Does it matter in what way we are happy?

Two years ago, a friar gave me a pocket-sized book that forever changed the way I defined and sought happiness. 129 pages of plainspoken wisdom to be savoured and re-savoured.

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“What does it matter in what way I am happy?”

A fuller excerpt from Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence: The Secret of Peace and Happiness, a classic containing the writings of Fr Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure and St Claude de la Colombiere:

Let me show you a good way to ask for happiness even in this world. It is a way that will oblige God to listen to you. Say to Him earnestly: Either give me so much money that my heart will be satisfied, or inspire me with such contempt for it that I no longer want it. Either free me from poverty, or make it so pleasant for me that I would not exchange it for all the wealth in the world. Either take away my suffering, or — which would be to your greater glory — change it into delight for me, and instead of causing me affliction, let it become a source of joy. You can take away the burden of my cross, or you can leave it with me without my feeling its weight. You can extinguish the fire that burns me, or you can let it burn in such a way that it refreshes me as it did the three youths in the fiery furnace. I ask you for either one thing or the other. What does it matter in what way I am happy? If I am happy through the possession of worldly goods, it is you I have to thank. If I am happy when deprived of them,it gives you greater glory and my thanks are all the greater.

St Claude de la Colombiere

Are there words that have changed your life, and changed you? (There has been no better time for new book recommendations!)

The weights of vengeance and mercy

Vengeance dominates the tide of social media these days. Sometimes it comes in the form of mob justice descending upon the perpetrator of a crime inadequately punished, other times as smaller and subtler smears against those who have wronged us.

But perhaps we could spend some time pondering on the perennial tug-of-war between two opposing forces: Vengeance and Mercy.

The desire for revenge is rooted deep in us. We want those who hurt us to hurt, those who shamed us to be shamed. Whether we inflict the retaliatory attacks ourselves or by inciting others, the root of that thirst is one and the same. Sometimes we confuse the desire for revenge with the desire for justice, and certainly there seems to be an overlap. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that at some point the streams diverge. Justice ends (ideally) in some kind of restoration, whereas unabated revenge ends in destruction.

Vengeance seeks to destroy the other party. Often we don’t realise that in the process it destroys a part of us as well. What feels like ointment on the surface, could it not in fact be poison that seeps into our hearts?

On the other hand you have Mercy. Where vengeance seeks to destroy, mercy seeks to redeem. There’s no doubt that mercy presents itself as a heavy demand on the one who has been wronged. Anyone who claims it is easy does not know what they are talking about. Mercy is epitomised by a Man of Sorrows who, while nailed to the cross prays for those jeering at Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Perhaps such radical mercy is a weight none of us can bear. But when we truly contemplate the effects of such a mercy, perhaps we would at least desire the capacity for it.

The only known photo of Maria Goretti.

No story of radical mercy has captivated me as much as that of Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old girl from a small town in Italy who died a most tragic death in 1902. Maria’s neighbour, 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, had developed some kind of a sick and vile desire for the girl. When Alessandro attempted to rape Maria, her resistance and insistence that she would rather die than yield to him propelled him into an unfathomable rage, which ended in him stabbing her no less than 14 times.

As she lay dying on the hospital bed, Maria’s last words were: “I forgive Alessandro…and I want him with me in heaven forever.” Those words make me tremble; it’s as if Jesus Himself had whispered those words into her ears.

Meanwhile, Alessandro was not immediately contrite. He was even reported to have said in court that Maria would not have died had she just given in to him. However, a few years into his prison sentence, Alessandro recounted a dream to the visiting Bishop in which Maria appeared to him and handed him 14 lilies, as if a symbolic reminder of her forgiveness for each stab wound inflicted. Profoundly moved, he began living a converted life.

Alessandro was released from prison in 1929, after serving 27 out of 30 years. After being rejected by several communities, he found lodging at a Capuchin Franciscan monastery, where he began living a quiet life working in their garden as a lay brother. Said Alessandro, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.

On Christmas of 1934, he sought his victim’s mother, Assunta Goretti, and got on his knees to beg for her forgiveness. And imagine this: that night they attended Christmas vigil Mass together at their parish, and received Holy Communion side by side. Before the stunned congregation, Alessandro asked for God’s forgiveness and for the pardon of the community. Assunta later even adopted him as her own son. She said, “Maria has forgiven you, and surely God has forgiven you. Who am I to withhold my forgiveness?

