A few weeks ago, I attended a day-long training to become a home visitor for our local conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The most compelling part of the training was the section on what poverty looks like, from the perspective of the person living through it. This segment of the training was led by a man who was born and raised in some of the roughest areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, who was hired by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a teen and loved and accompanied for years, through numerous trials and triumphs. Today he is a college-educated husband and father, a successful manager and talented speaker on the state and national level, and a Vincentian for life.
The training was thought-provoking and convicting; it, along with learning more about my own ancestors’ struggles with poverty before I was born, led me to want to dig deeper—which in turn led me to another unread book on my shelf: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
Sinclair was an influential muckraking journalist, author, activist, and political candidate at the turn of the 20th century. The Jungle is his fictional but detailed and realistic account of power, corruption, and poverty during this time, particularly in the stockyard district of Chicago. The book follows one immigrant family from Lithuania, who moves to America on the promise of plentiful work for good wages, and finds a corrupt system of capitalists and politicians of every stripe, at every level, keeping prices high and wages low, controlling everything from housing and food supplies in the neighboring slums to law enforcement, inspections, and elections—and driving workers to desperate measures to avoid death by illness, exposure, or starvation.
In 2016, I was blessed to travel with my son Gabe and STMA Catholic Youth Ministry to World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. Southern Poland is a wonderful place for a Catholic pilgrimage; so many ancient and modern saints lived and died in so small a region that every day it seemed we visited another sacred site in another blessed city. The big three, of course, were 20th century saints: St. John Paul II, St. Faustina Kowalska, and St. Maximilian Kolbe.
In the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we were blessed to visit his religious community at Niepokalanów as well as the concentration camp where he gave his life at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). I say blessed truly, but not in the typical sense of the word. On a sunny summer day, Auschwitz is still and green and peaceful as an cemetery, but still more somber and hushed; the fences, ruins, and the dreadful sign above the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Free You), bear silent witness to the cruelty of which humanity is capable.
As we left the camp, we passed a small booth selling items commemorating the place—most prominently, a book entitled Hope Is the Last to Die by Halina Birenbaum. Born Halina Grynsztajn to a Jewish family in Warsaw, she survived the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation, followed by four prison camps in succession: Majdanek and Auschwitz in Poland, and Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe in Germany.
I bought the book, as the most appropriate way to recall the place and what happened there. I finally found the courage to read it this Lent.
I’ve been thinking lately about what is means to say that God is love. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “Love is willing the good of the other as other.” If God is love, then God’s very nature is to will the good of each of us, at all times and eternally. A couple weeks ago, the story of the hemorrhaging woman from St. Mark’s gospel struck me as a profound illustration of what this looks like in our world.
You’ve heard the story: Jesus is traveling with a large crowd of people to the home of Jairus, whose daughter is dying. With the crowd pressing from all sides, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years approaches Him from behind, with profound faith in who Jesus is and a deep hope that if she can just touch His cloak, she will be cured.
She succeeds in touching Him and is instantly healed.
Mark 5:30 tells us, “Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who has touched my clothes?’” Unlike other gospel healings, there was no initial conversation between Jesus and the woman before the miracle takes place. So did she somehow heal herself by tapping into His power while He wasn’t looking? Of course not—the God of the Universe is not commanded or controlled by His creatures.
So what happened here?
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”Mark 2:3-5
[At the time of this writing] I’ve spent the past 10 days quarantined due to a positive COVID test. Aside from one rough evening, I felt pretty good overall—the usual post-holiday fatigue and January congestion. But it doesn’t take much. When sick or injured, I am a pretty poor patient. I never manage to suffer in silence for long, and I tend to put everything on hold until I feel better. The weaker my flesh, the less willing my spirit.
Mark’s gospel shares the account of four friends who bring a paralytic to Jesus. Unable to get close to him on the ground due to the crowds, they climb to the roof, open up the thatching, and lower the paralyzed man on his mat before Jesus. The Lord sees the man in his plight. He sees the great faith of the man’s friends. So what does He do?
Jesus forgives the paralyzed man’s sins.
Think about that for a moment. From the crowd’s point of view: They have gathered around Jesus with great expectations. They are listening to His teachings, but they have heard He is a wonderworker. No doubt they were holding their breath in expectation of a miracle for the paralyzed man. From the standpoint of the four friends: Can there be any doubt that their hope for their friend was physical healing? And from the paralytic’s point of view: Even if he was a devout man, I’ll bet there was a twinge of disappointment when Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” rather than, “Rise and walk.”
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.Ezekiel 36:26
Life in this world seems to dispense blessing with one hand and heartache with the other. In the past few weeks, we’ve enjoyed weddings and worship, family, and friends, brewing and canning in abundance—and learned of the passing of friends, the decline of others, lost children, and struggling families.
Have you ever wished you couldn’t feel each loss so keenly? The joys of life are wonderful, but at times, the temptation to not feel at all becomes so strong that you harden your heart even against the good to avoid the pain of the bad.
Hardness is not a virtue. As a physical trait, it has the peculiar tendency of making a thing seem solid and strong, while rendering the thing more brittle and fragile. (Diamonds are a rare exception, and the conditions required to create one in nature are extraordinary.) Scripture warns specifically against hardness of heart, and many people know from experience that the thicker the shell we build around our hearts, the more painful the blow and crack that finally breaks it open.