My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Sunday, July 29, 2012

God is not the Author of Your Heartbreak, I


The above quote from the newly-Venerable Fulton Sheen caused some consternation on the Ignatius Press Quotables Facebook page, and among some of my friends when I shared it.  Frankly, I think it's beautiful; so I thought I would try to explain it.

Like most one-liners, this quote can be easily misunderstood if taken out of context.  In context, Sheen is discussing the anointing of Our Lord's feet by Mary Magdalene.  He is concentrating on the fact that she broke the bottle.  She could have poured the spikenard out slowly, drop by drop; but she did not.  Instead, she gave everything.  Sheen writes:
Mary Magdalene . . . did not do what you and I would do. She did not pour out the precious perfume drop by drop as if to indicate by the slowness of the giving the generosity of the gift. She broke the vessel and gave everything, for love knows no limits. Immediately the house was filled with perfume. It was almost as if, after the death of that perfume and the breaking of the bottle, there was a resurrection. Broken things are precious. We eat broken bread because we share in the death of our Lord and his broken life. Broken flowers give perfume. Broken incense is used in adoration. A broken ship saved Paul and many other passengers on the way to Rome. Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them. (Through the Year with Fulton J. Sheen)
Sheen's analogies are borne out in our daily lives.  We have to break bread before we can eat it; we have to crush grapes before we can drink wine, as he writes in Life of Christ; incense is crushed in order that it may rise to Heaven in the Holy Sacrifice.

The first thing to understand when looking at this quote is that God is not the Author of evil.  God is Goodness itself; He is Love itself; He is Mercy itself.  He cannot cause or bring about evil, pain, or suffering.  What He does is permit evil, because He knows a greater good will come of it.  That is His prerogative alone, to bring good out of evil, to permit evil in order that a greater good may come of it.  This quote is not promoting the idea that the end justifies the means.  If this quote meant that the ends justifies the means, then it would mean that God directly causes the heartbreak in order to bring someone closer to Himself.  As Goodness itself, though, He cannot directly cause heartbreak.


Why does He permit it?  He permits the heartbreak that through it we might come closer to His Broken Heart, that Heart which was pierced with a lance for you, for me, for each of us.  Don't think that just because He was God, He doesn't know what our broken hearts feel like; His Heart was broken, too: by the lance, yes, but also throughout His life.  He knows our suffering; He experienced it.  Don't think that just because He was God, He got an easy ticket through life; His earthly life in the 1st century was as much a "vale of tears" as our earthly lives are for us in the 21st century.

Are we suffering family problems, the betrayal of a dear friend?  He suffered when Judas betrayed Him; He wept over Jerusalem, which had turned its back on Him and was soon to put Him to death.


Are we grieving the loss of a loved one?  He grieved when Lazarus died; He wept, and they marveled because they saw how much He loved him (Jn. 11:35).

Are we bitter, angry with God for not answering our prayers?  He asked His Father to let the chalice pass (Mt. 26:39); and yet, because it was the Father's Will that He drink it to the dregs, He accepted it: "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt."

Do we feel like God has abandoned us and doesn't care about our problems?  He cried out on the Cross--not in despair, but in a moment of sympathy with all atheists throughout the centuries (Sheen, Life of Christ, 379)--"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Mt. 27:46).


* * *
"Sometimes the only way the Good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them."

I've heard some say that this quote is sick and twisted, that pain and suffering can draw you away from God; and it is true, that if we look at this quote in the wrong way--by viewing God as the direct Cause and Author of our heartbreak--then it is sick.  If God, Who is all-good, all-loving, and all-merciful, were to directly cause pain and suffering and heartbreak just to teach us a lesson--then that would be sick.  But He doesn't do that.  He's not like that.  Because of Who He is--Goodness itself--He cannot cause evil.

Because I believe that God cannot cause directly the heartbreak of which Sheen speaks, I am able to see a certain beauty and truth in this quote.  By the grace of God, I believe that God is all-merciful, all-loving, all-good.  I believe that, because He is Goodness itself, He cannot cause evil.

