Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Pilgrimage Made Grow: I didn't see this coming

One of the outcroppings of my pilgrimage which I did not at all see coming while I was in Poland was a certain practical shifting in my prayer focus. It continues to surprise me, though "surprise" isn't exactly the right word for something that I find having taken root in my soul.

Because it is the Year of Mercy, works of mercy came through as a theme at various World Youth Day events. And during that time, the spiritual works of mercy in particular sort of hummed with an attention-getting sort of resonance with me. But upon returning home, I found myself drawn powerfully to pray specifically for those in addictions, for those working in sex trafficking (pimps and prostitutes), and for those suffering violent abuse, whether physical or emotional.

It isn't that I have never prayed before for these needs, but since returning from Poland, this occupies a front and center place in my heart. There are no personal relationships informing this, but anyone who knows my hometown realizes that I am describing a hefty but hidden population here in the town. I am beginning to truly know myself called as a missionary right where I live.

There are complex intertwinings here, of course.

For one thing, I was invited to teach the Bible to children in an after school club downtown. I've known of this club for about six months, but this was nowhere on my radar screen while in Poland. But I am quickly finding it to be one of the biggest joys of my week. That's a surprise to me, too. Most if not all of these kids come from families or at least neighborhoods marked by the evils mentioned above. Several have never read the Bible, and some are not quite sure of why we bother talking about Jesus, and what he has to do with God. I have been teaching from the gospels connected to the mysteries of the rosary, beginning with the joyful mysteries. In taking this approach, one thing I'm looking for for myself (if I can say it this way) is to "watch" how Mary interacts with children such as these. And one thing that has become obvious is that, as a friend put it to me recently, Christianity is not a middle-class religion. God brings joy because he enters our human condition, our longing, our misery, and he shares it out of tremendous, mind-blowing love and desire for us.

Another complexity that is becoming simpler for me is a false dichotomy that has irritated me in various ways since my early days as a Catholic, with roots established earlier. Again, I'm not sure how to say this, but in my childhood I was firmly taught that the "social gospel" (which was said to be primarily, though not entirely, a byproduct of Catholicism) was a falsehood that is opposed to the true gospel, which was all about the eternal salvation of souls in heaven. That social gospel was about doing good works (essentially the corporal works of mercy) and advancing human progress, and about pretending that this was the reason Jesus died on the cross. I'll leave aside, for the moment, the puzzlement of how and why this was the deposit Lutheranism left with me. It simply was.

But when I became Catholic, this trouble did not quickly clear for me. If anything, I was left with a deeper kind of confusion. Theological troubles of the role of good works cleared more easily than did my wrestling with what I saw touted as the good works Catholics were encouraged to be about. Because of the era and place of my entry into the Church, I subconsciously realized the Catholic social gospel arena was heavily politicized. Conservatives had their issues; liberals had their issues. There were lots of axes grinding. I rarely saw anything promoted that seemed to directly help actual people. I was a conservative and worked with my people (literally; I worked for a pro-life group), and learned distrust of and despaired over the efforts of other camps.

And meanwhile, Jesus patiently tried to teach me that he meant it when he said "Inasmuch as you've done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me."

This topic is really complex enough for several of its own posts, but for now I will say that theologically or practically separating love of God and love of neighbor destroys both. St. John and St. James made it clear that we lie if we say we love God but do not love our neighbor in practical, active terms. Likewise, if we seek to love our neighbor based on personal power and agenda that omits surrendering Lordship to Jesus, it is not love in which we deal, but corruption.

God's love in us impels us outward to others. All of our social gospel problems boil down to a privation of love in us.

And a third intertwining point, connected here, is that love, the pure love of God in us, brings us holy death. We resist this with all our energy. What God wants most deeply from us all is to let Him love us. Once He has this, He can move. We cannot induce this "letting" in anyone; each door must be unlocked from within the heart.

Some of those kids in my Bible club have already spoken to me of painful realities in their lives. But they do it in an innocent and childlike way, simply as facts that they own. If we can look up into the Father's face with our misery like that, or if we can come to Mary and ask her to help us find the God we don't know... oh my gosh... what an abundance of grace and mercy awaits us.

God is so powerfully good and is so on our side. He can undo the most complex difficulties in response to such a cry for mercy. He wants to do it.

And so I am praying daily for breakthroughs of His mercy.