Your orthodoxy has been hacked!
In his article “The Feast of the Presentation in the Temple” (Nov.) Hurd Baruch cites Maria Valtorta as offering insights into the presentation of Mary, without any reference to the fact that her book was on the Index of Forbidden Books. Though the index is now obsolete, Valtorta’s Poem of the Man-God is not approved, and for good reasons. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wondered why the faithful continued to read her books, which the Vatican had so often warned us about.
Also, regarding Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich: Her holiness is not in question, but the translation of her visions is not verifiable. The man who copied down her reported visions, Clemens Brentano, was himself an author of fiction. It is not known how much he could have inserted his own ideas into the narrative.
The Church is very careful about preserving us from error, if we would listen.
American Life League
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
HURD BARUCH REPLIES:
Kathleen Blossom correctly notes that the published version of Maria Valtorta visions was indexed. However, that fact was expressly stated in my article: “The Poem of the Man-God, vol. I-V, a book the Church placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, until the abolition of the index in the 1960s.”
I share Blossom’s wariness about The Poem. At considerable expense, I bought the five-volume work, but I have only managed to finish the first volume. The lengthy descriptions not only of what Jesus did, but more particularly of what He said, are often greatly moving, but they also seem to me at points to be inconsistent with the Gospels. Nevertheless, I decided to cite it for two reasons. First, I know of very spiritual people who are convinced that Valtorta’s visions are credible and edifying. Moreover, the book’s distributor claims, in a pasted-in insert inside the front cover, that a typewritten copy of the visions had been provided to Pope Pius XII, and that he had personally approved its publication (which he had authority to do) in a private audience with three priest-theologians of the Order of the Servites of Mary, a decade before Pope St. John XXIII indexed it. (Fr. Mitch Pacwa disputes this claim in his article “Is ‘The Poem of the Man-God’ Simply a Bad Novel?” in New Covenant, Feb 1994; available online at http://www.ewtn.com/library/scriptur/valtorta.txt.) Second, I wanted to show the reader that I had attempted to research the available sources, including that well-known one.
I also agree with Blossom that the translation (actually, both the transcription and the translation) of the visions of the Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich cannot be verified. Her words were written down by one of the great Romantic poets of the time, Clement Brentano, over a period of six years, as he sat by her bedside from time to time. In my own book Light on Light (MaxKol Communications 2004), in which I condensed, organized, and commented on over 2,000 printed pages of these visions, I provided this caveat in the introduction: “The Church always keeps in mind that the holiness of the recipient of a vision or locution is no guarantee that he or she did not err in what was perceived, or in how the perceptions were interpreted and then retransmitted by the recipient. For her part, Sister Emmerich did not claim that her visions had the accuracy of Scripture. According to Brentano’s preface to his first edition of the Dolorous Passion, she herself considered her visions as having only a ‘human and defective value.’ Moreover, Clement Brentano at times inserted his own commentary, and, speaking of the compiled revelations as a whole, the dividing line between her revelations dictated in low German and his rendering of them in elegant language is not always clear. Nevertheless, the reader who immerses himself in the staggering wealth of detail of her visions will surely decide for himself that, in the main, their source could only have been divine revelation.”
Port au Port, Newfoundland
Huntington, New York
The Presentation in The Festal Menaion
As Hurd Baruch points out, the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple is largely unknown, or else neglected, among Catholics. Should the feast fall on a weekday, one will see it commemorated by the Scripture readings Baruch notes in his article, appropriate Psalm verses, the four Proper prayers, and perhaps in the priest’s homily. Should it fall on a Sunday, it is entirely forgotten that year.
There is another wonderful resource for this feast: The Festal Menaion, a work first published by Faber and Faber (London, 1969), and easily available today in later editions and reprints from online and mail-order booksellers. The Festal Menaion has been an irreplaceable companion of mine throughout the liturgical year for decades.
