Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Our Sufferings Change Us

Rachel Joy Scott
August 5, 1981-April 20, 1999

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 18, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23.)

 [For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2012]

Here’s a little story I came across recently:

Once upon a time [all good stories begin with ‘Once upon a time’], a young girl went into a gift shop and began to speak to a ceramic vase.  “You are so beautiful and I want to buy you.”  The vase replied, “Ah, but you know, I wasn’t always so beautiful.”  Instead of being surprised that a vase was having a conversation with her, the little girl simply asked the vase what it meant.  The vase explained, “Well originally, I was just a soggy, ugly, lump of clay.  Then one day some people came along and put me on a very large wheel.  And they started to turn it—round and round and round—until I became incredibly dizzy. Then they started to poke me and prod me all over.  And that hurt—a lot.  I cried out, ‘Stop!’  But they said, ‘Not yet.’  Well, at long last, they finally turned the wheel off.  But things immediately went from bad to worse, because at that point they put me into a big, dark furnace!  And it was really hot in there!  And it became hotter and hotter and hotter until I thought I couldn’t stand it anymore!  Once again I cried out, ‘Stop!’  And once again they said, ‘Not yet.’  Then they took me out of the really hot furnace and someone started to put paint all over me, and the fumes from the paint made me ill.  They made my head spin and my stomach turn and I cried out, ‘Stop!’  But again they said, ‘Not yet.’  When they finally had finished painting me, they put me back into the furnace—and believe it or not it was even hotter in there the second time around!  Once more I cried out, ‘Stop!’  And once more they said, ‘Not yet.’  Finally they took me out of the furnace for good, and after I had cooled down, they placed me on a table in front of a mirror.  I remembered myself as a soggy, ugly, lump of clay.  But when I looked at my image in that mirror, I was amazed.  I lost my breath and I thought, ‘I really am beautiful.’  I then realized that it was the pain I had gone through that made me this way.”

Over the centuries, God did great things for his chosen people, the Israelites.  He called them; he formed them; he multiplied them; he delivered them from their enemies time and time again.  He delivered them from slavery in Egypt and guided them into the Promised Land.

And yet, they constantly—and I mean constantly!—fell into idolatry and sin.  God prospered them in many different ways, but their prosperity did not lead them to greater faithfulness.  Quite oppositely, it seems that the more they had, the more they sinned.  The greater their blessings were, the greater their infidelities were.

The only thing that really changed them for the better, ironically, was their suffering.  When they suffered—like that fictitious vase “suffered” in the story I just read to you; when they experienced the negative consequences of their sins to the point of crying out in agony (like the vase did)—only then did they finally wake up as a nation and change direction.

Do you see any parallels to what we’re experiencing in our own country at the present time?  I certainly do!

But that will be the topic for another homily.  Today I’ll speak about all this relative to our personal lives.

In our first reading this morning, we heard about the situation in Judah at the beginning of the 6th century B.C.—which is the way things were at many points in the history of the Hebrew people: “All the princes . . . the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”

Then came the consequences—the negative consequences—which led to 70 years of exile and suffering in Babylon: “Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects.  Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.”

And then we have these words from Psalm 137, today’s responsorial psalm, which convey in a powerful way the agony of those who had to live in exile for all those decades: “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion. . . How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land? . . . May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, if I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.”

Like these Israelites of ancient times, all of us bring some sufferings upon ourselves through our personal sins.  That’s a fact, whether we want to admit it or not.  When we have problems and disputes in our families, for example (and we all do), those problems and disputes almost always have their roots in sin.

Of course the good news is that repentance very often alleviates at least some of these sufferings. 

And yet, there are other sufferings which come to us whether we sin or not.  Nobody—not even the greatest saint—is immune from trial.  In fact, many of the great saints were forced to deal with some of the most intense and extraordinary sufferings imaginable!

Think of someone like St. Pio, who had the stigmata—the bleeding wounds of Christ—on his hands for years.  Think of Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and all they went through.

Think of the Christian martyrs.

Now because suffering is such a powerful and prevalent force in our lives it changes us—just like it changed the Israelites, just like it changed that soggy, ugly lump of clay I told you about a few moments ago.  Although there is one very big and important difference that needs to be mentioned between all of us and that clay: the clay changed into something beautiful after all of its “suffering”—but it didn’t have a choice in the matter.

We do!  We don’t choose to suffer, but we can and do choose how we respond.  We can allow it, by the grace of God, to make us better and holier people (“something beautiful for God,” as Blessed Mother Teresa would say), or we can allow it to make us angry and bitter.

Better or bitter.  That’s the choice we face—every day!

All this came to mind after some of our teenagers from Westerly High and Prout told me about the recent visits of Larry Scott to their respective schools.  

I’m sure many of you read about these events in the Westerly Sun and/or the Rhode Island Catholic.

So who is Larry Scott?

Larry Scott was the uncle of Rachel Joy Scott, who was the first of 13 people killed in the Columbine high school massacre in Littleton, Colorado, back in 1999.

Mr. Scott came to tell the story of Columbine and how the horrid events of that day devastated his family.  (And that was important for him to do, since most current high school students are too young to remember these events when they actually happened.) 

But he also had another purpose, which was just as important.  He wanted to promote something called “Rachel’s Challenge,” which is a nationwide program in which teens pledge to do good deeds and to work against bullying and violence in their local schools and communities.  It was started by Rachel Scott’s father, Darrell (Larry’s brother).  Apparently, after Rachel was killed, they found six diaries in her school backpack where this young girl had written about her many efforts to show kindness to others, and to help fellow students who were being bullied or ostracized by their peers.

Now it’s interesting, the teens at Prout (a Catholic school) were told one very important detail that the young people at Westerly were not allowed to hear: Rachel’s primary motivation for doing all these good and loving deeds was her strong Christian faith.

Larry’s not allowed to mention that in public school setting.

We wouldn’t want those teenagers in public schools to know the whole truth, would we?

How sad.

Now the reason I mention this today is because of the extraordinary example that Larry Scott and his family are giving to others.  They’ve made the choice—the very difficult choice—to respond to a terrible suffering in their lives by doing something positive for other people.  It has to incredibly hard for all of them to go around the country as they do and to speak about this to thousands of students each year—I’m sure it causes them in some sense to relive the events of Columbine over and over again in their minds.

But they still do it!

They’re becoming beautiful “vases” for God—to use the image of this homily.

What a contrast—what a stark contrast—to the two young men who committed those murders at Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold!  Lest we forget, they also suffered: they were the victims of bullying by some of their fellow students.  But they made a different choice.  They chose to respond to their suffering with bitterness and hatred and bullying and vengeance!

And that left 13 people dead, and 13 families devastated.

Will the story of that beautiful vase that I told at the beginning of this homily be the story of my life—as it’s the story of Larry Scott’s life at the present time?  That’s the question to ask yourself.  That’s the question to take with you this morning.

Will the story of that beautiful vase be the story of my, personal life?

It will be for each of us—but only if we choose it to be.

And we have to make that choice just like Larry Scott and the members of his family are making it: we have to make it every day—because we suffer in one way or another EVERY DAY.