Failing Fellowship: The Jerome Chronicles
Part I: Some Background
Back in March or April of 2008 tens of thousands of Burmese died in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar and many more died by disease and a lack of food and clean water. Children comprised upward of 40 percent of the dead. Fr Neuhaus’ magazine “First Things” thought it was an appropriate moment to revisit David B. Hart’s essay from its March 2005 issue, written in light of the tsunami that devastated the South Asian coastline in December 2004 and to republish it on line.
I read the essay and was sufficiently moved by Hart’s reflections on disasters and our faith to make copies of it and share it with members of my bible study group. I was shocked to find that one of my closest Catholic friends and confidants (at that time) responded with an outburst that turned very nasty and personal. When we argued some of Hart’s comments in the essay, I found that I was looking to arguments from authority and the Catechism while my friend, Jerome, eventually revealed that his source was charismatic, a belief that through his consecration to Mary that she would lead him to truth. Not exactly a level playing field for a debate on anything Catholic. These are Jerome’s words:
I have no theology training – I have never taken a single course. But the Blessed Virgin is the only one who has destroyed all heresies. She crushes the head of the serpent. She keeps me away from all distractions and misdirecting complications and leads me to the very head, the very root.
This was the first time I had ever encountered a Catholic who did not believe or admire what I believed. Kind of like encountering a Yankee fan who thinks Kevin Youkilis is a better first baseman than Mark Teixeira.
Jerome and I exchanged more than 20 pages of emails that grew increasingly personal and testy. The upshot of the whole affair occurred one evening at a Bible Study class when I attempted to lead a discussion on the nature of sin with reference to Romans 2-3. Jerome first abstained from answering (“I don’t get the point of your question/presentation.”) and then attempted to lead an “intervention,” the object to draw in other members of the group to reflect on my heretical character. He quoted Paul “You who teach others fail to teach yourself” and began an attack that came to include the 20minute presentations I had written for a Masters in Ministry Fundamental Theology course and other readings. All of which, I may add, had been written and submitted to a Catholic priest, Fr. R, who had praised their content (the topics were of his choosing).
I should point out here that none of my little presentations involved “teaching” in any sense (something that Jerome would later accuse me of doing), I would often read meditations by Fr. Robert Barron, Fr. Romano Guardini or Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa – Catholic priests I admired. I volunteered for the 20 minute presentation period our Bible Study Group scheduled, usually once a month. They had the slots available, you were required to do it once, few wanted to do it again. I did it not only because I am comfortable in front of groups having lectured and taught for 25 years but because I knew presenting topics concerning my faith would help me to verbalize and to spread that faith – something I learned was part of my duty as a Catholic, following in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, in proclaiming the Gospel and communicating it to others. The Hart essay was in the same vein of things I had presented before. Although Hart is an Orthodox Theologian, he is respected enough to be a contributor to First Things and to be admired by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, another hero of mine.
Another one of Jerome’s points was that I was lacking in my “interior life,” and that theology and my professors had led me astray:
In practice, you reveal a split between “spiritual life” and “theology”, because your discussions and writings don’t integrate them, and you deny that person who does… Here is an example of dealing with Jerome’s reasoning:
You wrote in one email attachment: ‘von Balthazar … wrote that the only true theologians are the saints — those who have practiced the life of Jesus.’ By this definition, can one show that David Hart is a true theologian? Are the “current masters” true theologians? Or your professors? History shows that “current masters” can be great sinners, seminarian professors can be great sinners, so it logically follows that the name and credentials and popularity and the position mean little. According to the definition you’ve proposed, how do you know that they are true theologians? How do you know that they are practicing the life of Christ? According to your own definition of a true theologian, where is David Hart’s authority? Logically, you would have to prove that he is a saint, which you cannot do and the Church cannot do while he is still alive. So your own words decertify his authority. Yet you at the same time propose that he has some kind of authority. Is there not a contradiction in logic here? Your words, when followed to their logical conclusions, point to two contradictory ideas.
I should point out that I never asserted any of my professors or David Hart were Saints. I did assert that he was an authority by virtue of his writings and academic work. The von Balthazar quote I sent him concerned something else.