The word Menaion derives from the Greek word for month. For the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics, the Menaia are books that contain the liturgical texts read or sung throughout the year. There is one book for each month, containing the set feast days. Another collection contains the entire Lenten cycle, another the Paschal season, and another the Sundays outside of these. Mind you, we are not speaking here of the unvarying, basic texts that comprise the daily services of the Liturgy of the Hours nor the Book of Uses, comparable to the Liber Usualis, the prescribed texts for various sacraments, blessings, and so forth. We are speaking of texts specific and proper to the various occasions.
The Festal Menaion is a compilation of English translations by a nun known only as Mother Mary and Archimandrite (later Bishop) Kallistos (Timothy) Ware of the nine Great Feasts (not contained in the Lenten or Paschal seasons) that are not moveable, taken from the first set of books mentioned above. One of these nine is “The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple.” This feast comprises 34 pages of text, of which four contain readings from Scripture (Old and New Testaments) and 30 contain hymns, prayers, and poetry read or sung at appropriate places throughout Vespers, Matins, and the Divine Liturgy.
The keynote of Byzantine liturgical poetry is often solemnity and exuberance — a solemn exuberance or an exuberant solemnity. What is omnipresent is a constant meditation upon every facet of the subject addressed and a searching theological understanding that informs each line. Indeed, as those conversant with it know and have said, all the theology of the Eastern Church is to be found in the veritable library of its liturgical texts.
The Feast of the Entry into the Temple is never forgotten in the East. If it falls on a Sunday, one of the eight services of the Resurrection designated for the Sundays outside of Lent and the Paschal season is celebrated and the service for the feast is also celebrated. It also inaugurates the Christmas season because eight hymns of Christmas are distributed throughout the Matins for the feast.
In every year of our lives, every moment can be sanctified because the truths proposed for our intelligence are endless. I invite you to join this journey of discovery. One word of caution: Upon embarking and traveling just a short distance into the Eastern library, the paucity of resources in the Latin rite, as described by Baruch, becomes distressingly evident. This leads me to two observations. First, “Every word of God is pure” (Prov. 30:5): Every one of them can provide the “grace to help in time of need” to the attentive mind. Although there are much fewer resources, they are certainly there. Second, if more and more knowledgeable persons — laymen and clergy — learn more, demand more of themselves and others, share more, and create more, perhaps that grand project of retrieving Patristic sources and encountering the traditions that have been kept alive in the Eastern Churches, and then developing life and liturgy in an organic way in the Latin rite, worthy and legitimate goals of the Second Vatican Council, may to some degree be realized.
Judie Brown, President
Planned Parenthood's Net of Evil
Anne Barbeau Gardiner has accomplished a series of worthy goals in her insightful article “Planned Parenthood: Seventy Years of Defying the Law” (Oct.). She has, in good measure, reminded us that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and her ilk have cast a net of evil so wide and deep into our culture that only a moment of sane thinking permits us to understand just how much stench was born of a woman who hated the Catholic Church, despised marriage, and would have done anything to assure that as few pregnancies as possible result in the birth of living children.
I learned a great deal from Dr. Gardiner’s article, most particularly as it relates to the facts of abortion and its prevalence in the 1930s and 1940s. We do not often get the chance to read the documentation that supports these facts in such an orderly fashion, and for that I personally thank Dr. Gardiner. Some examples from her thorough treatment of this troubling topic include her verbatim quotes from a 1943 issue of Harper’s magazine and a 1938 issue of Fortune, not to mention reference to the 1934 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. The statistics relating to the act of abortion alone are astounding and, I daresay, not well known even in pro-life circles.
The drive to press for the ridding of the unwanted has, in our day, been obscured by various euphemisms such as choice, reproductive health, and freedom from childbearing. But the bottom line is still the same, as so eloquently stated by Archbishop Patrick Hayes of New York, who, in responding to his critics, exclaimed, “Since when has it been undemocratic to speak in defense of the moral law?”
