Hamlet and the 77 Pardons

Shawn Lauvao Redskins 77

Lord, how often must I forgive my brother? Answer: No less than 77 times.

Now, the Lord didn’t use the number 77 because Washington Redskins starting guard Shawn Lauvao wears jersey #77. Christ used 77 as shorthand for: always forgive the penitent brother.

Anyone ever seen Hamlet? That play would seem to have the opposite moral. Instead of “always forgive,” Hamlet focuses on revenge.

The evil uncle killed the good father, secretly, in cold blood, to steal the throne and the queen. The dead king’s ghost visits young Prince Hamlet, demanding revenge. Young Hamlet devises a stratagem by which to test the ghost’s story. Turns out the ghost speaks truth. So here comes revenge. At the end of the play, everyone winds up dead. No forgiveness; just brutal revenge.

Except: Young Hamlet and his nemesis Laertes forgive each other before they die. And the evil uncle Claudius tries to beg God for mercy. And the queen admits to Hamlet that she has done wrong in marrying her dead husband’s brother. And Ophelia begs mercy from God for everyone…

ASC HamletChrist told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate his 77-pardons theme. In the parable, the king intended to settle accounts. When he did so, no one quibbled with the accuracy of his records. His accounts showed his servant in debt to him. The servant did not deny it. To the contrary, the servant, presented with the truth, humbled himself before its very accuracy.

‘Yes, yes! I owe you big time! Just give me another chance.’

And the king took a haircut, as they say in the banking world—he faced the fact that he wasn’t getting the money the servant owed him. Then the king gave the servant a fresh start.

Thus do we see mercy and righteousness kiss: Everyone faces the full, ugly truth. Then everyone starts fresh. Mercy does not mean: no reckoning. It doesn’t mean running away from the truth; skip the facts; just pretend everything’s fine and nice!

No. Forgiving happens when the parties agree on the painful, evil, unpleasant facts. And then start over.

Prince Hamlet did not exactly proceed down the path of Christian mercy. He did a fair amount of stabbing with his rapier. On the other hand, there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. It would hardly have been merciful for the prince to pretend otherwise.

In fact, the greater the evil, the more merciless the truth feels to the conscience that, deep down, knows it’s guilty. Mercy does not come in the form of a goose feather pillow. It comes as a bracing, cold bath. But nothing can refresh the soul more. Facing the truth. And getting a fresh start. With all the dials set back to zero.

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Mercy and Promises

The man in the parable sleeps and rises night and day. Time passes. The seed in his field sprouts and grows. Then, with time, it yields fruit. The blade, the ear, the full grain in the ear. The farmer knows not how. He is neither a biochemist, nor a botanist, nor a horticulturalist. He’s a small-scale agribusinessman.

Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia
Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia

We hail the merciful God. St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that God, above all, is merciful. Yes, the idea that God executes justice, that no injustice escapes His notice and His reckoning–that’s a rock-solid truth. But: There would be nothing, literally nothing, if it were not for God’s mercy. Creation itself occurred not because God is just, but because He is merciful.

Allow me to illustrate this abstraction, if I may. You visit a big city, take a cab ride. At the end of the ride, you say to the driver, “Thanks for the lift. What do I owe ya?” Or: Pipe breaks, water pouring out over the living room floor. Plumber comes on an emergency call, fixes the broken pipe. “Thanks for saving our hardwood floors. What do we owe you?”

Feel me? Remuneration for service rendered, a matter of justice. Well, what are we going to say to our Creator, when we reckon with the fact that we exist, thanks to Him? Are we going to say to our Lord and Creator, “Hey, thanks. For making me out of nothing. Thanks for Your service of giving me being. What do I owe You?” We don’t have that kind of money in our wallets. There can be no equitable, just re-payment for God’s creating us out of nothing.

Ergo: Mercy came before justice. God had everything and needed nothing. He foresaw all of history, even before He set it in motion. He foresaw that He Himself would have to suffer and die as a man, in order for man to be just in His sight. But He decided to bring everything that exists into existence anyway. Because He loves. Because He is greater, bigger, more generous, more giving–boundlessly full of goodness to give.

Point is: Things grow and flower. We grow and flower. We know not how. It’s the mysterious infinite mercy of God.

