Developing a Spiritual Strategy for the Third Millenium

Transcript of a talk by Michael D. O’Brien at the National Prolife Convention,
Save the Planet’s People Conference,
Toronto, November 25-27, 1999


We in the West have focused many of our battles against the culture of death through the intellect, and rightly so. The baptized intellect is an essential part of the struggle to push back the darkness, to establish, re-establish the civilization of love. But, to my mind, in the Western world we have lived for several centuries now with what I believe to be a catastrophic split within us—the split between the mind and the heart. When we speak of the heart we all too often speak about the emotions, the passions, the negative and positive passions, the impulses to which we are all subject. The West suffers from a fundamental division not only in its culture, but in human nature itself. A division which God did not intend from the beginning, and which is to be healed and integrated through grace. Abortion, and every aspect of the denial of life in our culture, is a fruit not only of the sin of Adam, but that split which is the fruit of his sin.

How do we heal this? How do we find again the right order of heart and mind? If we are to go forth and battle what really are principalities and powers, not just systemic adversaries, not just human opponents, but a diabolic war against mankind, how are we to fit ourselves for the battle?

We know from the Gospel what our armor is to be, what our tools are to be, but in the few moments we have here, I would like to touch upon what must lie at the very depth of the well of the human person. We must go always deeper and deeper into the mysteries of God if we are to continue the struggle against the evil in which we find ourselves immersed. This century has thrown at the poor heart and consciousness of man evil on a scale unprecedented in human history, not only for quantity—that is staggering enough—but for the character of the evil, the nature of this evil, its alliance with cold rationalism on one hand, or its alliance with passionate irrational idealism on the other hand.

The heap of victims in this century far outweighs all those in the history of mankind until this time. How then are we to speak into this colossal tide of evil that seeks to engulf us? The answer is, I believe, fundamentally in the heart, and the conversion of the heart, not only our own conversion but also the hearts of all those who stand on the other side of those barricades screaming at us, hurling abuse at us. Those poor woman who go into the abortuary, often deluded, often driven by fear, are as precious in the eyes of God as we are, or the victims—there are of course two victims in every abortion, and often more.

The key to the winning of this war is in the conversion of the heart—this is true for all of us, friends, enemies, believers, and non-believers.

In my own heart there is anger. It is the first impulse, the first level of the heart’s response whenever we see innocence violated, when we see the powerless and the helpless destroyed before they have a chance to become who they were intended to be in the mysterious plans of God. How can we not cry out from the heart with instinctive anger! But if this impulse is left just as so much raw passion, it can become every bit as destructive as those who apply the suction, or the scalpel, or the chemical. Anger destroys. Therefore we must bring our angry hearts, if we have not already done so, before Our Lord Jesus Christ. On the cross he crucified all that is not of God within us. He took upon himself our sins, all the sins that have been committed and are yet to be committed. He took my rage upon his own back and upon his own heart. His heart was crucified. He is the crucified heart. He is the pierced heart. His heart was broken open for us.

When we come before him, I believe that it is his great joy to see that his suffering is not fruitless. To see that a heart comes before him with all its damage and all its wounds, and all its basically human stuff, and says, “My Lord, I cannot stop this juggernaut of anti-life forces in the world. I cannot save the world. I cannot even save myself. Touch this root of anger in me.”

Over the years Our Lord has been showing me personally about myself and also showing close friends in the pro-Life movement and in other fields of the labors of God, that beneath all anger, beneath all discouragement, loss of morale, confusion, division among people who are essentially united for the same goal, egocentricity, territorialism, resentment—all these disorders that flow from the human heart—at the very source of these is fundamental, radical fear. I will say it again: It is Fear. Anger comes from fear. And at the root of fear itself—let’s go deeper still—at the root of fear itself is unbelief. We believe in our minds and sometimes we even believe with our emotions, but deep down in what the Church calls “the heart”, way below the level of the surface emotions, beneath the storms and the wonderful feelings, is the core of one’s being where we make the fundamental choice either for truth or against truth, for life or against life. It is connected to the will, but it’s not entirely the will. Here in the very core of one’s being where one is silent before God as a creature, we make a choice. We say: “You are God. You, Father, are God, and I am your child.” This is heart speaking to heart. This is soul speaking to its Creator-Father.