And, yes, pain and suffering can take us away from God; they can make us bitter, they can make our faith seem like an illusion; and they can make us feel that the idea of God as a loving, provident Father is a lie.  But if we let that happen, if we let the pain make us bitter; we're doing what Pharaoh did.  When the plagues hit, he "hardened his own heart," as Ex. 8:15 reads; he willed to resist the grace of God.  God was offering him grace; he resisted it.  The commentary on the Douay-Rheims Bible for Ex. 7:3 explains: "I shall harden: not by being the efficient cause of his hardness of heart, but by permitting it; and by withdrawing grace from him, in punishment of his malice; which alone was the proper cause of his being hardened."  Again, God did not cause Pharaoh's hardness of heart, but only permitted it; and because Pharaoh persisted in sin, He withdrew His grace from him, because mortal sin and God's grace cannot exist simultaneously.

If we have a wound, the only way we're going to keep that wound from becoming infected is to cleanse it with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide--and that stuff stings.  If our hearts are hardened, bitter, closed against God, sometimes the only thing that will bring us back to Him, that will open our hearts to His mercy, His love, and His grace, is if He sends us suffering to "break" our hearts, to help us realize that this world is not all there is and that in eternity His Love and Mercy and Goodness will make our sufferings in this life seem like nothing.


He loves us.  He sees our pain.  He wants us to come to Him: "Come to Me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you" (Mt. 11:28).

God Love you!

Yours in Fulton Sheen and in all things Theological,
Hurt-ey

17 comments:

  1. Dear Roomie,

    You wonderful theologian! Thanks for inviting me to read your blog - I'd forgotten how good a writer you are! I really enjoyed this post. Hope you're doing well! Love you!

    Rebecca
    ourheartsarerestless.wordpress.com

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    1. Thanks! Glad you liked my ramblings. Let me know if I say anything heretical... ;)

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    2. I am not a Roman Catholic but am a Presbyterian yet I attend Mass at St. Stephen's in New Orleans and it is through the teachings and writings of this marvelous teacher, Archbishop Sheen, principally that drew me to the Catholic church. For the past year I have been through the single most painfull event in my life surpassing the deaths of loved ones or any other single thing and I can attest that what this godly man, who so very much deserves sainthood, states is right. Events in my childhood and upbringing made me a very, very bitter angry person and only through the tearing out, not the breaking of, my recalcitrant heart has enabled me to reconcile with those whom I had once stated that I would burn in Hell before I made amends with and for that I am so very grateful. I have shed many tears in St. Stephens and Our Lady of Prompt Succour pleading for His mercy and it is here that I have managed to find peace of mind and soul, though I still beg God to help me with this burden but we do know he chastens those whom he loves. I know that those of you who are Catholic can find fault with Archbishop Sheen shall little doubt find fault with and be greatly offended with a comment from a Protestant, but know you this, this wonderful, venerable servant of God, along with the man whom I call my priest, has helped me grow more spiritually than any other influence in my life, no exceptions. None. Forgive me if I have offended for it was not my intent but God has richly blessed the life of at least one person, and I am confident there are innumerable more, with the teachings of the venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

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    3. I am glad to hear you are attending Mass, and hope that the grace of God will soon lead you to convert. I am glad, also, that Venerable Sheen's words have helped you. God Love you!

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  2. Hi there! Found you through CBN. This was a great post. It speaks to me as someone who has gone through the pain of pregnancy loss three times. It can be so easy to blame God or get mad at God. This is a great reminder of how GOOD, always good, God is. I love your explanation of Venerable Sheen's quote. Great reflection! Thank you!

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    1. Thank you & God Bless you. Glad my ramblings made sense. God Love You!

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  3. Aren't there words to a hymn (song) sung in Church that goes: "I will break your hearts of stone, hearts made for God alone." Yes, we do need our hearts, minds and souls broken to teach us humility and dependence upon God for everything. We tend to forget that. If God punishes, and He does, it's to bring us wayward children back to him. It is never done out of vengeance, only out of pure love, as a good father would punish his children to teach them the proper way to act. We are too limited to understand God. After all, God's ways are not our ways. May our hearts be broken for Jesus as His was for us.