Those of us who have spent most of our adult lives fighting this scourge know full well the price of standing up and defending the moral law, and we gladly pay that price. Archbishop Hayes’s words ring especially true in this current day, when the Little Sisters of the Poor are being hounded by our government because they chose not to go along with the anti-God, anti-life Obama administration’s contraception mandate. As Gardiner suggests, nothing has changed at all — but it has gotten a whole lot worse as the culture has continued to descend into the hell it has created for itself because of its love of sexual pleasure.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Anne Barbeau Gardiner, not only for reminding us of David Goldstein’s valuable 1945 book Suicide Bent, but for the history lesson and for teaching us that, once again, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Belvidere, New Jersey
Anne Barbeau Gardiner’s article on Planned Parenthood was a good read. The detailed information she presented on contraception was particularly interesting because contraception is still a gray area for many Catholics: It’s not abortion, so what’s wrong with it? I get it, thanks to writers like Gardiner.
The Bible implicitly forbids contraception, which is something Gardiner didn’t mention in her article, good as it was. Genesis 38 recounts how God killed Onan because he practiced withdrawal (“he wasted his seed on the ground”), a form of contraception, which was “wicked in the sight of the Lord.” Also, the Bible prohibits sorcery (Gal. 5:20) and sorcerers (Rev. 21:8) — these being the religious references to the potions that were commonly used for preventing fertility or achieving abortion and to those who trafficked in them.
Fr. Thomas Shaw
Scarier than Fiction
As a longtime, though intermittent, reader of ghost stories, I was pleased to see Andrew M. Seddon’s article “Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Ghost Stories?” (Oct.). In raising the question of whether there are Catholic ghost stories, Dr. Seddon gets to the heart of an issue that, you might say, bedevils the ghost-story genre.
The most influential 20th-century writer of ghost stories was undoubtedly M.R. James, an Anglican. James, though, looks to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a 19th-century Irish Protestant, as his master. Le Fanu’s ghosts were almost always malevolent, and, in fact, James makes this a requirement of ghost stories. In an article titled “Ghosts — Treat Them Gently!” (The Evening News, Apr. 17, 1931), James wrote, “On the whole, then, I say you must have horror and also malevolence.” This despite the fact that some writers considered to be in the Jamesian tradition, such as E.G. Swain, do not always present malevolent ghosts. Nonetheless, this dictum creates problems for the Catholic writer of ghost stories because James, as Le Fanu before him, often did not make clear why these hauntings occurred and rarely gave the haunted a way out, short of death. On those occasions in which the hauntings were due to some terrible act the haunted had performed many years earlier and had been trying to hide, I’ve often thought that if they had access to the Sacrament of Penance, the hauntings would cease.
However, there were also the many stories in which the haunted did nothing to bring this horror upon themselves. This seems to me to set up a world in which God is powerless, or even worse, a chaotic world that makes no sense. Catholics understand that the world does make sense, and that we have the means to correct that which seems chaotic. But James and his followers don’t seem to want that, so there is no room in their world for the explicitly religious (which often means Catholic), although there seems to be plenty of room for the anti-religious. For me, this weakens the strength of the “shudder” that is the aim of ghost-story writers. In fact, I believe that the spiritual truths, and explanations, that can be successfully conveyed by a Catholic worldview can provide an even greater shudder. Truth can be scarier than fiction.
Along with Dr. Seddon, I hope that more Catholic writers will bring our faith into the realm of the ghost or supernatural story, although acceptance will probably not come easily. But then, acceptance of our faith does not come easily either.
Reading Andrew M. Seddon’s encomium to ghost stories, which liberally quotes authors about their functions, from entertainment to enhancement of one’s faith, I couldn’t help but think of another, tangentially related genre. It provides the same pleasures for readers, greatly augmented. I refer to tales of demonic possession, some of which have the further virtue of being true rather than fictional. If there is anyone who likes ghost stories and is unacquainted with such tales, I strongly recommend Fr. Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans. Ghosts are but pale, imaginary stand-ins for real, soul-eating demons.
