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In Chapter 9, Margaret is discovered by the beggars Elena and Roberto who help Margaret to discover the departure of her parents from Castello. Upon learning that her parents’ had abandoned her, Margaret’s first reaction is shock. Her second reaction is to consider what God was doing.
As she began to recover somewhat from the shock, she realized that she was being offered another opportunity to resemble her Savior, who had been abandoned by His friends. Although her soul was tried to its very depths by the blow, Margaret heroically forcer her rebellious will to accept the cross. In her agony, she besought God that she might more perfectly devote herself to Him, her Heavenly Father.Page 46
Margaret’s first thoughts are not about what her parents did, nor about what she herself would do, but about what God was doing. In Margaret’s mind, the most important thing that was happening in that moment was that God was giving her “another opportunity to resemble her Savior, who had been abandoned by His friends.” It was that act of God to which Margaret must now respond. As we have by now come to expect, Margaret did that heroically, and it is only she who could have characterized her will as “rebellious” in that moment.
Father Bonniwell tells us that Margaret “realized that she was being offered another opportunity to resemble her Savior.” We have already read about many such “opportunities.” The one that I most readily recall was right after her first imprisonment, when as a young child Margaret told Father Cappellano: “God has made it clear. Jesus was rejected even by his own people, and God is letting me be treated the same so that I can follow our dear Lord more closely.”
Only after Margaret reflects upon the “opportunity” that God was giving her did she consider the significance of what her parents’ had done. She did this in response to “the sympathetic group of people” who were “expressing their opinions of Margaret’s patients,” which Father Bonniwell describes as “vituperation being heaped upon [them].” Father Bonniwell describes Margaret’s response:
At once she spoke in their defense. Had they not taken care of her for 20 years? Why should they be burdened with her all their life? It was high time for her to start taking care of herself, and this is precisely what she intended to do!Page 47
We have seen Margaret’s extraordinary love for her parents before. No matter how they mistreat her, Margaret responds to them only with genuine love. Her response to this final mistreatment of her parents is more extraordinary still. Not only does Margaret continue to love and respect her parents, she makes excuses for them! Though I don’t think what Margaret was doing is best described as “making excuses.” I think she was interpreting their actions in the best possible way. It seems awfully implausible to suppose that Margaret’s parents might have had good reasons for what they did. Margaret, however, seems determined to give them the benefit of every doubt and interpret their actions as generously as possible. Even if Margaret did realize, as Father Bonniwell has suggested, that her parents acted out of hatred, she is determined to cast no dispersions on them in he hearing of others. In this, Margaret exhibited the surpassing righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples when he tells them, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
This reminds me of an essay by Bishop Robert Barron about scapegoating. Bishop Barron wrote that essay in connection with the passage in the Gospel of John about the woman who was caught committing adultery (John 8:1-11). But he applied his remarks about scapegoating not only to that incident but to human interactions in general. He described how people tend to identify evil and cast it out as a way of strengthening bonds of solidarity. In the case of the woman caught in adultery, the scribes and Pharisees band together and invite Jesus to join them in condemning the evil deed of the woman and casting out the evil by stoning her. Jesus does recognize the evil in the woman (he tells her, “Do not sin any more”), but he also calls attention to the evil in the scribes and Pharisees (“let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone”) and he refuses to join them in their condemnation.
I think something similar is going on in the condemnation of Margaret’s parents. The “sympathetic group of people” is in the place of the scribes and Pharisees. They identify evil in Margaret’s parents and invite Margaret to join them in condemning her parents. They are trying to sympathize with Margaret and they think the way to do that is by joining her in rejecting her parents. Margaret, like Jesus, refuses to go along. Jesus rejected the scapegoating of the woman by pointing to the sins of the scribes and Pharisees. Margaret rejected the scapegoating of her parents by giving a charitable interpretation of their actions. In both cases, they refuse to unite with the “good guys” in condemning the “bad guys.” Margaret’s sympathizers understandably try to sympathize with her in a characteristically human way, scapegoating: mutual condemnation and casting out of the evil they perceive in someone else. Margaret won’t do that and, in that way, she shows herself to be like Jesus.
I think this kind of scapegoating happens all the time. As in the case of Margaret’s sympathizers, it’s usually not as grievous as it was in the case of the woman caught in adultery. Gossip comes to mind as the most obvious way this happens. A group of people condemn someone else, usually in some small way. Why do they do this? Often, it seems to me, as a way of establish sympathy among each other by their mutual condemnation of the other person or other group. We can make ourselves feel like the “good guys” by condemning the “bad guys” and somehow casting out their evil.
When we indulge in the scapegoating reaction to evil, we can focus on condemning the evil in the other person or group of people. We thereby enable ourselves, like the scribes and Pharisees, to ignore the evil in ourselves and avoid doing the hard work of introspection and repentance. Scapegoating also allows us to ignore God. When we focus on the evil of the others, we can distract ourselves from the questions of what God is doing and what God calls us to do. Margaret wouldn’t do that. Her response in the face of evil is to consider what God is doing in her life, and how she can overcome her “rebellious” will and accept God’s gracious invitation.
At the end of Chapter 10, Father Bonniwell remarks on Margaret’s strange combination of happiness and uneasiness as the entered the Monastery of Saint Margaret.
Margaret was so happy that she became rather uneasy; she had come to the convent to labor for the salvation of souls by prayer and sacrifice, and not to be filled with overwhelming happiness. She began to fear that, perhaps because of her sinfulness, she was not worthy to suffer any more.Page 54
I think this is fascinating, though I’m not sure what to make of it. Part of Margaret’s uneasiness, it seems to me, is a tension between two different kinds of happiness. On the one hand, Margaret was experiencing a new kind of happiness. The Sisters in the monastery and the townspeople who helped her to be admitted to the monastery showed Margaret a love and welcome that she had hardly experienced before. Moreover, they were trying to help Margaret fulfill her vocation: “to labor for the salvation of souls by prayer and sacrifice.” On the other hand, that very happiness seems to have prevented Margaret from living the vocation of suffering to which God had repeatedly called her. In that vocation, Margaret had long cherished a deeper happiness, the happiness that brought her to tears as a young child when she was overwhelmed by the realization that “God is letting me be treated the same [as Jesus] so that I can follow our dear Lord more closely” and exclaimed, “Oh! Father, I am not good enough to be so close to God.”
- There’s a lot I didn’t comment upon in these two chapters: Margaret’s life as a beggar, her reaction to sleeping in the stable, her interactions with Elena and affect on her faith, her being adopted by the poor of the city, how living in the homes of the poor affected Margaret and affected the families that hosted her, the suspicions of some people in the town, the effort to get her admitted to the monastery, the bishop’s discoveries about her background, and the nuns invitation to join their monastery. Do you have thoughts about some of these things?
- Margaret showed extraordinary holiness from the earliest years of her life, and this book shows that clearly. Now that we are more than half way through our reading of this book, can we also see Margaret’s growth? How has show she grown as a person? How has she grown closer to God?
- What about that tension between Margaret’s happiness and uneasiness that I briefly commented upon? As I said, I’m not really sure what to make of that. What do you think?
Please share your thoughts in the “Comment” section below. Feel free to respond to the questions I posed above or to reflect upon anything else in this week’s reading, my reflections on this weeks reading, and/or comments that other people have posted.