Fire & Grace: Trusting the Light of Faith

Silence.

After googling the word “silence”, pop culture introduced me to an upcoming movie of the same name, set for release in November 2016. Shûsaku Endô is the author of “Silence”, a 1966 historical fiction that tells the story of a 17th century Jesuit missionary who suffers persecution in the time of the “Hidden Christians”, following the defeat of the Shimibara Rebellion. Wikipedia, in all its illustrious grandeur, provides the following:

Endō, in his book A Life of Jesus, states that Japanese culture identifies with the “one who ‘suffers with us’ and who ‘allows for our weakness….with this fact always in mind, I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.”

In this expression, silence comes from God, as He silently stands by our sides in the midst of suffering and persecution through our faith and hope in Him. It is important to note though that God’s silence should not be confused with abandonment or neglect–those of being filled with distractions and selfish motives. Rather, God’s “silent treatment” is truly a form of “listening intently”, and becomes the very foundation to our relationship with Him! By listening to us, He brings forth from us an overwhelming treasury of the arts, all universally expressing that deeper hunger for fulfillment and peace.

This makes for a not so silent silence after all. 

His silence beckons a response from us, a journey of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift that takes His challenging guidance to heart.

That’s why I release “Fire & Grace” to you on this most sacred day, The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

When we are at our worst, in the midst of our overwhelming iniquities, Christ beckons us to take up our Cross and follow Him. He has chosen us, not to eliminate suffering from our lives, but rather to suffer with us…to show us how to suffer and die…and to give meaning behind what we had only ever seen as evil and cause for avoiding. It’s why so many people spend their entire lives running away from their problems, “preferring the darkness to the light” when in fact “darkness is as light to God”.

Christ is listening to us, sometimes carrying us, as we encounter the lonely trials of this divided world. Can’t we see this brilliant reality?! Or have we become so accustomed to our wounded darkness that we can’t even bring ourselves to unveil our eyes and adjust to the burning sensation of the eternal fire of divine love? Are we that scared of God’s judgment and condemnation that we won’t trust in Him to be merciful and reconcile us to Him?

This past April, I lost one of the strongest and closest people in my life. My Grandma Fran reflected the Light of Faith to me on more levels than I deserved to witness. As my grandmother, she also served a large role in the community as Director of Religious Education at St. Luke from 1993-2006, having served as a teacher and principal in the Catholic school system in the Archdiocese of Louisville since the 1960s. She was my First Communion teacher, my Vacation Bible School playmate, and I was privileged to have her hand on my shoulder as I was confirmed with St. Maximilian Kolbe as my patron, in March of 2005, just a week before John Paul the Second entered Eternal Life.

Her obituary puts it perfectly.

Fran was born May 10, 1936 and left this world April 19, 2016 surrounded by her family. She was an inspirational woman, a teacher, and a role model for many. Her life has touched countless thousands through the classroom and her many outreach efforts. After graduating from Ursuline Academy in 1954 and over a decade of married life and motherhood, she returned to the classroom to earn her degree in elementary education, graduating from the University of Louisville School of Education in 1974. She earned her Masters in Community Development and spent a lifetime educating children. Fran taught for over 25 years in the parochial school system at Holy Family, St Vincent de Paul and Guardian Angels. She served 15 years as principal of Guardian Angels and Thomas Merton Academy and finished her career as director of Religious Education at St Luke and Guardian Angel parishes.

Fran spent many a happy hour with the seniors at the MUSCL Wellness Center in Germantown, teaching memoirs classes and leading book club, participating in chair volleyball, painting, knitting projects and editing the Centers newsletter. She and the many seniors helped support the Pregnancy Resource Center in Louisville through donations of knitted baby items.

She was preceded in death by her daughter Ramona, parents Clarence and Mabel Vitt and husband Allen. ‘Mom’ is survived by her sons Buddy (Tina), Bret (Donna), 4 grandchildren, Niki(Stephen), John, Matt and Kristi, 6 greatgrandchildren, Daighre, Firienne, Luke, Benjamin, Ramey and Maggie Mae.

Without going into the details of family Christmases, our famous Easter egg hunts in the front of her beautiful dogwood tree, or our cherished memories and hilarious encounters on family vacation out west, I am certain she is in Heaven with all the angels and saints! Her last words on this earth were in response to seeing her grand-daughter’s First Communion picture just two days before she passed away.

“How sweet” she said as she lay on her death-bed, grasping her rosary for comfort before that last surgery to alleviate the pain that pancreatic cancer and its devilish infections were enacting upon her sacred temple. Oh Lord Jesus, how sweet indeed she is encountering Your Light of Faith now as a beautiful bride in full communion with your Fire of Mercy, truly en-kindled in her heart! For though her earthly body is broken, she has been made new, and she’s “happier than she’s ever been before.”

Yet it goes back to those long hours I spent on her couch, listening to all her stories of joy, intimacy, and renewal for our entire family’s history. She taught me how to listen, not just because she loved to tell stories and write her memoirs and show pictures and spend quality time with everyone in her life! NO, she listened to me as I struggled to see my own self-worth. She sat with me as I grew up and learned not to take myself so seriously!

“John, something happens when you turn 25 years old, if you let it happen. You just can’t get caught up in all that stuff, trying to ‘figure it all out’ through constant discernment. Eventually, you just have to make a decision, ‘to let go and let God’…If we really knew when we were going to die, we would live our lives completely differently, and not always for the better. Not knowing is what gives us our ability to have faith and to truly love.”

Not knowing is what gives us our ability to have faith and to truly love. 

