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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Anger

A number of pastoral encounters recently have prompted me to write something regarding the whole issue of anger, as many people (I have learned) really struggle with feelings of anger and wonder about it.

In my pastoral (and personal) experience, anger is an emotional reaction direction against some sort of "wrongness". It can be because something that is present in a given situation really should not be there, or because something that isn't present should be. Either way, we detect, on what is often a non-rational level, the presence of this wrongness, and anger is the result. It isn't always expressed outward, mind you — that is anger-as-power — but it is real.

Now some people wonder if anger is a sin. It depends: Jesus, as we know, got angry sometimes. What makes the difference is if the anger being felt is in accordance with right reason. Does the "wrongness" we are detecting actually exist? And will getting angry be of any positive use? For anger to be "righteous", both conditions must be fulfilled. Righteous anger, then, actually flows out from a personality imbued with the gift of wisdom. Of course, this gift is not strong in everyone, so while there are some whose anger is habitually righteous, those for whom this gift is not strong are advised to instead regularly take the often-given advice of the Scriptures to keep their mouths shut.

Sinful anger, also known as wrath, is known particularly by its opposition to justice and forgiveness. Wrath is also a response to a "wrongness", but it is a response that is inappropriate in some way. It might be displaced in time, for example: the wrongness happens now, but the anger response comes so much later that there is no real obvious connection except in the vengeful heart of the person detecting the wrongness. Or perhaps the reason the anger is really wrath is because the response is disproportionate to the wrongness: shooting someone out of road rage is clearly disproportionate to the "wrongness" of lousy driving or bad traffic. Wrath is particularly bad when the real "wrongness" being addressed is some character flaw in the angry person: some people only feel alive when mad, and so they look for excuses to get mad so that they can seem to be addressing one wrongness but really are only addressing the "wrongness" of their own dead heart. Wrath, in its worst form, is a direct extension of the sin of pride: like Adam the person "wants to be like God", but isn't, and so turns to habitual anger in order to feel powerful. What makes it truly diabolical is that it creates and feeds the "wrongness" situations that then feed the anger. It is the wrath of tyrants, and of Satan himself.

Now some people are disturbed when they feel angry because they find themselves getting angry about something that never disturbed them before. It is possible that this is a form of moral backsliding, but it is also possible that what is really occurring is that the mind is becoming more precisely tuned to identify the objective existence of "wrongness". An abused child often feels sad more than angry, because the child does not yet realise that it is "not his fault". Once this realisation is made, however, anger often surfaces, and it is not necessarily inappropriate, as (once again) it is a reaction to a situation whose "wrongness" is only now just recently discovered. This kind anger is often the source of great pain, because the motive to correct the "wrongness" may not have an object anymore. At least, however, it is possible to reassure people that the anger is not, in and of itself, necessarily inappropriate.

The simple reality is that anger comes to us, but it isn't always useful. We need to be guided by renewing of our minds and hearts so that, when anger does come, the energy that it brings can be put to positive (rather than destructive or self-destructive) uses. The key is to develop a spirit of forgiveness. The ability to readily and truly forgive the debts owed to us, particularly emotional debts, lets the non-righteous anger roll off us like water off a duck's back. And anger that does remain is then like the righteous wrath of God, which will be manifested on the Last Day when Jesus comes in glory to purge the world of diabolical evil/wrongness. May we all develop hearts like those of the heart of God, whose initial instinct is compassion and mercy.

Consecrated virginity

I had a chance today to chat with one of the consecrated virgins here in the diocese of Montreal. Let me begin by saying how much I admire her personally for the love she radiates for Christ her husband. Her vocation is an ancient one, so ancient that it is mentioned in the New Testament itself, but it is poorly understood by people in the world today — or even, I'd venture to say, by Catholics. Here is a web site with more on the life of consecrated virginity, if you'd like to know more before reading this post further.

I believe that consecrated virgins have a significant spiritual role to play in the Church, especially today. I've come to appreciate the importance of consecrated virgins particularly within the context of the modern debates on the admission of women to the ordained priesthood. People openly ask why the Church reserves the vocation of priesthood to men only, but few realise that there is an equally-ancient vocation that is reserved to women only, that of consecrated virginity. The Church does itself no favours when it ignores this important vocation, therefore, as it makes it harder to understand the very nature of the Church itself.

The Bible describes the Church as a Bride, waiting for Christ her Bridegroom. A priest is ordained to sacramentally represent Christ the Bridegroom. People sometimes say to me "Father, it's like you're married to God!" Well, not quite: it is more accurate to say I'm married to the Church. This is why, when a bishop is ordained in the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders, he gets an episcopal ring that goes on the same finger as a wedding ring: he is "marrying" his diocese, the community for which he must care.

