The Apostolate of the Laity

Waxing philosophical in communion with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I am just a sinner who holds fast to the notion that every human being on the planet is the result of a thought of God.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Long Penance

All I know about tomorrow is that God's providence will rise before the sun.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen

On March 16, 1968, a second lieutenant, nicknamed Rusty because of his red hair, led his platoon into a remote Vietnamese village. At five feet, four inches in height, Rusty didn't have a towering presence over his troops. Many didn't like him. The young man was far from home, and his life had undergone dramatic change over the last few years. He was a high school dropout. Before he found himself in the jungles of Southeast Asia, he had worked a variety of odd jobs. Eventually Selective Service caught up with him and he was drafted as young men were during that era. Despite his poor academic record he managed to get into Officers Candidacy School and had been commissioned only one year earlier.

His Captain had ordered Rusty into the village code named "Pinkville" that was suspected to harbor Viet Cong terrorists. What happened next depends upon who one believes, but what is certain is that at the end of the day approximately 500 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, had been murdered by American soldiers. Many of the victims had been sexually abused and mutilated.

This infamous sad chapter in American history is known as the My Lai Massacre (pronounced "me-lie"), and Rusty is Second Lieutenant William Calley, the only person ever convicted of murder in the incident. It's likely that Calley is telling the truth when he states that he just followed the orders of his commanding officer. The Army did as best it could to cover up the incident. Twenty-six soldiers were eventually charged. All were acquitted except for Calley. He was the sacrificial lamb.

Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor, but President Nixon commuted the sentence to house arrest. The public, weary from a seemingly never ending war, viewed Calley more as victim of the system than a war criminal, and Nixon needed a win with the American public. After three years, Calley won a writ of habeous corpus and was soon after released. He never spoke to the press about the incident. Never granted an interview.

Forty years later at the urging of a good friend who had spoken for months with him about the events at My Lai, William Calley made his public confession for the first time at Kiwanis Club meeting in Columbus Georgia.

There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry....If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.

Some will say that William Calley got off easy. True, he did not pay much for his crime from a juridical point of view. Three and a half years of house arrest for killing 500 innocent lives hardly brings justice for the victims. Yet one has to wonder what it's like to live a life with the knowledge of having committed so great an evil. Does he still see the faces of his victims? Can he hear the cry of innocent blood as it calls out to God from the ground where it was spilled?

Christ in his mercy, forgives. Christ in his love, forgets. No transgression is too big for redemption. But God does not change reality. The lasting consequences of sin endure. Remorse becomes the sackcloth and ash that adorns the soul. Without the grace of Christ, its weight can be overwhelming.

Thankfully, not everyone has the burden of William Calley to carry throughout their lives. Yet everyone can point to an event or maybe a series of events in their lives where they injured another. This author certainly knows that he has hurt at one time or another the very people who love him the most. And while like Christ they can forgive...those injured do not forget. The pain, disappointment, and other consequences of so many foolish, selfish, and prideful choices endures, and with that the knowledge of being the cause of such feelings ever haunts the soul hopefully to serve as a reminder of that which should never be repeated and an inspiration to repair what can be fixed.

It's interesting how many of the saints as they move closer to Christ gain such clarity of truth that their joy is mixed with lamentations over the time when they weren't so close. St. Augustine perhaps expressed it best in this beautiful prayer:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

For Augustine, knowing he had offended Christ during his sinful life filled him with the deepest remorse and appreciation for the gift of grace. It is the knowledge one has of having wronged a loved one that creates a life of long penance. It's not that one lives in constant sorrow or dismisses the joy of life. The outward wearing of sackcloth and ash is a thing of the distant past. Rather, it is the simple realization that no matter how good and holy one becomes, the reality of the injury one was responsible for never truly departs one's conscience. Remorse is a terminal condition.

For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
Genesis 3:5

The Devil lied to Adam and Eve for God did not know evil in the classical Hebrew sense in which this scripture was written. But Satan did tell the truth when he let them know that they would know evil. They experienced it first hand. All do. The penance of remorse for having offended Love should be embraced for it serves as proof positive that one remains closer to the Almighty and more distant to the evil one. Praise be to God that He loves his children and continuously calls to them so that they can know, really know that which is good.


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