Introduction- Part 2
This is my second talk on the theme that "the Truth will set you free." In the first program, I ended with the song, "Let There Be Peace on Earth" to emphasize that God is waiting for us to end the world by letting Him save us from our sins, which are the very things which make the "world system" possible. In order to receive God's forgiveness, we have to honestly admit our faults and sinfulness. This requires a great deal of humility, which is just another name for being "poor in spirit." However, the sin of Pride gets in our way and many of us deny or rationalize our sins. As a result, they can't be forgiven, even though God wants to forgive them, because so long as we rationalize and excuse them, we can't repent and reform. And the whole point of having our sins forgiven is to receive the grace from God to help us to stop the sin, which is destroying the order, peace, and harmony in our lives and in the world. If appears that Pride is the biggest 'turn off' in our relationship with God and humility the biggest 'turn on'. It is our emptiness not our fullness which evokes the greatest response from His all-loving heart. As a teacher, I have experienced these two different pulls in my relationship to students.
When I first began teaching, I was in a white, center class, Catholic high school and, although I enjoyed it, I never felt as though I was being fully used as a teacher. As strange as it might seem, the major problem was that most of the students had grown up in good, stable, center class families and had never had to face some of the soul searching problems that I and other less fortunate kids had to face as children. Since, as a teacher, I had an inner need to address the basic issues of life, I was really frustrated and disappointed when, after teaching a lesson on some deeper issues of life, a well groomed, well fed, and pampered center class kid would come up after class and ask, "Is this going to be on the SAT's?" I felt like strangling him because he seemed to think that the SAT test was the true measure of what was important and what was not.
Later, when I entered the public schools, I was assigned to an inner city school with poor Black and Hispanic children. Although their academic skills were much lower than my white students, their problematic lives had placed deep life questions in their heart that I was prepared to address, and I knew that I was home. It was their inner emptiness that allowed me to feed them with whatever wisdom I had at my disposal, and it was their needs and my desire to meet them, that made me a better teacher.
Later, in my teaching career nothing bothered me so much as the bright student who thought he or she knew everything. It was impossible to teach them because they weren't open to receiving anything. They had excellent memories and wonderful test taking skills but nothing ever penetrated into the depth of their beings. All of their knowledge was surface. On the other hand, there were students who had poorer memories and were poorer at taking tests, but they internalized what I taught and put it to work in their lives. In fact, I used to keep two set of books when it came to grading my students: one set was for the official record and was based on the test results, the other was kept in my head and it was my personal evaluation as to how much each student was really getting from the material that I was teaching. It often happened that the student who had the highest test grade average was ranked lower in my personal evaluation than those with lower test scores.
One girl in particular comes to mind. She was a thin, seventeen-year-old Hispanic girl who was in danger of failing my class because of her excessive absences. When she did attend she seemed distracted and often had bruises and blackened eyes. I asked her why she was missing so much school and why she was always bruised. She told me that she had a young baby by her boyfriend and, until recently, her mother cared for the child while she attended school. But now her mother had a job and wasn't always available. The only other person available to care for the child was its father but she didn't trust him because he had a violent temper and often beat and brutalized her. Therefore, she had to stay home and care for the child.
A short time later, while I was teaching a unit on relationships, her eye lit up and she began to listen intently to what I was saying. After class, she came up to me and said, "Mr. Reilly, you have just changed my life." From that point on, her attendance improved and she was totally attentive to whatever I was teaching. I wish that I could remember what I had said that day which had such an impact on her, but whatever it was, it was what she needed to hear.
On the official record, she barely passed the class but in my mind and heart, she was my top student. She graduated and the following September she showed up outside my classroom. Her fact was bright and shiny and a broad smile beamed from it. She told me that she had entered TempleUniversity and wanted to thank me. I asked her about the baby and her boyfriend. The baby was fine and she had gotten rid of her boyfriend. I said, "Good! Now did you learn anything?" She smiled and said, "Yes!" and gave me a big hug and kiss."
