Monday, 15 June 2009

The Divine Mercy and The Feast of the Holy Trinity

I should have been writing this for the feast of the Holy Trinity Sunday last week, but now that we're in the ordinary time of the church year again, one extraordinary memory of my childhood reminds me of the great feast that we have just celebrated...

The year was 1989, the chestnut trees were in full blossom, the tour bus was a loud ugly Hungarian-made oddity, the roads were ranging from aspahlted to gravel but most of them bumpy as heck anyway, toilets had no toilet paper and there were no borders. It was the Soviet Union. The country that is no more. Only a year ago, in 1988 Moskow commemorated 1000 years of Christianity in Russia and many have for the first time read something positive about God. The famous icon of the Old Testament Trinity was restored. Church-going was not common, and I for my part had little understanding of it since my family were all atheists, parents and grandmother and cousins alike.

It was May 11th, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, I was 10 years old and in a middle of a bus excursion through Lithuania, led by an allegedly gay chemist with a sense for hidden gems and historical places. He must have been 50-ish and worked in the same institute with my mom. The man's energy could only be envied. There was no time for shopping, no time for idle talk, this was all business, we had to climb every hill, crawl into every cave, hear a story of every strange house, explore nooks and crannies of the land and, well, go into every church. For me, Lithuanian churches were a revelation. Coming from a religiously tolerant yet lukewarm (and Soviet!) Latvia where churches were for the babushkas, the uneducated and much feared ever-sober Baptists, I was literally shocked by what I saw. Young and old, simple and sophisticated, country and city, modest and immodest - all flocked into churches. Especially that day, for the feast, the sight was incredible, unlike anything I've seen or anything I could have believed. What was there I had to know about a God that did not exist?..

Did you know that the first Divine Mercy image was painted in Lithuania in 1934? St Faustina lived there during that time, and the original painting is in Vilnius in the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy This is one of the many places I would like to visit and re-visit in Lithuania. I want to see the shrine of our Lady of Šiluva, a place of pilgrimage since the 17th century especially popular during the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady on September 8th. Once, in early September 1979, the Soviet authorities have closed off all the roads leading to Šiluva due to an alleged pig epidemic... The Hill of Crosses was leveled three times by the Soviet authorities, crosses burned, yet the stubborn Lithuanians would bring new and start it from scratch, only to be taken down again. The rumour had it the authorities even planned to build a dam on the nearby river to flood the area. The regime gave up under Gorbatchov, but the freedom of religion was actually not re-established until 1990. Yet there is one more place I want to see above all, yet I know neither name nor location, just a few phrases in my diary.

The bus stopped by a fenced church. Of national importance, we were told. Since it was a feast, people flocked to Mass and we could take a peak but had to leave to look at some caves. It was a reasonable thing to do, not do disrupt. I think there were some steps leading up to a white church. It was packed. There was holy water and a crusifix on my right, and people would come in and kiss the crusifix, kneel, and then tried to make their way inside. A family of four came in, a young mother, a young father, and two children. They all knelt, in a manner that made me think it was a most natural thing for them to do, reverently yet comfortably. I thought I had to kneel too, together with them, I wanted to so much, yet I had no idea how. As the singing began I knew I had to stay. My mother came for me. I don't think anyone else really went in, and if they did, they had left by then. We had to go to the caves. No, no, how can I leave doesn't she know I have to be here? We will come back, they will have a procession after the Mass and we will come back for the procession. Oh, we will be back.

I wish I could remember anything about the caves, as the story was interesting, and might also have helped in locating the church, but I don't. The problem was, I had to be somewhere else. I wanted this church to be my home. I wanted to kneel with them. Why, how would I do this and what would I do afterwards, I had no idea. But even if there is no God I will believe in Him, I thought. Somewhow, it felt as if I had no choice but to believe.

Once we were back, they were selling crusifixes and images in the fenced churchyard, and I wanted to buy one, it cost 5 roubles. Or a smaller one, for 3. No, I didn't ask for one. Somehow, it could hardly be appropriate. I commented on the crusifixes though, and my mother mused, yes, but what would we do with one? Indeed... The procession was amazing. Singing, embroidered cloth, vestments, priests, monks and nuns, images, choir, and people coming out from the church, joining them, singing. Now our whole group was present, and I could watch, watch, watch, wanting to cross that invisible line that separated me and the people I longed to call my own. Even if there was no God I will believe in Him. I was not baptised in childhood. I want to be what they are. How will I ever? I have to walk with them. Catholic. Of course, I had no idea how to become a Catholic.

A year later, Lithuania proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union, and every morning as the sun rose over it the churches in Riga rang their bells for the neighbour country. I thought it was so beautiful that we prayed for them. In May 1990 we went to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, and as we were crossing the street to enter the monastery, a woman asked my mom whether she was a believer. No, she replied. And she? the woman asked, looking at me. On no, she is too young yet, my mother said. Once again, I knew better than to say what I most longed to say, but I looked well into the eyes of this woman when we said good-bye.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

All that I can give

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living." (Mk. 12:41-44)

Today's reading is one of those places in the Scripture that keeps expanding its meaning as you go in your walk with the Lord. Perhaps this is because few of us can easily grasp the nature of giving to the Lord, what pleases Him as opposed to what pleases me, what He needs as opposed to what I need. I often heard it and often said it - how we need to make Jesus the Lord of our life, to take up the cross daily... And I often thought I understood and yet that same understanding would evade me whenever I tried to keep things for myself - be it my sins or my posessions.
I often felt like the poor widow when I came to the Lord to pray. More often than not all I could bring were my own wandering thoughts (ranging from today's shopping list to what transport should I take from the airport six months from now) and my tiredness. Or else I would want to impress the Lord with the beautiful words I'd say and the good things I've done... His presence makes it difficult to hold on to these things, but in tiredness and doubt it is somehow easier to realise that I am indeed poor. All I have is myself and my time to give to the Lord. Everything else - all the good things - comes from Him. All the bad that I've ever done comes from myself.
Today, re-reading this Scripture, I thought whether I had preferred to contribute out of my abundance rather than out of my poverty. It was so easy to give from the things I was good at, to help with translations, to discuss the Scriptures, to give money when I had it, to say a kind word when I was in a good mood... The widow had nothing to give but a last penny, and yet Jesus was impressed because He saw to the heart. God is not impressed by the rich sacrifices, by gifts given to Him who is the giver of all gifts, but something else impressed Him - trust. And the total surrender of everything, even the embarassing, the insignificant, the poor. It seems that holiness is not about becoming perfect, but about refusing to have a will of one's own.
When I contributed out of my abundance, and might have slowly started cherishing the idea that the Lord would be impressed, did I bother to give the Lord my poverty? The poverty of my faults and sins and addictions?
Today, the contribution of poverty for me means giving up, offering up what I thought I could do myself. Giving up my right to be angry, my right to be offended, my right to retaliate, my right to run the show, my right to indulge in the drug of my choice - be it chocolate, nicotine, lust or gym - even in my sleep, giving up the right to be the lord of my life.
For I can, of course, choose to be that lord and hold on to little things and try to maintain control even by doing the kindest and seemingly most selfless of acts. But I think in today's reading Jesus says He is not the least bit impressed. He would never be able to grant the freedom to those who hold on to their selves, - He wants the last penny. All of it. To let go - and let God.
Thy will, not mine, be done.