Tuesday, February 28, 2012

POOR BABY PART II.THE NON-VIOLENT HOLY FAMILY

MATTHIAS GRÜNEWALD
CENTRAL PANEL, ISENHEIM ALTARPIECE, 1506-1515
Isn't it fun?: abortion week...

As one astute commenter noted in response to Part I: "Non-violence is not one issue in a catalogue of issues (you can tell I abhor the term); it is a disposition toward reality."

I, too, abhor issues. Abortion is not an issue; abortion is one of an infinite number of facets of the Way, the Truth, and the Life...

"Blessed are the peace-makers," said Christ, and we have only to look to the Holy Family for an example. Can anyone possibly imagine St. Joseph being a general? For St. Joseph to have been a general or even a soldier would have been so wrong, on so many levels, as to be unimaginable. It would have been as wrong, in its way, had Mary been an abortionist.

Impossible to imagine Joseph coming home from a hard day’s work of, say, scourging, washing the blood off his hands, sitting down to dinner, and saying, “Well, well, little Jesus, let me tell you about the bad man to whom I administered justice today.” Impossible to imagine that a man whose master was Caesar or Herod or the Pharisees should have raised the Son of Man. That Christ would have learned what it is to be a man from a man who “enjoyed” war is inconceivable. The people who enjoyed war crucified him.

Christ also said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” [Matthew 10:34]. He didn’t mean the sword of violence, though. The operative point of the cleansing of the temple was not that Christ got mad—he got mad frequently. The operative point was not that Christ finally spoke up for himself: one way or another, Christ always spoke up for himself. The point of the cleansing of the temple was not that it was out of character, but that it was entirely in keeping with the character that Christ had displayed all along. The operative point was that he told the truth, knowing he was setting himself up to have the Pharisees kill him. The operative point was that he didn't call down the wrath of God and the power of the angels—as he clearly knew he could have—and kill the Pharisees first.

One way to think of the “sword” Christ spoke of, I’m thinking, is the sword that tends toward purifying our forever-mixed motives. A mother will sacrifice for her son for the pleasure of basking in the reflected glory of his success. A father will sacrifice for his family knowing the social prestige and manliness that will thereby accrue.

All that was stripped from both Mary and Joseph.

Joseph fought one of the hardest battles it is possible to fight for a man, because it is partly biological: the battle against seeing his wife as chattel, as an extension of his ego; against clinging to the familial, cultural status accorded to the head of a household that would otherwise have inured and made “worthwhile” the sacrifice of supporting for and caring for a family. He stayed when it appeared to him, and possibly to the world, as if he had been cuckolded while still engaged. He stayed when it appeared that not only had Mary been unfaithful to him; she had been unfaithful to God. He stayed, not for a moment holding it against Mary. He stayed, knowing that Christ was not the fruit of his loins, and gave Jesus his whole heart, his livelihood, his guidance, insight and love. He stayed, taking his rightful place as head of the household, while also acknowledging, accommodating, and revering the fact that Mary had her own calling. He consented to stay in the background when another lesser man would have felt the need, out of a bruised ego, to assert himself. He stayed, and was faithful to his marriage vows. He stayed, working with his hands, handling the wood he loved. He stayed, and risked being called a coward, less than a man, and insufficiently forceful with his wife.

Similarly, Mary overcame the hardest thing it is possible for a woman to overcome: her desire to cling; to possess that which she loves; to manage, control, and become proprietary. This, too, is partly a biological urge. She could have said no to the angel Gabriel. She could have aborted Christ, and thereby averted the neighbors’ gossiping and putting herself, the prospective child, Joseph and the rest of her family in peril. She could have killed Christ as an infant so as to “spare” him from being killed by Herod.

Instead, at every step of the way she said yes to life and no to death. At every step of the way she was ready to die so that someone else might live. At every step of the way, she displayed extreme tenderness and extreme fierceness—because to say yes to life requires extreme tenderness and extreme fierceness (and extreme courage, grace, and class). But at no point did either she or Joseph exercise violence toward others when violence was directed toward them. She was Abraham, except this time the knife over the neck of her beloved son was not stilled. She stayed, and witnessed what is probably the most excruciating thing a mother can witness: the brutal execution of her innocent son. And still, she endured; still, she surrendered completely; still, she loved.

The Crucifixion is always and forever a scandal. Even those of us who love him are a little ashamed, a little appalled, a little embarrassed. I mean couldn't he have stuck up for himself? Why didn't he call down the wrath of God? Did he have to die like that? Even those of us who love him want to gloss over the Crucifixion.