The Rev. Philip M. Stark
Cumberland, Rhode Island
ANDREW SEDDON REPLIES:
I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on M.R. James. But, having recently read his complete ghost stories, I am in agreement with Fr. Shaw’s assessment: James requires ghosts to be malevolent, frequently there is no explanation for the hauntings, and there is a lack of the explicitly religious. For James’s ghosts, and some of his humans, there is simply no escape. In this respect, if not in others, his stories bear resemblance to those of the atheist H.P. Lovecraft, and they stand in contrast to those of Catholic authors such as Robert Hugh Benson and Russell Kirk.
But to my mind there is simply no reason why authors should follow James’s dictum that ghosts should always be malevolent, and there are good reasons why they shouldn’t. James, I believe, restricted himself by adopting this dictum, and thereby lost the opportunity (if indeed he wanted it) to expand his horizons. It certainly appears that he did not wish to write stories with explicitly religious content, dismissing, as he did, Benson’s contributions as “too ecclesiastical.”
“I do not see ghosts,” wrote Chesterton, “I see only their inherent probability.” It is this probability — or possibility, since I would not go quite as far as Chesterton — that opens the door for Catholic authors to go beyond the limits adopted by James.
In using our imaginations in service to our faith, why can’t we conceive of benevolent ghosts or suffering (purgatoriabpghosts in addition to the malevolent kind? Alongside the malign types, couldn’t there be those who wish to help us, and those who need our help? In my own stories, all three types of ghosts can be found, along with reasons for the hauntings, which have some spiritual basis.
I hope, along with Fr. Shaw, that other Catholic writers will take up the challenge of crafting ghost and supernatural stories founded upon a Catholic worldview.
I am even less qualified to comment on stories of demons and demonic possession (real or fictionab| which, frankly, have never appealed to me. Benson’s The Necromancers (a warning about the dangers of spiritualism) might fall into this category. Novels about spiritual warfare (angels and demons) seem to be quite popular in Protestant circles, Frank Peretti being a notable contributor.
Toby J. Russo
THE EDITOR COMMENTS:
One example that comes to mind of a contemporary Catholic author who, using his imagination in service to the faith, has conceived of stories involving benevolent and suffering ghosts, as well as malevolent ones, is the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz. The eponymous title character has a special gift (though sometimes it is a curse): He can see and interact with ghosts. Some are lost souls in need of help, others bear important messages for the living, and still others are wicked and destructive. As with much of Koontz’s fiction, the Odd Thomas books are fast-paced thrillers with a supernatural dimension. They contain macabre depictions of evil and are, therefore, not for the faint of heart.
As for books on demonic possession, in the nonfiction department, in addition to Hostage to the Devil (1976), we would recommend The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio (2009), the true story of the experiences of an American priest whose bishop sent him to Rome to study the rite of exorcism; An Exorcist Tells His Tale by Fr. Gabriele Amorth (1999), the author’s accounts of his experiences as chief exorcist of Rome, including an overview of the rite itself (Fr. Amorth once claimed to have performed more than 30,000 exorcisms); and its sequel, An Exorcist: More Stories (2002). In the fiction department, there is, of course, one title that stands out above the rest: The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971). Again, these books are not for the squeamish.
Anne Carrington McHugh
Charlotte, North Carolina
In his guest column “Another Side of John Henry Newman” (Oct.), Warren R. Johnson seems to imply that Newman’s main interest was music, and he regrets that Newman is not better known in this regard. But the fact is that, for Newman, as musical as he was, music played (no pun intended) a subordinate role in his life. His vocation was to the Church (first Anglican, then Catholic), and his time was heavily devoted to teaching, preaching, and writing. He became one of the finest prose stylists of the century. Yet he was so accomplished on the violin that some people remembered all their lives how he played, for instance, a Beethoven quartet. And his speaking voice — it was called silvery — once heard, was never forgotten.
Moreover, Mr. Johnson makes some very dubious assertions:
1. The exiled king of France, Louis-Philippe, as a teacher at Ealing School, shows up in none of the Newman biographies I have read.
2. While Newman was a student at Oxford, he played in a private orchestra. To say, as Johnson does, that “he still indulged in music, playing fiddle in a band,” is stating a fact, to be sure, but putting it rather shabbily.
