Who Needs Hell?

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The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.

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Sisters Aren’t Doing It For Themselves

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The 2018 NCAA basketball tournament has created the unlikeliest of media darlings: 98-year-old Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain and biggest fan of Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers. The Ramblers will make their Final Four appearance since 1963, and their diminutive mentor and cheerleader has played a role in their success.

Before each game, Sr. Jean prays with the Catholic university’s team. She sends the players encouraging emails throughout the season. And she is there to watch them play, in spite of her age and frailty. Sr. Jean has been in such demand for media appearances since Loyola’s unlikely run in the tournament that her handlers have had to turn offers down. But what I love about Sr. Jean’s fame is that she puts a public face on modern Catholic women religious in America.

Most people use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably. But nuns are women who live in religious communities and function within the confines of these orders: praying, contemplating, often taking vows of silence. While nuns are also referred to as “Sister,” Catholic sisters are more active in the world outside the convent walls. Many are nurses, teachers, and agents of hospitality to the poor and marginalized of society.

When I was a child, my Catholic school had many Sisters of Mercy as teachers. My dad liked to joke and call them Sisters of No Mercy, and indeed, they could be harsh disciplinarians. The image of the sister with her ruler at the ready to physically admonish a misbehaving student is a cliche with some basis in reality. But I was always fascinated with our sisters, who wore black habits and veils that revealed absolutely no hair. I loved the click of the black rosary beads that circled the sisters’ waists.

As Vatican II started to liberalize some Catholic customs, many women religious stopped wearing habits. I remember a sister at our school who did wear a habit but allowed a large shock of bright red hair to spill out of her veil. I don’t recall her name, but she was young and she made Catholic sisters seem more human to me.

Catholic women religious in America have made important contributions to our society, including founding some of the first schools for African-American children. They have been advocates for the rights of women and minorities. But by far their most important roles have been those out of the limelight: helping the poor, tending to the sick, teaching and mentoring the young.

Long before she was a media sensation, Sr. Jean Schmidt was an active member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.). She has been a teacher for many years and was an administrator at a Catholic women’s college before winding up as Loyola’s chaplain.

As much as Sr. Jean seems to enjoy the limelight, she is still focused on her vocation as the most important thing in her life. In other words, it’s not about her or even about her beloved Ramblers. As she recently told The New York Times, “Whether we win or lose, God is still with us.”

Like the thousands of other nuns and sisters in America, Sr. Jean is special not because of her undying loyalty to Loyola basketball, but because of her undying love for God and others.

Measure for Measure

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William Shakespeare knew his Bible. His dark comedy Measure for Measure uses the words of Luke to fashion a tale of sin, hypocrisy, and justice. In the play, the emphasis is more upon getting one’s just deserts in a negative sense. The character who condemns others for their sins also stands condemned for the same sin. Yet at the very end, Shakespeare affords its hypocritical character something truly God-like: mercy.

The words of Luke 6:38 are really about extravagant giving. So often we as humans are worried about having enough – money, time, attention etc. We hoard what we have or give only from our excess. It is really hard – and takes a lot of faith – to give until it hurts.

I like to think of myself as a generous person. I give to charity, try to be kind to strangers, and consider myself a good friend, especially in times of need. Yet I know that I often begrudge the time I spend on others. I may smile and offer to help, but later I can be found complaining about someone’s neediness or constant requests for help. And my donations to causes don’t really cause appreciable distress for materially.

I want to learn to give with extravagant love, not counting the cost. I want to lose myself in service to others. I want to embrace the unloved and the seemingly unlovable. But I’m often afraid or tired or discouraged – even, at times, annoyed. It’s a sad truth of the human condition that we are first and foremost concerned with our own survival. Or to paraphrase a famous saying, “To hoard is human, to give divine.”