In my early 20s, I taught at a middle-school in inner-city Baltimore. Not to mince words: The building shook daily with the testosterone surges of potentially dangerous street punks. I came up with a motto for our little experimental Catholic school. “If, at the end of the day, everyone is still alive, it was a success.”

God has this thing about giving us tomorrow. He keeps giving us tomorrow, for precisely as long as we need Him to. Tomorrow is the consummate expression of the mercy of God. Because tomorrow I can do better. If I need to go to Confession, I can go. If I need to apologize to someone, I can. If today was the first time I ever prayed, then I can do it again tomorrow and grow even closer to God. The omnipotent mercy of God has deigned that time is on our side. The Devil always tries to rush us into doing evil. God can afford to wait, patiently, as we learn to do good.

taxicabIf you read Catholic newspapers or watch EWTN, you know that some people say that the Church would show more mercy by allowing divorce and second marriages. This fall the famous Synod on the Family will meet again, and the bishops at the Synod may discuss this. I don’t know too much about it, because I don’t watch EWTN, just ESPN.

To me, the idea of saying, “The lifetime promises you made–forget about them”–that does not strike me as merciful at all. Now, granted: sometimes people make promises without knowing what they’re saying. That’s a different case. “Were you sober when you made that promise?” “No.” Well, that’s different. And that’s a subject for a private conversation with Father.

Our life-long commitments make us who we are. On May 13, 2001, I solemnly promised to live as a celibate man for the rest of my life. I was as sober as a brick. Now, if Doris Burke–of ESPN–if Doris Burke showed up here, and tried to put the moves on me… If she showed up here, looking to chip a chalice, as they say. A leggy blonde sports nerd… (Kidding.)

Truth is, none of us live-up perfectly to the solemn promises we have made. After all, when we were baptized or confirmed, we promised to renounce sin altogether and live purely for God. But we have had our lapses.

So the merciful God gives us another day. Not another day to pretend like I never made any promises. But another day when we have the chance to try to live more faithfully in accord with our promises.

Night and day, we sleep and rise. Things grow; in our hearts and souls they grow, we know not how. One day to come–provided we are there to see it, by the mercy of God–the fruits of His love will be entirely ours.

Roof Breakthrough in Mark 2

After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying… (Mark 2)

These verses from the beginning of the second chapter of Mark (which we read at Holy Mass today) were my dear departed aunt’s favorite passage of Scripture.

What happened here with the breaking through of the roof, for the sake of the paralytic: This event gives us two subtle but powerful indications of the divinity of Jesus.

confessional1) “Jesus immediately knew in His mind what they were thinking to themselves.” God knows even the most secret of our thoughts. Nothing can be hid from His gaze. We would not have minds to have thoughts in, if God were not at every moment sustaining the existence and power of our minds. Whenever I so much as think something, or even ‘half-think’ it, God knows. Jesus knows.

2) “Child, you sins are forgiven.” Child, the faith of your friends has pleased God. Child, you are right as rain, you can stand tall, you can sleep the sleep of the just tonight, because mercy is everlasting.

But: ‘Who but God alone can forgive sins?’ Excellent question. Excellent rhetorical question. Christ quibbles not with this statement. The Church does not quibble. The idea that anyone but God can forgive sins is absurd. Of course only God can forgive sins. Sins are affronts against God. That’s what they are. No one but God is competent to forgive them.

By the same token: No one is competent to preclude or impede or foreclose God’s forgiveness of anyone’s sins. God wills to forgive the penitent sinner. He became man to make satisfaction, as one of us, for all the sins of human history. He gave the power to absolve to the priests of His Church. These are acts of God. The sacrament of Penance is God forgiving sins. No quibble. God forgives us through the ministry of the Church when we confess our sins to a priest.

“They were all astounded.” God’s loving penetration, and His profligate mercy in Christ: astounding.

How Joseph Read the Signs

It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you. (Genesis 45:5)

Let’s talk about how to read the signs. God gives us signs regarding His will, His intentions, His plans. But how to read them? Joseph with the beautiful tunic can teach us.

Everyone know what happened between Joseph and his brothers?

When Joseph was young, his brothers treated him with shameful contempt. Joseph had charm and creativity, and he delighted his father. So his brothers despised him out of jealousy. They planned to kill him, but in the end sold him into slavery in Egypt.

Holman_Josephs_DreamBut Joseph’s fortunes rose while his brothers’ fell. Joseph became chief steward of Pharaoh’s enormous kingdom. Meanwhile, Joseph’s brothers suffered through an extended famine.