While there is something of a Stephen King short story in all of this, I should admit that I was livid at having my faith and judgment questioned (I was told that I was misleading “the sheep”), having my “interior life” subjected to examination and analysis by Jerome’s annoying preaching, and dealing with Jerome’s charismatic presence (All that I have ever written to you is whole and true, and written in love - there are no contradictions except the Cross, not because I have wisdom or knowledge or understanding of myself, but because I have received His as a gift from Him (Is 11:2; Jn 20:22) – through my Lady’s intercession for me despite my stumbling and bumbling…). The spur-of-the-moment “intervention” wasn’t of his doing, “living monstrance” and vessel that he is of the Lord and the Virgin Mary:
What happened that last Wednesday was not my planning, nor my doing. “They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves.” (Ps 57:6) But esteeming these very punishments to be less than our sins deserve, let us believe that these scourges of the Lord, with which like servants we are chastised, have happened for our amendment, and not for our destruction.” (Jud 8:27) I wait for Them, and cooperate with what They are doing.
Now while I find there is much of the religious crank in Jerome’s personality, he does have a fine history with the Church. I first met Jerome when he had entered a seminary to become a Priest with the Oblates of St. Mary. We had both attended a G.K. Chesterton book club at St. Clements’ in Boston where we had first met. When I moved to West Roxbury I also met his mother who was in a Bible Study Group at the new parish I attended. I became very close with her and grew to admire her greatly. During that time Jerome had left the seminary and joined a religious brotherhood, taking vows of poverty. He later left that and moved back home with his parents. When he came to West Roxbury we met each other socially and I confided to him about my religious life, often asking questions about things like the Rosary or Eucharistic Adoration. One evening I made a joke about his being “my spiritual director.” Like most jokes, there was a little bit of truth in it, in the sense that I had great trust and reliance on him and he was in a lead role (which, on hindsight, I think he enjoyed too much). The dust up over the Hart essay became serious when Jerome took things I had said out of context and began to judge my interior life – to me a major indiscretion on his part and one that I bitterly and repeatedly complained to him about. He never stopped and that is the main reason why I avoid any prolonged social contact with him.
During the course of our exchanges over the Hart essay, I took excerpts of our emails to two of my Professors in the Master in Ministry course at St. John’s Seminary and asked their opinion. Both Father R and Anthony K concurred that while there was nothing wrong in Jerome’s thoughts on salvation or eschatology, that neither was the Hart essay at any deviance with Church teaching. They tended to agree with my position that Jerome was misreading some of what Hart had said. Neither agreed with his characterization of Hart’s positions as being “Protestant” or “anti-Catholic.” They did not think Hart accused God of “being an outsider,” or that Hart “does not understand the Cross,” nor that “Hart calls God morally loathsome,” etc., etc. – these are simply Jerome’s misreading of the essay. Neither Ritt nor Keaty agreed with any other of Jerome’s outlandish statements about David Hart. As this dustup is now more than a year in the past, I have come to see that part of Jerome’s troubles with the essay were rooted more in his not being able to deal with dissent in one that he considered his junior. I’m sure that Jerome would vigorously deny that.
More troubling was when I showed the two priests I consulted about the situation a story that originated from Jerome’s website. One of the mysteries of Jerome’s reaction was cleared up for me when I came across this. It is precisely the sort of “homiletic conceit” that Hart takes the faithful to task in his essay. Jerome, I think knew he was being called out. Here’s the story – he tells this a couple of times and it appears to be his staple response when confronting those who are terminally ill. The whole thing is still on Jerome’s site here.
“At the hospital in Boston where I volunteered, the Lord sent me to the patients in most dire need of spiritual support. What a privilege to see the Lord’s Heart first hand with his precious ones!
One day the chaplain sent me with the Lord in the Eucharist to visit a patient Carolyn. She had cancer, and it was terminal. When We entered the room, I noticed she had the bald head, and I could see that she was tired and depressed. But she welcomed Us and I listened to her as she told me about what was on her heart and mind. “Why me?” She said. “Why is this happening to me? I’m angry at God.”
I could only tell her what I thought the Lord wanted me to say. “I see a woman who is just like Jesus in the Eucharist. In the tabernacle, He has a small room, just like you. He has one little door that other people open and close, just like you. He can’t get up and leave when He wants, just like you. He has to be carried around (like I’m doing now), just like you. He is suffering, just like you. And He is lonely, just like you. And He’s been waiting there for a long time just for this moment to be brought to you. You see, Carolyn, you are closer to Jesus than me and probably anyone else in this hospital right now. That’s why God has given you this disease: to be with His Son. You are very precious to Him. (my emphasis) And He sends me to people He wants to be with, and you’re the only one I’m visiting today.”
