Fathoming the Mercy of God
When I was a professor at Christendom College in the early 1980’s, I had an outstanding student named John Janaro, who also played bass in our little swing band. About the time John graduated, I left Christendom to start Trinity Communications, which began life as a book publisher. One of our early projects was to commission John, a superb writer, to travel around the country interviewing ten outstanding priests, and then to write their profiles in a book we entitled Fishers of Men. (Those profiles are in our online Library.)
John went on to earn a doctorate in theology, and he returned to Christendom College as a professor. For a time he served as head of the Theology Department, and he also edited Faith & Reason, the College’s academic journal (now defunct), which I had started in 1975 and brought with me to the College when it opened in 1977. But by the time John became a professor, I had moved on to other things, and we no longer moved in the same orbit. I know only that he was well-respected as a teacher and that he also went on to marry and become the father of five children.
When I was the teacher and he the student, I wasn’t aware that John suffered at times from depression. And I was long out of the picture when it finally became apparent—too late to do anything about the devastating consequences—that he had contracted Lyme Disease. I know now that the combination of clinical depression with the constant pain and debilitation of Lyme Disease has been excruciating. Eventually John had to give up his teaching career, though he can still write on his better days. Nor was I aware, a few years ago, that John and Eileen’s premature daughter, Josefina, was battling for her life in prolonged neonatal care because her intestines were not connected properly.
No, it is a sad tribute to my chronic tendency to burn the bridges I cross that I learned these things only from John’s new book, Never Give Up, a highly personal yet spiritually luminous meditation on suffering, on our relationship with God, and on God’s infinite mercy. But once I began reading Never Give Up, I could not put John Janaro’s story down.
Simplicity and Insight
John Janaro is a rare breed among those who are capable of writing from the heart because his own heart is so fully conformed to the heart of Christ as encountered in the heart of the Church. I have one story from the past to give just a preliminary indication of what I mean. When John was still a student, and for a reason I don’t recall, he and I and several others attended a healing Mass at my parish church of All Saints in Manassas, Virginia. This was one of those masses at which people had an opportunity to come up for a special healing blessing, and ushers were stationed behind each person, because so many of them collapsed, senseless for a few seconds, when the individual blessings were conferred.
Charismatics call this being slain in the spirit, and it is rare thing for “Christendom Catholics” to possess the type of piety which draws them to such experiences. I think it is accurate that all of us were wary of auto-suggestion in this, and none of us expected to be affected. But John collapsed when he received the blessing, and he lay on the floor for perhaps thirty seconds before coming to his senses. The others wanted an explanation and, being the professor, I was about to expound some theory or other, when John calmly stated that he, at least, could tell what the experience had been like for him: “I was overcome by an intense awareness of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity.”
From his student days, you see, John has had this ability to communicate simply and directly the essence of authentic spiritual experience in a manner which is at once disarmingly unaffected and thoroughly informed by the theological patrimony of the Catholic Faith. Apparently this ability has only grown greater with the passing of time, because it appears on every page of Never Give Up.
In the book, John tells the story of his depression, his struggle with Lyme Disease, the destruction of many of his abilities and dreams, and the intense awareness of the infinite mercy of God he has gained even in the midst of his pain—the same Holy Trinity, certainly, dwelling within him. He intersperses the autobiographical material with chapters offering immense insight for all those who suffer—and for those of us who should assist the suffering—as well as beautiful and even poetic meditations on the soul’s relationship with God, on Saint Joseph, Mary and, of course, Christ Himself, especially in the Eucharist.
Here is one of his prayers which captures the intensity of human suffering, and in which anyone who has experienced prolonged and deep distress can see himself:
I am struck dumb,
inside and outside.
My heart is shrouded by this misery;
my eyes, which look upon your holy face,
are stricken, assaulted by the light,
aching red, longing to be shut beneath their lids.
I have no voice
except an inner cry,
a mute, distressed animal whimper
that cannot even summon itself to ask for mercy.
My fingers drift
away from my hands,
and the tokens of your love
are beyond their reach.
How do I pray?
O Lord, where is the longing of my prayer?
hear the struggle of breath;
hear the scream inside
the shaken contours of this skull,
with brain pierced
by some fiery blade.
O God, Love!
Hear the endless noise,
the howling of skin and nerve,
muscle and joint:
this cacophony of pain
that groans all through the place
where I once felt that I had a body.
Jesus, Mercy, forgive me.
Jesus, I offer.
I long for these to be my words to you,
but lips are speechless quiver,
and thought and heart are frozen in exhaustion.
Prayer is ice that does not flow.
Prayer is a voice of distant memory;
it feels like a stiff corpse
beneath my soul’s total turmoil.
In the end there is nothing
but the hollowness that holds a thing called me
I want you, Jesus.
In another chapter, entitled simply “Ask!”, John reflects on the axiom that heaven helps those who help themselves, and he concludes that the axiom is seriously deficient:
“Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7). What a simple promise! So, are you a sinner? Ask. Are you lonely and suffering? Ask. Are you debilitated by pain and physical humiliation? Ask. Are you a “good Christian”? Ask more, because there is the ever-present danger that you may have forgotten how much you need to ask. Are you a saint? Then you don’t need me to tell you to ask because you have been asking for a long time. And you will continue to ask, from depths that I can’t even begin to fathom. While you are at it, ask him to have mercy on me.
Thus he showers upon us his mercy, not to the demand of our measure and expectations but in response to our recognition that we really need him….
So lift the cover from your hiding place. Turn to him. If you are still running away, then you haven’t yet gone too far. Turn back and cry out to him. Ask for his help, his mercy.
God helps those who ask him. He even helps those who run away, as long as they don’t refuse to come home. He helps those who do not push him away. He helps those who have been hiding from him, if they are willing to let themselves be found.
Do not forget God. Let yourself be found.
Never Give Up is a stirring account of John Janaro’s ongoing discovery that the mercy of God is found in the love of Christ at the heart of the Church. If you are suffering or depressed, if you know someone who is suffering, or if you simply need to become more sensitive to suffering or more aware of suffering’s tremendous redemptive value, you owe it to yourself to read this book. The subtitle is “My life and God’s mercy”. However broken and lost you may feel, it can be your life and God’s mercy, too.
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Posted by: -
Apr. 13, 2011 10:51 PM ET USA
This story is humbling and inspirational, because I feared it might have a different ending. John Janaro and his family will be in my prayers this evening because the story of his reaction to his suffering is a blessing to all of us and a reminder that we all must carry our crosses...
Posted by: koinonia -
Mar. 07, 2011 8:21 AM ET USA
I have always felt that the Christendom experience is unique in that people of faith are brought together in a community of charity. Thanks for the book recommendation; Dr. Janaro is certainly an important member of the Christendom family, and I appreciate his valuable insights.