Because of the weight of evil in our century, the human mind often cannot take in any more. At a certain level we start to convert the data of evil into abstractions. This is a legitimate defense mechanism. We should not be staring at horror all the time. There are moments when we must see it for what it is, but the mind protects itself from being overwhelmed by switching it off or blocking it out. However, this can have the negative effect of producing a state of permanent indifference or desensitization. Alternatively, those of us who cannot be indifferent may succumb to another kind of danger, that of discouragement. (In parenthesis I would like to say that St. Francis of Assisi called discouragement “a demon”, a demon which must be cast out by prayer and fasting).

How helpful it is in regaining proper perspective to be at the birth of one’s child. I have assisted at the birth of all six of our children, and at every birth there is a radical, glorious moment of absolute realism! Here is life! It began nine months before, but here is its hidden face revealed to us. This is a moment when spontaneously from the wells of the heart tears burst forth, tears of joy. Laughter bursts forth. It’s not a time for intellectual deliberations. This child came from you and your wife, and yet he or she is not you. Here is a new being resting in your hands, a completely unique human being, never before seen, never to be repeated—A mysterious epiphany of God.

I would like to tell you a story. It happened to me many years before I was married, many years before I held my first child in my hands. I had just come out of about five years of total unbelief. God was simply not an issue for me. I never thought about faith. I never prayed. I lived in a materialistic universe. I lived in a kind of Flatland.

Now in a materialistically wealthy culture, you can go a very long time in Flatland and not even know that is where you live. You can fill it with a lot of stimulating activity. You can fill it with a lot of pleasure. You can really exercise your will to power and really come to believe that you are the lord of all you survey. At some level you believe that you are God, until God in his infinite mercy knocks you off a horse. Knocks you to the ground as he did to St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

We would do well to remember the conversion of St. Paul when we see these screaming hate-filled faces of the opposition. St. Paul officiated over the death of the first martyr, Stephen. St. Paul was very busy about the destruction of our brothers and sisters—until God spoke. And when he spoke it was sudden, unexpected, and utterly shattering. I often wonder what Paul felt when all that he had thought was just and true about his course of action was proved completely wrong, and not only wrong, but the blood of innocence had been spilled because of his wrongness. What did that poor man go through? Perhaps we will be very surprised in years to come by what the third millennium will bring; what God will do in the hearts of those whom we felt were hopelessly plunged into darkness.

In 1969, just after my conversion, I began working as a volunteer in a huge institution for the mentally handicapped in Ontario. At the time I was thoroughly stunned by how wrong I had been during my years of unbelief. My conversion had been a St. Paul conversion, instantaneous, total. It was a very great grace, but it had left me shaken, and it took a while to find out who I really was, to reconstruct my life in grace. During that transition period, Our Lord through an uncanny chain of events led me to work in this institution, which I believe is now no longer in existence. There were literally miles of wards. There were five thousand patients, most of whom were mentally handicapped, though there were also children in those wards who were not handicapped but whom society simply had no place to put. This was only a year after Trudeau’s Omnibus Bill, and the abortion industry had not yet moved into full gear. There were many, many children living there who if they had been conceived a few short years later would have been aborted.

It was a painfully sterile institution, yet mysteriously filled with the great love in the hearts of the handicapped. We have handicapped people in our family. I don’t want to romanticize them, but there is about them a guilelessness, a purity of heart which most of us have a very long struggle ever getting close to. They love from the heart. But I had not yet seen how much and how real that love was.

One day on the ward where I worked there was a surplus of volunteers, and the supervisor said to me, “How would you like to work on a ward where we seldom get volunteers?” I said, “Sure! I’m willing. What kind of people are there?” He replied, “Well, I’ll let you see for yourself.”

We went down to a distant annex of the labyrinth, and he took me into a small ward which contained about a dozen stainless steel cribs. Like everywhere else in the building, it was a cold and barren place, devoid of beauty or cheer. There were no pictures, no toys, nothing on the walls. A nurse pointed to a crib and said, “Why don’t you meet Jimmy? He never has visitors.”

When I looked inside this steel cage, I saw there what I thought was a little boy. Flat on his back with arms spread wide he resembled the corpus on a crucifix. He was hydrocephalic. For those of you who don’t know the term, in the old days before the development of medical technology for draining water off the brain, certain children suffered from greatly expanded craniums. As water built on the brain, their skulls would expand and expand, the bone structure growing to enormous proportions to compensate for the internal pressure. In this ward there were about a dozen such children with extraordinarily large heads, some of them with very small bodies. They had never been able to move, or play, or even pull themselves upright like other children.