She began to weep, and in between breaths, she exclaimed with a mixture of joy and gratitude: “So, I’m chosen!” Everything changed in her after that. At the end of the visit, I gave her a Divine Mercy prayer card to pray the chaplet and keep His presence with her, and I left.”
My question to Fr. R and D (the latter our parish priest) was: is this an appropriate line of spiritual comforting for the terminally ill, i.e., “God gave you this disease so you could be with his Son.” This seems to be in almost direct contradiction to Hart’s contentions, which I tended to share if not admire. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think God gives out or causes disease. They both agreed with me. Among other things, Professor K, who teaches at the Pope John XXIII Seminary and at the Masters in Ministry program at St. Johns Seminary (I audit courses there), commented that the terminally ill need to work out their relationship with their disease, they cannot be dictated to, no matter how well intentioned or Christian-oriented any advice may be. Some do not go gently into that night but rage against the dying light; others find peace with their disease and death – it is not for the living to dictate their reaction or meaning of their disease to them. To me Jerome’s interaction with the dying skirts dangerously close to what Professor K was warning against. Fr. R looked visibly queasy when reading Jerome’s blog entry and said firmly, “No, this is not appropriate.”
I had spoken with Prof. K about the essay and shared his comments but Jerome emphatically rejected his attempt to mollify or moderate the situation. Jerome remained adamantly opposed to the essay, writing after my attempts to reach out to him “I am not open to discussions that insult with sarcasm and irony the efforts of good-willed Christians to find their way, as the article by Mr. Hart does. (my emphasis)” I really don’t think that a magazine such as First Things would choose to reprint an article that was insulting or sarcastic to Christians (who probably number more that 90% of their readership). Jerome also accused me of being nasty minded and cynical toward other members of our Bible Study group thereby sort of affirming the evil nature of the essay in that it was corrupting my relationships with fellow Catholics. Actually in the end Jerome was accusing me of so many different things, it got difficult to keep it all straight.
I’m posting the essay by Hart (see link above), this writing on the background to my disputes and bad blood with Jerome and then another essay where I try to tell you what I’ve learned about this very sad chapter at my parish.
Part II: A Learning Experience
I’d next like to turn to what I learned about my faith. Much of what Jerome wrote to me concerning salvation, redemption and the eschatology of the gospels was true. But like a science fiction novel by Michael Crichton, where its difficult to discern where the science leaves off and the fiction begins, with Jerome there was always a scrambling of critical junctures — a point where I felt my faith might suggest a paradox or mystery – to Jerome seemed to present little problem at all. Even though I had read and studied my Catholic faith for years, I knew very little whereas Jerome was a walking encyclopedia. What in the beginning seemed someone who was a perfect mentor in the end became an intolerant martinet, who heaped abuse on my inability to penetrate the mysteries of my faith.
Now one of the main sticking points of the Hart essay for Jerome came when Hart criticized other Christians for their “homiletic conceit” such as saying that “our salvation from sin will result in a greater good than could have evolved from an innocence untouched by death.” No, says Hart:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.
At this Jerome takes great exception. According to his scenario of the final judgment, it will subsume the particular judgment of our salvation:
All of resurrected creation will bear the marks of the wounds of sin and death”
Then comes a disastrous jump in reasoning. Jerome interpolates that by saying that God is not the cause of these events (a classic Catholic conception — God does not create or cause evil, sickness or death) that somehow Hart is advocating that God is not present in those things. Jerome is not the first to have misread the essay, here is an exchange that resulted after it was published:
“David B. Hart has missed the mark with his short apologetic, “Tsunami and Theodicy” (March 2005). Not only does he wash his hands of the offense of evil in this world, but to avoid the implications of Providence, he also skips from answering the problem of evil to eschatological sentiments about Jesus wiping the tears from the eyes of Dostoyevsky’s excrement-eating girl. The effect is unsatisfactory.
“Suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all,” Hart says. But only a Platonist could consider these things “in themselves.” All suffering and death are part of a narrative—in fact, the Narrative. Without the story, they are nothing — like a hole in a shirt, without the shirt to surround it. And although they are in themselves nothing, and as such can benefit no one, when played out in the drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, they can facilitate goodness, beauty, and truth. Everywhere Easter emerges from Good Friday.
