Friday, January 14, 2011

The Power to do the Impossible

The film Beyond the Gates is about one of the great atrocities and horrors of the 20th century, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which an estimated 800,000 people were butchered to death (see further descriptions in the movie reviews posted below). The film is very disturbing, with its graphic depictions of violence, but in the end, it is just a film, and it pales in comparison to the evil of the real thing. If it is difficult for the viewer of the movie to watch it, how much worse was it to live through it -- or die in it.

Some hardships are simply so great, some calamities and evils cause so much suffering and anguish, that it is impossible for us to carry on, it is impossible for us to persevere through them. And some crimes are simply too awful, some hurts are simply too large, some injuries are just too great (or sometimes we allow ourselves to get so self-centered that even little injuries seem great) that it is impossible for us to move beyond it once it is over, it is impossible for us to do that which Jesus asks of us, to forgive the wrong-doers. How could one forgive such evil?

Or, perhaps, what we should say is that is it impossible for us to endure on our own, it is impossible for us to forgive by ourselves. But with God, all things are possible, and by His grace, we can do that which is “impossible” too.

The theme of Cinema Catechism for Winter/Spring 2011 is the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (charity). The Greek word “Theo” means “God,” so these virtues relate directly to God. (CCC 1812-1829, 2087-94) They are intended to lead us to Him, and we should always strive to live these virtues.

But in leading a virtuous life, God does not leave us to struggle to do this on our own; being related to God, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love open us up to grace. At the same time, in conferring such grace, God does not simply wipe out our humanity; He does not treat us as puppets or impose Himself upon us against our will. Rather, grace builds on our nature and works within it to heal, perfect, elevate, and transform that nature. Thus, it is necessary that we do what we can, as much as we can, ourselves, but then we must ask God for help to do the rest.

The theological virtues involve especially sanctifying grace, which adapts our faculties for participation in the divine nature, that is, it helps us to be more like Christ. They are the foundation and energizing force of the Christian’s moral activity, and they give life to the human virtues, including prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being.

Fortified by grace, the power of God Himself, the virtues of faith, hope, and love provide the disposition to not only do that which is good and avoid evil, but they allow us to do things that otherwise would be unthinkable. With grace-infused faith, hope, and love, the weak and terrified Apostles, who had gone into hiding after the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, were empowered to go out and bravely and loudly proclaim the Gospel; the persecuted, such as Saints Lawrence and Polycarp and Perpetua and Felicity and Isaac Jogues, were able to gladly endure the suffering of martyrdom, sometimes in gruesome ways.

The theological virtues, which combine the will and effort of the person with the power of the Holy Spirit, allows us to what we otherwise could not humanly do, including that which is perhaps the most impossible thing to do at times — endure with fortitude in the face of horrific evil, love our enemy, and forgive the unforgiveable, forgive the debt that can never be paid.

An excellent example of this is described in the book Left to Tell, by Immaculée Ilibagiza, who survived the Rwandan genocide while the rest of her family was hacked to death, along with hundreds of thousands of others. Eventually, the man who had led the group that killed members of her family was caught, and the jailer who held him allowed Immaculée to confront him (and take her revenge).

She writes in her book that, as the murderer knelt before her, she
"wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man."
And when the jailer shouted at the killer and hauled him to his feet, Immaculée touched his hands lightly and quietly said, "I forgive you."

The jailer was stunned and furious. After the killer was dragged out, he said,
"What was that all about, Immaculée? That was the man who murdered your family. I brought him to you to question . . . to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you do that? Why did you forgive him?"
She says that she "answered him with the truth: 'Forgiveness is all I have to offer.'"

But the forgiveness she gave did not come entirely from Immaculée. As she says in the Introduction, her book "is the story of how I discovered God during one of history's bloodiest holocausts." And this discovery, this lesson, forever changed her.
"It is a lesson that, in the midst of mass murder, taught me how to love those who hated and hunted me -- and how to forgive those who slaughtered my family."
Forgiveness is sometimes easy for us, but sometimes it is impossible for us. Some crimes are simply too great. But God gives us the power to do the impossible. With faith, hope, and love, the graces of the Holy Spirit allow us to endure and withstand hardship and carry those crosses which are far too heavy for humans to carry.

These graces allow us to do the impossible of accepting suffering, the power to do the impossible of forgiving the "unforgiveable," of loving our enemy, of reconciling with those who have done great evil to us. In this way, by the transformative power of the Cross, we are redeemed from such pain and suffering and hardship, not merely in some far off life in the next world, but here and now. We are able to move on, we are able to heal. We are saved.

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