Sunday, February 3, 2008

Written on my soul

Reading an e-mail from an old friend yesterday awakened a memory of a dream I had the night before, bringing an unexpected grace.

The e-mail was from J., a New York City writer whom I have not seen since moving to the Washington, D.C., area last June. Having read on my blog about my needing to have the rest of my thyroid removed, she wrote to let me know that she was about to visit Rome, where she would pray for me at the church of S. Andrea delle Fratte. It was there where the agnostic Jew Alphonse Ratisbonne had the Marian vision that sparked his conversion to Catholicism, and it was also there that St. Maximilian Kolbe — to whom I have a devotion — celebrated his first Mass.

Upon reading J.'s message, the dream of the night before, which had evaporated from my consciousness, suddenly came back to me.

In the dream, I was searching through the current edition of New York Press — a weekly for which I wrote in real life during the mid-1990s — expecting to find a new article I had submitted to the paper.

What I found instead in the weekly newspaper was an article by J. to which the editors had mistakenly affixed my byline. It made me feel guilty to be gaining credit at her expense.

As the memory of the dream returned, I realized what it meant.

J., who has herself suffered great physical and emotional trials in recent years, is offering up her sufferings on my behalf. She is allowing me to receive credit — the byline, so to speak — for sufferings that I myself did not experience.

The guilt I felt in the dream was because I have not reached out to J. to the extent that she has reached out to me. Yet, I should not receive her offerings with guilt, but, as with any gift, in the spirit of joy. And it is not too late for me to make an offering of my own for her as well.

* * *

One of the biblical titles for God is Author. He is the author of peace and the "first author of beauty." Jesus is likewise described as the "author of eternal salvation," the "Author of life," and the "author and finisher of our faith."

Most of all, God is author of the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us.

The Word was God's only begotten Son.

As Steve Kellmeyer has noted, while one can make something that is unlike oneself, one can beget something only of the same kind as oneself.

Other than biological reproduction, the closest that a person can come to "begetting" is to reproduce his or her personality through the written word. When one discloses oneself through writing, that disclosure contains the personality of the author in a manner that is unique and irreproduceable.

That is why, in this age of moral relativism, one of the few remaining sins that society unequivocally condemns is plagiarism. It is seen as the stealing of another person's essence, much in the same way that some aboriginal peoples fear that a photograph of a man steals his soul.

* * *

However one might try to avoid or allay one's own suffering, there is a point at which every human will fails.

Offering up one's sufferings introduces the will into an area where it would otherwise be helpless. I cannot prevent or halt all of my sufferings, but I can will to direct them towards a spiritual good that is greater than every physical and emotional evil that I might suffer.

At the same time, my ability to suffer is limited, in that I can suffer only in my own unique capacity. I cannot suffer as another person does, because my mind and body perceive pain in a different way from others. My suffering might appear to be objectively less or greater than another's, but I cannot experience exactly what he is feeling. It has its own character, unique as a fingerprint.

When J. wrote that she was to offer prayers for me, I realized that she was not only giving me the great gift of credit for her own suffering, but that the credit I would receive was of a type that I could never have received on my own.

That is the meaning, I believe, of Paul's writing, "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church" (Colossians 1:24).

Christ experienced every type of suffering, but He experienced it within His flesh — not within my flesh. For the sin that was released at the Fall to exhaust its power to destroy, every individual has to experience the remnants of the pain caused by our first parents' choice to separate themselves from God. That would be unbearable, had Christ not conquered the wages of sin — death — in his own body.

Death has indeed lost its sting. The executioner's needle can no longer kill. What is left is the ache of the needle as it exits the body. It is unavoidable, and yet, through the offering up of our pain for others, the instrument of suffering somehow, mysteriously, is transformed into an instrument of salvation — much to the frustration of the enemy who desires to push us to a "second death."

The power of our offering stems from our uniting it with Christ's suffering on the cross. Doing so both enables us to experience compassion with him, as Pope Benedict describes in Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), and gives him permission to fully share in our unique experience.

Just how the uniqueness of another's suffering, when offered up for me, serves to alleviate my own is ultimately a mystery, but I see a clue to it in paragraph 38 of Spe Salvi:

Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.
When I think of the ultimate "yes" to love, I think of Mary's Fiat: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."

For some reason, I picture Mary saying that with her right arm outstretched before her in love and abandonment to God's will. And, for some reason, I cannot picture that image without thinking of another saint with outstretched arm — St. Maximilian Kolbe, in his last moment alive.

Kolbe, a Polish priest, writer, and editor who had founded newspapers and magazines to spread devotion to Jesus through Mary, had offered up his suffering literally. He volunteered to be killed at Auschwitz in the place of a fellow prisoner he did not even know, spending two weeks in a starvation cell with nine other prisoners. At the end of the two weeks, all but Kolbe were either dead or unconscious. A Nazi doctor came in to administer carbolic-acid injections to kill those who still had breath.

According to a witness, Kolbe raised his arm for the executioner.

I now realize that Kolbe was giving away his last byline.