There’s a term in radiology that explains a finding that shows up on x-ray but isn’t real. It’s called a confluence of shadows. If enough overlapping parts come together in different planes, it can create the appearance of a structure—most often, mimicking a tumor—when there’s nothing really there. Most of the time, you discover the confluence by looking at the spot form different perspectives.
I’ve been dealing with a confluence of shadows in my spiritual life that, instead of making me believe something is there that isn’t, conspire to make me think that something that is very real and dependable is not.
I just returned from a trip to Ireland, and the visit coincided with the meeting between Irish bishops and the Pope on the subject of the child abuse scandal that has surfaced in that country. The papers are full of stories, most of them angry and justifiably so. We even happened across an art “installation” in Temple Bar in Dublin: four walls surrounding a vacant lot filled with debris and trash, with newspaper articles about the scandal pasted on the walls, and angry, legitimate questions painted over the scraps of newsprint.
It made my heart ache, knowing what has happened in the past and what is ahead for the Church in Ireland. My shoulder devil made full use of the situation. This can’t be God’s church, he’d hiss in my ear. Look what His shepherds have done!
I’m in no position to do anything real for those so broken an injured by this scandal—or the American one—or any other one, except to pray and do penance. It’s been along time since my life was touched, directly or indirectly, by such violence, but I understand it, and I understand the hurt goes soul deep and lasts a lifetime. I know something of what it is like when it happens in the world at large; I can only imagine how much worse it is when it happens in a place that should be safer than all other places. The temptation to lose faith is great.
On my return, I found that some of my RCIA students are encountering serious opposition from their families and friends to their coming into the Church, and the scandals don’t help. Any church that would have that happen, they hear, is no church at all; it’s the work of the devil. Stay away! If you don’t, we will have nothng to do with you.
I’ve heard tales of angry arguments and outright shunning of those who choose to swim the Tiber, and now I have to see it happen to the people I have come to love. The shoulder devil is there again. Maybe they’re right, he whispers. The Church is too demanding, too sure of itself, too self righteous—and then it fails its people, abuses its people, ignores and abandons its people. It’s a miserable human invention that will just separate you from God. You’re in the wrong place. Come out, come out, give it up. Nothing is worth this. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.
I remind myself of Christ’s words—if they hated me, they will hate you, too—but it seems a little empty. This isn't a situation where innocent, holy people are being persecuted, it's a situation where the innocent are being violated. Didn't Christ also warn against injuring innocent children? Usually I don’t reach this condition spiritual exhaustion until the last week of Lent. At this rate, I’ll never make it through.
I am fortunate that I was blessed with a double dose of stubborn from my family lineage and God’s good providence. Most of the time that stubbornness works against me, keeping me entrenched far too long in wrongheaded ideas. But now and again—and this is one of those times—God uses it to throw me a life line. I’m stubborn enough that I stuck around to hear His answer and see a new horizon in my life.
Last week’s readings included Psalm 91 which has a verse set in there just for me: You need simply watch; the punishment of the wicked you will see. It’s a Psalm about the wickedness that surrounds us and threatens in very real ways to overtake us, the real, present, palpable presence of Evil in the world. Wars, Murders, Rapes, Abuse, and some of it from the very quarters meant to protect us. That verse spoke so clearly to me of God who tells me: I know all that. I am not indifferent. Stand by, and wait. You don’t have the only role. This is still My story. Stand by, and watch.
The next day, in my tour through the Catechism, I cam across the section on why God permits evil, and remembered. God permits evil only to permit a greater good to be drawn from it. That doesn’t give me an excuse to ignore evil or tolerate it, but it reminds me that evil is likewise not an excuse for me to lose faith. God stands beside all those who suffer unjustly, just as He was with His Son, who suffered unjustly.
So far, so good, and perhaps nothing new, just anamnesis of what I have encountered before . But a last piece of the puzzle slipped into my hands in the form of an insight from Judaism. No matter what happened, the Jewish people were intended to hold fast to the covenant. Nothing—not bad priests, or unfaithful kings, corruption or bondage, was excuse enough for them to abandon their covenant with God. When I look at salvation history, it is not replete with Jews running off to form new Israels and demand new covenants or new leaders. I find one covenant, one Israel, one terribly imperfect people struggling with God and His covenants. They stood fast, imperfectly, in their relationship with God, sometimes doing better, sometimes worse. They repented as a people, and reformed as a people, but they stayed in relationship with God as He had constructed it.
In the fullness of time, God sent the Messiah He had promised. That fortitude was important. It’s easy to trust God in the good times, but not so easy in the bad ones, and that includes the spiritually difficult times as well as physically difficult ones. This is, after all, Christ’s Church. He’s not indifferent. He’s not uninformed. If the Jews could not abandon the covenant, neither may we. The failures of men--even the horrible, egregious ones-- are not reason to abandon God.
It's a hard thing to trust that God is there in the darkness and the failures. I sometimes have it in my head that when God is in charge, everything is great. By contrast, when things are bad, God must not be in charge, or not be pleased, or I must be somehow in the wrong place and the wrong relationship with him. I realized that's too simplistic. All I have to do is look at Job, at Jesus. Sometimes, I am just not going to know the reasons, or the solutions, no matter how much my scientist mind wants to know them. But the presence of sin and suffering doesn't mean God is absent from the world or from the Church. It means He is needed all the more. He will respond to that need, and I need to trust that He will.
I think there is a message for me here. It’s all very well and good for me to get exercised over the abuses in and of Christ’s church. It would be a sin to ignore them or let them go unremedied because I don’t care. Abuses there will be, because those of us who make up the church at every level are sinful people very much in need of grace.
But God knows. He’s not indifferent. He counts on me to raise my voice and do my part especially for those who are hurting, but then he counts on me to be faithful, and be present even in my pain and doubt, and to watch. The confluence of shadows in the Church that threatened to derail me this Lent have been separated and explained. But instead of the void my shoulder devil wanted me to think is at the center of the Church, I see clearly that there is Christ. Christ suffering, Christ crucified, but most surely of all Christ resurrected.
Lie down with Christ, rise again, and not in the confluence of any shadows but in the Light.