Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why I love Jesus

Response to a very old meme from Crimson Catholic, so it gets a very long post

1. Because my mom taught me to. When I was a very young child and my older sister was off at school, my days were spent entirely with my mom, just the two of us. Our schedule began with her coming into my room, singing “Good morning to you!” Then after the usual morning activities (getting dressed, eating breakfast), she’d dab some Holy Water on my fingers so I could make the sign of the Cross and off we were off…to church. My mom attended (she still does) daily Mass, and I’d play with her crystal and blue rosary, or look at the statues, or read my picture books on the Virgin Mary or the saints – my parents allowed us to bring books to Mass, but only if they were about religious figures – and she would do the responses, the kneeling, and so on that I couldn’t follow. I’d have to move from my odd positions sitting on the kneeler, arms across the pew (as young children often get into strange positions when kneelers and pews are available) when she came back from Communion, and then I’d watch her and she’d kneel down, place the first and second fingers of both hands on her temples, cover her face with the rest of her hands, and bow her head. She would go on praying like this for three minutes or so, and I’d wonder what she was thinking or saying. Then her head would lift and she’d gaze at the tabernacle.

After Mass, we’d pray the Stations of the Cross; rather, she would pray them while I would walk back and forth, up and down, from the Resurrection to the Fourth or Seventh Station, repeatedly, because it was taking her so long to crawl on her knees up those stairs, and I liked the blinding effect of the sudden sunlight at the end of the Stations (on the roof) compared to the darkness on the stairs inside the building. After the roof, we went back into the building that looked like a blue cave for a statue of the Virgin.

Then we would go and run the daily errands. In addition, often we would visit a nursing home, where the elderly would pinch my cheeks or tug on my pigtails, and come March, bring me lots of fig and sesame cookies from the St. Joseph’s Altars that were set up in many Catholic nursing homes. I hated the smell of the old people and would ask not to go there, but my mom would say, “You don’t know how happy it makes the people there to see you. Do it for Jesus.” And oh, my mother’s constant refrain to any report of discomfort (after a quick lookover): “Offer it up for the poor souls in Purgatory.” As I got older, I realized that we already prayed, every night, for the poor souls in Purgatory, so I asked my mom would I should continue offering up my small sufferings for them – wasn’t praying for them enough? With a look of subdued horror and infinite patience that I think only mothers can perfect, she said to me, “AG, many of the poor souls don’t have anyone to pray for them.” I thought it was so awful, all these people wandering around in Purgatory with no one to shine a little prayer light on them, and I’d nearly start crying and pray for them even more.

As I got older, my mom began spending much of her time with other people’s young children, teaching them their colors and shapes, how to read and how to count. She taught these children in their homes, wrecked by a combination of teenage pregnancy, poverty, substance abuse, and incarceration. She’d also clean the houses, wash laundry, and prepare dinner for older people who were homebound – people she had learned of through Church who didn’t have family nearby, and who everyone else seemed to have no time for – and she would do these things for free, of course. I would sometimes get annoyed when she was away for 5 hours cleaning someone’s house – “How long does it take you to do that?” And she’d reply, in her way, “I can’t just do those things; it’s very important that I stay and chat with them and sit and have a cup of coffee. That’s what matters the most to them.”

My mom taught me other things too – she read the children’s Bible to me, she taught me all my prayers, she pointed to the Virgin and told me that she was my mother too – but it was her example that made its imprint. What does it mean to receive God? It means to bury one’s face in one’s hands and pray intensely, and then extend one’s gaze in contemplation at His earthly dwelling. Why in the world would my mom, who in my estimation has always been as far from a great sinner as night is from day, get in her knees and crawl up stairs while meditating on the Passion? How in the world could my mom clean the house of an ornery elderly woman who was given to making nasty statements about blacks (unware of my mom’s race), and then even come home and make cookies for this woman because she thought the woman would appreciate a homemade treat? What could move her to do that?

2. Because of the examples of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. The twin pillars of light of my early childhood. The images of Mother Teresa holding sickly children and comforting the dying. Why would anyone choose such a life? And oh, John Paul II. I wasn’t moved by him just because I wanted to be pope one day, and he was keeping the chair warm for me. When this Polish guy with a round face and charismatic smile stood amongst a million people, holding a Crucifix and said “I love you! Christ loves YOU!” I could feel it to the tips of my toes. He didn’t even know me, but through Christ, he loved me? How amazing is that! “How much do I love you?” “This much!” with an arm span that can wrap around the whole world. I have no real patience for those who harp on the pastoral decisions of John Paul II during his pontificate, when the man yelled to the world over and over again that life is love, the Cross is love, suffering is love. His cry is the response to our cynical age, so it’s no surprise that cynics can’t hear it. If Mother Teresa was what love looked like in the small spaces of suffering and death – My arms can tenderly hold the least of you - John Paul II was what love looked on the big scale where love is never-ending and keeps giving of itself– My arms can hold all of you.

3. Because of Mother Mary and the saints. Enough said.

4. Because in the above three points, I began to understand what Jesus was all about, to use modern slang. What could lead these people to do the things they did? They showed me that it’s not about them, but about Jesus in them. And they are examples of the most mind-blowing fact of our existence – that Jesus works on the individual level, in each of us; He’s the one who makes it possible for us to give of ourselves, He loves us perfectly and unceasingly, and He gives us everything and can move us to every good thing. And not just me, but everyone.