Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Something To Die For Is Something To Live For

There was a recent article in the Philadelphia Enquirer (one of a series of articles) about a closed Catholic Church that has become a "shooting gallery" for heroin addicts.  We are given the image of a once majestic church full of self-drugging drop-outs from life.  It is a sign from God about the inevitable ruin of a society when it builds apart from God. Aside from this stark contrast, there were two things about the articles that were remarkable.  Firstly, the fifty or so addicts spanned all classes, and many described themselves as coming from good, loving homes.  Secondly, social service workers recently visited the church, and not a single addict came out to accept their offer of help.  Not one.  By contrast, if we had gone in there with our little tunics, we would have talked to at least half the addicts, given out forty or so rosaries and miraculous medals, and heard many life stories and pleas for liberation.

Why would we be welcomed while those who offer social services are not (in Portland we are happily received week after week)?  Why are young people from stable, loving homes and communities (like our own Meagan) choosing drugs as a means of escape?  The answer to both questions is the same.  The West does a good job of meeting the needs of the body and providing every form of entertainment and distraction, but it does a poor job of meeting the deepest needs of the soul.  Put another way, there is a crisis of meaning in the West, something Max Weber predicted a century and a half ago (I wrote about that here).  That is why so many young families at my daughter's school have already disintegrated, or are starting the process of divorce.  That is why so many young people have gravitated toward the great aching need and brief fulfillment that comes with heroin addiction.  They have a great aching desire in their soul--union with their Creator, whom they are hard-wired to desire--and don't know how to fill it,  So they turn to heroin.  And yet they have the sacred sense not to shoot-up in the main body of the church...though there are hypodermics in an old holy water fount.  Lord have mercy.

Unfortunately the Catholic Church deserves a healthy portion of the blame as the Holy Mass has often been celebrated in a mundane, ho-hum manner in the past decades, and there was a crisis of poor teaching in most places.  I was reminded of this yesterday when Meagan and I went to daily mass before walking the streets.  The celebrant was a visiting priest from an distinguished religious order that has precious few vocations.  From the first moment of mass I wondered whether the priest believed the faith.  There was no sense that something stupendous and transcendent was occurring amongst us, the re-presentation of the greatest act in the history of the universe.  The poor priest's homily re-hashed the typical revisionist "scholarship" that God did not send plagues on the Egyptians and drown their charioteers because a loving God wouldn't commit mass murder.  Well, that priest and thousands of priests like him have been complicit in the mass murder of souls by offering a false, de-sacralized and ultimately shallow gospel.  It would be better if he piled hot coals on his head in penance than continue on his present way.  His eyes were so dull, so bereft of supernatural light.  Very sad.

Two Young Men

God is faithful even if his minister's are not.  He is always calling young men and women out of the world, like Sts. Francis and Clare 800 years before.  Oftentimes he calls great sinners (please go read this convert's blog now!).  St. Francis of Assisi always insisted he was a great sinner, but at the very least he was a great dreamer.  God gave him the grace to sense that there had to be some grander reason to life, some great calling, and so he dreamed of becoming a knight and going on a dangerous crusade.  In fact, he went off to do battle in a local dispute and was promptly captured.  We can laugh about that now, but many of us are hard-wired to need something worth fighting for.  It is a paradox that when we have a cause worth dying for it gives us a reason to live.

Last month I met a young man named 'Troy' who was dressed in business casual and mixing with some young addicts.  After distributing our usual Gatorade, rosaries and prayer cards I turned to Troy and asked, "So what's your story?"
"I just decided to come live out here."
"Yeah, I quit my job and packed some clothes.  I'm just done with it all."
"So you're homeless by choice?"
When I warned him that living homeless in the Winter is more miserable than he could imagine, he quickly changed the subject, and pointed to our tunics, saying, "I used to teach Bible study, mostly to children."  Troy was raised as a non-Catholic Christian.  Suddenly lights of understanding began to go off in my mind.  "Have you heard of St. Francis of Assisi?"
"Yes" he quickly replied.  "'Preach the Gospel always, sometimes use words'".
I blinked in shock.  I knew God had given me a rare bird here.  I ventured, "Well, there have always been Christians who have left everything behind to live a more radical Gospel.  It's always happened.  You have St. Benedict fifteen hundred years ago--he was the founder of Western monasticism, St. Francis 800 years ago, men and women from five hundred years ago, and even today.  It goes back to the time of Christ."  He was devouring all of my words, hearing something he had needed to hear.  I spoke more of St. Francis and then launched into a description of the life of St. Benedict Joseph Labre.  Now Troy was really hooked.  Perhaps because Benedict Joseph chose to live homeless in the city rather than a hermitage, or perhaps because he was more proximate in time.  Troy nodded vigorously when I described how St. Benedict Joseph would give away whatever alms he had been given to those who were even poorer than him.  "Yes, that's what I'd like to do!" Troy exclaimed.  I was gratified that he was discovering the allure of the saints, our little models of Christ.  Troy assured me that his faith was strong, and that he didn't suffer from any addictions.  One of his street friends, Jessica, later told me in amusement that Troy would rather shiver through the night then share her body heat by sleeping next to her.  I wasn't surprised.  Troy valued charity and chastity.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Pray for us!

At one point I said to Troy, "I like what you're doing.  You've chosen the better part.  When I was young and felt like you did, I robbed banks."  What was unspoken between us was that Troy was in a crisis of meaning and purpose.  God has stirred him up to leave everything behind.  This was a grace, not madness.  He didn't leave a child or wife behind, and he wasn't running away into addiction.  I hope we become good friends and he joins us.

A few days ago Chris and I met another inspired young man while we were walking SE 122nd.  We had ventured into a field to talk with a homeless Asian man named 'Andrew' when the young man snuck up on us.  Andrew was happy to accept a rosary and three bottles of Gatorade since the homeless and addicts often live in a perpetual state of dehydration (some go a whole day without urinating).  When we turned to go we were surprised to see the young man just behind us.  He fumbled into his pocket for money and said, "I know what you guys do out here--why you're out here.   I'd like to help."  He handed me $30 while keeping a few dollars for himself.  I said, "Are you sure?"  He strongly nodded. Though we didn't need the money, I knew that it is gracious to accept a gift, and so I didn't push the matter any further.  I told him we'd buy more Gatorade with it.  Then I invited him to join us.  He laughed and said he had plans tonight.  I shouted after him, "I meant you should join us some time in the future!"  He smiled and drove away in an old beat-up Saab.  He didn't have much money, but the young man had zeal, compassion and a deep sense of purpose to life.

I am gratified and hopeful because God is stirring up good young men like these.  What a blessing to meet them!

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