Monday, October 17, 2011
Peace of Mind for that 9.1%
"Peace of Mind for that 9.1%" was originally written as several blogs in late 2010. It draws inspiration from then-Bishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan who endured thirteen years of harsh conditions at a Communist prison in North Vietnam; nine of those years were spent in solitary confinement. His experience and spiritual insights, if duly considered, can be a great source of strength and consolation for the unemployed. In 2002 he died as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. His cause for sainthood is currently being advanced.
The Irony of God’s Success:
God does not find success where the politician, celebrity or even the wealthy might find them. No, he finds them in those circumstances and situations the world considers unimportant. Failures, suffering and death are God’s chosen instruments of success and resurrection. This lesson comes through loud and clear at the beginning and end of the life of Christ. The circumstances surrounding his birth were by no means ideal; indeed, the manger was barely suitable for animals. The world would have looked upon St. Joseph as a failure for not providing a warm comfortable room for the birth of the long awaited Messiah. But what the world deemed as failure, God used to bring about the greatest of blessings for generations to come. As for Christ’s death, the Cross on which he was hoisted was an emblem of public shame, so much so that it became a stumbling block for the Jews. These two hallmarks of the life of our Lord- his birth and his death -speaks to the contradictions and setbacks in our own life.
Bishop: Out of a Job
Enter Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. His cause for canonization was recently opened in late 2010. His life and trials in a Vietnam prison speaks to "God's liberating power." What God taught him the dark cell of solitary confinement can be applied to any arduous circumstance we might find ourselves in.
In 1967 he was ordained bishop of Nha Trang, South Vietnam. However, in 1975 after South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam, he recounts the following: “I was invited to the Palace of Independence, the President's Palace in Saigon, only to be arrested.” He was then incarcerated for thirteen years. Nine out of those thirteen was spent in solitary confinement. One would think that the dark, stifling quarters he was confined to would have been the primary source of his torment. Not true. What tormented the bishop was that the fact he could no longer shepherd his flock in Nha Trang. Indeed, the pain of being prevented from celebrating Mass, catechizing, evangelizing and ministering to the poor in his diocese as their bishop was a sacrifice that equaled Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac.
A man’s work and mission is so interconnected with his identity and self-worth that the inability to provide for his dependents or the failure to fulfill his duties is a kind of death for him. In extreme and rare cases, this anguish can result in suicide or homicide. The temptation to go “postal” or to take his own life over a lost job may overcome a man, but never a woman. A man can be the best husband and father at home but if he is not fulfilled in his vocation or career he feels like half a man. When Adam sinned in the garden, God’s punishment did not primarily affect his relationships like it did for Eve but rather it cost him where it counted most- at work. This was enough to weigh him down. The fields he was called to cultivate were cursed with weeds. It was only in toil that he would yield his crops.
Choosing God Over His Work:
As for the Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, his burden was not being able to shepherd his people when they needed him most. However, all of this was beyond his control. He was called to resign himself to the new and trying circumstances that were thrusted upon him. In order to retain his sanity, he had to choose God over God's works. The Cardinal (then bishop) had a choice: embrace God's will as it was given to him in that moment or grope for what he thought God's will should be. It was that simple.
The irony of Divine Providence is that the Lord sometimes calls us to renounce the work he has called us to. He will inspire the zeal, guarantee success and then let the floor drop out from underneath us. After the dust settles, it seems all is lost. To be sure, God pushes us to the brink. But it is in this hour of darkness that purification reaches the depths of the soul. We are forced to answer the same question Jesus asked of St. Peter: Do you love me more than these? Being given the opportunity to love God for his own sake- and not for any delight we take in his gifts -makes us worthy servants of his. It prepares us for great achievements.
The Cardinal Recounts:
This opportunity was given to Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan...then something happened. A light pierced the darkness and this light was the key to his peace and happiness even in the Vietnam prison.
This prisoner for Christ tells us about the turning point from which he began to see, in a new light, the grim and inhospitable conditions . The following extracts were taken from an address he gave at a religious education conference in Los Angeles just before his death in 2002. The theme of his talk was Experiencing God's Liberating Power.
