Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fighting the Good Fight?

I truly love this passage from I Samuel, reported in today's Office of Readings:

"So in the dark David and Abishai made their way towards the force, where they found Saul lying asleep inside the camp, his spear stuck in the ground beside his head, with Abner and the troops lying round him.

Then Abishai said to David, ‘Today God has put your enemy in your power; so now let me pin him to the ground with his own spear. Just one stroke! I will not need to strike him twice.’ David answered Abishai, ‘Do not kill him, for who can lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be without guilt? As the Lord lives,’ David said ‘the Lord himself will strike him down, whether his time to die comes, or he goes out to battle and perishes then. The Lord forbid that I should raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed!"

While some might see David's stance as little more than a principled defense of societal institutions, in this case the God-given Kingship of Saul, I see in it a heroic profession of faith in Divine Providence on the part of David and a testimony to what God saw in the heart of this young man and which He did not see in any of David's brothers at the time of David's election and anointing by Samuel in Bethlehem at God's behest.

As Catholics we find ourselves also today at the heart of many conflicts, some where clearly the enemy is hell-bent on destroying us. The temptation to aggressive self-defense through an attempt to annihilate the adversary (all-out war or retaliatory action) is all too great. Rage and the clenched fist may be comprehensible, but yes even the warrior king of the Old Testament teaches us a different way.

The composition of the Psalms is attributed to David; they formed Israelite prayer; they were the prayer of Christ Himself; they are the prayer of His Church. How could anyone doubt that the warrior king, despite his sins and failings, was first and foremost a man of prayer, from the lonely days of tending his father Jesse's flocks (I think of the boy St. Patrick enslaved to shepherd flocks)? What are you and I doing with our lives if first and foremost we are not lifting our hearts and minds to God in prayer?

The destitution, the desolation of Christ's death upon the Cross is repeated over and over again in the lives of His followers called, as St. Paul says, to complete in our own lives what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. As He placed Himself entirely in the arms of the Heavenly Father, so from St. Stephen, the first martyr, onward we are called to embrace desolation without flinging and flailing arm and claw, confident that God does indeed reign supreme. Not easy intellectually, not easy if your solitude is not enlightened and warmed by prayer!

Over and over again in my life as a priest, the haunting image of what that desolation implies, which I can expect to share after the manner of my Crucified Lord, has been that of Damien of Molokai, going down to the harbor whenever a ship came in, in hopes to find aboard as a passenger a priest who could hear his confession. Confined by his choice to a leper colony, he couldn't even board that ship nor could the priest descend to him to provide a little privacy for the celebration of this sacrament. That for me is about as alone as you can get. Damien could not have been other than a great prayer; he had the psalms of David.

I rather suspect that many Catholics today keep the Sacrament of Penance at arm's length simply because they do not have a life of prayer, they do not live in Communion with God. Sins and fundamental life choices (divorce and remarriage) are made without reference to God, without real prayer and in rejection of the invitation to bind ourselves to the Cross with Christ, especially by embracing solitude and filling it with the prayer of the Church. 

In a sense, I guess you can say I am really sad about those rebellious priests in Austria, who are giving Holy Communion to folks and telling them it is OK to be impenitent and to flaunt God's commands; the notorious "Nuns on a bus" leave me at a total loss in terms of configuring them with the truth of God's loving plan of salvation as accomplished in and through His Son.

Much to pray about? Yes, I guess so! May the example of David, Patrick and Damien challenge and inspire us!

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