Suddenly, I felt like Jesus after he had saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned and I knew in a deeper way why He said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. He wasn't talking about money per se but rather about that poverty of spirit whose emptiness was a compelling invitation to the grace of God. As Mary had said in her Magnificat, " He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away." So the best way to have our sins forgiven is to first, face the Truth by admitting them; second, admit that we need help in overcoming them; third, ask God to give you the grace necessary to avoid doing them.
Yet, it appears to me that many people do not want to be saved from doing their sins but rather from the punishment for their sins. But, according to the Scriptures, "the wages of sin are death", which means that sin carries its own punishment in the logical consequences that flow from it. We will all reap what we sow. We seem to think that we are doing God a big favor by avoiding sin, when, in reality, He is doing us the big favor by leading us away from it.
Many of us in the Church today have inherited the formulas of our faith and we follow them but, unlike our ancestors, we have forgotten what the symbols in the formulae mean. We are like students who follow the formulae in algebraic problem who get the right answer but don't know why it is the right answer. We go to Mass out of a sense of obligation, but we don't know why it is necessary to go. We receive the Eucharist but we don't know why it is important to do so. Many of us are like the lady I once knew who said to me one day, " I have been a Catholic all my life and I never miss Mass, but I don't know what I believe."
It takes converts, like Scott Hahn, to sound a wake up call to remind us that the Mass is a replication of the angels and saints standing in worshipful adoration before the throne of God and that it is the most powerful and effective prayer in opening up God's storehouse of graces. If we could see with spiritual eyes, we would see the flood of grace streaming down from heaven upon the earth every time a priest raises the bread and wine and repeats the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
For two thousand years, the Church has prayed the Mass and, as a result, the Light of Wisdom and Understanding has entered the hearts of men and women through the centuries, allowing them to accomplish things that were far beyond the abilities of their human nature. As a result, the human race has gradually moved, and is still moving, from a state of barbarism to civilization. If I had the time, I could list and describe some of the barbaric practices that existed, and sometimes still exist, as normal practices in the various historical cultures.
As Catholics, we believe that if all Masses stopped tomorrow, thereby damming up the flood of God's graces to the world, the world would return to the barbarism from which it came. It we really believed all of this, then the most effective way to save the world is to pray the Mass, and the most effective way to save ourselves is to receive the Eucharist. But, remember this, even Jesus couldn't perform miracles where the people were lacking in faith. Without faith, all these gifts from God lose their full effectiveness and become like so many unopened gifts at Christmas time.
And what about the Eucharist? The Ancient Hebrews believed that there were two dimensions to every human being: the outer person and the inner person. The outer person ate bread in order to live but the inner person, the spirit, ate Wisdom. They considered it most foolish for any human being to spend his life stuffing his mouth feeding the outer person, which would die, while starving the inner person, which would live forever. Thus, one of their terms for Wisdom was the Bread of Life.
When Jesus says, "I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me shall not hunger; he who believes in Me shall not thirst..." He is really saying, I am the Wisdom of God and I will satisfy all of the hungers of your soul. Or when He says, "Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you," He is saying that unless you eat Wisdom, your inner person, or spirit, will not grow and you will enter the spiritual world stunted, deformed, and unprepared. So why do you think He created the Eucharist? And why do you think that it is important for us to receive it?
Thus, we often do the right thing without understanding why it is the right thing and, in a sense, we act according to inherited laws, without any sense of the spirit behind the laws. Therefore, we are disciplined but lack spirit. But law without spirit is like the mind without the heart. Laws might change behavior but spirit changes the heart.
All of the wars, crimes, and atrocities of history are the result of sin, which resulted when men, because of their mental darkness, "missed God's target of love and harmony" and created an ever-repeating cycle of attack and retaliation. They killed us, so we killed them; they harmed us, so we harmed them; the offended us, so we offended them. And, as the Bible says, the sins of the parents were passed down to the children to the fifth generation. Thus a vicious cycle is created and no one seems capable of breaking it. Just look at some of the conflicts going on in the world today whose origins sometimes goes back four or five hundred years into the past.
