In the wake of yet another shooting of dozens of innocent people, we are once again surrounded by shrill, desperate, angry questions:
“What can be done to save lives? What is wrong with our lawmakers in Washington? Why won’t they take action to stop the violence? Why is it so easy for deranged people to get guns? Why is there no political will to limit the death toll? Why is mental health service so hard to come by in America? Why did no one arrive to stop the murder until it was too late?”
These are important questions, but not the most important one. They are tactical questions, with tactical answers, and they don’t keep me up at night.
During my last mission in Afghanistan an Afghani man blew up a car loaded with >300 lbs of explosives, with himself in the driver’s seat, in an attempt to kill American soldiers. I remember picking up one of his shoulder blades with part of the arm still attached, a few hundred yards from the crater, and wondering what drives a man to hate so deeply that he will spread himself out across the landscape just on the slightest chance that it might kill an enemy.
That was seven years ago, and I still ask the same question: what drives a man to hate so much that he will go to his death for no higher purpose than to kill as many innocent people as he can before the police or someone else catch him?
Where does such reckless hate come from?
Only now I know the answer.
It comes from me.
I am the sinner responsible for that man’s hatred and despair.
This world is all connected on a mystical level, and it is a battlefield. The fortunes of each tiny hidden battle here may influence the outcome of a physical battle separated by all of time and space but united in the mind of God. As Dostoevsky put it, “All are responsible to all for all,” and I have failed in that responsibility.
To put it more explicitly, every act of virtue opens this sorry world up to a little more grace. Every act of vice closes it a little bit more to grace. When I wash dishes, or change a diaper, or get up at the crack of dawn to say my prayers, I am cooperating with the grace of God, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, with the Sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. I fulfil the hopes of all the Saints and Angels in Heaven, and I form a little spiritual gateway to allow them access to the battlefield.
But I have not often done this. I have spent years of my life living mainly in lust and sloth. I have spent time and energy on filth and vanity in the forms of pornography and video games. I have neglected prayers, and I have prayed neglectfully. I have turned away from people who loved me because I didn’t want to be bothered and been proud of it. I have turned my back on people in need. I have used my words to hurt people with sarcasm and contempt. I have done so many evil things, and worse, I have left so many good things undone, and every one of those sins of commission or omission was a door closed to grace.
In the darkness behind the doors I have slammed shut or refused to open, evil has festered, and it has spread silently through the mystical pathways of our spiritual battlefield, weakening, sapping and corrupting other human souls in ways I will never understand until I see them revealed in purgatory.
That is why I must heed the command of Our Lord, and the constant warning of Our Blessed Mother, and of all the Saints of all our history: I must repent, pray, and do penance.
And it is not enough to do penance for my own sins only. I may not “offer up” some “sacrifice” for the sins of other people far away and think that I have done something quite fine. I have not. Doing penance for the sins of others is not an extra, it is just being honest about my part in those sins. I have not even broken even. I have not even begun to make amends for my own sins.
Only the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and His Mercy poured out upon me can ever do that.
When I heed the call to repentance, to prayer, to penance, I am opening myself up to the Divine Mercy, and allowing it to flow into me and begin the long, painful work of cleansing me and making me whole. It can also overflow me, for I am a very small vessel and the stream of Mercy is infinite, and again flow silently and secretly out through the mystical pathways of this spiritual battlefield, strengthening, healing and making whole other human souls, in ways I will never know until they are revealed in Heaven.
The first step to peace in my heart and in the world is to know myself a sinner, and to fall upon my knees and beg forgiveness. After that comes Mercy.