Monday, September 16, 2013

Maria Helpim

One interesting thing that happened recently was an annual pilgrimage to Maria Helpim. Here’s the story of the place to the best of my knowledge and recollection:

This is a picture of a very old picture given to people at
Alexishafen. It appears to be a US Airforce photo of a bomber
over Alexishafen. 
During World War 2, the many of the Catholic and Lutheran missionaries in the area chose to remain with the people rather than evacuate to Australia. The Catholic mission station at Alexishafen just down the road from us was commandeered and turned into the local headquarters of the Japanese army here after the invasion of the north coast. It was thus consequently obliterated by Allied bombing later on in the war. The missionaries were placed under house arrest, and once the allied bombing began were allowed to move further into the bush for safety.

There, during many hours of huddling in a small cave and praying for help, including many prayers sent up to the Blessed Mother under the title of “Mary, Help of Christians”, some of the missionaries resolved to return and build a place of prayer there when the war was over. Tragically, many of these missionaries including at least two dozen of the sisters, were killed later on. The missionaries were initially taken with the retreating Japanese army, and were forced to travel above board on a ship named the Doris Maru. When they came under attack from American aircraft, they sustained heavy strafing until an American pilot realized that the people on board the ship were wearing nuns’ habits and called off the attack.
Part of the procession during the stations of the cross
It’s an interesting pilgrimage that has gone on for quite a while. We celebrated the feast of the “Exaltation of the Holy Cross” which came across in pidgin as “Win bilong Kruse”, which I would back-translate as “The Win of the Cross”. We prayed the stations of the cross as hundreds of us proceeded to a small place where a very small chapel has indeed been built dedicated to Mary, Help of Christians.

It’s good perhaps, to both remember in gratitude the times that God has provided us with help (as when through Mary’s intercession, the missionaries were preserved from Allied bombs there in the bush) while simultaneously embracing the cross for the times when severe and sustained hardships come upon us, remembering at those times the final victory that is assured us as we unite our sufferings to those of Christ on the cross.
The small shelter at the spot in the bush.
If we have died with him
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.
But if we deny him
he will deny us. If we are unfaithful
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself."

Monday, September 2, 2013

Something Beautiful for God

Last January I read The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides while on the airplane travelling from the States to PNG. I mainly wanted to read it since it is partially set at my alma mater (although it is also set in the 80’s, two decades before I was there), and because I had heard that it involved a character who was a Religious Studies concentrator and who converted or considered converting to Catholicism during the course of the story. (and because I like reading about people who I feel resemble me) I felt that the book was clever, well written, and often enjoyable to read, but left me feeling somewhat disappointed (Spoiler Alert: probably because he never actually became Catholic, but also probably because it ends with no one happily married.)

But life sometimes connects everything in odd ways. This character in the book, Mitchell, at one point reads a book called Something Beautiful for God written by Malcolm Muggeridge about Mother Theresa. I had actually never heard of the book before, but shortly after I arrived here in Madang I saw this exact book lying in the copy room all by itself. 

Speaking of smells, the copy room here reminds me of the laundry room of our old house in Ukarumpa, which was right by my bedroom. For some reason there is a sizable package of “Klina” brand laundry soap stored in, and spreading its fragrance throughout, the copy room. 

Like Mitchell, though, I found myself fascinated by the writing and pictures in Something Beautiful for God. That was some months ago and I again found the book lying around in an unexpected place after handing it on to someone else to read with my recommendation. I have since started re-reading it.

And it still strikes me deep in the gut.

I’ve been led to reflect on the idea that sanctity really must be the purest and most effective means of evangelization. Mother Theresa’s life and work seem to be more and more compelling the more I read and hear about her. I have grown up in an age which places heavy emphasis on moralistic lessons about helping others, service, and social justice, but Mother Theresa still completely avoids sounding like a simple do-gooder repeating platitudes. Instead of leading to self-congratulation, every word from her comes across as both life-giving and disconcerting.

She was incredibly Christian and incredibly and irretrievably Catholic. I think I grew up hearing of Mother Theresa as a stock example of a “good person.” She was used either as an example either of what is impossible: “we can’t all be like Mother Theresa” or as simply the moralistic example par excellence.

But she speaks of Jesus constantly and everything about her is Christian. It seems that the secular, western world is enamored with the idea of service right now (and thank God for that!), but Mother Theresa’s style of service would not have been possible without her suffering. (“Without our suffering, our work would just be social work, very good and helpful, but it would not be work of Jesus Christ, not part of the Redemption.”) And both her suffering and her service stem from her desire to live for, in, and with Christ, and she could not conceive of Christ without His Church. I think that if we look at her closely, she manages to be both a sign of contradiction and the recipient of almost universal veneration because she lives out the values we all espouse more deeply than we do. If we're honest, her lifestyle is both admirable and frightening. And the inconsistency should be attributed to us, not her.

Some more excerpts of her words on holiness:

“Our activity is truly apostolic only in so far as we permit him to work in us and through us, with his power, with his desire, with his love. We must become holy, not because we want to feel holy, but because Christ must be able to live his life fully in us.” –p. 65

And then later…

“We must have a real living determination to reach holiness. ‘I will be a saint’ means I will despoil myself of all that is not God; I will strip my heart of all created things; I will live in poverty and detachment; I will renounce my will, my inclinations, my whims and fancies, and make myself a willing slave to the will of God.” – p. 66

May God grant that I be changed by what I read and reflect on. May my sense of being convicted lead to contrition, resolution, and action. Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, pray for us!