A few years ago, while teaching a senior class in the public schools, I was commenting on the ethnic cleansing that was going on in Bosnia. Suddenly, a young teenage boy, who was a transfer student from the Balkans, began to cry. I asked him what was wrong. With tears streaming down his face, he exclaimed, "Everybody talks about what we are doing to the Moslems but nobody ever mentions what they did to us." I was confused because there was nothing in the papers about this, so I asked him to explain. He said, "What about when they impaled us on stakes?" For those of you who don't know what impalement means, it was a practices used by many cultures in the past, of inserting a point pole into the rectum of the victim and running it up through the center of his body. Then the pole was planted in the ground and the victim hung suspended there in unbearable agony. Need I say more about the brutality of human nature when it is separated from the grace of God?
I couldn't believe that this could be happening without someone in the press reporting it, so I asked him, "When did this happen?" He said, " In 1453 when the Muslim Turks over ran the Balkans and conquered the Christian population. Thus, in the youngster's mind, the atrocities of the past justified the atrocities of the present and the cycle of cruelty and retaliation would continue into the indefinite future because no one knew how to forgive and forget. Insanity was passed from parent to child until the fifth generation and beyond.
And of course, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants over the past hundreds of years, which is a scandal to the body of Christ, is just one example. The Pope, John Paul II, is leading the way in healing the wounds of the past. He has already apologized to our Protestant brethren for the abuses by our ancestors that contributed to the Protestant Reformation, and he also has apologized to our Jewish brethren for the atrocities that they suffered at the hand of Christians. Since he first announced the Jubilee year, he has been urging all of us to wipe the slate clean by forgiving those who have offended us so that we can experience the new beginning that God is offering us. Let's not miss the opportunity. We could become a light to a world that is engulfed in darkness.
Anyway, it was reflections such as these that later caused me to become interested in the idea of a Sane Society. There just had to be a better way to run the world than what we human beings were doing. I had seen too many tragedies in my own family to accept the world as it was and I knew God did not put us here to live lives of futility and despair. What happened to my own parents is a case in point. Let me now return to my early background to demonstrate what an insane culture can do to the lives of people.
The "Devil's Pocket", like many working class Irish Catholic neighborhoods, had what some people referred to as the "Irish Plague." Drinking and fighting was a way of life with the male population. They talked about it, sang about it, and joked about it, and became proud when one of their drinking escapades became immortalized into the folk culture because of some crazy thing they did while drunk. All you had to do was to get drunk and jump off a bridge, lay down in front of a trolley car, fall asleep in a coffin, or become involved in an outstanding Donnybrook- an Irish term that means "big fight"- or some other crazy and often humorous thing. The incident would be remembered and retold in party after party until, at the mention of the person's name, everyone would start to laugh as someone would once again retell the story of what Mick McGuire or Joe Reilly did on such and such an occasion. Of course, Mick or Joe would beam with pride as their status in the community was recognized and honored and they secretly yearned to add to their reputation by performing something even more outrageous.
Many Irish songs speak of these cultural values in a humorous tone. However, there is a downside to this picture, which I know from personal experience.
My parent's marriage lasted five years, which was just about long enough for my younger brother and me to be born. The marriage was doomed from the start because my father was trapped in the cultural mandate to drink and fight. Thus, every Friday night, after he was paid, he headed for the local bar where, with other men caught in the same cultural trap, he began to drink his paycheck away. When my mother complained about the loss of the rent and food money, he responded by beating her. If you think that this was limited to my family, consider the following story told to me by my aunt.
There used to be a bar at 26th and South called Callahan's. Now Mr. Callahan was a barkeep with a conscience and every Friday night when the men of the neighborhood came in with their paychecks, Mr. Callahan refused to serve any of them a drink until he had collected the rent and food money. He placed the money in an envelope with the family's name on it. Every Saturday morning, the women of the neighborhood lined up outside of Callahan's Bar to collect their house money.