Many years ago, I learned of a local family who had lost all of their worldly possessions in a fire. The family had young children, so I asked my daughter if she would be willing to donate one of her toys to a little girl who had lost all of hers. My daughter selected a beloved Little Mermaid “Barbie” to give. Almost from the moment the doll left our house, my daughter had “giver’s remorse.” Although she had several Barbies, Ariel was her favorite. My young child instinctively knew how to give until it hurt.

As we approach the days when we commemorate the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it’s good to reflect upon what self-abnegating love we can share with others in our lives, knowing that “the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

My Brother’s Keeper

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The other day I was waiting for the elevator in a hospital when a woman walked up and stood next to me. She had no coat on, so I assumed she was either a hospital employee or volunteer. But what struck me about the woman was her t-shirt. It was black and had white lettering that stated, “I am my brother’s keeper.”

The statement refers to a scene in Genesis when God questions Cain after Cain has murdered his brother Abel in a fit of anger and jealousy. When God asks where Abel is, Cain famously replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That question has echoed throughout the ages as human beings grapple with their own self-centeredness vs. their responsibility for others.

I’ve been thinking about this statement since last Wednesday’s school shooting, which was perpetrated by a 19-year-old former student. TV news reports showed him appearing in court for his arraignment, a skinny, bowed, pathetic figure, no doubt hated by the vast majority of Americans for the horrific act he had apparently committed a mere day before. And I wondered, who was looking out for him in his lonely life?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe the man who opened fire on high school students and staff in Parkland, Florida, killing at least 17, needs to answer for his crime. He and he alone is responsible for his actions.

But I couldn’t help feeling a sense of pity for his miserable existence, which included having been adopted as a child, who knows under what circumstances. He and his biological brother had lost their adoptive father 13 years ago and their mother mere months ago. Throughout the shooter’s young life, he had demonstrated troubling behavior, such as torturing animals, and had eventually been expelled from school.

Was there any attempt to diagnose a possible mental illness? Did anyone from the school or community reach out to try to help him and his brother, now virtually alone in the world? True, they had been taken in by a family in the community. But that family had allowed a disturbed young man access to a semiautomatic weapon.

Our American culture has many virtues: democratic values, social mobility, belief in hard work, and a vigorous defense of individual rights.  There is a sense of “I am my own person” in our society that allows people great freedom but can also leave them unmoored from social networks and a sense of belonging. The phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” is not an American one. But maybe it should be.

I don’t know all the facts of this young man’s life. I don’t know whether or how people may have tried to get through to him, to help him. But he seems a lonely figure, and there are so many like him in our society.

The Biblical figure of Cain was cast out from his people. He had failed to recognize his duty to his own brother: to protect him and not to harm him. We are our brother’s keepers. But in our very individualistic culture, I’m not so sure we are doing a good enough job shouldering that responsibility.

 

Hug It Out

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I’m thinking of setting up a “Free Hugs” booth somewhere in downtown Chicago – a busy train station, say, or Daley Plaza (once the weather gets nicer). I recently read the about the physical and emotional benefits of hugging.

Hugging stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes well-being and reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Oxytocin is the hormone that helps mothers and infants bond, for instance. And studies have shown that hugging can help the heart and the immune system, making it not only a pleasurable activity but a potentially life-saving one.

I’ve noticed that as I get older, my opportunities for hugs have diminished. When you have little ones at home, you are constantly holding and hugging them, and being hugged in return. As they get older, kids often attempt to individuate by keeping their physical distance. And while I hug my husband on a fairly regular basis, I think I’d like to become more demonstrative with friends, even ones I see on a daily basis.

Amid the current divisiveness in America, I think it would behoove us to hug each other more. I’m reminded of a protestor approaching riot police in Charlottesville last year and offering hugs. There was also an instance of a black man hugging a white supremacist outside a Richard Spencer event. The black man kept asking the white man, “Why don’t you like me?” The white man had nothing to say until the black man hugged him and whispered the question again. The white man admitted, “I don’t know.”