Assunta Goretti with Alessandro Serenelli, the man who murdered her daughter.

If Maria’s mercifulness wasn’t miracle enough, the chain of events it precipitated surely were.

An excerpt from a public letter written by Alessandro Serenelli, dated 5 May 1961:

Alessandro Serenelli before an image of Maria Goretti.

At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart. She prayed for me, interceding for her killer. Thirty years in prison followed. If I had not been a minor in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved. Resigned, I atoned for my sin.

Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress. With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well. When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly. With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother. I have lived with them for 24 years. Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.

May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.

St. Maria Goretti, one of the Church’s youngest canonised saints, did not live to see the fruits of her mercy, and there’s no guarantee that we would see the fruits of ours in this lifetime either. But nonetheless, may the life of St. Maria Goretti, brief yet so intimately configured to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, sprout lasting fruits of mercy in our own hearts.

While they were mourning

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It was only after He had breathed His last that the Roman centurion cried out, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”

It was only after they had killed Him that the crowds realized their folly, and went home beating their breasts.

Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, now came out of the shadows asking to bury his lifeless body.

Likewise for Nicodemus the Pharisee. Previously daring to seek Him only in the secrecy of the night, he now emerged bringing spices for His burial.

Too little too late, they must have thought. How great the silence, stillness, and terror that overtook them.

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‘Il transporto di Cristo al sepolcro’ (1870) by Antonio Ciseri

Too little too late.

But little did they know the mysterious workings of God. Because the Son of God, whose body lay motionless in the tomb, was far from defeated. While they were mourning, He was busting open the doors of hell, breaking once and for all the prison-bars of death.

We recite in passing — just four words in the Apostle’s Creed — “He descended into hell.” Do we realize what was happening? Immediately after Jesus passed from the earth, He went down into the place where the souls of those justified under the Old Law were detained. Those who had been waiting for the arrival of the Messiah in the bosom of Abraham now saw Him face to face. He preached to them the Gospel in its fullness. How sweet those words must have sounded to them!

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‘Christ in Limbo’ (1442) by Fra Angelico

Imagine the burst of light that tore through the darkness! And this was no ordinary light — this was the Light of the World, and the light of all mankind that the darkness cannot overcome. Imagine the terror that overcame the devils, who realized there and then that their last stronghold was futile against the Son of God.

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‘The Descent into Hell’ (1568) by Tintoretto

And with that, Jesus opened the gates of heaven. He kept His promise to the thief hanging from the cross beside Him — who at the door of death had asked for the impossible — “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

All of this happened while there was great mourning on earth, and while it seemed like all hope was lost.

On the third day He rose again from the dead, and the rest is history.

For God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways.

We who believe in the Resurrection have no reason to despair. Not just in the face of death, but also in the troubles of our everyday life (which tend to worry us more than death). He teaches and welcomes us to leave our bundle of burdens at the foot of the Cross.

Lord, we leave this here with you tonight, and we will go to sleep. We will pick them back up in the morning, and even if it feels just as heavy as when we left them, we trust that You are at work.

Because we know that while they were mourning, You were claiming the ultimate victory. While they saw no way out, You were paving the new way.

We will keep watch, because You make all things new. We will take heart, because You have overcome the world.

The cross reveals that unless there is a Good Friday in our lives, there will never be an Easter Sunday. Unless there is a crown of thorns, there will never be a halo of light. Unless there is the scourged body, there will never be a glorified one. Death to the lower self is the condition of resurrection to the higher self. The world says to us, as it said to Him on the cross: “Come down, and we will believe!” But if He came down, He never would have saved us. It is human to come down; it is divine to hang there. A broken heart, O Saviour of the world, is love’s best cradle! Smite my own, as Moses did the rock, that Thy love may enter in!

Venerable Fulton Sheen

The folly of rejecting weakness

There have been many approaches to positively reframe the way people view mental illness. One way, which I notice to be growing in popularity, is to distinguish mental illness from weakness: needing help doesn’t make you weak, needing to take psychiatric meds doesn’t make you weak, nor does needing a therapist, and so on. For instance, I learned from this Washington Post article about the power of “coming out” with mental illness that #sicknotweak has become a popular hashtag on Twitter.

