God is in the details

I think it’s safe to say that people have been a little on edge lately.

We see it in the macro, in the chaos that has been spilling out into the streets of just about every city in America. We see it in the micro in countless viral videos, shot in countless WalMarts, of countless people publicly melting down. Mostly over mask use, or the lack thereof. I saw one last week of a woman literally assaulting a young boy. I saw another one recently of a woman on a rampage, throwing merchandise and screaming as horrified shoppers looked on.

None of it is pretty.

If we’re honest, I think a lot of us would have to admit that the edginess has crept into our own lives. I know it has in mine. It has been a very stressful year. I’ve spent a good part of it alone in my house. It has, to be honest, made me cranky at times. I see it sometimes in how I interact with my mother’s caregivers. I’m frustrated that I can’t take care of her myself, or even really see her. And so, when I can’t see how they are caring for her, or I suspect it isn’t the way I would do it, I tend to get a little testy with them. And then I apologize and promise it won’t happen again. But it does.

And let’s not even get started on social media. Suffice it to say I have not suffered fools gladly. Or perhaps I’m the fool.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, a meme caught my attention. I don’t remember the exact content, but it was something to the effect that one of the criteria for the judgment at the end of our lives will be how we treated people we find annoying.

I could be in big trouble.

I tend to be a “big picture” person. I don’t get overly caught up in a lot of details. That trait has served me well in many ways — particularly in speaking and writing. However, I suspect it may not serve me so well when it comes to the Last Judgment.

When you look at the Big Picture, I feel like I’ve done pretty well. Gave a lot of talks, hopefully led at least a few people to Jesus through them. I’ve tried for the most part to be kind and good to people. Not a bad big picture.

But I suspect Jesus is more of a detail guy.

It has been occurring to me lately that He really meant all of that stuff He said about loving our enemies, serving the poor, visiting the prisoner, etc. And that it’s all going to count in the end. Not in the sense that we will meet with a scowling, nit-picking Judge holding a long list of our infractions and omissions. No, we will meet a loving, merciful Savior, who will show us our lives from His perspective. I believe that, at that time, we will see the consequences down through the ages of all of our good actions. And all of our sins. And all of our omissions. We will see the good that could have happened, had we been more charitable with this person, or reached out to help that person. We will see the difference that we could have made, but didn’t.

Most of all, we will see how, in missing those opportunities, we missed the chance to increase His love in our hearts. Because doing good begets love, which begets more doing good. All of which draws us closer to Him.

I wrote several months ago that “all things work for Good for those who love Him.” And that I believe He is using this time of fear and isolation to work in our lives, to bring us closer to Him. And, at least for me, a big part of that is to show me how I react when I’m scared and stressed. And to show me that I’m called to do better.

And so, I’m trying. I’m reviewing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and trying to incorporate them into my life. I’m also trying to examine my conscience, in a more detailed way, at the end of the day. I’m starting with gratitude and with love, and then asking, with the help of the Holy Spirit, where I failed to respond with love to the gifts and the people God placed in front of me that day.

St. John of the Cross said, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” I believe that is true. We will be judged not just in the big picture, but in the details. And not just when it’s easy to love, but when it’s difficult — when we’re dealing with the less lovable, when we’re scared and cranky and irritable.

This has been a difficult, stressful, often ugly time. And we can come out of it either bitter, or better. If we can manage, like the Grinch on Christmas morning, to emerge on the other side with our hearts a few sizes larger, it will have been time well spent.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.