Hart is skeptical that others will profit from the demise of the tsunami victims. And certainly the benefit of others does not justify the evil of the loss. But won’t others benefit? Aren’t they already? Certainly acts of benevolence are now being visited on countries previously forgotten by the West. Food, shelter, care, medicine, prayer, infrastructure-building, and hope are all being helicoptered into Asia and Africa. A megaphone has sounded for their blessing. No eternal harmony necessitated the tsunami suffering, but God can take the chromatic noise of suffering and make a melody.
And what about us? Hart says, “our position is charity,” which is true. Charity is needed precisely because there is evil in the world. Provision must have been made within fallen Creation for us also to make melodies of the poor scales of suffering: to co-create goodness from them.
Naturally, Hart disagrees with Aquinas that all things will be justified in an ultimate synthesis, yet he never declares what will be done about all this suffering and death. If it has “no ultimate meaning,” then nothing needs to be justified. However, if it has ultimate existential significance, and cannot with a clear conscience be reconciled with a good God, then what could be done? Jesus can take away the girl’s tears, but what about her former suffering? Hart never steps forward to answer this dread question, and neither has any theodicy which I have read. Job is probably the only one who could provide us with an answer.
Jonathan David Price
The Clarion Review
David B. Hart replies:
I fear that Mr. Price has failed to follow my argument, which may be my fault; but as he also repeats certain logical errors that I denounced in my piece (as when he confuses the order of ontological priority between charity and evil), I can scarcely concede many of his points. I submit also that he is a bit shaky in his understanding of Platonism.
I never suggested that good will not emerge from evil, or that no good will follow in the aftermath of what happened in the Indian Ocean. I merely pointed out that this good is the result of saving providence, that suffering and death are not necessary conditions of God’s purposes for his creatures but the consequence of sin, and that Christ came to overthrow evil, not to legitimate it. That is to say, I was making a simple and necessary distinction between a Christian doctrine of transcendent providence and any kind of dialectical teleology. It is because he has misunderstood this distinction that Mr. Price mistakenly believes that I disagree with Aquinas rather than with, say, Hegel. Aquinas nowhere speaks of history’s “synthesis,” nor did he have much patience for the notion that God is the true author of evil.
As I was at pains to point out, the final question Mr. Price poses is a “dread question” only if indeed one ascribes the origin of evil to God, as part of His plan for His creatures. Since I for one do not believe this to be the case, the biblical answer to suffering, death, and evil seems to me eminently satisfying: They are to be destroyed as things alien and damnable to God, from which He will — in an act of infinite victory — save His creation, to glorify it with that glory He intended for it from before the foundation of the world.
So there are two things happening here, one a misreading and two (in Jerome’s case and perhaps in David Price’s as well) a strongly held belief, a HOW of the final judgment or a theistic universal teleology that “makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things.” Simply by calling to task this notion of a dialectical teleology does not ipso facto obviate God’s presence in any form of human suffering. This was the line you might recall that Jerome had crossed in his bringing the Eucharist to the terminally ill: “That’s why God has given you this disease: to be with His Son. You are very precious to Him.” God’s presence for Jerome begins with His being the cause as well. That is simply bad theology.
Another thing I learned about Theodicy my last semester at St. John’s (those nefarious Theology courses that Jerome warns me away from) is that there are inexplicable elements in theodicy. Aidan Nichols lists four:
- “First, there is the strange potency of evil, given that evil should be regarded metaphysically as privation.
- Second, there is the fall of finite spirits, who came forth from an all-holy divine ground even if, in the case of Homo sapiens, they were culturally and psychologically immature.
- Third, there is the apparent escape of nature from the rational control of Providence as evidenced in say, the suffering of the innocent in natural disasters. To these three factors we may add
- a fourth, namely, the fact that we have not been able to solve the problem of theodicy. We can call this factor the absence of sufficient meaning, our inability to make anything like complete sense of the world.”
Nichols says elsewhere: “If in theodicy we could clear up the problem of evil to our complete satisfaction, then there would be no need for salvation as presented in Christian revelation. God comes in his incarnate Son as the world’s Redeemer, and by his Spirit as its Renewer, so as to repair the world’s defects. But there would be no point in redemption if these defects could be shown to be either not defects at all or things built into the very idea of having a world in the first place.” This is, I think precisely the point that Hart is making – sin, death and evil are not built in to this world.
