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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Parish Mission 2012

Fr. Isaac Spinharney

Fr. Isaac Spinharney and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal led us in our parish Lenten mission this year.  The theme was, "Living our Faith in Jesus!"

To listen to Fr. Isaac's inspiring talks, click on the links below:

Talk 1: Who is Jesus?

Talk 2: Reconciliation

Talk 3: Healing

Talk 4: Homily at Closing Mass in Honor of Our Blessed Mother

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Life Is a Process of ‘Letting Go’

(Second Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 4, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 22: 1-18.)

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

An elderly woman from the parish went to see her orthopedic surgeon a couple of weeks ago on a Friday morning.  She had been under his care—and homebound—for a few months after falling in her home and hurting her shoulder.  Well, happily, the doctor gave her a clean bill of health during that office visit, and she was looking forward to getting back to Sunday Mass and her normal routine.

But, unfortunately, shortly after she returned home that Friday, she tripped on a rug and fell again, this time breaking her pelvis and elbow!  The surgeon’s assistant later told me that when he received the call that this woman was in the emergency room at Westerly Hospital, he didn’t believe it.  He said to the nurse, “Oh no, that must be a mistake.  We just discharged her from our care a few hours ago.”

But, of course, it was not a mistake.


For that elderly woman—and for each and every one of us—life is a process: a process of ‘letting go.’  Sooner or later, for example, we all have to ‘let go’ of many things.  We have to ‘let go’ of our physical health because of a fall—or because of Parkinson’s Disease or cancer or heart problems or something else. 

And it’s not easy.

Just ask that elderly woman!

We all have to ‘let go’ of loved ones when they die—which can be extremely hard if we’ve loved them deeply or had them in our lives for a really long time.  We’ve had a few deaths in our parish recently of people who were in their 90s.  The children of those parishioners were blessed to have their parents in their lives for 60 or 70 years.   

But that makes it all the more difficult for them to let go.

When people retire, they have to ‘let go’ of their work.  As we move on in life, we have to ‘let go’ of some of the recreational activities that brought us enjoyment in our earlier years.  We have to ‘let go’ of the control we’ve had over our daily activities.

Ultimately, we have to let go of what’s most precious to us on this earth.

Just like Abraham did.

In today’s first reading, we heard the famous story of how God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

But we need to be clear about it: the test here was not, “Are you willing, Abraham, to kill your son for me?”—after all, we know that God never intended for Abraham to take his son’s life.

The test was about Abraham’s willingness to ‘let go’.  The Lord said to him, in effect, “Abraham, are you willing to let go of your son, Isaac?  He’s the child of the promise.  You waited 100 years to have him.  You love him deeply; you treasure him and the special bond you have with him more than anything else that you have in this life.  So, are you willing to let it all go?  Are you willing to let go of what’s most precious to you in this life and trust totally in me?”

We call Abraham “our father in faith” because he said yes—even though it had to have been the most difficult ‘yes’ he had ever said in his life.

In one way or another, we all face this very same test, don’t we?

Usually it involves someone we love.

But, unfortunately, not everyone responds like Abraham did.

As I was preparing for this homily, I thought of a scene from C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce—which, by the way, is not about marriage!

It’s a fictional book about an imaginary bus ride from hell to heaven.  All the people on the bus have the opportunity to go to heaven, but only if they ‘let go’ at some point on the journey.  First and foremost, of course, they have to be willing to let go of their sins thru repentance.  But they also have to be willing to let go of their attachments—their unhealthy, selfish attachments—to people and things; and at the same time they have to be willing to grow in their desire for God.

One person who has trouble doing this is a woman named Pam—whose son Michael died when she was still living on earth.  Her brother, Reginald, who’s already arrived in the kingdom, speaks to her at one point, and challenges her to love God first, and to let go of the selfish, possessive, manipulative love she had for her son when he was alive.  Reginald says to her, “[God] wanted you to love Michael as he understands love.  [And] you cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.”  But Pam will hear none of it.  She blames God for her son’s death, and refuses to let go of that anger and the disordered love she had for her child.

A sad ending.  Thankfully other stories in The Great Divorce end much more happily!

There’s an old saying that most of us have heard before—and there’s a great deal of truth in it: Let go, and let God!

Pam did neither of those things.  Abraham did both—and because he did both he was rewarded beyond what he could possibly have imagined!

The Lord said to Abraham, “I swear by myself, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”

That prophecy was fulfilled, as we all know, on the natural level, in that Abraham became the father of the nation of Israel.

I suppose he could have imagined that natural dimension of the blessing.

But, as we also know, by making this promise God was telling Abraham that he would become the spiritual father of all the redeemed!  That’s yet another reason why we call Abraham “our father in faith”!  Spiritually speaking, we all trace our “lineage” back to him.

Now there’s no way that Abraham could possibly have understood that spiritual dimension of the promise when he first heard it.

But it was there!

If we follow Abraham’s example, by letting go AND by letting God take control and do his work in our lives, then we will, like Abraham, experience many blessings—sometimes even greater than what we can possibly imagine!

When I think of my great role model for dealing with Parkinson’s Disease, Blessed John Paul II, I think of what that illness forced him to let go of: his health, his skiing, his mobility, etc.  And yet, because he also “let God”: because he let God work in him and through him when he was battling that despicable disease, he did some of his most effective work in those later years of his life.

That fact certainly gives me a great deal of encouragement.

Some of you, like that fictional woman Pam, have lost children.  But, in the process of dealing with their deaths, you’ve actually grown closer to God and stronger in your faith.  You were forced to let go of someone who was very precious to you (you had no choice in the matter), but you did have the ability to choose how you’d respond to the tragedy.  And, thankfully, you made the choice to ‘let God’!  You made the choice to let God help you and console you and strengthen you and heal you and give you hope.  For that you have been greatly blessed; and, if you persevere in that trusting faith, you will be blessed beyond your wildest imaginings in eternity, where God will reunite you with many of your deceased relatives and friends.

Life is a process of letting go—and as such it provides us with many opportunities to ‘let God.’  May the Lord help us to take advantage of those opportunities in imitation of Abraham, and Blessed John Paul II—and all the other great saints of the past.