Americans are much less physically demonstrative than many other cultures. Decades ago, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied how often friends from different countries touched each other. He found that Americans touched each other about twice an hour whereas the French touched each other an average of 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans touched more than 180 times an hour. (“How Hugs Heal – Have You Had a Hug Today?,” articles.mercola.com, May 20, 2017)

In doing some web research, I found out that I’ve just missed #NationalHuggingDay, which was January 21. It’s interesting that this year the date happened to correspond to the Women’s March and followed on the heels of the March for Life, both events where like-minded people gathered in large groups for a common cause. No doubt there was plenty of hugging to go around.

What I’d like to see, however, are more healing hugs, where people take the risk to reach out and connect heart to heart with someone different from themselves, whether racially, politically, religiously, or ideologically. So maybe my Free Hugs booth is not such a bad idea. Or how about a social media phenomenon akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago. People could gather donations for every random hug they gave and posted.

Hugs are warm and life-giving acts, and I plan to start giving out more of them. How about you?

 

 

Let Them Eat Cake

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The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case to determine whether the Constitution protects the rights of a baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The baker insists that as an artist (of cakery, presumably), he is protected by his First Amendment right to free speech.

I’m sure there are laudable arguments on both sides of this Constitutional question, and I’m neither qualified nor interested in engaging in them. But for crying out loud, baker, it’s a cake!

I’m sure in the course of their day to day business, bakeries make cakes for all kinds of morally questionable people. Generally, businesses don’t require their customers to pass a moral litmus test in order to serve them. A cake made for a gay couple would have all the same ingredients and requirements that the baker would use for a  heterosexual couple. There is absolutely nothing morally compromising for the bakery here.

After all, it’s not as if refusing to make the cake will cause the gay couple to decide not to get married. I could understand if a Christian minister refused to marry two men or two women. But a cake is just a traditional aspect of the celebration part of the wedding. It’s not marched down the aisle as part of the actual marriage ceremony. So the idea that a baker’s making a cake for a gay couple would compromise his or her religious beliefs is ludicrous.

Let’s face it. The baker saw two men in love walk into his bakery, and it disgusted him. He didn’t want any part of their business because he didn’t like what he saw. This is the same situation blacks faced at lunch counters all over the American South in the Fifties. Refusing to serve customers because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is illegal. It’s that simple.

So I have a solution for the squeamish baker: Let gay couples have their cake and eat it too! Just tell them they need to supply their own same sex cake topper.

 

Hope

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With everything going on in the world these days, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Greed, intolerance, partisanship, abuse, and violence have all cast a pall on my holiday spirits. I have several friends who have stopped going on Facebook to avoid the constant bad news and negativity. To add to my feelings of despondency, I learned that a little boy from my town lost his battle with cancer last week.

But then at Sunday morning Mass, something happened to me. I was watching parishioners file down the aisles after receiving Holy Communion, and a tiny feeling lit up my heart: hope. All these people, young and old, had given up their cozy beds of a Sunday morning and come together to pray. We were there because we have faith that goodness and love are stronger than evil and hatred.

Faith is the ” realization of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) This past Sunday, the first candle was lit on the Advent wreath, its light a reminder of that tiny flame within each of us that can kindle hope.

Hope looks like Sisterhood Soap, a collective of Iraqi refugee women living in the direst of conditions who are taking charge of their destiny by making and selling soap. Hope resembles the unlikely friendship between an 81-year-old white woman and a 22-year-old black man, who met playing the online game Words With Friends. Hope is the dominant spirit at GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that works toward achievement and acceptance of people with Down’s Syndrome. Hope is Operation Christmas Child, a mission to spread joy and faith throughout the world with boxes full of goodies for impoverished children.

Hope is the sound of the Salvation Army bell ringing out on the cold, busy street. Hope is the light in a young child’s eyes when he sees a brightly wrapped package on Christmas morning with his name on it. Hope is abundant as families gather at the holidays, break bread, and share their love for one another.  Hope is the babe in the manger, the unlikely harbinger of peace on earth.

With a spirit of hope, let’s move through the Christmas season, spreading joy and kindness, and doing good for friends and strangers alike.