Blessed Daniel Comboni wrote, “The works of God bloom at the foot of the cross.”
I love that image. It reminds me that God loves each of us enough to do what’s best for us, no matter how much it will hurt — us and Him.
When my son Jack was four months old, he was hospitalized for an abscessed lymph node in his neck that eventually required surgical drainage. I spent more than a week with him in my arms or at my side. During the surgery itself, he was three or four floors away from me, but never farther.
It was so very, very hard to hold him and comfort him while doctors tried to insert a teeny IV needle into his hand, then — failing that — into his foot. When that one came out, he got intramuscular injections in his thighs: right one day, left the next. An ultrasound determined that the lymph node was not shrinking and he’d need to be transferred to a different hospital for surgery.
I held him and prayed as the doctors inserted a new IV into his head. While he was undergoing a CAT scan, I paced, and prayed that the sedative they had given him would wear off the way it was supposed to, that he wouldn’t have an allergic reaction to the dye they injected into him, that they would find nothing worse than an abscessed lymph node. During the surgery itself, God was kept busy listening to my petitions: that the surgery would go as planned; that it would fix the problem; that Jack would get better; that he wouldn’t die from an overdose of anesthesia. When, a few hours after surgery, it became clear that Jack was out of the woods, I sent up prayers of thanksgiving.
It was one of the most difficult weeks of my life (perhaps second only to the week my daughter was hospitalized at age ten, after nearly dying of diabetic ketoacidosis, but that’s another story). Watching doctors and nurses torment sweet baby Jack with those needles and such was not easy, but it was easier than refusing to nurse him the night before his surgery. Because vomiting while being intubated under general anesthesia is so dangerous, patients can have nothing to eat or drink for eight hours or so prior to surgery. Therefore from midnight to 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, I paced the floors of the hospital with a screaming Jack in a stroller, or I rocked him, or I held a pacifier in his mouth. I did everything I could think of to comfort him, except the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else: nurse him. Yes, this was different. Now, I wasn’t watching someone else make Jack suffer for his own good. I was doing it myself. There have been few moments in my life when I loved someone so much that it hurt that badly.
I’ve owned Sofia Cavalletti’s two volumes on Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for years, but never got past chapter one in book one. Last week, I took The Religious Potential of the Child off the shelf and started at the beginning again. As I read, I find myself smiling and nodding a lot.
In the religious sphere, it is a fact that children know things no one has told them. … Many years ago I was presenting Baptism to a group of children from four to six years of age, and I was unsure whether or not to speak of the meaning of the imposition of the hands, thinking that it was too difficult for children of that age to understand. But in any event I wanted to try: I put a ring in my hand and two or three times I extended my arm, opened my hand, and let the ring fall out, explaining that this is what I would do if I wanted to give them a gift. Then I repeated the gesture without the ring, saying: “At Baptism, the priest makes this gesture over the child; but you do not see anything fall. Then why does he do it? The children replied in chorus, as if the question were completely superfluous: “Because he is giving us the Holy Spirit.” Two theology students were present; I could see they were startled. Where do the children get such knowledge? I do not know how to respond; what is certain is that they knew.
—Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child
Today, in the Catholic Church, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Jesus led Peter and John to a mountaintop and was changed before their very eyes. After I finished today’s readings in Magnificat, I turned to last August’s issue (the little monthly publication contains a wealth of wisdom on the faith, and I often keep back issues and individual pages). There I found an essay on the Transfiguration by Heather King. In it, she quoted Charles Péguy, who observed: “The Christian, Christianity, Christendom, is not a public operation, a superficial, historical operation: it is not a public event. It is a secret event, a profound inward operation, and often, the more profound it is the less it modifies external aspects and appearances.”
This insight spoke to me, for a number of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, because I’ve never been comfortable with public displays of faith. My husband and I each pray, but we don’t pray together. The only reason I hold hands with anyone at Mass during the Lord’s Prayer is because my kids insist. Street-corner preaching? Egads! Where can I hide?
One of my favorite verses from the Bible is this: “But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will suspect you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in secret” (Mt. 17-18).
I guess I’ve always been suspicious of people who make a show of their faith. When I was young, it was a good friend who told me that her three favorite words were “Praise the Lord.” She went on to have a difficult life, even seriously contemplating suicide, because of the poor choices she made with a number of men. In my early twenties, it was friends of my sister’s, who liked to point out everyone else’s sins, brag about being “saved,” and tell jokes that were so bigoted they made me squirm. After I was married, it was an evangelical friend who liked to post Bible verses on the walls of her home, but must have left out the one about forgiving as much as seventy times seven. With one friend after another, she simply walked away because of some “unpardonable sin.” Mine was not asking her to be Godmother of one of my children.
I’m more than 600 pages into The Story of Painting by Sister Wendy Beckett. In it, I’ve seen magnificent artworks painted by some very sinful human beings. In contrast, I’ve given away books and “art” marketed as Christian, because they’ve been clichéd, badly written, or just plain tacky .
In Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, she brilliantly points out: “If our lives are truly ‘hid with Christ in God,’ the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write.” I can’t help but think of Graham Greene’s Whisky Priest, who — in his humility and recognition of his sinfulness — was holier than a host of pious characters.
Perhaps instead of being shocked that an artist as brilliant as Caravaggio was wanted for murder, we should rejoice that a painting as moving and beautiful as “The Death of the Virgin” could come from someone battling to make it through each and every day.
This afternoon, shortly after I snapped a shot of this pretty Rosa Rugosa and a few of its companions, I spent about an hour chatting with a man about flowers, bugs, golf, current affairs and the past. He is a veteran of Vietnam, and he shared a few of his experiences. He told of the orphanage he helped start, the children they cared for, the babies they rescued from the dump in Saigon: 14 babies a week, he told me. Fourteen, because they had only 14 cribs. He and another soldier went to the dump every Friday, and picked up 14 tiny human beings. They didn’t have cribs for any more, so they stopped looking once they had picked up that 14th child. But, I thought to myself, a baby doesn’t sleep in a crib for only a week. How could they collect 14 for their cribs each and every week? He read in my eyes what I was thinking, and he looked at me long and hard and said, “We picked them up and brought them to the orphanage, so they could die with dignity. It was better than knowing they’d be eaten by rats.”
My kids and husband wonder how I get people to open up to me and tell me things like this. They wonder why I have to read the stories about girls getting raped, children being kidnapped and babies being killed in the name of “choice.” I tell them I just have to know, but I’m not sure why. I think it’s because it helps me appreciate the wonder, beauty and life within my grasp.
Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., recognizes the vital importance of beauty in a world where God can be hard to find:
As the French playwright Jean Anouilh said, “Beauty is one of the few things in the world that do not lead to doubt about God.” The Church intuits that immediately. When we’re in the presence of something beautiful — an act of forgiveness, a newborn baby, a sunset — beauty wounds us. It has a visceral effect on us that is delightful, that increases our humanity. Beauty also reveals to us that there is something more to the world and something more to beauty than the beautiful thing itself. It leads to contemplation. That contemplation consists of wondering at where the beauty came from. It would be impossible for a human being who has just received a bouquet of flowers to not reach into the flowers to find a card. The beauty of the flowers moves us to wonder about the sender. Then when we know who sent them, we enjoy them all the more. Every act of beauty does the same to us. It moves us to find the author and the reason.
As I downloaded my photos from today, I thought of this afternoon’s conversation — indeed, it’s been hard to think of much else — and I noticed that the flowers that I thought merely pretty when I encountered them had suddenly become very beautiful. I’m thankful for that.