That's what happens when "sin" gets built into a culture. That's what happens when some aspect of a culture becomes "insane" rather than "sane". And yet, generation after generation of the scarred victims of this insanity went out and did the same thing. Most of my childhood friends couldn't wait until they too could prove their worthiness through their ability to drink and fight.
As I mentioned, my mother and father split after five years. I still remember the night that my brother and I were awakened from a sound sleep; lifted by my grandfather from our bed; placed in the back of his panel paint truck; and driven to his house in West Philadelphia. For the next eight years, we lived with my grandparents.
At first, my mother lived with us but because of the conflict between my mother and my grandmother, she moved out and left us behind. Her weekend visits were a high point in my week and I idolized her because she was a very beautiful woman.
However, this all changed at thirteen when my brother and I went to live with my mother. She earned her living as a cocktail waitress and, as we were to discover, she had fallen into a lifestyle of drinking and partying after work.
My brother and I soon realized that both of our parents had drinking problems. As time passed, the problem became worse for both of them. My father, who always claimed that he still loved my mother, was crushed by her refusal to reconcile and with the knowledge that she was now dating other men. His drinking grew worse and he eventually became what people termed a "wino." He stopped working; lived in the streets; drank cheap wine; and lived a life that was a "living hell." It became part of my Saturday routine to search for him in the doorways, lots, and alleys of South Philadelphia. When I found him, he would be drunk, dirty, disoriented and trying to borrow money from me to get a drink. But he was my father, and I still loved him.
The last time that I saw him was two weeks before he died. I was in the navy and I was home on leave. He had stopped drinking and was living with his sister on Christian St. because he had just been informed that he had blood clots and was given only six months to live. Knowing this, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with him but my mother felt neglected and pressured me to spend more time with her. Consequently, I failed to arrive one day when he was expecting me. It was the day before I had to return to my base. The next day, I went to see him and he was drunk. He told me that he was going to a bar on Graysferry Ave. I wrestled him up the street because I knew that it was his death warrant and so did he. Outside the bar, I panicked. I had to catch a bus to get back to my base on time and yet I didn't want to leave him in this condition. Filled with frustration, realizing that I couldn't change his mind, I struck out verbally and said, "Go ahead. Kill yourself. You've never been the kind of father that I needed and you've never been there for me." He punched me in the face and walked into the bar. I stood on the corner in my navy uniform, crying like a baby.
Two weeks later, I was called into the Captain's office and informed that he was dead. He died on a sidewalk in South Philadelphia at the age of 42, a lonely, beaten man, who was denied the "fullness of life" that Jesus promised us, because he tried to live out an insane cultural mandate.
I hope that you don't think that I am criticizing or being disrespectful of my parents by revealing aspects of their lives here. Or that I have a lot of resentment or unforgiveness towards them. I don't. If anything, it upsets me that they were both caught in the cultural pressures of their peers and neither were able to discover the Truth that would have set them free.
However, I have no doubt that if my limited human understanding can find compassion and forgiveness for the mistakes that destroyed both of their lives, God in His infinite Wisdom and Mercy has already granted them the "fullness of life" that eluded them while they were here. I have good reason to believe that my mother is now in the arms of God due to some unusual circumstances that occurred at the time of her death.
It was 6:30 in the morning, nineteen years ago, when I was awaken by the phone and informed by a hospital in New Jersey that my mother had just died in their emergency room. During her life, she had physically suffered a great deal due to a fall that she had when she was twelve years old. As a result of it, she developed osteomyelitis and, during her life, she had had 45 operations. Add to this all the guilt and emotional pain that she carried over from her struggle with alcoholism and you'll get a sense of how painful life had been for her.
Later that morning, I gathered my family together in our van and we started to drive the 65 miles to where she lived. As I drove towards the TaconyBridge, I fiddled with the radio trying to find some quiet music. I stopped on a station that was playing semi classical music. After about two minutes, the music changed to a country gospel song called "Something Beautiful." The words are:
Something beautiful; something good
All my confusion, He understood.
