher I know used to quote Luke 12:32 which says,“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. Every time, attendees responded with familiarity. Then, he would ask whether anyone knows the very next verse. Nobody could ever answer the question. It says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”. The first verse is, in fact, a pre-assurance that we need not fear to do the latter, but we tend to ignore the whole message and stick to what is comforting. This is wilful blindness. Eyes become useless when the mind is blind Two thousand years ago, during His trial, Jesus told Pilate that He came into the world to testify to the Truth. Everyone who belongs to the Truth, listens to His voice. Even though Pilate asked Him to clarify this statement, he didn’t pursue his question. He probably knew that knowing the Truth would hinder him from what he was about to do. He had to turn a blind eye towards the Truth to keep his position and reputation. Can we do a better job? In fact, it doesn’t need a great effort on our part! We simply need to turn our eyes to the Lord and keep them open. He, the Light of the World, will come into our hearts to illuminate the darkness so we can see clearly.
Last week, I posed a question to my students as our class began. “If a nuclear missile struck us in the next few seconds, and we all died, would you go to Heaven? Raise your hand, if you think you would definitely go straight to Heaven.” I was surprised that only one girl put up her hand, but I was pleased that the rest did not, because we cannot hope for what we are certain of. Hope is a virtue that we need until the day we meet our Maker. We should pray daily in the hope that God will have mercy on us, but none of us can be certain of our eternal destiny until we meet God face to face. Then it occurred to me, that their restraint might not be about hope at all. So, I asked them: “How many believe that you would go to Hell if died this minute?” About five of them raised their hands. Since these were girls of very fine character, I asked one of them: “Why do you think you’re going to Hell?” She answered, “Because I’m not nice. I don’t take any BS”. I asked another, and she said much the same thing. I almost fell over. “Where did you get the idea that holiness is about being nice? And why do you think that being assertive is contrary to holiness?” We live in a culture dominated by the tyranny of niceness, where it is more important to be nice than to be truly good. Niceness has become more important than Truth. That’s why I find it so hard to get teenagers to raise objections in class. If they hear anything they disagree with, or they wish to dispute a point, they remain silent. They’ve learnt that arguing, asking difficult questions, or challenging the teacher is disrespectful. We don’t live in a culture of debate anymore. When I was young, I watched a show called The Great Debate. They’d debate controversial issues, then the audience would vote at the end. We no longer see programs like that, and very few schools have debating clubs. To use a phrase coined by Pope Benedict XVI, we live under the dictatorship of relativism. Relativism is the tyrant behind the tyranny of niceness. Relativism denies that there is absolute Truth. It denies that there are absolute moral precepts, or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong (such as abortion, active euthanasia, adultery, contraception, pornography and fornication). So, it naturally follows that if there is no Truth, there’s nothing to debate; because debate is about uncovering Truth. In a relativistic culture, everyone has their own truth, and everything must be tolerated, except the belief that some actions are wrong and there is absolute Truth. That’s a nice culture, a very agreeable one, where debate must be shut down because it results in hurt feelings. Therefore, students who challenge a point in class are castigated for not being nice. Argument has been openly discouraged. Just accept what you’re being taught. And what is being taught is not at all controversial. Why not? Because it’s not nice to talk about controversial things like abortion, fornication and homosexuality, for example, because these are ‘divisive’, and someone could be offended. In other words, Truth takes a backseat to sensitivity. So, the most fundamental modern moral directive - the one commandment that replaces the Ten Commandments of old - is: “Thou Shalt be Sensitive”. Love has now come to mean sensitivity. We’ve all heard the expression “The truth hurts”. Speaking the truth can cause people to feel uncomfortable. It is not ‘nice’ to make people feel discomfort, but speaking the truth is sometimes the most loving thing you can do. Having your stomach sliced open with a scalpel isn’t a nice experience, but my doctor did a very loving thing years ago when he cut me open to remove a cancer. Not nice, but loving. A local psychologist wrote about the adverse psychological effects of the tyranny of niceness. It tends to bring about a split in one’s entire personality, a dis-integration of the character, because instead of speaking honestly, one has to remain silent, or say nice things, regardless of whether or not they are true. I have had colleagues who say the nicest things, the most positive things, when they know they are not being sincere. “How was that field trip?” “It was great!”, they glibly answer, but when you question them further, they eventually admit that it was a disaster - a complete waste of time. Why did they say it was great? They’re stuck for an answer. It’s the tyranny of niceness. If we speak frankly, we’ll look like cranks or ogres. When I started teaching, one Principal always told us that we were all doing a wonderful job. He knew that wasn’t true. Only some were doing a good job, but it’s not nice to too honest. This kind of personal dis-integrity can have serious adverse consequences down the road, both psychologically and spiritually. Well, holiness is not niceness. Holiness is heroic faith, heroic hope, and heroic charity (supernatural love of God). Jesus is Holiness itself, the perfection of holiness, the fountain of all holiness. But read the Gospels. He wasn’t nice, especially to the Pharisees. St. Paul wasn’t always that nice. Note what he said to the Galatians: “As for me, brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why do the attacks on me continue?