The Final Post

It’s not particularly easy to offer this as the “final post” of this Blog.  This is number 85 since the blog “Catholic Freedom” began in November 2011.  For me, it has been a joy  not only on my part to share some thoughts and experiences on how God wishes each of us Catholics were more free than we are, but through your Comments (published) and communications (unpublished, but much appreciated) to be enlightened by your spiritual wisdom.  It was envisioned as a shared “journey” and I believe it indeed has been such.

This year brings my  Fiftieth Anniversary of ordination to priesthood and some people have been kind enough to ask what are the most important things I’ve learned.  Other than “don’t badger people for being habitually late for Mass”, a couple of thoughts do come to mind.

Imagine we’re at a gathering and I see someone across the room whom I don’t know.  When I ask someone next to me  “Who is that person over there?”, he replies “It’s a friend of God’s.”   That’s the number one most important thing I’ve learned in fifty years of being a priest.    Everyone, everywhere, all the time, is a “friend of God’s”.   Whether or not they realize it;  perhaps, whether or not they care.   God cares.   (Jn 15,15)    I find myself most free, most holy, most kind, most peaceful, when I treat, and greet, every other person as a friend of God’s.   Because they are.

The second most important thing I’ve learned with the help of the Spirit (and I hope there are even more than two!), is the genuine and deep “goodness of every person”.  I just wish I had learned it more toward the beginning of my service as a priest.   But, like almost everyone else, I didn’t go any deeper into a “problemed person” than to accept them as they appeared:  their smug, self-centered, dismissive attitude, their hateful and destructive actions, their appalling treatment of human life,  their thievery, envy,  lying,  phoniness — their evil.

At some point, the Spirit reminded me that each person was created in the image and likeness of God — and God loves them even NOW,  unconditionally.   Would I too continue to be repulsed by “the least of my brethren”?  Had I wasted enough of my life trying to find “justifications/rationalizations” to excuse my neglecting them?   Though my love would not be profound enough to touch the goodness hidden so very deep in their core/heart, could I wreath their memory in a hopeful prayer?    Who is hurting that I am not hurting?

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Is there some “unfinished” business which — even after my so very limited 85 Posts — that I would like for us to consider?   With all the wisdom and creativity applied to the world’s and the Church’s problems by myriad  scholars as well as by simple people with profound “common sense”,  a few “directions” occur to me — hoping for a clearer path toward what may be the truth we are called to know.

End of Life Issues – We must not cling to physical life as though we are deeply afraid of death.  Death is a part of living.  Though we usually fear any “unknown”, there is One we follow, love, and believe in Who has experienced death, conquered it, and now waits for us to join him in living forever.  Live life to the fullest we are able but, when the time to die presents itself avoid extreme means to preserve a merely “physical” existence: avoiding suicide or euthanasia,  accept means to avoid unnecessary suffering, and remember that at the very moment that ends this phase of our time on earth, God will welcome and greet us with “God’s kiss of life”.

Sexuality –   Where do we begin?   The Church’s teaching service to help us apply the Gospel Values to our daily lives should rightly encompass the following:  our sexuality is one of God’s many gifts to the human person;  just as with power, intelligence and many other gifts, sexuality should be used for love, enjoyment, self-giving, and life-giving (not only for procreating children, but also for the ones who love one another);  truth, never lying, helps fulfill and enhance sexual relationships;  true sexuality directs us toward the other and cares for ourselves and others as often vulnerable persons;  actions which may result in pregnancy are highly irresponsible if they might lead to taking an innocent human life;   the expressions of our sexuality, as with any gift, need to be “unwrapped” — growing continually in understanding, maturity, forgiveness, and healing.   We must walk with one another, communicating knowledge and the experience of believers who have gone before us — their and our successes and failures.  Then our decisions must reflect our conscience in seeking the truth of which we are capable, always loving both ourselves and others.     That is all the Church should do — help everyone to understand well the deep meaning and the challenging practice of those values.    Enough of  “proclaiming ‘absolute truths'” implying an omniscient and uncomplicated certainty — standing apart and judging rather than walking with the person as s/he struggles.    Instead, we have always settled for declaring the “Rules”.    Just “rules”, as we have seen for centuries,  rarely accomplish anything positive.

Let us pray for one another — that we become, as Catholics, more free.   God bless you.



Spending Today with God

When you read the title of this Post, what did you think I’d say?

Expect something “mushy”?   Something “pious”?   Something worthwhile, but not particularly “fun”?     Welcome to the human race — even the “believer” part of it.

Actually, you and I have no choice whatsoever.  WE HAVE TO SPEND TODAY WITH GOD.   We don’t have to pay any attention to it — to God’s presence with us absolutely every second of the day,  whether we are awake or asleep.    We never have to feel that God is with us; we don’t have to talk to God — or listen to God, for that matter.  The simple and incontestable fact is that you and I, and every person, and every part or aspect of creation always exists in God.     Everything and everyone that exists “spends today with God”.

One might think that everyone would be delighted to know that God was so totally present to each of us, always caring, even calling us by name, from the first to the last moments of our life on earth — and then for all eternity.  But we let at least two possible realities interfere with what should be our security and our delight.  The first one comes from our own idea of God:   impersonal?  distant?  demanding?  perfectionist?  not to be trusted?  (what I have experienced from the worst and most judgmental and most nit-picking of parents, teachers, authority figures).     The second interference comes from:    my own lack of self-worth (God wouldn’t bother with a person like me);  look at my (fill in the blank) — sinfulness, pride, jealousy, impatience, sexual desires, fantasies, selfishness, etc.  Most of the time, no one could be harder on me than myself.  How could God enjoy spending time with me?