Is that a moment of doubt, or is that a moment of hope? Remember, “darkness is as light to God”, so even within our doubt and uncertainty, God is still with us, beckoning us onward. He calls us through His silence to not only express ourselves to Him, but enter into that deep silence as well. Eucharistic Adoration inspired by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is perhaps the greatest, most effective environment by which to cultivate this interior silence. All other forms of prayer are but an expression of what we encounter in the Face of the Risen Lord, to have HIM–the Rock of Reality right in front of us! This is what leads us through despair and hope, through faith and love, what ultimately brings our lives full circle at the end of all things!

To listen to God’s voice though is not easy within the cultural barrage of social media and epic rap battles of history. When we allow the noise to become obstacles to love instead of tools for love, our sensual and affective desires can take over our intellect and good will. Instead of encountering intimacy in marriage and family, we succumb to our base instincts and lose our sense of identity to the enslaving bonds of libidinistic compulsion. The people in our lives then can become “people we sin with”, nothing more than lonely souls collectively in isolation from one another. Addiction and selfishness all eventually lead us to give up on life, to enter into the darkness and believe we are nothing worth loving.

But we must remember we don’t live in a broken world anymore! We live in a broken, but redeemed world! This world still has suffering and death, certainly, but those harsh realities have been transfigured to reflect the transcendent reality of God’s Love! One man comes to mind to wonderfully reflect for us such a sense of crucifixion love!

St. John Paul the Great was canonized on April 27, 2014 — on the Feast of Divine Mercy. He established Divine Mercy Sunday in the Great Jubilee 2000 during the canonization of St. Faustina Kawalska, in response to her Divine Mercy revelations in the 1930s, the same few years in which my own grandparents were born. This same late great pope brought forth the lens of the Theology of the Body, and its message has inspired a generation to live the virtue of Chastity and authentic love in unprecedented ways.

For so many people though, without this deep understanding of human dignity and sexual integrity, we become hyper-focused on sexuality and begin to identify with every perversion of our sensual and affective desires. Simply peer into our pornographic culture, and you’ll see the normalization of physical and emotional cacophany! Where are people striving to integrate their desires within reason and commitment?!

Infidelity has ravaged my own family, for my grandma’s great strength came directly from such feelings of abandonment and neglect. Yet, when I pushed her for the details of those devastating years in the 1960s and 70s, exactly 40 years to the month when she entered her solitude, she brought me back to fire and grace, silence and faith once more.

“John, I don’t ever want you to think ill of your grandpa. He was a good man who made bad decisions. Just remember the good times you had with him, and don’t worry about anything else…[truly] I felt like a widow as I stood by his casket when he died, like we had never divorced at all.”

For surely, he WAS a good man! I remember all the baseball games, and hunting trips, fishing trips, and days at the parish picnics. He was always there to support the family, and came to everything I can remember growing up. He was also at my Confirmation, for he was a strong man of faith in the end, and though taken also by cancer just a month later, he loved us all to the end of his life.

The day before JPII’s Canonization, on the Eve of Divine Mercy, we buried my Grandpa Allen, almost 9 years to the day after his death in 2005 (the same month JPII passed away!) His estate took many years to get settled, and the circumstances surrounding his death were in such a way that we never felt it was time to bury him. We initially tried to bury him underneath his deer stand in Larue County, but the Ice Storm of 2009 destroyed that last wish! Instead, it would not be until much of the darkness in our family’s history had been banished that we would muster up the courage to move forward completely. That’s when I received word that a young missionary for Generation Life had prayed specifically for our family at the tomb of St. John Paul the Great that very same weekend!

The Communion of Saints is real everyone! For on April 23, just two years later, we revisited the site of grandpa’s internment, this time to bury another. This time, in the midst of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, it was time to come full circle. As I studied JPII’s “Love & Responsibility” at the Theology of the Body Institute this past week, I learned a very comforting and valuable truth. Annulments are not infallible statements, and thus can give way to God’s eternal union, “What God has joined together, no man can separate.”

John Allen Sohl, Sr. and Charlotte Frances Sohl entered into Holy Matrimony in 1955 and were finally buried together in April 2016, just over 61 years later. It is perhaps one of the saddest love stories I’ve ever witnessed, but isn’t it so similar to the Greatest Love Story Ever Told?! What this means is the redemption of the human heart is possible, salvation is within our grasp because Jesus Christ has redeemed the world! He didn’t die for all of us, He died for EACH ONE OF US, as if you or I were the only person in existence. This is unfathomable mercy and compassion, of “silently listening intently” so as to respond to the needs of His children “each according to our needs”.

But He isn’t some communistic dictator bent of “cleansing the human race” in some desperate attempt to create utopia. Rather, Jesus Christ is the very essence of truth and existence, He’s the path by which we discover our true identity, and He’s the One who is the Life we so desire to live! We aren’t His instruments in the sense that He’s using us, for God does not USE anyone. Rather, because of His total gift of self and the freedom He bestows on us in accepting His gift, He inspires us to do the same!

Yes, the truth hurts, and when we have to give up our sensual and affective desires to consciously and willingly enter into that perpetual light that unites every fragmented color of humanity, it will burn. But with that burning sensation comes the help of His grace to endure it, for He inspires us to change for the better and helps us along the way! As hard as it may seem, we just have to TRUST HIM more than we fear His light that shines in our darkness! And eventually, His mercy will reconcile us completely and bring us into the Circle of Life, His Eternal Family of Love in ways we can’t even imagine.

After all, “That’s Family.”

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