Gabriel Gillen wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life after graduating from college, but during his family’s Thanksgiving reunion he was quite vocal about the poor choice he believed his older sister was making.
She was a member of the 82nd Airborne, an elite division of the U.S. Army. Gillen was struggling to understand how she could turn down a promotion to Captain and an opportunity to teach at West Point to get a Masters in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
“I thought she had gone Bible Belt crazy,” said Gillen, who would one day become a Dominican priest. “I started riling her. ‘So what are you going to do with that degree? Couldn’t you get that part time and still teach at West Point? Take classes somewhere else? It would be a greater witness to teach at West Point. You’re throwing your life away!’”
But nothing he said dissuaded his sister, who had rediscovered her faith and who told him she knew this was what she was supposed to do. Unfortunately, his sister never got her degree. She died of leukemia at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the famous cancer hospital in New York.
When his sister left this earth, Gillen left the Church. He started to question everything. He needed to understand the problem of pain. He looked at philosophy, and eastern mysticism. He look anywhere and everywhere, except his own faith tradition because he thought he knew what the Church taught. But even beyond the grave, Gillen’s sister wasn’t finished reaching out to her little brother.
“She had written a letter to a friend of mind that got him through Ranger school,” Gillen said. “He ended up going to Steubenville. He got engaged, broke it off,
and became a priest. Long story short, he got me out to Steubenville, brought me back to confession and daily Mass. I ended up joining a missionary order and then the Dominicans.
“My first assignment as a Dominican was Sloan Kettering! I almost said, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then, I realized I was able to relate with people, to share [what had happened in my own life]. People are angry. They direct it toward you. I was able to not be afraid of that; to talk them through that. I got it.”
Dominican Father Gabriel Gillen, O.P., who is now director of the Rosary Shrine of St. Jude in Washington, D.C. and who recently visited EWTN to talk about the Angelic Warfare Confraternity (see last weeks’ blog), said that, while he was at Sloan Kettering, he sometimes found himself ministering to people in the same room in which his sister had died.
“At one point, a lady was yelling at me because her daughter was dying. I was walking out of the room, and I really felt like I heard, ‘Get back in there!’”
When he returned, the woman who had booted him out was shocked.
“I said, ‘God hates suffering. This is why God took on suffering – to destroy death.’”
As they spoke, Father said she finally understood why Christ – and therefore His people – had to suffer. As Father says: “Once we understand why Christ had to suffer, everything else makes sense.”
To help us understand this spiritual reality, Fr. Gillen loves to use analogies from the natural world. He came upon one of his best analogies after being asked to give a talk on suffering to a group of children at a Wyoming Indian reservation who had been through a lot of trauma. After spending much time before the Blessed Sacrament, he still didn’t know what he was going to say. But, as he was leaving the church, his eye fell upon a statue of Our Lady of Grace, especially her foot under which she crushes the head of the serpent.
He remembered a story he had heard about snakes. Until 1895, if someone was bitten by a snake, they died. But Albert Calmette, a French scientist and protégé of Louis Pasteur, discovered that if you milk venom from snakes and give it to sheep – to a lamb – you get an immune response and the blood of the lamb becomes an anti-venom.
Says Fr. Gillen: “No matter how big or how small, when we give the venom we’ve been stung with to the Lamb of God, He turns it into something else in the Body of Christ.”
As Father says, “You can’t make this stuff up! Suffering was useless until Christ came. Nothing was redemptive. Now it’s different. Even a deadly doses of venom can be cured with the Resurrection. Everything has been recreated.”
Father says many in the Early Church couldn’t understand how someone could be both fully human and fully divine. The Jews couldn’t accept the Messiah because they believed he was supposed to reign like David and be greater than David. They couldn’t understand that He was coming twice: first as the Suffering Servant and then in Glory.
The early Church used the term “Christ the Victor,” who was purposely taken into the prison of death, Father said. Early icons showed him kicking down the door and releasing Adam and Eve from their cell.
“Christ allowed Himself to be imprisoned so He could break open the doors. That’s how the Early Church used to describe suffering. Later, St. Basil described suffering as justice. Man had sinned and had to pay the price. It’s helpful to go back to the Church fathers.
“We get scandalized because we’re always wanting to be the Messiah and not the Suffering Servant. As sons and daughter of God, we want to be princes and princesses and to enter into His reign. We don’t realize we have to be Suffering Servants because He wants us to rescue the rest of the body that is still sick!”
So how do we heal from the evils that are perpetrated upon us? We look to the Master. St. Peter denied Christ three times. After the resurrection, Christ appeared to the apostles. Three times he had Peter go back and revisit the evil of his denial. Three times, Peter affirmed his love, thereby undoing the denials and redeeming the situation.
“God sometimes has us revisit things to transform them so they won’t haunt us,” Father Gillen said. “I didn’t want to go near Sloan Kettering. We get caught up in the storms. But with Christ, we can walk on water. He says, ‘I want you to be totally free.’”
Today, secular psychologists sometimes help patients heal by reframing traumas from the past, but Father says God goes much deeper. He goes back and fills those things in us that need to be filled. In fact, many Popes have spoken about “returning to the School of Nazareth.”
“The only holy family was the Holy Family,” Fr. Gillen said. “Every family has different developmental stages. All have been given certain things or not given certain things. At your current age, you might have forgiven everybody, but you need to go back to those different ages. The nine-year-old [you], the 15-year-old [you], has to be filled with the things you weren’t filled with. God really goes back, out of time. You can go back to different stages with Mary as mother, Joseph as father, and Jesus. You can go back and nurture [your earlier self] and remove things.”
Father says we can pray the rosary and place ourselves at the different stages of Christ’s life.
“Feel the great love the Blessed Mother had, not just for Jesus, but for all the people who will be baptized into Christ. We need to place ourselves into the Body of Christ and let Jesus and Mary and Joseph fill us. That’s spiritual passages.”
So let us go to the School of Nazareth, as Father suggests, and let God in. Let us ask Him for healing. Meditate on His Word and His life. Ask Our Lady, our Mother, through the mysteries of the rosary and other Biblical scenes to help. Turn to St. Joseph, foster father of the Savior and a carpenter, to help craft something beautiful out of something that may be very ugly. If we do this, then we will be able to resonate with Father Gillen’s final words:
“Evil is a lack of goodness; it has no substance. Lucifer imploded on himself. He was an angel, but instead of going outward in love, he became a black hole. God doesn’t create the void [which is how those who have experienced a tragedy sometimes feel]. He fills it. He allowed himself to be swallowed by death for three days; He went into a spiritual darkness that God did not create.
“You cannot fill a black hole on an actual level. How do you fill it on a supernatural level? Only God can do it. [God] allowed His uncreated light to be swallowed into that black hole to fill it and that’s how he destroyed it, so the game is never over. There is nothing in life we could be hit with that could destroy us.”
Amen Father Gillen!
Want to learn more? Fr. Gillen recommends: “Behold the Pierced One,” http://bit.ly/PiercedOne by Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Part 1 of “My Way of Life,” which he calls “a devotional way of going through the ‘Summa,’” by Fathers Farrell and Healy, http://bit.ly/MyWayofLife. Father likes the section about the angels. You can also watch a homily Father Gillen delivered while at EWTN this past November at http://bit.ly/FrGillenHomily.