A consecrated virgin, on the other hand, through her consecration, comes to represent the Church in a special way as the Bride of Christ. She also receives a wedding ring, but in her case it is to show she is in love with Jesus and, in effect, is married to him. While hers is a celibate vocation, in the human sense, it is definitely called to be fruitful: Mary was the first consecrated virgin, and she gave birth to the Messiah! The book of revelation portrays a woman clothed with the sun who symbolizes, at least in part, the Church, as it gives birth to new children of God by the sacraments. And so while consecrated virginity is more what you ARE than what you DO, this life of consecration implies a new activity and creativity in the service of nurturing the life of the Church.

The ordained ministry and the consecrated life are fundamentally oriented towards each other. The way I see it, the ordained ministry acts like the skeleton of a body, while the consecrated life acts like the muscles. If there was only a skeleton, the body would be only dry bones, terrible rigid and unable to move; indeed, it would be dead! But a body still needs a skeleton, or else its muscles create only a quivering, twitching heap. The ordained ministers possess a hierarchical vocation, providing structure and support to the Church, while the consecrated life is a charismatic vocation, meant to be bursting with the dynamism of the Holy Spirit. And the consecrated virgins, in particular, are meant to possess this life in the Spirit, living out the words of the book of Revelation: "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come!" (Revelation 22: 17)

As a final point, I think the life of consecrated virginity is important because it reminds the world (and the Church) of the eschatological dimension of reality. The simple fact is that Jesus is alive, and we are supposed to be Waiting in Joyful Hope for his coming. Consecrated virgins, by being visibly in love with someone our eyes cannot otherwise see (apart from in the Eucharist), witness by that love that Jesus really is alive. Their life of consecrated virginity is a proclamation of the coming great wedding banquet, when the new wine of God's Kingdom will be poured out. It is also a reminder that we must always be ready with our lamps lit, so as to welcome Christ when he does come. And how precious it is, that central to what they offer Christ is their perpetual virginity, an increasingly rare reality in our Western world which is more and more callous with regards to the gift of sexuality. Their virginal love for Christ is freedom, not oppression! Consecrated virgins are living symbols of the reality of the Christ's presence in the world, and of the profundity of our response we are called to have. May we have many more consecrated virgins in our Church, and may their vocation be held in honour everywhere.

What is life?

During my time in hospital ministry I came to realise that I needed to develop a "Theology of Life" to help people, including myself, come to grips with the many hard questions that we face in this kind of institution.

The first thing I've come to realise is that hospitals are supposed to be about Life. They are not about Death — that's called a funeral home. Yes, there may be dying people in a hospital, but that simply emphasizes the point even more, because it presents a conundrum: why is there Death in a house of Life? But the fact that the presence of Death in itself creates a conundrum, rather than simply being part of the norm, only highlights the point that hospitals are meant to be about Life.

A second point: we cannot give Life. If we could, we could cure Death, and we can't. Indeed, we can't really cure anything, strictly speaking. It is the body itself that has the final responsibility to keep itself alive, and all we can do is help it along by creating conditions that favour the body in its struggle for Life. So we offer medications to kill germs, we set broken bones in casts, we cut out tumours, and we place people on respirators — but we do so, finally, in cooperation with the body, which still has to be the one that maintains the overall balance.

Finally, I've come to see more clearly is that a person is either alive or dead, and there is a world of difference between the two. There is no such thing as someone who is "half-dead", and we should never speak this way. The body is an amazing thing, fundamentally oriented towards life, struggling for it in each moment. I know it is a circular definition, but one of the defining features of Life (it seems to me) is that it seeks to go on living. And this struggle is with us every day — the sick simply happen to be more acutely aware of the struggle, as it is tougher for them. Life, then, really is a miracle of sorts. We live an extremely hostile environment, when you think about it: germs fill every breath of air we breathe, and get inside our bodies when we eat, drink, kiss, make love, prick our finger, whatever. A significant part of what we eat is indigestible, and the air we breathe in, once used, becomes a poison we must breathe out. Accidents happen, and we get cuts and break bones actually fairly frequently. And yet, the body not only has a capacity to take in what it needs to live, and to eliminate the rest, it also has an amazing capacity to heal itself and to fight off invaders that seek to destroy it. In what is often a hostile world, the fact that Life is able to surge upward in us is truly amazing. And so the sick are never "half-dead". Even if we know it will lose the battle in the end, as long as the body continues the struggle it deserves to be honoured with the adjective "alive". To say otherwise dehumanizes the sick and the dying, as causes us to live in the illusion that we ourselves somehow are no engaged in the same struggle. We are, and the sick are actually our brother and sisters in Life, from whom we can learn a great deal.