But the Crucifixion is the central emblem of our faith; the absolute heart of Christianity. We take responsibility for our actions, we take the beam out of our own eye before we try taking the mote out of our neighbor's eye, and we offer ourselves up completely, for the Father to do with as He wills.

From yesterday's Magnificat reflection:

"Faith is not a thing of the mind; it is not an intellectual certainty or a felt conviction of the heart. It is a sustained decision to take God with utter seriousness as the God of my life. It is to live out each hour in a practical, concrete affirmation that God is Father and he is ‘in heaven.” It is a decision to shift the center of our lives from ourselves to him, to forego self-interest and make his interests, his will, our sole concern. This is what it means to hallow his name as Father in heaven."
--Sister Ruth Burrows, O.C.D.

Unthinkable, abortion, with Mary and Joseph as models. Theirs is the kind of radical letting go, detachment, and surrender to which we are called. This is no namby-pamby "spirituality." This is no self-indulgent program of prosperity, exotic travel, and “true love.”

Reality is not, nor has it ever been, for the faint of heart.

MATTHIAS GRÜNEWALD
DETAIL, ISENHEIM ALTARPIECE

17 comments:

  1. No, reality isn't for the faint of heart. Not in the least.

    Your reflections on St. Joseph are brilliant, Heather. I've never looked at him in that light, but it makes much sense. Thank you -- definitely going to be meditating on this for a bit.

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  2. Among the many reasons I find your work so consistently compelling is its ability to generate a passionate response. It is not your intent, nor should it, that these responses be pleasant to the reader. (In fact, I think your view that Christianity is radical requires you to provoke disturbing feelings.) That said, I feel antagonized by your inference that soldiers "enjoy war".

    I think you have a strongly held view that the military professions are somehow less than noble. I don't intend to talk you out of this opinion. That said, I recently left the military after eleven years and never met anyone in the field who I even remotely suspected of taking pleasure in killing. It may be the case that combatants find joy in victory, but few find pleasure in the journey. This might have been what Robert E Lee meant when he said "it is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."

    If, as you say, that those who enjoy war were Christ's crucifiers, then we all enjoy war. Perhaps it is fair to posit moral equivalence between a general and an abortionist, Heather, but to be consistent with your work (which I love!) I think you'd best say the same of carpenters. And writers. Who is not capable of violence?

    Maybe it is inconceivable that the Messiah's foster-father be a soldier. Since when is inconceivability an issue in these matters? The God-Man is inconceivable. His death and resurrection more so.

    I have a family, Heather. It is inconceivable to me that somebody thought it was a good idea that I be given the job of teaching two little boys how to be men. Yet here I am.

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  3. Peter, thanks--yes, we are all violent, or have violent tendencies, absolutely! That's my whole point--that having had three abortions, I can never remotely pretend not to be violent myself..

    Back around last July-August, I posted a whole series on non-violence, war, the violence we exercise towards ourselves, etc. which may give you somewhat of a fuller picture...I can't pretend to have any kind of "answer" or resolution. I live in a country in which so many people have died to purportedly safeguard my freedom and I am deeply, deeply grateful for that. Humbled by that. I am also deeply troubled by that. I feel like if I am so concerned about my freedom, I should lay down my own life, not ask an 18-year-old boy or girl to give theirs...So my stance toward war is based on compassion for the
    soldier, not on trying to be critical of him or her, and of a life of which I can know nothing, can know nothing of the horror and suffering and sacrifice of a soldier.

    The phrase "enjoy war" came from a passage in Chesterton's Orthodoxy that likewise troubled me, one of the few places I couldn't agree with him:

    "All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.

    So it is also, of course, with the contradictory charges of the anti-Christians about submission and slaughter. It IS true that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight; and it IS true that those who fought were like thunderbolts and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans. There must be SOME good in the life of battle, for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be SOME good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other. They existed side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples of monks, simply became monks. The Quakers became a club instead of becoming a sect. Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured out lucid lamentations about the cruelty of battles and the vanity of revenge. But the Tolstoyans are not quite right enough to run the whole world; and in the ages of faith they were not allowed to run it. The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James Douglas or the banner of Joan the Maid. And sometimes this pure gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul of St. Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that this text is too lightly interpreted. It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is--Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved."

    Continued...

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  4. The Church did achieve that miracle, but to my mind by fighting a different war than the war that has traditionally taken place on the battlefield, and now, more and more, by dropping nuclear bombs, operating unmanned military drones, etc.

