God is in the details

Mary Beth Bonacci

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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.