Monday, July 23, 2012

Slavery, Exodus, Discouragement and Egypt's Fleshpots

Psalm 73, 13-28

“Is it in vain that I have kept my heart pure, washed my hands in innocence?  For I am afflicted day after day, chastised every morning.  Had I thought, “I will speak as they do,” I would have betrayed this generation of your children.
Though I tried to understand all this, it was too difficult for me, till I entered the sanctuary of God and came to understand their end.  You set them, indeed, on a slippery road; you hurl them down to ruin.  How suddenly they are devastated; utterly undone by disaster!  They are like a dream after waking, Lord, dismissed like shadows when you arise.
Since my heart was embittered and my soul deeply wounded, I was stupid and could not understand; I was like a brute beast in your presence.  Yet I am always with you; you take hold of my right hand.
With your counsel you guide me, and at the end receive me with honor.  Whom else have I in the heavens? None beside you delights me on earth.  Though my flesh and my heart fail, God is the rock of my heart, my portion forever.
But those who are far from you perish; you destroy those unfaithful to you.  As for me, to be near God is my good, to make the Lord God my refuge.  I shall declare all your works in the gates of daughter Zion.”

 Again and again these days I have been confronted with the challenge of "what-to-do?" in the face of real discouragement in the lives of Christians (If the shepherd is not concerned or worried, who then?). By way of example: I had the joy of welcoming Archbishop Elias Chacour, Melkite Metropolitan of Akko, Nazareth and all of Galilee, as my house guest and in conversation with him I could update myself from my own experience in the Holy Land (1993-96) concerning the situation of Palestinian Christians today. Also, a chance encounter with the Latin Archbishop of Baghdad at the national pilgrimage to Our Lady of Mount Carmel here in Berdychiv followed somewhat along the same lines. For some years now, but especially today there is reason to worry about the survival of a living Christian presence in the Middle East: the Church in the Holy Land, Syria or Iraq could easily go the way of the Church in North Africa; it could dwindle to near nothing. 

Is it just a matter of persecution of Christians? While it certain is that, it is also a matter of hardships shared and the disadvantage of being the small or weak link in a taut chain. In a sense, whether we talk about a politically unsettled Middle East or about what drives people to emigrate from Ukraine (an interesting article), it is fundamentally an economic  question for young people: "How do I as a member of a disadvantaged minority or someone who is for whatever reason disenfranchised accept responsibility for the hardships I might be able to spare my children by emigrating?" It is a terribly tough question.

Reflecting on emigration or trying to resist it and keep the best and the brightest in a given place for the sake of maintaining a presence, in this case, a Catholic presence must be a very modern thing. I'm sure my great grandfather and grandmother (even if they weren't Catholic) didn't have anyone pushing them to stay in Western Norway back in the 19th Century, except perhaps family who were sad to see them go. Although my own immediate family never strayed from the Midwest of the U.S. I am sure that my own parents never took into consideration whether they owed their presence to a certain city or town when a promotion came up which required that Dad move to another place. Elias Chacour in his first book "Blood brothers" makes the case most eloquently for roots and belonging; I have a Cardinal friend in Germany who makes a powerful case for the images at the core of his being which root him in the Silesia he and his family were forced to abandon. Rootedness is to be respected and when it is violated it certainly ranks immensely great among the reasons for one's anguish. But I do not owe any personal contribution or my continued existence to any specific quadrant on this blue planet. I must not necessarily at risk of life, limb, or modest prosperity stick to any given place; I can, with family and all, move on. So many exoduses or emigrations have enriched other parts of the world.

 As I say, again and again these days I have been confronted with the challenge of "what-to-do?" in the face of real discouragement in the lives of Christians. The issue for me is not one of holding the hill or holding the banner high in any given place on earth, but rather one of being confronted more often today among fellow Catholics by discouragement, by that spiritual impoverishment, oppression or slavery to which we let ourselves fall victim, which is so unbecoming of one who has set his heart on the Lord. Why would anyone be, why do I encounter people discouraged with living the Christian life? Can discouragement come from anywhere but the Evil One, from longing to return to slavery in Egypt, to the fleshpots of that land, to wishing no more than leeks, melons and a burial plot? Perseverance in faith and in living the Christian life becomes heroic, which it is, but which in various places and times has also been the common patrimony of God's folk, be it a parish or even grander. Are we worse off today? Is there someone to blame? Can I point a finger and say "If it weren't for you we'd be prospering"? 

If the above verses from Psalm 73 seem daunting or too harsh, I think it good to remember the lot of Israel in the desert, which almost to a man became discouraged with the results of that first scouting party's survey of the Promised Land: "there are giants there... this land devours its people... we cannot hope to prevail..." and to a man, except for one who spoke up with hope in God's power to save, to a man they died in the desert and did not enter into God's Promise. Egypt was slavery, but through faithless discouragement, their slavery continued in the desert. Woe to the shepherd who does not tend the sheep, woe to the watchman who fails to sound the alarm! I really think we need to spend more time beseeching the Lord for that word which will rouse them, for that word which will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and children to their fathers. One cannot daydream about the fleshpot's of Egypt without becoming discourage, without sin. 

Besides all our efforts to open the treasures of faith in this upcoming Year of Faith, I think we need to call everyone to task, never ceasing to beg the Lord to unleash the power of His Word. Maybe the time of judgment has come and maybe through discouragement countless will fall in the desert rather than enter into the Kingdom. Then again, maybe the Jean Marie Vianney's of our time will do battle and recover the high ground of sanctity for our people, the fortress of prayer and devotion. Maybe nourished truly by the Bread of Heaven new warriors will take the fortress and sanctify the Temple.



  1. Your Excellency, it was two hopeful men, not one. Joshua and Caleb.

    1. Most correct, I know, but as a shepherd or future one, I don't count Joshua, only Caleb. You're great!


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