Seven or so years ago I stated my journey with tattoos. I had a nail tattooed on one wrist, and then my dear friend (and then boss as well as newly minted author) Suzanne Castle graciously gifted me with the other wrist nail. I wanted these tattoos to mark that Easter Season and the meaning that Christ has held in my pilgrimage through life.
This week as I work on Good Friday devotional ideas and prepare for Easter Sunday, I am stuck not by the violence of what was done to Jesus, but by what a repudiation of the violence the events represent for students of Jesus.
Beginning in the garden when Jesus heals the servant whose ear is struck off in his defense, our Lord lays the foundation for a different way to do life…
Luke 22:49-51 “When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.”
Wow, can you see Jesus in your mind’s eye, hands raised and eyes wide, motioning his friends to a halt, “No more of this!” No more of this! Striking with the sword was not the answer. Striking back was not the way.
Later, on trial for his very life, Jesus will again repudiate violence as he speaks to Governor Pilate. His assures the Governor that his followers will not violently storm any chambers or raise weapons in his defense or to overthrow any authority, for that is not his kind of kingdom.
John 18:33-36 “Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ ‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’ Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’”
These passages have caused me to stop and reflect on the exquisite repudiation of violence that exists in the violence to be done to Jesus. That God would enter into life to bear the burden of such violence to open our eyes, to soften our hearts, to change our way, gives me pause and humbles my “wisdom” I am tempted to think I have collected.
I look at the nails tattooed on my wrists and I think that I have tended to meditate selfishly on what they mean, that I am the recipient of such love. Today I am moved to meditate on the awesome burden of love that I am live, instead of the violence that so often inhabits my thoughts, my mind and my heart.
I’m not sure I will ever be worthy of such audacious marks as these inked nails; most days I know that I fall so painfully short. As I’ve been thinking of a new tattoo for this Easter Season, I feel the need to double down on what it’s all about… maybe I read too much news, but it seems that from battlefield torture to Middle America’s children raping children, to living in ignorance of the plight of my poorest neighbor, the world needs a change of pace, a new way.
I don’t go to Catholic Mass all that much, not nearly as often as many of my Protestant friends think I do given my bromance with St. Ignatius of Loyola, so I was happy to have a surprise chance to drop in on a noon Mass one day this week with my good friend Greg and others down at St. Paul’s College in DC. We arrived five minutes fashionably late and I had to grab an empty chair that was of course up front near the altar and next to one of the presiding Fathers.
I’m not Catholic, though I love and appreciate my Catholic brothers and sisters. And I know a good bit about the Mass, though I don’t know the rhythms like a good Catholic. This means that when I go to Mass I have to bring my “A Game.” I have to work hard to listen and watch everything so that I’m not always the last one standing or sitting. I rarely make the sign of the cross in prayers or before the Gospel reading… my goal is not to pass myself off as a Catholic, but I do hope to worship and to at least not be a distraction for others.
In this particular noon Mass I was rocking along quite well when the wonderful old, probably retired, Father who was presiding over the Mass moved to deliver his homily. I had of course already noticed his quaking voice and shaking hands, a loss of muscle control I would usually associate with my own sweet grandmother’s Parkinsons Disease or other such aliments that afflict the mature among us. But he manfully strove with his body to grip the lectern and deliver the homily with a stronger voice and presence than he had previously shown us.
His text was from Daniel 3, the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their fiery trial. As he worked to bring his body under greater control and speak quite eloquently on the passage my personal empathy went through the roof with this dear old man. I know the feeling… when I am especially tired or excited I will often have to work over-time to keep my stuttering under control.
His obvious effort served to focus me on the passage and his words. And so I was unprepared for the power of the words in verse 18, “But even if God doesn’t save us…” It’s a familiar passage, and one I have happily preached many times myself. But caught in the furnace of age, not himself delivered from the ravages of a failing body, this old priest drove those words to the center of my soul. From the lips of the three young men so long ago, to the lips of this venerable priest, to my own often too-hard heart, the words rang as they seldom have for me. Forget the fickleness of my faith, the faith that follows on good days and coasts on the bad days! Forget my faith that only responds to the gifts of God. Forget my faith that only survives on answered prayer! O God, give me a faith that stares into the trial and carries on regardless.
Some detractors might label this kind of faith that moves regardless of immediate evidences of God as “blind faith.” And certainly there are times when I could simply pantomime my religion instead of being a thinking, “seeing” person and an accountable soul. But that is not what I see happening in the story from Daniel. That is not what is happening in the life of a old priest who musters his strength to worship God and to serve his friends at the altar. It is not a blind faith, but a decisive faith. A faith that has chosen and does not have to continue choosing again and again. It is not a blind faith, but a very self-possessed faith that knows itself.
Even as I type the words I find my inner voice crying out in prayer, “Lord, help me know myself! Help me be so decisive! Help me be so self-possessed of faith and you!” And as we prayed together in Mass this week, “Lord, hear our prayer” I continue to pray, “Lord, hear my prayer!” For if I can bet on anything, it’s really two sure things: 1) another trial is eventually headed my way, and 2) I can either have decided my course, or be caught unprepared for the heat.
still grey skies
mock the storm in my soul
as a sacred unease
rises, shifts and rolls
i cannot name the thing
which inside me grows
This often happens when I sit to intentionally write some poetry. A still, quiet moment allows me to hear some of my more painful inner movements that are drowned out in the usual activity of the day. It’s not that I’m totally filled with melancholy, but it’s there.
In recent months I’ve been in several different situations discussing the impact of depression on our lives and those conversations have had me thinking. I have lived with the ebb and flow of depression as long as I can remember. I don’t think it’s ever outright owned me, but it’s been there. I’ve learned to watch the seasons and to be aware of their impact on my moods. I’ve learned to listen to the people who love me and live with me; Teresa will let me know when I seem to be letting it get an upper hand.
I’ve been thinking about some of the ways that being a person of faith has impacted the way I deal with my depression and darker moods. I think that growing up with a “seen and unseen” worldview has been helpful for me. I was raised to put my faith in something beyond my senses, beyond my ability to perceive, as I could perceive other things. So when the dark thoughts come and I perceive no hope, I have this reflex to look past it and try to see what may not be seen.
I have a cognitive trigger built into me that causes me to seek. When I seek I am in movement. When I am in movement I cannot be held in the grip of anxiety, fear or hopelessness for too long. So when I am in the grip of depression, it never holds all of me, there is a bit of me still free to roam.
I’m not saying that this idea is a panacea or a magic cure all of some kind. And there will always be times when our imbalanced physiology demands the help of trained professionals, both for counseling and for medication. When I stop seeking, then I think it will be time for me to see a professional.
But having that safety valve built into me allows me to be very open about the presence of darkness in my soul. I can deal with the fact that even as a creature of the light, I retain these shadows; I own the shadows. But the shadows don’t own me. I’m grateful to God for this. And so even as I write something that questions what “inside me grows” I am also very assured that it will not one day rule me and destroy me, or supplant in me what God would do. My unease is sacred.