    I spent many hours writing notes, trying to gather my thoughts, composing a rebuttal to this passage, just trying to sort out my own thoughts, and I must say the phrase that stuck in my craw was there are many good men who have enjoyed being soldiers. Soldierhood, no matter which way you cut it, means killing people and destroying property and if a person truly enjoys that, I'm thinking he or she should maybe look for a different vocation. Maybe Chesterton just used an unfortunate word there.

    Re inconceivable, there's inconceivable in the sense of we would never have imagined the thing on our own, and yet miracle of miracles, it "fits," it's true, it answers the deepest call and question of our heart: e.g. that God took on human flesh, came to earth, and pitched his tent among us. That he calls us to be fathers and mothers, no matter how ill-equipped we might feel. That he saves us, for no good reason except love, from dying a drunk in the gutter. That's not the sense I'm using here.

    Then there's inconceivable in the sense that if true, the thing would throw the whole miracle/mystery out of whack. It would ring a false note in the story. It would derogate from the sublime unlikeliness of the resurrection. That's the sense in which I mean it would have been inconceivable for Christ to have had a father who was a general or a mother who was an abortionist.

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  5. This passage struck a chord with me:

    "Similarly, Mary overcame the hardest thing it is possible for a woman to overcome: her desire to cling; to possess that which she loves; to manage, control, and become proprietary. This, too, is partly a biological urge."

    As an extemely clingy personal who struggles to detach herself from others, I like it that I have a role-model in the Blessed Mother who probably struggled with this as well, and overcame it. It's always good to have more reasons to look up to and honor Mary.

    Thanks for writing!

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  6. Heather:

    that was very kind of you to respond to me in such detail. I suppose I failed to read the terms you were using ("unimaginable", "inconceivable") in the correct sense either because I am not a very good reader, or because I was a little ticked off. Or both.

    In any event your points are well-taken, as always. I will explore your series on non-violence; I hadn't read it, though I recall the topic arising in your books.

    I wonder if Chesterton would have drawn a distinction between "enjoying being soldiers" and "enjoying war"? Certainly
    I think the latter phrase seems more provocative. I'm confident we could find many good and happy soldiers who would deny enjoying war. Your point is well-taken in that the life of a soldier can involve the use of deadly force, which is full of moral and ethical difficulties, to say the least. But the virtues of courage and honor, and the pleasures of comradeship and tradition, are present in military life like few other places. I was a lousy soldier, but I knew many good ones and these things are what they embraced.

    (I'll throw you a bone, though. Some of these guys really, really like guns. Is that the same as being violent?)

    Anyway I realize this discussion is ancillary to the larger point in your essay. Thank you for embracing your vocation. You have a remarkable gift.

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  7. Heather--thought provoking. Good commentary by your readers. One little stumbling block for me: "Abortion is not an issue; abortion is one of an infinite number of facets of the Way, the Truth, and the Life...". Gosh, I hope this is not accurate, or that I simply don't get what you mean, especially the latter part. For me, abortion is an issue, one which is dealt with differently by all of us.
    I prosecuted civil child abuse cases for twenty years: cases involving violence by parents against a child which took many forms, often against infants. In most cases, the violence against a child took place in the context of parents with overwhelming life circumstances such as economic stress, mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, family history of violence, etc. Nevertheless, the "issue" for me was obtaining protection for the child against violence, and services and assistance for the parents. Over the years, I couldn't escape the parallel between the issue of violence against children living in the 'womb' of a family, and that of violence against those not yet born. What to do about it?
    For JPII, abortion was "the issue": in his June 12, 1994 Angelus address he "...stressed the right to life as the basic human right and the foundation of any meaningful platform of human rights." And in an August, 1994 Angelus address, he said fundamental justice was undermined absent recognition of "..the unborn child's moral claim to protection." Sounds legalistic, not particularly spiritual. But this was how JPII chose to respond to the issue of abortion. And it positively impacted the Clinton administration's international policy intentions on the "issue" of abortion at the time.
    In contrast, Mary Agee Cunningham, a business executive, addresses the issue of abortion through her Nurturing Network: she individually asks every mother faced with unwanted pregnancy "How can we help you?" The premise of her work is that many mothers really don't have a "choice" about abortion because of life circumstances. Her organization helps mothers by providing jobs and places to live during pregnancy, all over the country. She is a devout Catholic, but never mentions that fact to the mothers she serves. The effect of her approach is that mothers give life to their babies.
    And you, Heather King, are addressing the issue of the evil of abortion in the most compelling way--by writing directly to our hearts and minds from the drama and mystery of your own life. It's inconceivable you are not changing hearts and--I'll say it--even saving babies. The issue of violence and abortion is not for the faint of heart. Not for JPII, not for Mary Cunningham, not for Heather King.
    Thank you Heather for your continuing labor to advance the Kingdom.