3. When Newman was ordained a Catholic priest and joined the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, the oratory had already been well established in Italy. Newman did “set up an oratory” in England — but nowhere else.
4. Most serious of all is Johnson’s claim that Newman’s father, a banker, “was forced to declare bankruptcy” and put the family possessions “out on the street for auction.” On the contrary, we learn from John Henry Newman: A Biography (1988) by Fr. Ian Ker, perhaps the outstanding Newman scholar of the present day, that there was no bankruptcy. All the bank’s depositors were paid. And an auction in the street? Seems very unlikely.
It is surprising that Johnson fails to note a very important moment in Newman’s life, one involving music: April 12, 1822, a day Newman called “of all days most memorable.” That day, the provost’s butler from Oriel College came to inform the anxious young Newman, in his lodgings on Broad Street, that he had been elected fellow at Oriel. What was Newman doing at that moment? He was playing his fiddle.
Vincent Colin Burke
WARREN R. JOHNSON REPLIES:
It is true that Newman is best known for his ecclesiastical life. My goal was to show that his life was rich in other regards as well. As a retired clergyman, musician, and writer, I was attracted to the fact that Newman made some significant accomplishments in the arts. My column was an attempt to elucidate these accomplishments, rather than an attempt to write a scholarly piece. Still, I don’t suggest that that is an excuse for offering inaccurate information. However, my column does reflect the research that I did.
1. That King Louis-Philippe was a teacher at Ealing School can be found in the chapter “Ealing and Brentford: Education” in A History of the County of Middlesex, Volume VII: Acton, Chiswick, Ealing and Brentford, West Twyford, Willesden (Victoria County History, 1982; pp.162-170).
2. I agree that saying that Newman played in a band is rather shabby language. This was simply a citation from Oxford Apostles: A Character Study of the Oxford Movement by Geoffrey Faber (Penguin Books, 1954; p.116).
3. Fr. Stark is correct that Newman set up only one oratory, in Birmingham. My comment that he set up an oratory in Rome is incorrect. I apologize for my oversight.
4. Lastly, the bankruptcy story, if passed through history as a fascinating anecdote, can in fact be found in John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion by Frank Miller Turner (Yale University Press, 2002; p.113). That Newman’s musical scores were lost at this time and one found and returned years later is possibly “too true to believe,” but it seems at least with this one reference to stand up for itself (ibid.; p.114).
My thanks to Fr. Stark for scrutinizing my column and taking the time to reply. Digging deeper into these sources has given me renewed respect for Newman and his involvements with music and writing.
No Such Thing
Francisco Alberti, in his letter “We Need You, But You Need to Grow Up” (Jul.-Aug.), claims that the pope has the “charism of infallibility.” I was educated in theology and philosophy by Jesuits in the 1950s and never heard that term. Recently, I asked a Jesuit priest about it, and he also said he had never heard of it. I was hoping one of your editors would comment on it because there really is no such thing.
THE EDITOR REPLIES:
We regret to have to correct Mr. Russo, but yes, the pope does enjoy the “charism of infallibility.” Perhaps it was Mr. Alberti’s use of the word charism in this context that threw off Mr. Russo? We can only speculate. But Mr. Alberti did not pull this phrase out of thin air or the wilds of his imagination. Rather, it appears in the documents of Vatican II. Lumen Gentium, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” for example, tells us that when the Roman pontiff “proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals,” he does not do so as “a private person” but rather as “the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in which the Church’s charism of infallibility is present in a singular way” (no. 25; italics added).
A charism, as defined in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “a specific gift or grace of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefits the Church.” In the case of the pope, it is the gift to “expound and defend the teaching of the Catholic faith,” as Lumen Gentium puts it, without falling into error.