But I find efforts to completely dissociate mental illness from weakness rather unsettling. While this approach may succeed in destigmatizing mental illness, doesn’t it do so at the expense of adding to the stigma surrounding weakness?

(I typically  hate the practice of pedantically and uncharitably picking apart the well-intentioned, so I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t fall in that category.)

My first thought is that our implicit rejection of weakness can inadvertently marginalize those who do not have the chance to be “cured”of their particular brand of weakness (for example, permanent physical disability, intellectual disability, and degenerative diseases).

I suppose the knee-jerk response is, once again, to affirm that those conditions aren’t weaknesses. But it often takes a long time for many people to accept or believe that for themselves. I wish we could go a step further and place no pressure on anyone to feel or identify as strong when they in fact feel weak.

With mental illness becoming a part of my life to be reckoned with, there are many periods during which I do feel weak. After all, when all this first started unfolding during my college days, all I could see was personal weakness after personal weakness after personal weakness. I recently came to the conclusion that there perhaps can be great relief in a radically different approach, that is, instead of being told that you’re not weak, to be reminded that it’s okay to be weak. Only then would sufferers, family, friends, and caregivers, have common ground from which to begin the work of acceptance and change.

It’s not that weakness is something to be bragged about. But it’s not abnormal. It comes in many variations and forms, and no one is without one. We may try to distinguish between excusable weakness and inexcusable weakness — the former are those beyond our control, and the latter within our control — but is that really possible?

Yes, it’s not my fault that I have my diagnosis, but it’s never just about having a condition. Any given condition is also wrapped up in how we react to it, how we cope with it, and what we do with it — facets that are more or less within our control.

I admit that they way I reacted and failed to tackle my condition head-on during the first few years reflected personal weakness. I compare myself to the saints and see that I lack their admirable virtue of bearing pain, suffering, and anguish with grace. It’s only with this acknowledgment of personal weakness that I could begin to work on changing that. If I think that my illness renders me too weak to live well, then there’s nothing I can do about it. If I think that it’s my personal weakness that prevents me from living well with my illness, then I can eventually muster up the willpower to train my mental, emotional, and spiritual muscle such that I can still thrive under that pressure.

Perhaps in the sports arena weakness is something to be hidden, lest it be exploited by one’s opponent. But in our general foray from the start to the end of our earthly lives, the rules are different. Here, it is a given that we are all weak. We succumb under our weaknesses not when others can see them, but when we believe there is no transcending them. When we believe that they rob us dignity. That we are somehow less valuable because of our infirmities. Or that our lives aren’t worth living if we have to find a different way of living it.

What are we to do with our weaknesses, then? Besides denying and concealing it, society doesn’t really teach us many other options. The invitation to acknowledge and soak in them is not at all intuitive. But I’ve learned through a messy few years of trial and error to resist the temptation to run away from where it most hurts, or where we are most ashamed. To not be afraid to be broken down in those uncertain encounters so we can be rebuilt.

Ink; “If we only knew the precious treasure hidden in infirmities, we would receive them with the same joy with which we receive the greatest benefits.” –St. Vincent de Paul

Weakness and strength can coexist. In fact, isn’t it only in weakness that we can find strength? Admitting weakness is strong. Struggling through weakness is strong. Overcoming weakness is strong. Finding a way to live with weakness is strong. Pouring yourself out for others in spite of weakness is so incredibly strong.

And if you’re a fellow Christian, consider if we have any reason to deny weakness.  Do we not look at the crucifix to see Christ embodying weakness? Publicly hanging from a torture device, bloodied from head to toe, with bones out of joint, there we see the depth of His human weakness meet the pinnacle of His divine strength. Divine strength says not my will but Yours, and it also says into Your hands I commend my spirit. What appeared to be shameful weakness turned out to be the hard work of amazing, redemptive love.

