Gulag Dispatch #3: Re-opening and Pure Pain

We last gathered for Sunday Mass on March 15.

Since then, the teenagers have had growth spurts and gotten taller. The babies have fleshed-out and gotten beefier. Men have grown beards, shaved them, and grown them again. Some young people have graduated from school via Zoom.

We decided on April 19 that we would weep together for joy when we could finally have public Mass again. Like the Israelites, who had languished in Babylonian captivity, finally returning to Jerusalem.

After all, this Christianity thing: it really does require our coming together. For the Holy Sacrifice. Our souls get frayed at the edges without the Mass. We lose our peace, our anchor, our air.

This Sunday the long-awaited moment will come.

It will be awkward. With screening questions at the door, spacing in the pew, sanitizing like mad. The tears of joy will get the mandatory mask all wet. The normal rhythms of Sunday Mass will not sound. It will feel like religion in a doctor’s office.

But we will have Mass again. The captives will return to Zion, with Alleluias.

I won’t be there.

Words fail me, to describe the pain. May I borrow the plaints of William Shakespeare’s Lucrece?

 

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Lucretia by Paolo Veronese

I alone must sit and pine,

Seasoning the earth with showers of silver brine,

Mingling my talk with tears, my grief with groans,

Poor wasting monuments of lasting moans.

 

O Opportunity, thou murder’st troth;

Thou foul abettor! thou notorious bawd!

Thou plantest scandal and displacest laud:

Thou ravisher, thou traitor, thou false thief,

Thy honey turns to gall, thy joy to grief!

 

When wilt thou be the humble suppliant’s friend,

And bring him where his suit may be obtain’d?

When wilt thou sort an hour great strifes to end?

Or free that soul which wretchedness hath chain’d?

Give physic to the sick, ease to the pain’d?

 

Time’s glory is to calm contending kings,

To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light,

To stamp the seal of time in aged things,

To wake the morn and sentinel the night,

To wrong the wronger till he render right,

 

Why work’st thou mischief in thy pilgrimage,

Unless thou couldst return to make amends?

One poor retiring minute in an age

Would purchase thee a thousand thousand friends…

 

Out, idle words, servants to shallow fools!

Unprofitable sounds, weak arbitrators!

Busy yourselves in skill-contending schools;

Debate where leisure serves with dull debaters;

To trembling clients be you mediators.

 

In vain I spurn at my confirm’d despite:

This helpless smoke of words doth me no right.

This is how painfully I will miss welcoming my people back to church.

I will celebrate Mass. The suspension of my priestly faculties does not deprive me of that privilege; I simply must celebrate privately.

So the sacred mysteries will unite us, even though I won’t be there to share the tears of joy, after so long an exile.

Pure pain comes our way sometimes. We cling to Christ, in His Church.

We need Him. And we need Her, too. We need His grace more than air. And we breathe His grace like air, at Holy Mass, in church.

Wholeness, Augustine, Lucrece, and Maria

Click here for a paean to St. Maria Goretti from ’09…

The virtue which makes life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will. –St. Augustine

These days everyone strives for the great goal of “wholeness.” Shop green, eat clean, yoga, the right teas…wholeness awaits.

Now, I am not trying to make fun of anyone. The ancient Romans had a saying, Mens sana in corpore sano. A sound mind in a healthy body. Bodily temperance certainly aids us in the spiritual life.

But the ancient Romans also sang songs venerating one of their fabled heroines, named Lucrece. Lucrece had commited suicide when she concluded that her body had been ruined by the violation of a hostile invader.

St. Augustine answered by making his very important point: Personal integrity is found in the soul. We pray for bodily health and well-being. But no disease or violence of any kind can make a pure heart impure. And a pure heart is the center of genuine wholeness.

By the same token, of course, no bodily exploit can make an impure heart pure.

If a soul falls into unwholesomeness, the greenest grocery store cannot provide a remedy. Going to GNC or Trader Joe’s would just be a waste of time. Only contrition and penitence can purify the soul and make it whole again, by the blood of Christ.

So the real name of soul-body wholeness is ‘chastity.’ An honest soul governs an honest body. And the true heroine of chastity is not Lucrece of ancient Rome, but St. Maria Goretti of rural Italy.

The young farm girl willed only the good. When a young man tried to rape her, she prayed for him to repent and relent. She sought only to do God’s will. She did not choose death; rather, she was martyred because she refused to consent to a sin.

St. Maria’s body lies lifeless now in her shrine, wounded by repeated stabbings. She was killed 109 years ago. The man who killed her came to visit and pray–after he repented of what he had done, served his prison sentence, and then became a Franciscan.

He came to kneel at the feet of real wholeness. No body could be more ‘whole’ than one which is wounded like that of Christ.