It is not a good thing to argue Theology or dogma. In the case of Jerome and myself, the argument was really about something else, more I think about his control of our relationship or his regarding me as a junior in many ways and being stunned by our disagreement; else why the invective against someone whom I admire like David Hart or the indiscriminate commentary on the lack of unity between my spiritual life and my studies (as if he could judge). I have come to be very suspect of those who live their lives benefitting from some charism and that is very sad thing because I believe in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement in the Church and agree wholeheartedly with Henri de Lubac: “Our churches are the ‘upper room’ where not only is the Last Supper renewed but Pentecost also.” There are so many different interpretations of the circumstances surrounding the Virgin Birth or The Second Coming; either between the Gospels themselves or the same Gospel writer (St. Paul, for example, see above).
I made a serious error in not being able to disengage from Jerome before things got over the top nasty. If he was going to question my judgment and interior life, then I was going to return the favor by holding his charismatic consecration to Jesus up to scorn and ridicule; “channeling Jesus” was how I needled him. I’m not proud of that, but neither did I mean it, because I do believe in charisms. I don’t have one but I know others who do. I felt he deserved the needling. And if he threatened me back with eternal damnation, the more the merrier, the pompous nitwit. “My soul magnifies the Lord”, quoted his website. His soul couldn’t magnify a gnat as far as I was concerned. My soul tries to magnify the Lord but in Jerome’s case I found myself on the wrong end of the telescope. Now more than ever though I am embarrassed by the whole affair, ashamed of myself and furious in a way for letting myself be infected with such stupidity and sinfulness.
Part III: A Dénouement
One would think that after all that reflection, I would have learned. Yet almost like a moth to fire, I continued my relationship with Jerome. Part of this came about because the death of his mother, attending her wake was an event that forced us together. As I noted earlier, she was a member of my Bible Study Group, a figure who was admired greatly in the parish. In some ways, she knew me better than any other at the Parish. When she passed away I dropped my campaign of trying to make Jerome see the error of his ways. Some other time perhaps.
A few months back Jerome sent me an email about restarting the Chesterton group we had attended previously. I sent him a query back but he never replied. I sent another. Still no reply. So one afternoon I gave him a call. He seemed startled by my call. I asked him if he was all right as recently his posts to his website had fallen to one or two a month from two or three a week. He said he was fine but had just woken from a deep sleep and would I mind if he called me back. No problem but told him all I wanted was just an answer to my email about the Chesterton group. He promised to get back to me: “We have to talk.” Well, I didn’t want to “talk” that much as it seemed to be the root of our problems.
And then nothing.
Until this week.(January 19th) Jerome published a little story on his website, tying in a childhood memory of playing “pickle” a sandlot baseball game where two players defended their bases against a runner caught in a rundown. He contrasted the game with being caught in a “pickle” between his father’s doctor’s office and a pharmacy. In this case the latter two refused to accept each others paperwork unless it was in the proper FAX format – mindless bureaucracy at its worst. Jerome solved the quandary by driving to one, picking up the prescription and then hand carrying it to the pharmacy. He saw this as an example of being “foolishly merciful” and then if everyone strived to follow this example they would have “a great, great reward.” Under the rubric of “was reading” I left a note to the effect that he had wound up supporting the mindlessness of a corrupt system, stiff necked in its resistance to helping the sick. I told him I didn’t think that was what mercy was for. Not everyone has a car. Not everyone has a caretaker available to them as dedicated as Jerome was for his father. All I saw was that he had confirmed the very system he should seek to change. I don’t see any “great, great reward” in any of this. Try being a little less self-congratulatory and more Christian next time, I sniped.
Well on hindsight I got the response I was after:
was reading – Can pride free a man from the pickle that pride has himself created? How can pride proclaim the power of following the Word of God to free a man from the very snares that pride sets? Then pride is divided against himself, and can’t stand – he’s falling apart. Only the Spirit of God can free a man from the pickle, and only the Spirit of God can proclaim this salvation.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mk 3:28-30)
And for good measure, he added:
For others – as maybe you can tell, was reading has a history of harassing[sic] me, even outside the blog – please join me in praying for him.
The pseudonym was never intended to hide my identity. Jerome has other messages from me and the ips addresses would match readily and I had taken no pains to hide my computer address. So he knew who it was from and he resurrected the old taunts against me: “an unclean spirit,” a psyche divided against itself that can’t stand, that is “falling apart.”