How, though, did Joseph understand all these twists and turns of fate? Let’s imagine him sitting in his silken robes as master of the Egyptian dispensary. He sees his emaciated brothers shuffle in, begging for food. We could hardly blame Joseph if he thought to himself at that moment: Well, looky here. Look at the tough guys. They hated me for no good reason. Now they are paying the piper, and I am in the driver’s seat. Revenge really is a dish that is best served cold.

Who could blame Joseph if he had thought along those lines? But he did not think that way at all. To the contrary, he never gave a moment’s thought to revenge; it didn’t even occur to him.

All Joseph could think about was the hunger of his family. He promptly and quietly saw to it that his brothers received plenty of grain. The same brothers who threw him in the cistern and sold him into slavery.

In fact, not only did Joseph completely ignore his opportunity for sweet revenge—he even went further in the way he read the signs. A smaller person could easily have seen the hand of a vengeful God at work in the sufferings of his brothers. In point of fact, the brothers themselves read the signs that way, interpreting their suffering as punishment for their injustice to Joseph. But Joseph saw the opposite.

Joseph brothersJoseph did not say to himself, Aha! God has justly punished these evil brothers of mine and put them into my power! Rather, he said: Aha! God has led me through all the trials and tribulations of my difficult, lonely life for one reason: so that I could help my brothers now and save them from starvation. A smaller person would have seen the hand of a vengeful God at work in his brothers’ sufferings. But Joseph saw the hand of a merciful God at work in his own sufferings.

This, I think, is the way to read the signs. Joseph knew God better than his brothers did. God does not move events for the sake of my own personal satisfaction; He moves them so that He may satisfy the needs of others through me. The universe does not revolve around me; my universe revolves around the people who need my help.

May Joseph be a sign for us. Scripture teaches us that all things work for the good of those who love God. All things work for our good—when we understand that our true good is really the good of our neighbors. So let’s put it Joseph’s way: All things work for the good of the people that the people who love God love.

Merchant of Venice: Excellent Exegesis

What if the triune God never revealed Himself? Who would I worship?

Probably Virginia. Even if Virginia only included Augusta, Rockbridge, and Botetourt Counties, I would worship it. But it includes all the other counties, too! Especially Franklin and Henry.

Godlike in splendor. Idolizable if anything ever was.

…Had the opportunity to see a performance of Merchant of Venice at the American Shakespeare Center. The company executed the task with the usual aplomb. If they camped it up a bit, or indulged in tasteless physical comedy, they only did it to try to convey the humor of the text to their predominantly high-school-age audience.

The company also over-indulged, I think, in actually spitting on Shylock and Tubal. Does Shakespeare direct the actors to spit? No. The on-stage spittle only distracted us audience peoples. (Overheard in the bathroom: “Do they get paid extra since they spit on them?”)

The words, my friends! The words have more than enough bitterness of their own. The imprecations savor with plenty of verbal venom. Frinstance:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

or

Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross my
prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.

The key to the play? The fact that it explains the Parable of the Unforgiving Steward. (It explains the whole New Testament pretty well.) And Shylock’s humanity.

The usurer’s avarice, his malice against Antonio, his stubbornness: none of these are literally monstrous. His daughter breaks his heart by eloping–and taking the family jewels with her. He rails against the monetary loss with a lump in his throat. What really pains him? Jessica’s betrayal. And the fact that none of the other Venetian fathers can be bothered to give him the tiniest doit of commiseration. They think nothing of treating the Jew with hard-hearted contempt.

Of course, Shylock’s heart hardens to stone. His maniacal craze for vindication—for justice! my bond!—paints the perfect caricature of blinkered, zealous man: Absolutely dead to rights, within the point-of-view of the rifle-sight. Shylock’s bond has all the force of law, and who could really gainsay his legal reasoning?

But, outside what the scope takes in: an agent of justice stands with an axe, an axe that will fall on me, and his claim on me has much more to it than my claim does.

Where did the Venetian hard-heartedness begin? Did Shylock wrong a Christian first, or did a Christian wrong him first? The profoundest truth of the play rests on the fact that it has no interest whatsoever in answering this question.