… Would that those who are troubling you might go the whole way, and castrate themselves!” (Gal 5, 11-12). Not a nice thing to say, but Paul is a saint. Study the life of St. Padre Pio, one of the greatest saints in the 20th century. He was not always nice, but he was a man of heroic charity. The letter to the Romans wasn’t nice at all, by today’s standards. It would be horribly offensive to a large number of people: “Let us conduct ourselves properly, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy… make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Sexual integrity is so important, because sexual immorality affects our ability to relate to each other. It affects marriage, which is the foundation of the family, the fundamental unit of society. Sadly, most people today, including educators, are silent on sexual morality, because they fear causing offence. Unfortunately, some priests and bishops have become disciples of the tyranny of niceness, which is why we rarely hear about controversial issues from the pulpit. How do we prepare for the Second Coming of Christ? By growing in holiness and personal integrity. Lust above all has the power to destroy that integrity. Neurosurgeon Donald Hilton has recently written about the effects of pornography on the brain. The research is very disconcerting, especially in light of the revelation that 87% of college males and 31% of females view pornography. He says that pornography causes a disruption of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is essential for human beings to desire appropriate pleasures in life. Without it, we would not eat; we would not procreate, nor would we even try to win a game of checkers. Addiction is caused by overuse of the dopamine reward system. When the neural pathways are used compulsively, dopamine is decreased. The dopamine cells begin to shrink or atrophy. The pleasure reward centres of the brain crave dopamine, so the brain re-wires itself. The “pleasure thermostat” is reset, producing a new “normal” state. To feel normal, the person must capitulate to their addiction increasingly to raise dopamine to high enough levels. That is the case with all addictions, but especially sexual addiction, which establishes itself very rapidly and is the hardest to overcome. Most importantly, Hilton points out that the frontal lobes of the brain, located just above the eyes, also atrophy, and these lobes have important connections to the pleasure pathways in the brain, so that pleasure can be controlled. The frontal lobes are important in our ability to make judgments. If the brain was a car, the frontal lobes would be the brakes. When they atrophy, a person’s ability to process the consequences of the addictive behaviour is impaired. This neurological decline is analogous to brake pads wearing out in a car. People who suffer from frontal lobe damage are impulsive, acting without any thought about consequences. They are compulsively fixated on certain objects or behaviours. They experience sudden and unpredictable mood swings and their judgment is impaired. Dr. Victor Cline, in his essay on the effects of pornography on adults and children, says that it dramatically reduces a person’s capacity to love, resulting in a dissociation of sex from friendship, affection, caring, and other emotions that are part and parcel of healthy marriages. He says a person’s sexual side becomes dehumanized, and many will develop an “alien ego state” or dark side, “whose core is antisocial lust devoid of most values”. The consequences this has on marriage are devastating. Cambridge anthropologist Dr J. D. Unwin examined the effects of sexual restraint and sexual abandon in 86 cultures, spanning 5, 000 years. He found that cultures practising strict monogamy exhibited “creative social energy”, culminating in “the zenith of production”. However, cultures in which there was no restraint on sexuality deteriorated into mediocrity and chaos, without exception. As time goes on, sexual restraint in our culture continues to loosen. As it becomes more sexually abandoned, we are witnessing a steady decline in marriage. The consequences of marriage and family breakup, as any teacher knows, are calamitous. Real men are becoming rare in western society. Many of our male celebrities are stuck in a perpetual adolescence. A boy does not have control over his passions, but is led by them. A man possesses himself by governing his passions and subjecting them to reason. A boy loves things for what they do for him, but a real man loves another for who they are, not for what they do for him. Many young couples give up on marriage because they have not learned to rise above hardship through an act of the will. Many think life—and marriage—is about non-stop exhilaration. To be truly happy, we need to take St. Paul’s words seriously: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy… But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” In the struggle for personal integrity, we have to cultivate chastity in ourselves and foster it in our children. It is impossible to grow in holiness and prepare for eternal life without chastity. We have to be careful and prudent parents, assertive parents. We need to stop being so nice. Tell them the truth with compassion and consideration. Witness to the truth which they are being cheated of. It is a sacred duty which we must not shirk.
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