Why is this you, Derek?
One reason it is me is because I had shared secrets about myself with both Jerome and his mother. Secrets that I felt were shameful, secrets that I had hidden on the occasion of my first parish social. How did you come to the Church, Derek? Conversion. Tell a conversion story, Catholics love them.
How did you come to West Roxbury? The answer should have been easy: I had a mental breakdown. I lost everything I owned and was put into a shelter for homeless veterans. After a year of treatment I was given a Section Eight Housing Allowance and introduced to an apartment in West Roxbury. Problem was that all my kindly questioners came from West Roxbury, born, brought up, cradle to grave Catholics.
But why West Roxbury I was pressed? If you weren’t born here, how could you find the place? It’s not Belmont or Weston. West Roxbury is West Roxbury. No one comes to West Roxbury except to escape Dedham. In fact if I had had the presence of mind to say, “Well, I grew up in Dedham,” that would have iced it. But no I had already talked about growing up in Quincy and living twenty-three years overseas in Japan. So I stumbled through a narrative and skipped the parts about mental breakdowns and homeless shelters.
Why is when you want to befriend people you tell them confidences? Why did I ever tell Jerome about my depressions, the fact that my Catholicism is rooted from my experiences from being at the foot of the cross, that my life (it seems) is a constant battle with demons. I weep for my family, for my dead lover, for the friends I’ve failed, for a life enmeshed in Sin and Sloth. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” the Apostle Paul Romans 7:15. And now in my despair my adopted family in Christ, my fellow Christian, my little brother Jerome, leading the taunts against me: “an unclean spirit,” a psyche divided against itself that can’t stand, that is “falling apart.”
I notice that you continue to belittle my divided psyche which is not the product of pride but of clinical depression. As I confided in you (and your mother) before, my life is a constant battle with demons. You betray my confidences in you and your mother.
This is the third or fourth time that I have asked you to refrain from this kind of taunting. It is ugly and thoroughly un-Christian. Your unrepentant behavior is disgraceful. Do you think it is funny? Do you get a cheap thrill out of my begging you to stop? Fuck you, K—.
It completes the charade of your so-called “consecration” to our Lord and the Virgin Mary. It is, further, a total renunciation of any oblate charism that you may have acted on in the past. To think that at one time I was so proud to know you. You have betrayed the last shred of Christian fellowship we had ever shared. I no longer know you.
I console your mother in my prayers and I pray to her to help you to come to your senses and renounce this satanic pride that makes you think you can look into other men’s souls and pronounce them “unclean.” No amount of consecrating your soul to the Lord will grant you such powers. What you are doing is the same sort of cheap thrill channeling that Wicca practitioners in Southern California do.
“Fuck you, K.” Isn’t that just great? Before I sent that email, we had an internet outage and I was unable to send the message for a whole day. A whole day to think it over and moderate my rage, walk though all the anger management lessons: mindfulness and reflective awareness. But all I had to do was look at it the next day. No amount of quiet reflection and preparation could hold back the old resentments and rages that blow through my system like some California tinder brush set ablaze in Santa Anna winds. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What’s the use (throw in some catastrophic mindset for free)?
Maybe I shouldn’t let it bother me at all. I’ve prayed on it. I’ve sought consolation and appealed to Ruth (Jerome’s mother in heaven.) Give it more time. I will confess before receiving Eucharist. But happily it is Jerome who is in high dungeon, as the personification of a life consecrated to Jesus Christ; he has looked into my heart, pronounced me unclean, and guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t that let me off the hook? Isn’t he the raving asshole in all of this, like the raving assholes of my childhood, my brothers and sisters?
But I created him. Did I create them as well? Am I the one dishing out the inches to the distorted souls who are guaranteed to translate them into miles? How does one live in the midst of these train wrecks of human beings? I know them as soon as I meet them, as well as I know the objects of Henry James’ meek and poor in spirit: “To the young, the early dead, the baffled, the defeated, I don’t think we can be tender enough.” It’s like you’re riding on the subway and some sociopath is fingering a pistol and you say to yourself: “Don’t look up. Don’t let him know you know. Don’t set him off.”