In the end, the ladies turned lawyers, Portia and Nerissa, manage to turn the central theme of the tragedy—just retribution—into comedy. Their men, who protest their honor too much, wind up reduced to unimpressive and unconvincing stammerings to explain their own untruth.

Justice? Please. For man it is impossible. Better to try to make friends. With unassuming gentleness. Maybe even love.

My Transgressions

When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive your transgressions. (Mark 11:25)

The Lord Jesus exhorts us to pray with boundless confidence. He wants us to believe that our heavenly Father loves us so much that He will give us whatever we ask for. Boundless faith—the faith of a true friend and intimate of God—this opens the door of prayer.

Christ is talking to zealous believers here—prayer warriors, confirmed disciples.

At the end of this discourse, He slips in a wonderful little nugget: ‘You lovely, holy saints-in-the-making, beloved intimates of Mine, My chosen ones: remember that you stand guilty of transgressions against God.

‘Just like everybody. Just like the tax collector hunched over in the back of the Temple I just cleansed.’

With this little, last-minute reminder, the Lord shows us the way into His Heart. We enter His Heart when we acknowledge our solidarity with the sinful mass of human flesh, of which we form our part.

It is not for me to wonder if I am a sinner or not. I know that I am one. I pray, Lord, that You might enlighten my mind, so that I can know my sinful self better. I know that You forgive.

We Catholics don’t believe in magic. But one thing that works like magic is this:

I resent something someone else has done. I can’t bring myself to forgive.

I turn my mind from the business altogether. Instead, I say to the Lord: ‘Lord, I believe with all my heart that I have done wrongs which put You on the cross, even though I don’t even know the half of them. You suffered for me, and I praise You and bless You, and I admit that if I spent every minute of every day of my life thanking You for what You did to save me from the hellfire I deserve—it wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.’

I say this, and presto! Not as angry at the other guy as I was.

Tolerance, Pentecost, and Love

We human beings have a tendency to get on each others’ nerves. Living in close proximity to each other can cause conflicts. We don’t see eye-to-eye. Each of us has our ticks. Sometimes we don’t co-operate very well. We annoy each other.

We need a way to coexist peacefully. Which brings us to the virtue that reigns supreme on today’s popular airwaves. We try to live together in peace by practicing the magnificent virtue of…TOLERANCE!

Continue reading “Tolerance, Pentecost, and Love”

Puvis de Chavannes + St. Thomas’ Recovery

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: interesting painter

How did St. Thomas manage to miss the Lord Jesus on Easter Sunday?

“Gosh, I would love to hang out with you brother Apostles in the Upper Room and pray the afternoon away, but—wouldn’t you know it!—I have a conflict. Catch up with you next Sunday!”

Okay. Thomas had a lot of friends and associates. Kept busy. Always on the go. No harm in that.

But: when Thomas refused to believe his old friends when they said the Lord had risen from the dead—should we fault him for that?

“He came here. Flesh and blood. And He gave us the Holy Spirit.”

“No He didn’t.”

“Yes. He did.”

“No He didn’t.”

“Yes. He did.”

“No He didn’t.”

“Thomas, you’re hopeless.”

Continue reading “Puvis de Chavannes + St. Thomas’ Recovery”

Barren Self-Reliance, Glad Grace-Reliance

Today, God addresses us as follows:

Raise a glad cry, you barren one! (Isaiah 54:1)

Barren one?

At the Last Supper, Peter audaciously declared to the Lord, “I will lay down my life for you.”

He proposed to do this by his own courage, by his own manly vigor. Christ knew better. He knew the measure of Peter’s virility. He refused to accept Peter’s declaration.

As we know, Peter proved to be barren of courage and manliness.

“We saw you with him!” “I do not know the man.” “You are one of his disciples!” “I do not know what you mean.” “You are his friend!” “I do not know him.”

Meanwhile, the crucified thief bravely bore witness to the truth. “O innocent king,” the thief begged, “forgive me my guilt and remember me in your great kingdom to come.”

Christ did accept this. “Raise a glad cry, barren one. You may be languishing on a cross, justly condemned. But you will be with me in paradise this very day.”

Christ spoke these words of consolation to Peter, too. “Tough guy, you turned out to be a barren one, too, didn’t you? …But raise a glad cry, too. You will lay down your life for Me, by the power of my grace, when I say so.”

Self-reliance leaves us bereft and lifeless. Let’s raise a glad cry for the constant help that comes from heaven.