Sunday, November 24, 2019

Under the Cover of Darkness and Evil These Days

When I was a young boy, I remember telling a lie. The years have caused my memory to forget the content and context of that lie, but I viscerally remember the feeling. After I told that lie, I felt defined by it. I felt disgusting, gross, and slimy. It was as though a dark cloud enveloped me and kept announcing, "Liar!"

As a young boy, I somehow had the sense to know how to fix the situation. I went up to Sacred Heart Church, entered into the confessional, and said, "Bless me father, for I have sinned." I remember hoping that it would not be Fr. Heery, the pastor, not because he was unkind or anything of the sort. I just figured that it would be all too shocking to him to know that a boy of maybe  eleven or twelve had told a lie. Sure enough, it was Fr. Heery. I cleverly inserted the "I lied," amid the usual list of "fighting with my brothers, disobeying my parents etc." I figured if I couched it amid all the other things, it wouldn't even be noticed.

When I finished my confession, Fr. Heery said, "Why did you lie?" It cut me to the core. In retrospect, I realize that he knew that the lie was the reason some boy came to confession. I forget what I answered him, but he advised me to always tell the truth. Then he absolved me and I left the confessional free from the grossness that I had felt since the lie had been uttered.

Those who know me know that I love to share the joyful experience of being a priest. Being in the midst of the flock--whether in times of joy or sorrow--the priest is privileged to stand close to holy realities. After twenty-two years of priesthood, I suspect that the awe will never wear off. Priests enter into the Holy of Holies. They are privileged to pass beyond the veil. Their people pull back the veil and allow the priest to enter into their spiritual lives. They trust him to see their sins, their sufferings, and their intimate prayer. The priest is privileged to preach the Word, to absolve sins, and to offer the Holy Mass. There is something inexplicably beautiful about the relationship between a priest and his people.

Like every other priest, I've had to minister to people in the midst of terrible suffering and horrific sadness. Even--and perhaps, most especially--in these moments, the priest can feel the most useful. He knows that Christ is using him as an instrument in these moments. Christ is making His own presence felt in these moments. And so, even though these moments can be (what I often call) existentially draining, they are awesome in the sense that the priest knows that God has brought him as close to the Cross as was St. John on Calvary. They drain us, but they fill us with a peaceful recognition that this is exactly why we were ordained.

Recently, however, I had a rather unusual experience. It has been a totally unexpected moment in my priesthood. I'm sure other priests have experienced this, but it's a first for me. Many times in my life, I've been with people at the Cross. Those moments--even though painful--have always left me confident that I had been near the holy. But this most recent experience has left me feeling as though I have been to the abyss, to a place of no light and no grace. I feel as though I was left slimed by the whole thing, and instead of feeling existentially drained and fulfilled, I feel disgusted, repulsed, and gross. What's worse is that it is not just one bad part of a situation. It is the entirety of it. It is filled with lies and deceit, politics and grudges, weaknesses and faults, betrayals and distrust, gossip and detraction, hatred and anger, pettiness and immaturity, confusion and chaos, pain and sorrow.

For me, the worst of it is seeing the seeds of distrust that it has sown. It undermines ecclesial communion and love. It has caused people to lose trust in one another, to deepen old wounds, and to create new wounds. It blinds people to the goodness of others. It's not the fault of any one person or persons. It's like an evil pall has settled and covered everything in darkness. It's not like one person did one bad thing. It's like evil itself was unleashed and allowed to wreak havoc and destruction. A great darkness seems to be moving across the landscape. 

And then I remember that from twelve until three darkness covered the whole land. Beside Jesus was a man who asked for mercy. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." When we feel overcome by evil and crushed by the weight of darkness, the only place to go is to the Cross. It is the place of mercy. We must ask for mercy and be willing to give mercy. None of us must allow ourselves to be like the unrepentant thief, obstinate and accusatory. In the face of gloom and terror, he  allowed himself to be swallowed up into the darkness. The good thief repented. He turned to Jesus. He would have to wait through several more hours in the thick of darkness before he would experience the fruit of his prayer and repentance, but he was sustained by the promise, "Today you will be with me in Paradise."

As a boy, I knew how to shake the weight of evil. I found it at the Cross, in the confessional. In recent years, there has been a lot of darkness surrounding the Church. Occasionally, we see that darkness up close. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we will fix what's wrong, that our ideas, our actions will defeat evil. To think in this way is to be the unrepentant thief. It is to be blind to the presence of the Savior. To think that we will defeat evil by our sheer will is to make ourselves Lord and King. 

I think the right path forward is to submit ourselves humbly to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to turn towards Him and to humble ourselves before Him. The only answer is to turn to Jesus. The only thing for me to do is to seek the grace of Christ, and to be converted in my own life. The evil that I mention is not about any one thing or one person. It is more a destructive force, making itself felt and experienced in a thousand different ways. It's tempting to study the darkness, attempt to understand it,  try to fix it. But to do so is to be overcome by it. The answer is the same as it always is. It is the same as it was when I was eleven. It's the same as when Jesus hung upon the Cross. The answer is that of the Good Thief. The answer is to turn to Jesus. We all need to turn to Jesus. Everyone needs Jesus. 

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