Pope Francis, like all the pontiffs who came before him, enjoys the “charism of infallibility.” Whether he has exercised this charism is open to debate. Is his “environmental” encyclical Laudato Si’ an ex cathedra proclamation pertaining to faith and morals? What about his hotly contested apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, in which he seems to argue in favor of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics (about which see our New Oxford Note “A ‘Climate of Fear’ in the Vatican?” on p. 24 of this issue)?
One thing we can all agree on — and this was Mr. Alberti’s ultimate point — is that Pope Francis does not speak infallibly when he gives extemporaneous interviews or speaks off-the-cuff, as, alas, is often his wont. Not every word issued from the mouth of a pope is an infallible proclamation — and thank goodness for that!
The Tyranny of Technology
John Lyon, at the conclusion of his astute and timely article “Are We Living in Georges Bernanos’s Utilitarian Nightmare?” (Nov.), quotes Chuang-Tzu’s timeless parable of the draw-well, which explains eloquently man’s striving for balance between the profound need to preserve and honor his dignity as a human being and his often deeply conflicted relationship with his own technological brilliance. The unintended consequences of man’s inventions too often become, as Thoreau once stated, a fate, an Atropos. At what point do mechanical tools cease being servants and become snares, eventually transforming their inventors into machines themselves? And, should we worry?
Perhaps it simply is what it is, as the millennials are wont to say. But no. Ever and always — thanks be to God — there are the few who look up from their own tools and skills, observe society’s growing captivity in its own inventions, and sound the alarm once again. They take us all to task for failing in our vigilance against the old enemy, technology — technology that professes to free mankind even as it enslaves him and diminishes his own worth, technology that so erodes individuals’ choices in life that freedom becomes a farcical concept.
Dr. Lyon throws a glaring light on our failure to recognize this inexorable encroachment on freedom, effects decried and predicted so pungently by Bernanos, who states in the same essay cited by Lyon (“Why Freedom?”) that “the first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.” The evidence of Bernanos’s insight is plainly evident in aggressive social engineering that allows an assortment of groups representing tiny factions of the population to retrain the minds of the often unsuspecting majority of citizens to believe or at least to consider reluctantly and eventually accept that whatever means bring “justice” must be somehow for the greater good. The defining terms of that justice, and the determination of the ends, is left in the hands of the engineers. Freedom, then, is trampled nearly to death by narrow notions of freedom foisted off on the larger body politic, and this destruction has been marvelously facilitated at ever accelerating speed by man’s technological heights of efficiency.
Or depths. Ironically, our modern, mechanistically mesmerized society has the capacity to reduce freedom to mere mythology through a new tyranny that crushes mankind’s most heroic, individually noble impulses. We who have the audacity to proclaim our enduring, image-of-God humanity suddenly find ourselves in the role of latter-day Jeremiahs. Unwelcome as that role may be, silence is not an option, as John Lyon’s cogent observations have reminded us.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that much use of machines is wrong not because machines are mechanical but because fallen men are mechanical. That may mean that men tend almost naturally toward declining effort, including the effort required for the rightful employment of machines. I was reminded of this after reading John Lyon’s article.
It seems to me that the use of industrial machinery not only fosters injustice but even sprang from a disregard for the first element of justice. I’m inclined to attribute that to Calvinism, to which Hilaire Belloc attributed the rise of (usurious) capitalism. That fostered an attitude that said, in effect, doing what is just, though one must do it, neither improves the state nor affects the fate of our souls. Money and machines both are made of inert matter, yet both are expected to be productive. But the first principle, self-evident, of natural justice is that persons deserve the effects of what they do. However, no one actually does a machine’s moving, since only the living can do anything, even if it be only a plant’s own growing. A machine’s moving is only an occurrence we bring about by inanimate causes; we do not deserve its effects any more than we deserve wind blowing or rain falling.
That does not mean, though, that no one may ever enjoy what Chesterton called the “romance of machinery” (in The Outline of Sanity, 1926), which he said relatively few of us are rightly disposed to enjoy. It means rather that the machines in which we delight, or from the use of which we profit, ought either to be wound up like clocks of yore or run on electricity “fed into them” or batteries serving them, by the direct actions of men or animals operating handles or pedals, which latter are deeds by which men can deserve, through actually producing, their effects.
