Our parish rotates three men's preaching through the weekend Masses: our pastor, a deacon, and an older, retired priest. All three are decent homilists, but with quite different styles. Our pastor, Father J, is the one most likely to call us to personal conversion. The deacon is the one most likely to draw lessons directly from the Gospel. The older retired priest, Father W, is the one who is most likely to incorporate commentary based on current events.
Today it was Father W's turn, and he exhorted us to pray for the Church that is besieged, that is constantly under attack from all sides. He was thinking of the twenty-one Coptic Christians whom the Islamic State publicly martyred in a video distributed last week; he was thinking of Iran, and the risk of weapons of mass destruction being deployed against Israel; he was thinking of recent belligerents' announcement of a war against "Rome" and the "nation of the blood of the cross." He argued that we must not become complacent because we enjoy relative peace in the United States, but must remain united in spirit with those Christians who are at real risk of violence because they live near people who want to do them violence in the name of religion.
This is not the first time the siege image has been used in our parish. Our previous pastor also spoke frequently of the Church as besieged, but he was most often talking about cultural attacks from within the framework of North American society. It has seemed very much in question whether, for example, we will continue to enjoy legal protection of speech and art concerning the moral life, or whether our hospitals and schools will run up against regulations that force us to choose between abandoning missions to teach and to heal, and acting contrary to conscience.
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The two situations aren't remotely equal in gravity, of course, and there are important differences (for one thing, our government being acknowledged by us as a legitimate authority, even if some of us think it oversteps its bounds). And they aren't actually what moved me to write today, just some background.
Today I learned of two women, women I don't know personally, Christian women: a friend's sister, and another friend of a friend.
The sister's husband, some years ago, had sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Occupational therapy had restored him physically but he never quite recovered mentally. He began abusing her. Recently he announced that he was leaving her and the children, that he intended to leave them with no money or resources, and that he already has found a new girlfriend. He has blocked her access to their joint assets, taken her car, and canceled their cell phones.
So we have a jerk, sure, but does it rise to religious persecution? Well...This man taunts his wife about the fantastic sex he is now enjoying on a regular basis with the new girlfriend: "Take that, NFP!"
The words might have nothing to do with reality and be meant only to wound. But he knows how to wound her, and chose his words.
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The friend of a friend told her husband, before he became her husband, that she wanted to marry a Catholic. He went through RCIA, an apparent convert; several years later, several children later, he announced, "You didn't really think I believed all that bullshit, did you?" He gives her books arguing for atheism for her birthday, and forbids her from taking the children with her to church.
"On the plus side," my friend wrote when she asked me for prayers, "when the emotional abuse finally gets too much for her and she leaves him, she'll have the easiest annulment case I ever heard of. Slam dunk." But this is cold comfort, and bitter, when you are in the midst of it.
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These situations are writ much smaller than militants' genocidal persecution or government pressure. But the wounding of human hearts, by other hearts driven by their own dark ideologies, is the kind of thing that cannot be weighed in a balance, the better to say "this suffering is nothing, compared to that."
C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity:
“One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.”
The little marks on the soul go both ways.
These are also attacks on Christ, on "these little ones" (which is the same) -- the mocking, the attempts to undermine the security of children in their own families -- individuals taking it upon themselves to twist a knife into someone who once trusted them -- all an effort to damage goodness itself: the ability of ordinary people to have faith that God and human beings are good, to have hope that suffering has a meaning, to become vulnerable, which is what it is to love. Who is to say has done more damage? The blood ran red into the Mediterranean last week, and a score of saints entered eternity; the little mark on the heart of a single, well-nourished child, one among so many others, who knows what infection may enter through such a wound, and how it might be passed to others.
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Be kind, for everyone -- everyone -- is fighting a great battle. Just under the surface. I think it is far easier for us to imagine that the main thrust of the attack comes from foreign boogeymen or from irritating politicians. Such have always been and always will be, wars and reports of wars, earthquakes and falling stars. If we recognize the battle in our own families, friendships, workplaces, well -- we might have to do something about it, stand up, lift our chins and be counted.