In his own words:
"Alone in my prison cell, I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight years old, in the prime of my life, that I had worked for eight years as a bishop and gained so much pastoral experience and there I was isolated, inactive and far from my people.”
“One night,” he continued, “from the depths of my heart I could hear a voice advising me:
'Why torment yourself? You must discern between God and the works of God - everything you have done and desire to continue to do, pastoral visits, training seminarians, sisters and members of religious orders, building schools, evangelizing non-Christians. All of that is excellent work, the work of God but it is not God! If God wants you to give it all up and put the work into his hands, do it and trust him. God will do the work infinitely better than you; he will entrust the work to others who are more able than you. You have only to choose God and not the works of God!'
It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die. No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.
This light totally changed my way of thinking. When the Communists put me in the hold of the boat, the Hai-Phong, along with 1500 other prisoners and moved us to the North, I said to myself, 'Here is my cathedral, here are the people God has given me to care for, here is my mission: to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God's will that I am here. I accept his will.' And from that minute onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for thirteen years."
Parallels: Solitary Confinement and Unemployment
For so many people- certainly not just men -over the last two years the anxious pursuit of finding a job has become more common. Unemployment more than doubled since July of 2008 (4.4%). During the last month of 2010 it has lingered at about 9.6% [In late 2011 it lingers at 9.1%]. Many Free Market economists are predicting a double dip recession; which means the current employment rate may not be the worst of it. In any case, there are more people today than in 2008 that have a double burden of providing for a family and looking for a job. For a man, this can be especially trying because he responds to unemployment far differently than a woman
With that said, what can a Cardinal possibly have to offer to the unemployed? Especially one who was subject to such squalid conditions in a Vietnam prison for thirteen years?
God uses the sufferings of his servants to teach others valuable, sometimes profound, lessons on how to better endure the ordinary- and sometimes extraordinary -trials of life. In 1975 Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was abruptly taken away from his sacred employment as a bishop in South Vietnam only to be thrown into a hole. What initially tormented Cardinal Francis Xavier, then bishop, was not only having the physical restriction imposed upon his body but having to endure the absence of what formerly fulfilled his soul, namely, his work and mission. As the saying goes, “Hunger is not the worst feature of unemployment; idleness is.” Indeed, Pope Leo XIII once wrote that man’s contribution to the world leaves an “impress of his personality.” Work is so important to a man that he can make the mistake of defining himself by it. Let me repeat: Work is so important to a man that he can make the mistake of defining himself by it.
However, God helped this prisoner for Christ to process the senseless suffering, the idleness and the endless monotony he had experienced for so long. Within his heart, lying in a dark cell, he heard: “You have only to choose God and not the works of God!” The good Cardinal then related that “from that minute onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for thirteen years." Like George Bailey from "It’s a Wonderful Life", he returned to the same world with the same demands but with a perspective only heaven can provide. A renewed Francis Xavier Nguyen Van then proceeded to teach and evangelize the prison guards. As he put it, the prison had become his shrine.
Married Men: Ambassadors of Two Worlds
Unemployed married men carry a very similar cross to that of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. However, unlike the Cardinal, married men are an ambassador of two worlds: the world of their career and the world of their family. A man can be successful in his career but if he fails as a husband or as a father he has failed in life. To be sure, his thoughts on his deathbed will be filled with regrets!
On the other hand, as stated previously, a man can be the best of husbands or fathers and yet if he is not fulfilled in his vocation, that is, his work, he can feel like half a man. There is a divide running right through him. Two worlds can either peacefully co-exist within him or they can clash! Perhaps that is why men statistically have higher crime rates than women, higher suicide rates than women , higher rates of sexual assaults than women and they are more likely than women to have a mid-life crisis. In the creation narrative from the book of Genesis, the only time God said, “It is not good” is when Adam was alone. In order for these two worlds to peacefully work together for his welfare, God and a virtuous woman (wife or mother) are needed. Absent these two factors, man becomes destructive to himself and to others.