All I had to offer him was brokenness and strife
And He made something beautiful of my life.
Then, just as quickly as it had changed before, the music switched back to semi classical. As I repeated the words, tears welled up in my eyes and I had the eerie sense that these were the last words that my mother was speaking to me.
The next day, I heard from one of my friends, who had met my mother only a few times. When I told him about her death, he asked what time she had died. I told him 6:30 a.m., and, to my amazement, he said, I saw your mother at 6:40, while I was praying at Mass. She was standing before God full of fear and terror and, God smiled at her and said, "Welcome home, Marie, it's been a long and hard struggle."
As I visualized what he was telling me, I could see her in my mind's eye, head bent low, eyes cast down, beating her breast and saying with tears streaming down her face, "Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner." Just like the publican, she had found the secret of salvation that is expressed in the song, "The Cry of the Poor." " The Lord always hears the Cry of the Poor, blessed be the Lord, it is just the proud that he sends away empty.
I was so touched, that at her viewing, I witnessed about these happenings to the people who attended. A few days later, I was talking on the phone to my brother in California, who was unable to attend the funeral. When I told him what happened, he exclaimed, "Praise God! I've been praying that the Lord would save her and that He would give me a sign by having someone witness at her funeral.
Concerning my father, the Lord gave me an internal vision about his fate. I see myself standing at the back of a large crowd before a stage. One by one, the Lord is asking each person to ascend the stage to face the Last Judgment. I see my father, dirty, unshaven, unkempt ascend the stage and stagger towards the Lord. Jesus turns to the crowd and says, "This is Joe Reilly. He spent much of his life as a "wino" living in the streets of South Philadelphia. He failed as a husband; he failed as a father, he failed as a person. Is there anyone out there who believes that this man's life had any value that should allow him to enter Paradise? I see myself raising my hand from the back of the crowd and saying, " Yes! I think that his life had value. That man went through a living hell to teach me how to live. His life had value to me because I watched what he did and learned from his mistakes. He hurt himself more than anyone else and he has suffered enough. Let him in, Lord, I have nothing against him and I still love him no matter how he may have failed me as a father.'
Has it every occurred to any of us that the Scriptural statement "Who's sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them and who's sins you shall retain, they are retained" could also apply to ourselves. God is a God of Mercy and Justice. His agenda is to save sinners and, thus, His mercy endures forever. However, he is also committed to Justice, and when people offend us, we have the right to demand Justice by having them punished for the offense. God is always willing to forgive any offenses against Himself but, in the name of Justice, He can't forgive an offense against us. Only we can do that. Is there anyone that you know who is standing on that stage waiting for your response to Jesus' question? Is it "thumbs up!' for forgiveness, or "thumbs down!' for retention? Jesus is waiting for your answer.
Well, I see that my time is almost up and I want to leave with a song that has reference to what I have been talking about today. It comes from an album called Wood Hath Hope by Rev. John Foley, S.J. and the song is "The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor."
'The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor'
The Lord hears the cry of the poor; blessed be the Lord.
I will bless the Lord at all times; with praise ever in my mouth
Let my soul glory in the Lord; who will hear the cry of the poor. (Refrain)
Let the lowly hear and be glad ; the Lord listens to their pleas.
And to hearts broken God is near; who will hear the cry of the poor. (Refrain)
Every spirit crushed God will save; will be ransom for their lives.
Will be safe shelter for their fears; and will hear the cry of the poor. (Refrain)
We proclaim Your greatness, O God; Your praise ever in our mouth.
Every face brightened in Your light; for You hear the cry of the poor. (Refrain)
If at this time your heart is heavy or breaking, you are in the best position to interact with the Lord because you have been brought low and your heart is open and receptive. Go to the Lord who 'always hears the cry of the poor' with a simple prayer like:
'Jesus, the Wisdom of the universe who created and organizes all things, my life, or the life of someone I love, or the world in general is in chaos. Bring your healing and organizing powers to bear on these issues. Amen'
Well I see that my time is up.