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Weakness and suffering cease to be senseless torment when offered up to God. We’re asked not to bury them, and instead place them into the loving hands of God. There, like the five loaves and two fishes, they will be immeasurably multiplied as gifts for His kingdom. This means they also cease to be sources of shame. We’ve heard the timeless refrain:

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

–St. Paul the Apostle (2 Cor 12:8-10)

Let’s not reject weakness, but instead allow it to spur us to be stronger: in tenacity, resilience, faith, compassion, and love.

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Taking ownership of our pain

I’ve learned that the first step towards healing is to take ownership of our pain. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible for our pain. The wound is ours, and we decide whether to let it fester, or to begin nursing it.

We often blame people — be it others or ourselves — for the pain we experience. But at the core of it, it is often not people that we have trouble forgiving. What we can’t forgive is the fact that life has not gone according to plan.

Without realizing it, we have a pre-written script of how our lives should play out. Things that don’t usually feature in the storyboard: accidents, failures, betrayals, abandonment, humiliation, disillusionment, disability, mental illness, the list goes on.

For some reason, we keep forgetting that the universe owes us nothing, and that we have no reason to be surprised when things don’t go our way. Yet we demand to know: why me?

But demanding an answer — as if any would satisfy — keeps us stuck in anger and bitterness. With time, a part of us is paralyzed. We have denied ourself of healing.

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‘Ophelia’ (1851-52) by John Everett Millais
There are seasons in life during which I am made more cognizant of grievances past and present. Personal regrets, self-blame, insecurities, fears, feelings of having been wronged — everything surfaces. It’s like waking up one morning and finding that the carcasses I’d worked so hard to bury have clawed their way out of their graves, and are now confronting me for having buried them alive. These are the memories, events, and people I’d hastily buried, because for one reason or another, I couldn’t stand to even acknowledge their existence at the time.

We’re all in the habit of burying the unpleasantness of life under heaps of work, entertainment, or other preferred modes of distraction. It often even feels like triumph. Congratulations, we tell ourselves, the past can longer touch you, and you’re free to start afresh. It is with such remarkable hubris that we participate in this delusion — the delusion that we can simply erase select parts of our lives.

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Four Strings of a Violin (1914) by Edward Okuń
When we bury something, no matter how carefully we attempt to level the soil, the landscape will never look the same again. We’ll always know exactly what lies buried and where. We’re not really free, because there is no freedom in walking through life tiptoeing around the potholes that we pretend do not exist. These are the conversations we avoid, the names that freeze us in our tracks, the relationships we have severed, and all those suppressed memories lying dormant in wait of the right catalyst.

What we can choose, however, is to find a way to coexist peacefully with them. And I don’t mean just to tolerate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the things that wound us can nourish us.

If there’s one lesson depression has forced me to learn, it’s this: bury the past if you must, but return to water it. I’ve found that revisiting my buried pain isn’t scary as long as I’m armed with three things: faith, hope, and love.

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‘Two Peasant Women Digging in Field with Snow’ (1890) by Vincent van Gogh

First, faith in the gentle wisdom of God, and the promise that He makes all things new.

Second, the hope that there is always hope. That nothing is a lost cause — no relationship too broken to mend, no failure irredeemable, and that evil will not have the final say.

And finally, love. Because love is the gentle and merciful hand that nurses wounds. We have to love ourselves, in spite of our weaknesses, to open the door for healing. And perhaps the much taller order would be to also love the people who have hurt us. Sometimes this involves forgiving those who never asked for forgiveness, and commending them to our loving Father. Said St. Thomas the Athonite, the man who cries out against evil men, but does not pray for them, will never know the grace of God.

Leave anger and bitterness at the door. Take faith, hope, and love.

This doesn’t mean we will emerge healed, restored, and renewed overnight. But in the meantime, we would have robbed anguish and regret of their oppressive power over us. We might still feel them, but those feelings can now coexist with the joys of life.

So bury the pain if you must, but return to water it. Only then can new life will spring forth, and the same places that once harbored pain will become, instead, wellsprings of goodness and compassion.

I will leave you with the following excerpt from the journal of a Catholic priest who battled crippling depression:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives — the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections — that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see it in the guiding hand of a loving God.

Henri Nouwen (The Inner Voice of Love)

As always, thank you for accompanying me on this journey. 🙂

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Detail of ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil’ (1881) by Claude Monet