    Blessings,

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

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  8. I am having trouble with Blogger, so a word on behalf of Peter (maybe) through email: 

    I don't know, Heather. Our Lord's legal paternity identifies him strictly as the Son of David. The shepherd was a boy who faced down lions to protect his flock to become not only Israel's King but a military genius; a general to his generals! (He moreover slew not only lions but Goliath when called to protect the Lord's flock.) Of course that is not the whole story.  

    Christ said "the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force," and that too was witnessed by his ancestor—when Nathan came to depose David as he had done to his predecessor Saul. King David turned upon *himself* with the same fury his enemies had known. David repented, and the Lord made room for his return. 

    May we all find vision and courage to face our worst enemy thus directly: and to overcome ourselves. 

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  9. I don't think Christianity is about nonviolence. After all, we are the Church Militant. We have to fight. We pray to St. Michael to defend us in battle. We also pray to our guardian angels for protection. Don't forget St Joan of Arc. There's a war going on and some of us will have to fight and kill.

    -Mike Demers

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  10. You have made me want to read Chesterton.

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  11. "I don't know, Heather. Our Lord's legal paternity identifies him strictly as the Son of David. The shepherd was a boy who faced down lions to protect his flock to become not only Israel's King but a military genius; a general to his generals! (He moreover slew not only lions but Goliath when called to protect the Lord's flock.) Of course that is not the whole story.

    Christ said "the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force," and that too was witnessed by his ancestor—when Nathan came to depose David as he had done to his predecessor Saul. King David turned upon *himself* with the same fury his enemies had known. David repented, and the Lord made room for his return. "

    Of course David is in the line of Christ, but I'm not sure that that is a positive argument either way. I'm in a Bible and Literature class right now and we went over 2 Samuel, in which David does some pretty terrible and violent things (David and Bathsheba 2 Samuel 11). That story is particularly striking - I hadn't read it, or the vast majority of the Old Testament, before - and one of its consequence is that the "sword shall never depart from your house". A pretty substantial, violent mess ensues in the rest of the book.

    Reading your response again I think you alluded to all that in the second paragraph, but I guess the point is that I don't think David should necessarily be put upon a pedestal as a sort of role model or justification. He was one type of King, and though Christ is a King as well he is obviously well beyond that a mere category.

    Also, the teacher mentioned that the "Godfather" of the movies, is a strong Davidic figure, warts and all. I hadn't thought about it before or really read any of the Old Test. stories, but apparently the allegory is very strong.

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  12. Perhaps so, Robert. It was a great evil David committed. The King himself reaped the fruit he had sown. "The sword shall never depart from your house," Nathan prophesied. 

    I didn't know Scripture until I was grown. It puzzled and bothered me that such would be forgiven, yet King Saul altogether rejected for what seemed at most faint-heartedness. (David remains the "man after God's own heart"?) 

    That prophetic judgment was not qualified: Scripture with Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions confess it. Perhaps it points to the essential difference between Saul and his successor which I hadn't seen—David was not a faint-hearted man. 

    No matter what corner of life I work myself into I want to remember that. 

    —Bill 

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  13. Bill,

    Regarding the matter of God's seeming "preferences," though that word is very inadequate - how about what stirs God's heart? - is there perhaps a similarity between God's favor towards David ("David was not a faint-hearted man") and what we see in Revelation and God's distaste for the "lukewarm"?

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  14. I don't really know how to respond to this side conversation about David, it is so far off topic--which was Mary and Joseph and their radical surrender to God. Which was how Christ "thrown everything off balance," as The Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" observed.

    No doubt the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence--that doesn't give us carte blanche to be violent with each other. The violence of the Old Testament as a justification for continuing violence--in utter disregard of Christ, his teachings, his life, his death, and his Resurrection--isn't a conversation I'm interested in nor able to have, nor that I wish to host, nor to which I have anything to add...So let's agree to disagree and with all due gratitude and respect to you all from my end, move on...

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  15. Jesus said to his disciples:
    "You have heard that it was said,
    You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
    But I say to you, love your enemies,
    and pray for those who persecute you,
    that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
    for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
    and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

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I WELCOME your comments!!!