Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Holy Spirit, Patience, and Crazy People

"Being patient: that is the path that Jesus also teaches us Christians. Being patient ... This does not mean being sad. No, no, it's another thing! This means bearing, carrying the weight of difficulties, the weight of contradictions, the weight of tribulations on our shoulders. This Christian attitude of bearing up: of being patient." 
Thus said Pope Francis yesterday in another of his splendid homilies. The Christian bears tribulations with patience. The Christian does not complain. The Christian bears suffering and sorrow, but is never sad. (Never sad? Really? More on this below.) The heart is at peace. It is not a good Christian attitude to be "Signore o Signora Lamentela" (which has generally been translated as "Mr. or Mrs. Whiner" -- my impression from the Italian press is that he actually "coined" another one there, the latest of his special and vivid idioms).

The first thing that struck me, of course, is that I am Mr. Whiner. For many years I was also Mr. "I-want-everybody-to-like-me," so I kept the whining inside myself and pretended to be brave. As a person gets older, however, Mr. "like-me" increasingly fades away. You learn by experience that you can twist yourself into a pretzel for some people and they still won't like you. And you no longer have the energy to do the pretzel routine. At this point, Mr. Whiner starts to show himself.

In the 21st century, Mr. Whiner might even dedicate an entire blog to whining. And he's amazed that some people actually keep reading it! I suppose it helps if Mr. Whiner features some stories about his funny family. They are, of course, the ones who keep him from becoming Mr. "Put-me-in-a-rubber-room."

Okay, enough whining about the fact that I'm a whiner.

Pope Frank emphasizes that he is talking about patient endurance, which is founded on the new life that we receive in the Holy Spirit when we are baptized into Christ. If the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we have the radical potential to patiently endure our trials, to live them within the redeeming death and resurrection of Christ.

Frank refers specifically to the term in the Greek New Testament: Hypomone. The sense of this term is to bear up "under" our difficulties with an awareness, a determination to keep going forward toward the goal that gives meaning to all of it (the goal in this case being supernatural, eternal life, the fullness of maturity in Christ, which means that hypomone is the working of grace, a gift that not only calls for the cooperation of our freedom, but also elevates, empowers, and attracts our freedom).

Hypomone says "never give up!"

It enables us to grasp in faith, hope and love, and in the light of the Holy Spirit, the destiny to which we are called. We grasp the reason why we must "never give up," why we must keep going forward. It is a grasp "in love," which may not manifest itself clearly in our understanding. Hence there can be "dark nights" and all sorts of strange and secret paths on which people are patiently bearing their burdens, especially when those burdens involve cognitive and emotional and (to be quite precise) neurological incoherence. 

It is important to emphasize this supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit by which we are enabled to bear any kind of crazy problem with patient endurance. It is also true that grace perfects nature, and the tendency of the Christian life is to transform our entire personality. Thus it is not surprising that we meet people in the world who possess Christian joy and patient endurance in a way that is obvious, that is visible and "tangible" to pretty much everyone.

How great and significant such Christian witness is in this world! But it should not surprise us. The life of grace is the beginning of eternal life, which is destined to heal and transform everything.

If we look with attention, however, we may also find this joy and endurance in hard and peculiar places. We may find it mixed with the symptoms of the burdens it bears. We may be distracted from it by the rawness of the wounds that are borne, the physical or mental ugliness of the affliction, or the madness of delusion, confusion and crazy total love that has characterized the holy fools throughout history. All God looks for is an open heart. He'll work with anything that doesn't oppose Him. If He could make children of Abraham from stones, He certainly can take badly broken human beings, failures, oddballs, beggars, crazies, and raise up exotic masterpieces of holiness.

Never look down on any human being. God loves each and every one of them with a persistence and an intensity beyond anything we can imagine.

As Pope Frank says, this life of grace is a "process," and it takes a unique shape in each person's life, and in accordance with their concrete vocation, the burdens they bear, and the sufferings they must endure.
"This is a process - allow me this word 'process' - a process of Christian maturity, through the path of patience. A process that takes some time, that you cannot undergo from one day to another: it evolves over a lifetime arriving at Christian maturity. It is like a good wine."
It is like a good wine! (Argentina makes very good wine, and no doubt Father Frank is speaking from experience.)

It is a process of maturing, and it takes time. Most of us are nowhere near ready to be bottled yet.

But the Holy Spirit is at work in us, and is the source of our strength and our growth. Here I want to present a particular point that might be confusing to some people. The work of the Spirit cannot be reduced to the way we "feel" (to put it in general terms). In particular, the presence or absence of the Christian virtues and the gifts of the Spirit must be distinguished from the symptoms of neuropsychiatric illnesses that afflict suffering on many people.

This means (for example) that an anxiety disorder is not the same thing as a lack of patience. A person with an anxiety disorder needs to seek treatment, follow a process of healing, factor certain limitations into their life, and suffer in some unusual ways. But we must make sure they understand that they can bear all of this with patient endurance -- even the "feelings" of impatience, as well as all of the mistakes they make because they are still "immature" -- they can bear all this in a way that moves forward on the road to maturity, and even "taste" the gift of God (perhaps only in hidden ways) in all of this.

When a person with mental illness wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror, their reflection doesn't look like a holy card. Nevertheless, God is truly at work in them. These people should be encouraged to draw close to Jesus and have confidence in Him. Their disorder does not make them Mr. or Mrs. Whiner. They are suffering, and they must rely on God's grace to endure and to offer their suffering, and not condemn themselves for it.

The illness of depression is not the same thing as "being sad"! Being sad is what happens when I freely choose to turn away from the reality that promises happiness. There are people with jolly dispositions and energetic personalities who are really distracting themselves from a profound, hidden sadness that comes from the fact that they've given up on trying to find any real meaning in life. These people may "feel" fine. The genetic pool may have favored them in such a way that their brains are in great shape. But they are sad people. Sadness is a decision.

Depression is not a decision. It is a disease. Your brain is injured and malformed. You may "feel sad" (or you may feel a whole spectrum of wacky things in the "cloud" of depression and other disorders that may accompany it). You feel sad in the same way that a blind person feels like they are in the dark. They are not in the dark. And you are not sad... as long as you don't really choose to be sad. An evil voice may try to tell you that because of your condition, you cannot follow Christ, you are forced to choose sadness because of this inner oppression. The voice is lying.

We know where these lies come from.

Say "Jesus, I trust in You. Jesus!" Entrust yourself to Mary's protection. Call on St. Michael and the angels. Stay close to the sacraments. Pray the rosary. But also seek professional medical help for your disease. You can get help and healing, and you can learn to carry this burden with patient endurance, and go forward and live.

And God will work within you a secret joy that will shine. Perhaps you will never see more in this life than the luminous darkness of a love that is slowly maturing through patient endurance. Still it may be a light in the darkness of other suffering people. Let God shine in you in His way, with the light that is destined to radiate through all eternity. Trust in Him.