JOHN LYON REPLIES:
What destiny is inherent in man’s genius for re-arranging particles of matter I do not know. I fear, however, that once we consider our bodies as “nature” — in the Heideggerian sense of just so much “standing reserve” waiting for the exercise of our (disembodied?) will to act on it — we shall have crossed a fateful line. Beyond this imagined line, when, Narcissus-like, we see our reflection in silvered mirrors or digital reassemblies, we shall not fall in love with ourselves but shall be terrified. Or should be.
The real problem, though, is that the “we” may not be continuous. How shall “we” recognize any line in the sand beyond which a figure appears that is not “us”? Put otherwise, how much variation and amendment need we put into the human genome before we have created, out of our loins as it were, a creature for which it could not be said that Christ died?
Update on Pakistani Catholics
My wife and I have visited Michael and his family (Pakistani asylum-seekers who have fled to Thailand and were the subject of my article “A Witness in Bangkok,” Dec.) several times since they entered the International Detention Center, bringing them food and other necessities. The scene at the IDC is hectic and overwhelming. Visitors are separated from detainees by a seven-foot-high fence, with a short, one-yard space in between for guards to stroll and pass money or paperwork back and forth. Officials let in as many as 60 visitors at a time, which makes conversations difficult, with over 100 people shouting out their various requests and updates.
Our most recent visit was providentially timed to align with that of Michael’s most generous sponsor in Bangkok, a Filipina woman (and devout Catholic). Michael, his wife, and their 13-year-old daughter updated us on all news regarding their internment, including his daughter’s eye infection, their poor sleeping conditions, and the graft that defines their daily existence. Michael, now sporting a bushy haji beard, told us that guards do not allow razors in the IDC, but “graciously” charge a $15 fee to shave any willing men.
Michael’s wife began sharing details of their many struggles, but broke down, crying. Their Filipina friend exhorted them to trust in Christ, unite their sufferings to the Cross, and entrust all their needs to “Mama Maria.” She led them in prayer and several hymns, their voices momentarily raised above the shouting of six-score inmates and their dutiful friends. The smile of Michael’s daughter was indelible during this entire exchange, her innocent hazel eyes serving as their own testament to an unwavering faith and courage that no hardship seems capable of dispelling.
As I tried my best to maintain my composure, I could not help but notice a back room — entirely visible with its see-through glass walls — directly beyond the detainees. A Thai police officer was seated at his computer, his back to me, playing the popular, if notoriously mundane, game Candy Crush. Could the discrepancy between these two realities, separated by only a few yards, be more palpable?
It would be easy to mark this as demonstrative of the corruption and detachment that defines not only the local police but our broader hyper-technological world, where “tweets” condemning Boko Haram or safari hunters suffice to salve our wayward consciences. Yet I could not help but recall my own diverse and sundry versions of Candy Crush — all the mindless foolishness I allow to distract me from the incomprehensible and seemingly limitless pain I encounter daily. For many of us, that pain begins early every morning, as soon as the newspaper arrives at our doorstep or in our e-mail inbox. Pick your poison.
As I write this, and likely when you read this, an intelligent, hardworking, pious Catholic man, his wife, and their three children will be holed up inside a prison in Bangkok. They’ve done nothing wrong to merit their circumstances, apart from their indissoluble refusal to reverse their devotion to their Lord Jesus, coupled with an almost transcendent will to survive. As our visit concluded, their Filipina sponsor asserted through the metal wiring, “Think how many souls you are saving with your suffering!” Even more amazing — or insane? — than this claim was the simple, unflappable firmness with which it was met. These Pakistanis are tough stuff.
If you can, please pray for Michael, and pray for his family. Moreover, let his life be a testament that there is a courage and strength that can break through the cynicism and cheap sensuality that distracts us from who, and what, we are called to be. Contrary to everything our culture tells us, no suffering need be pointless. Let us petition God that not a single drop of ours be spent without profit.
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