“He’s spent all his life in that crib,” said the nurse.

“How old is he?” I asked, thinking that he was about six or seven years old, and mentally handicapped as well.

“He’s twenty-one years old,” said the nurse and went away.

Here was this small person staring back at me out of his little universe. It was a great shock for me, because it was my first experience of seeing a severely deformed human being. I recovered quickly, but it threw my senses into disarray for a moment. And yet, within a second or two, I saw his eyes. When you bracketed the face, blocking out the deformities, it was a very beautiful face. I am not talking about appearance but about something more elusive. I saw a soul looking back through those eyes. A person was looking through those eyes at me, and I found myself to be a person looking through my own eyes at him—looking not as examination but as mutual presence to each other. Two souls regarding each other with full attention in a moment of silence, two persons between whom there was no common language. And yet the language of the heart is, as I was to discover, the most powerful language of all.

As we gazed at each other there were no social conventions to make it uncomfortable. For me it was heartbreaking but moving. His body was the size of a two or three year old’s, and his head twice as large as it should be, and yet joy was shining out of these eyes. And I who had everything, all the powers of man, was in anguish, confusion, darkness. It seemed to me that here in this prisoner was mankind itself, a human person reduced to fundamental poverty. And joy was shining from his eyes!

Something came out of those eyes with the joy that was a powerful …. Words fail me utterly to describe what it was. I will have to use a crude term for it. It was like a beam of love, a force of love. And I saw that he who had nothing, he who was utterly poor, was rich!

Did he have suffering? Yes, perhaps crushing suffering, but he was rich. And I who had everything, I discovered at that moment, was the poor man.

It was an awesome dawning of awareness, to feel for the first time the almost tangible power of the soul. Love is a power not only of the heart and the emotions, or the intellect or the will. It is a power of the soul—a power that gives life. And this abandoned “child”, useless according to the mind of the world, was bestowing on me a gift that no one can ever purchase. He was simply loving me. Moreover, after a few more moments of simply gazing into each other’s eyes, he opened his mouth, smiled at me, took my hand in his own and in a child’s voice spoke the three radioactive words, “I love you.” And I have never been the same since.

Here in this radically reduced life is the value of the human soul broken open for us to see. Reduced, in human terms, to its essential greatness.

St. Thomas Aquinas once said that the value of a single human soul outweighs the entire value of the material universe. I think this bears repeating: The value of a single human soul outweighs the value of the material universe.

What you are about in the pro-Life movement is a confrontation with the powers and principalities of this world which would deny that truth. It is also a confrontation with the powers and principalities of spiritual darkness. Your every labour, your every word and sacrifice, seeks to proclaim that there is not a single human life worth less than the entire universe. You have risked very much to maintain that truth. Many of you have risked everything. Many of you are paying the price. Some of you have been imprisoned for maintaining that truth. And perhaps if the times grow darker, some of us will pay with our own blood. 

Whether our labors in the cause of life are humble—changing a diaper in a crib in an institution, or raising children for the springtime that is coming, or going to jail—whether you are called to a more visible witness or to the hidden way of Nazareth, the heart needs to know that it is held in the hands of God. You are held in the hands of God. And whenever you hear the voice of fear speaking in your heart, you must understand that this is the liar at work. Yes, it is in our nature to fear, but we must understand that when we give in to fear we are shutting down the windows and doorways of our hearts. We are closing off avenues of grace, because fear essentially tells us that we are alone and abandoned in a tiny, dark, prison universe, a universe in which there is no love.

“Love is stronger than death,” says the Song of Songs. We live in a glorious and beautiful universe, suffused with love. It is damaged, yes. It is invaded to a degree, yes. But it is not destroyed, and it never will be destroyed. It is the creation of the Father, a Father who is Love and Truth, and the darkness cannot overcome him.

Above all, we must trust that He is who he says he is. If you open your heart, especially at the moment when you are least disposed to do it, he will give you everything you need to fulfill your mission in life. Open your heart to him and say, “This is what I am. I am very little. I have no power. I have wounds. I have sinned. I am discouraged. O my Jesus, you are the savior of the world. Jesus, I trust in you!”

He will not disappoint you. He is who he says he is.

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