Bridging These Two Worlds:
With good spiritual reading the unemployed husband and father can manfully brave his trials. He can enjoy the same peace Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan enjoyed in the worst of prisons and see that each day brings with it new circumstances; and those circumstances are the very content of God’s will. And all we have to do is accept these circumstances as God’s will with a sense of trust, hope and love- no matter how depressing things may appear to be.
With the exception of sin, everything that happens to us, favorable or unfavorable, is willed by God. The spiritual classic, "Imitation of Christ" by Thomas Kempis, said that there is not a leaf that falls from a tree without his permission. It can also be said that no man loses his job without the consent Divine Providence. It comes more naturally to Christians to view the meeting of his or her spouse, finding a house or even the success in one’s career as having meaning and reason behind it all, as if inspired by the Lord. Nevertheless, we find in Scripture and in the writings of the Saints that so-called failures, losses and misfortune fall within the same Providence that occasions the many blessings of life. Adversity, just as much as prosperity, has the power of bringing about our greater good. As a matter of fact, Jesus emphasizes that real beatitude in the long-term is to be occasioned by spiritual poverty, mourning, persecution, hunger and being hated.
The Counsel of Leo XIII:
To put it another way, bad things are supposed to happen!! When they do, Pope Leo XIII reminded Catholics not to believe in those false promises which say that life ought to be paved with ease and comfort. No, we should bear our troubles in faith, trusting that they will come to a happy issue. In the meantime, we are to seek solace and strength from Heaven. This is what he said:
“[T]he other pains and hardships of life will have no end or cessation on earth; for the consequences of sin are bitter and hard to bear, and they must accompany man so long as life lasts. To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity; let them strive as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it. If any there are who pretend differently -- who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose, and constant enjoyment -- they delude the people and impose upon them, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present. Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere, as We have said, for the solace to its troubles.” (On Capital and Labor, art. 18)
Therefore, we shouldn’t grow despondent when troubles beset us. Quite often, it is a necessary piece to the larger puzzle of life. Unemployment is no exception. Indeed, our Lord cautioned us that we must travel down the narrow and difficult road to heaven. Every vocation and every mission is paved with setbacks and delays. Those who achieved great things, either for the Church or for society, had to look beyond what seemed like a hopeless situation. So that we would not get discouraged, Jesus assured us that when we make the necessary sacrifices to follow him we will be compensated- not only in heaven –but in this life as well.
Giving Thankfulness in the Wine-press of Suffering:
From the book, "Old Testament Spirituality" the author gives an overview of what a despondent and fatigued man might go through:
"In the past one may have attributed his blessings and good fortune to a good and kind heavenly Father. Now that he is amid the wine-press of suffering, he might be tempted to blame God for the losses he has to endure. Strangely, it may seem, it is a biblical truth that God is to be credited for fortunes and misfortunes alike; but not blame. No. He wills by decree, or permits in His passive will, hardships that confound even faithful believers. Hence, the prophet Job said, 'The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away…” and then he adds, 'blessed be the name of the LORD!' (Job 1:21) So, we are not to blame but rather give thanks to God knowing that 'all things work for good for those who love God.' Later, in chapter five of the same book Job said, 'For he wounds, but he binds up; he smites, but his hands give healing.'” (Job 5:18)
God, therefore, wounds and smites every bit as much as he binds up and gives healing. Every father worthy of the name who wishes to cultivate virtue and sound character in his children commits himself to a difficult and sometimes painful work. Later in life, however, his children love him for it. With the benefit of hindsight or from the perspective of eternity, we too will love God even more for the trials He permitted. Therefore, if you are unemployed or underemployed, draw close to Christ, the God-man who knew how to wait on God. From him you will find the grace of hope and strength in the midst of what seems like an endless monotony of rejections and disappointing results. And please keep this in mind: The days of searching and waiting for a job are numbered. In the meantime, God is asking you to take pride in the fact that you are a Christian first and foremost. Let that define you! Because when all is said and done that identity will give you the greatest comfort.
Posted by Joe at 8:09 PM