Then your eyes rise to meet his: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Part IV: Mary’s Last Word
And yet as I pray the rosary (The Joyful Mysteries) later, this is all playing like some minor repeating chord in the back of my mind. The Rosary is such a remarkable prayer; it almost plays the soul. It takes me places I could never go by myself. I keep thinking of Sarah when one day, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. The three men say that Sarah will have a son, but Sarah, who is now ninety years old, laughs. Mary did not laugh at God, as Sarah did when she was promised a son. Sarah, being a sinner like ourselves, began from the difficulties; she focused on what was absent, on reasons to dwell on impossibility.
Mary, being truly innocent and without sin, did not entertain cynicism even when historical circumstances made it difficult to see how God could fulfill his age-old promise of an eternal King and Savior. Mary does not start from absence. She does not focus on darkness and nothingness and impossibility, which leads to despair and to “No.” Mary starts from a presence. Her only focus is the light and love and limitless possibility that embrace her. This leads her to “Yes”. A “Yes” that becomes pregnant with being and bears eternal fruit. God proposes, Mary says “Yes”, and Christ is present. What could be simpler, a spontaneous pregnancy. Something even a man can do, with Mary’s help:
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.
My error with Jerome is that I projected a presence with him. So convinced I was of his Christian fellowship and of my charge to seek the Christ in him that I believed in his false Christian fellowship, his wannabe Priest mien. You betray my confidences in you and your mother: There are no confidences — Mary puts her faith in God, never in men. If you find Christ in your fellow man, then rejoice. Don’t go celebrating just because someone says they’re living a life consecrated to Mary. First of all, what sort of man would say such a thing? That’s what others might say about you. To speak of oneself that way, as Jerome did, is a sign of profound distortion.
Or later: The shepherds come and tell what the angels have announced to them: that in the city of David a Savior is born and that they are invited to seek him, and to find him, and to see him, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Mary ponders these things in her heart. She ponders a love so true, a grace so great, that it cannot be compromised by the ugliness of circumstances. This child is a King, this child is God, and yet he rests here in the harsh discomfort of a stable, in the company of animals. She herself is a virgin, and yet this child lives and breathes in her arms. In this moment, Mary is a sign to us that no circumstance warrants despair. No human circumstance offers an excuse to proclaim and blame God’s absence, because there is no human circumstance in which he is not present. And thus there is never a reason to abandon hope and to lose our joy. For the Word is made flesh and dwells among us. Mary prays for us sinners, that this knowledge of the Word made flesh may become our very life and our joy, as he is her joy for ever.
In the ugliness of my circumstances I resort to rage. I abandon hope and lose joy in a New York Minute. Jerome exults in this; sees it as an invitation to repeat. What’s this, the third go-around? God, am I stupid.
In the meditation on the Presentation in the temple: Simeon tells the young mother that a sword of sorrow will pierce her heart. Mary does not recoil; Her “Yes” remains pure and uncompromised. Her joy is still complete. There is no place this presence cannot go. There is no darkness or suffering it cannot pierce. Even in the depths of the human heart, even in that place where we can mistakenly think that we are alone, even there abides the Presence of the one who says “I am.” Mary never begins from Absence, she begins always from Presence. The words of Simeon are spoken within the eternal echo of the words of Gabriel: “The Lord is with you.” Before Jesus can even utter the words, Mary already rejoices in his promise: “I am with you always.” It is not a strong will that withstands Simeon’s ominous prophecy; but love. Mary places all her hope in the presence of God who is Love. At the end of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel left her, but the One to whom her “Yes” is directed remains for ever.
Finally in the meditation on the finding in the temple, Mary cannot understand, she cannot explain why Jesus remained in Jerusalem without telling her or her husband Joseph. Yet her unwavering “Yes” continues. Her lack of understanding before the mystery of God does not present an objection to her “Yes”. Mary could not have explained how a virgin could give birth, or how Elizabeth could bear a son in old age, or how shepherds could find the obscure birthplace of her beloved Son, or how an old man in the temple could utter a profound and terrifying prophecy her about her Son, how a sword of sorrow will pierce her heart. The teachers in the temple could not explain Jesus’ intelligence. The fact that the mystery is mysterious can only be an objection to a small mind which refuses that which is deeper than its understanding. We will never fully penetrate the mystery of God with our intellect, but we can begin to live in communion with him now by recognizing his presence and saying “Yes”. Joy does not spring from intellectual pride, but from being loved.
This is who I am, no matter how many times Jerome ignores my pleas and taunts me. I need to learn how to rest in Mary as I’m resting now. I have all the love I need. Thank you Mother Mary.