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    1. I hadn't heard of the song, but I'll have to look it up; thanks! Thank you for the reminder that God's punishments are always done out of love. God Love you!

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  4. I usually associate this quote with my conversion to the Church. It was during a period of great personal suffering that a friend suggested I place my trust in God, and in doing so found my way into His Church. If not for the heartbreak my heart would probably still be hardened towards His truth.

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    1. So glad God used that to bring you into His Church! There's a Fulton Sheen story along similar lines:

      One of Sheen's more famous converts basically shook her fist at him and said: "If God is good, why did He take my daughter?" (her 18-year-old daughter had been killed in a car accident) and Sheen's response was "In order that you might be here, learning something about the purpose and meaning of life."

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  5. God is precisely the One who causes heartache. If it were anyone else, wouldn't that be futile and useless? The overall unwillingness to admit this fact is the cause of a great many misunderstandings about God, life, and suffering.

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    1. He *allows* our heartache, but He cannot cause or create it because He is Goodness itself and thus cannot cause evil. Evil is not a "thing" per se; it is a negation, a privation, a *lack* of some good. God, being Himself infinite goodness, love, mercy, and truth, cannot create something that lacks good. Everything He has created is in some measure good; created things have different degrees of goodness, but they're all good.

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    2. Why does heartache necessarily have to be "bad" "the privation of good" or "evil" ?

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    3. To me at least, heartache implies sorrow, and we experience the passion of sorrow or sadness because of a present evil (ST I.2. Q.36, a.1).

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  6. "If God, Who is all-good, all-loving, and all-merciful, were to directly cause pain and suffering and heartbreak just to teach us a lesson--then that would be sick."
    I have been a Catholic all my life why do people insist on only seeing the God in the New Testament? Have you ever read the book 'Not A Safe God? by Tim Riter? I may not have agreed with everything he wrote but he does have some very valid points. We do focus only on the good, loving, merciful side and forget the other side of God. Thank you for your blog I enjoyed reading it I just don't agree with the ALL-merciful part because I like to think people should read the Bible front to back and not skim the Old Testament stories of God's wrath and destruction or even the suffering Jesus asked of some. The heartache parts though was something we all need to hear sometimes. If only as a reminder. :=)

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  7. Although my post might make it seem that I focused only on "the God of the New Testament," I have read and studied the Old Testament. God's justice and mercy are two different aspects of Him. They are not opposed. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were stiff-necked people who needed to be reminded of the justice of God. Although we still need to remember that God is just and that He punishes us for our sins, we need to focus on His mercy.

    St. Francis de Sales said that you attract more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar; it is God's loving mercy that will attract sinners. The Jansenist heresy of the 17th century focused on the justice of God to the extent that it made people scrupulous and afraid of God. The Sacred Heart devotion was a response to this heresy: "Behold this Heart Which has so loved men..." He wants us to know how much He loves us.

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    1. To Kaleinani:

      Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger), addresses this point in "The Heritage of Abraham":

      The God of the Jews’ Bible—which, together with the New Testament—is also the Christians’ Bible—who is sometimes a God of infinite goodness, sometimes so strict as to instill fear, is also the God of Jesus Christ and of the apostles. The Church of the second century had to resist the rejection of this God on the part of the Gnostics, and above all by Marcion, who set in opposition to the God of the New Testament a demiurge, a creator-god from whom the Old Testament supposedly derived; the Church, on the other hand, always held fast to the faith in the one and only God, Creator of the world and Author of both the Testaments.
      The New Testament perception of God, which culminates in the Johannine definition “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16), is not in contradiction with the past, but rather it comprehends within itself the entire history of salvation, of which Israel was at first the pioneer. That is why, from the earliest days up to the present, the voices of Moses and the prophets are heard in the Church’s liturgy; Israel’s Book of Psalms is also the Church’s great prayer book. Consequently, the early Church did not set herself against Israel; rather, she believed herself, in all simplicity, to be Israel’s rightful continuation.


      Hope this is helpful!
      God Love you!

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