Early last week, there was a terrible accident. A young mother, driving on icy Wyoming roads, lost control of her car, and two of her three children became lost to heaven. A photograph of the family in happier days circulated the Internet and brought a stunning sense of pain to perfect strangers, who admitted that they could not understand why this particular family had moved them to benumbed grief.
“My heart is broken for them,” wrote so many within the comboxes, expediting expressions of consolation that usually come after a heart-heavy shamble to a stricken household. “So sorry for this.”
Then, at week’s end, a twenty-five-year-old Catholic sister appeared on a vocal competition show in Italy, and demonstrated how a pop song could become a psalm. She brought down the house. In her modified habit and prominent silver crucifix, Ursuline Sr. Cristina Scuccia concluded her song with a spin of ecstatic joy born of pure authenticity and love. She moved one of the Italian judges, a rapper in full Urban-American street regalia, to tears with a simple, straightforward admission that she was there to evangelize. Referencing Pope Francis, she said, “He always says we should go out and evangelize telling God doesn’t take anything away from us but will give us more. I am here for this.” (Translation here.)
“Brava,” said the judges, very likely unaware of what that approval has invited into their midst, but excited at this newness. “Brava,” said the crowds.
Those immediate responses seemed like reasonable ones: The plight of a family facing a wound of such depth would naturally evoke empathetic sadness in others, and our human need to feel empowered in dreadful circumstances fueled an impressively-answered fundraiser meant to defray the costs of emergency airlifts, and more. The urge to help was instinctive.
Likewise, the luminous glow of a young woman sharing her gifts on behalf of her beloved bathed the world in light for a few moments, and people wanted more of that, because when real love and real joy is laid before us, it is irresistible.
Grief and outreach; evangelical offering and guileless acceptance: These are interactions fraught with mystery, largely because we are helpless before them.
All mystery contains within it a prompt toward introspectionan invitation to ask, “This touches me so compellingly, why?” And yet reading the comboxes of blogs and social media threads concerning both of these stories, one could find pockets of strange biliousness. An early comment on the tragic loss of young life spewed venom at the mother for driving in bad weather; another declared with ugly certainty that her children’s deaths could only be due to a neglectful element on the mother’s part. Another commenter resented the fundraiser begun on the family’s behalf, “when schools and social programs are so underfunded.”
Likewise, amid the comments on Sr. Cristinawhich even on secular sites tended to be enthusiastic (“No twerking [just] Talent and enthusiasm!” one Huffpo commenter noted approvingly)some seemed intent on drowning any hopeful good feelings in a bath of acid, decrying her “unseemly bopping,” her “undignified” choice of song, and her “taking on the trappings of the world.” One miserable being outright predicted that nothing good could come of this. To a response that the sister might inspire young Catholics to seek out the “small, still voice” and discern vocations to church-service, this person snarled, “she will shame the church, just like the last ‘singing nun’ did.”
And that is the other part of mysterythat some people cannot wait for misery; they anticipate it, and reach out for it and claim it; they cling to it like Gollum to his Precious; they wrap it around themselves, because only within its shrouds do they feel comfortable and complete. There is no generosity therenot toward the grief-stricken, nor the sacrificialbecause there is no capacity for joy. And there is no joy because there is no gratitude.
To look at a family in grief and resent the show of humanity that surrounds them because your own ideology is not, currently, the “most pressing thing” is to be ungrateful for the good; it is pathetically self-involved and closed-off. To witness love and joy in sparkling abundance, and respond to it with dark prophecies is to refuse a gift because one does not like the wrapping. It too is pathetic in its warped isolation.
Today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord; it is a feast day of great and joyous mystery, but one that, like all of the joyful mysteries, contains a precursor of struggle and sorrow. With the angel’s words to Mary, heaven initiates a culmination; the long courtship of bridegroom to bride begins in earnest. The marriage is consummated in the shedding of blood, and then there is the eternal exchange between Creator and creature, lover and beloved, within which we live or die by our ability to give of ourselves. We either find joyful gratitude for the small beauties we encounter thereinthe safe arrival of our children from the schoolday; the quick dancing embrace while in the kitchenor we burn in the sullen acid of our own bile.
The mystery is before us: In every iteration it contains both sweetness and sorrow. In every circumstance, it is an invitation to consolation.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles can be found here.
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