December 28, 2020

The Holy Innocents and the Chaos of Fear

The Holy Innocents and the Chaos of Fear
Icon of the Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents… those male babies two years and younger who were slaughtered by the hand of Herod the Great because he feared to lose his power to the Newborn King. Today we celebrate their short earthly lives and their birth into the Kingdom of Heaven. The early Church considered them the first martyrs… martyrs who not only died for Christ, but who died in his stead. And again, as I mentioned the other day on the Feast of St. Stephen, we see here a connection between Christmas and martyrdom… on this 4th day of Christmas.

At Mass this morning, Fr. Daniel noted that sometimes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we can be like Herod. In each of us, he said, there is a Herod, which is the ego. It wants to be Number 1, the center of attention, and it wants to pull others down. And isn’t that so true? Are there not times when we want to eliminate others? Maybe not necessarily by taking their life, but by excluding them from a gathering of friends, by resenting some success they may have had, by speaking to them cruelly (which is a way of slaughtering their spirit), or by talking bad about them behind their back (which is a way of slaughtering their reputation).

And, like Herod, is not our own slaughter of others most often sparked by some deeply embedded fear? Fear of losing something or of not measuring up?

This reminds me of a quote that I have heard a number of times the last few years (and that I believe is originally attributed to Fr. Richard Rohr): “Pain that is not transformed is transferred.” That may be paraphrased. I’ve heard the same idea expressed another way: “Hurt people hurt people.”

I can look back in my own life and see the truth of these sayings. I turned 50 in June. And, looking back, I can say with certainty that my life from at least my late adolescence until about 6 years ago was filled with chaos… and I had no idea. For most of those years, it looked from the outside that I was doing all the right things. I was involved in church. I prayed. Went to Mass. Led ministries. Was on staff at parishes. Taught in Catholic schools. There were periods of time when I went through some type of external chaos… Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the loss of a job, change in careers, fallouts with friends. But those times were nothing compared to the daily internal chaos that was rooted primarily in fear. That internal chaos was my daily companion, and I didn’t even know it was there! Blind to it, it easily ruled my life. I’ve said cruel things to people I love… out of fear. I’ve been dishonest and selfish… out of fear. I have failed to engage… to do some good work… over and over again… out of fear. I have failed to pray well… out of fear. I have lost opportunities to contribute something positive to the common good… out of fear. I have failed to create… out of fear. Fear can cause us to cut ourselves off from others, from community, and it makes us mean-spirited. Fear fuels anger, which is a fire that consumes us and burns all those around us… even if we happen to keep our mouths shut. And so often we can be totally blind to what we are doing.

It’s not that I don’t experience fear anymore. I do. But now, by the grace of God, I recognize it for what it is, I name it, and I can choose to not let it rule my life. Some of my pain has been transformed. I see just clearly enough to see that I don’t see everything clearly. I’m on the road, but I’m not there yet. Every day is a new opportunity for continued transformation.

How could things have worked out differently for Herod? For the Holy Innocents? Could Herod have made a different decision? What would have had to happen in his mind and heart first so that he could have made a different decision?

Fear and pain are rooted in Original Sin, in the human condition. Sin itself is a sickness. And Jesus gave us (and became!) our antidote. “Repent and believe in the gospel!” Repentance is key. I think Herod’s repentance would have been the only thing that would have saved the Holy Innocents. But repentance is harder than we think. It’s not just rattling off a list in confession. It is a change of the mind and heart, and it takes grace and discipline to repent. The Desert Fathers gave us (in their sayings, in their examples, and in the their very bodies) a clear picture of what repentance looks like. We can’t all be desert fathers, but our repentance should permeate our lives… should soak through to the nitty gritty crevices of our lives. Reading through some of the prayers of the Desert Fathers can be very humbling… to see the depth of their repentance shows me how far I have to go.

Suffering is part of life. We all experience it. And for me one of the most painful forms of suffering involves relationships. Hurt people hurt people. And even if I have experienced some healing over the years, there are people in my life that are still acting out of fear and pain. It’s like they are drowning, flailing about, unintentionally wounding their would-be rescuers. How are we supposed to handle that? Is there anything that we can do to help others who may be blind to their own fear and pain?

I once read somewhere that one way to handle this situation is to imagine the other person as a sick friend. The sickness is making them behave in an unpleasant way. Seeing them as sick, and wanting to help them, is one way we can increase our patience and kindness.

Have you ever tried this? I have, and I have found it to be effective. But I have to keep reminding myself to see the other person as a sick friend. It takes effort. It’s also good for me to remember that I’m sick too. I reach out to help others as one of them, not in some condescending way.

Here is a prayer that I pray every morning. I believe is attributed to St. Basil the Great:

O my plenteously merciful and all merciful God, Lord Jesus Christ, through Thy great love Thou didst come down and become incarnate so that Thou mightest save all. And again, O Saviour. save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee. For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty; yea, Thou Who art great in compassion and ineffable in mercy. For he that believeth in Me, Thou hast said, O my Christ, shall live and never see death. If, then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, behold, I believe, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works, may it answer for, may it acquit me, may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory. And let Satan not seize me and boast, O Word, that he hath torn me from Thy hand and fold. But whether I desire it or not, save me, O Christ my Saviour,! forestall me quickly, quickly, for I perish. Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Vouchsafe me, O Lord, to love Thee now as fervently as I once loved sin itself, and also to work for Thee without idleness, diligently, as I worked before for deceptive Satan. But supremely shall I work for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.