No one has put it better than the “Christian mystic”, perhaps a monk,  whose insights were shared in the latter half of the fourteenth century in The Cloud of Unknowing.  We must remember that a “mystic” is not a dreamer or magician, but one who through God’s gifts is so deeply in touch with reality that they discern the God who is at its center — and stay aware of God’s presence.    Here is the proper response  to “the second interference” above.   [Since this could be life-changing, can we spend a few minutes now, reading it over and over, open to the Spirit’s illumination?]

It is not what you are now      nor what you might have been    

that God sees with his all merciful eyes

but what you desire to be

Because of God’s unconditional love for each one of us,  “what you desire to be” is all God really cares about.  Do we feel the weight lifting yet?  Whenever God looks at us, walks with us, thinks of us (yes, which is EVERY MOMENT) —  God sees only what we desire to be.

Think of human friendship.   (Perhaps especially if that friendship grows into marriage.) Everyone has a past — with all its immaturity, need for growth, sins  — “nor what you might have been”.     None of us would imagine that now we are perfect — even if someone loves us now they still experience our current imperfections, need for growth, even “sins”.    Therefore  “It is not what you are now…”  that is the primary criterion which enhances and justifies even true human friendship.

If we love someone — even a friend — it is because in our dealings with them we have seen  “what you desire to be”.  That is what continues to attract us, and in which we find it possible to “overlook” where the person doesn’t measure up to the “perfection” we might wish for them.  Even now, they are enough for us.  (And, apparently, their believing what I “desire to be”, I am enough for them.)   We are genuinely friends.

Even while God wants for us and is praised by all our human friendships and unalloyed joys with one another, God is humbly willing to walk with us every step of life as the ultimate “fall-back” best friend.   Why?   Because God more surely than anyone else “knows what we desire to be” .   We want to love and be loved, admirable, caring, seen as good and faithful and honest because we truly desire to be — even “holy”  (if we know what its real “down to earth” meaning is!).   God recognizes this as who I really and deeply am.   This and so much more should make it easy, comfortable, and GREAT — to spend today with God.






Same-sex Marriage

I am an active Roman Catholic priest.  I am not gay (although I’m pretty happy most of the time — and especially when, as now, I’m able to add to the discussion some thoughts which show my embrace and respect for my LGBT sisters and brothers).  An earned doctorate in moral theology and years of studying and teaching human sexuality, combined with extensive counseling of hetero- and homo- sexual men and women — and a deep love of God and the Catholic Church — all make me want to be sure every one of us comes to feel the total joy of Christ’s acceptance and pride in each of us who follow him.

Although in our belief marriage was from the beginning one of the seven sacraments, it took a few centuries to proclaim it as such, and some time to move beyond simply accepting the “civil contract” officiated by the “state/government” recognizing its validity.  As theology, spirituality, and pastoral care developed, today’s practice became the norm:  requiring that an ordained minister witness on behalf of God and the Church the couple’s exchange of vows/commitment.  Then as well as now, our belief is that the couple themselves confer the sacrament on one another.

Not only by religious groups but in society as well, marriage was always between a man and a woman.  Its dual purposes were unity and the procreation of children.  Due to marriage’s close connection with and even “approval” of sexuality, the emphasis had always been on the procreation of children.  “Unity” — not love — remained the second essential element in the marriage contract.  Whether or not the couple loved each other was not part of the essence of marriage, since many marriages were “arranged” to foster political or economic unions.  As ludicrous as this might seem to moderns, most found this downplaying of “love” quite acceptable.

Apart from the physical “how to”, society knew little about sexuality — except that for anyone officially or unofficially “religious”, sex was “morally suspect” and its abuse was regarded as fairly universal, usually “sinful”, and best not talked about.  For the Catholic Church it was as recently as the 1960s that the Second Vatican Council emphasized “love” (not simply unity) as the second essential element of marriage — and in theological writing this was further humanized as a self-giving “covenant”, not simply as a less personal type of “contract”.

If we are honest, we must recognize that “sexuality” and its physical expression can be and very often still is used to show almost anything one chooses.  Positively, sex can show and reinforce deeply committed love.  But it can also be misused to manifest lust, domination, control, power, possession, desirability, femininity, manhood, and endlessly more.  The TV and print news every day fill out that list.  In many if not most cultures, there is a uniquely strong challenge to heterosexual men in trying to understand and live with another man’s homosexuality.  Some cultures promote incredible insecurity that one might be perceived as “gay” — and “less a man”.   Until he is secure in his own sexual identity (so easily vulnerable due to many factors beyond his understanding or control), any man might resort to mocking, distancing, false bravado, fighting and hating — all to “prove” he is not “gay”.  This all contributes mightily to an “anti-gay” culture.

Same-sex attraction as a fundamental orientation of one’s life is not freely chosen.  Most lesbians and gay men have known this from their youth, and that it was not a choice they made.  They may have repressed it; they may have denied it even to themselves.  Many “married” the opposite sex to “prove normality” or “become normal”.   That seldom if ever results in fulfillment and peace.  For the “straight” (heterosexual) person, it is almost impossible to comprehend that what they themselves see, fantasize and desire sexually in the opposite sex are exactly the reactions of the homosexual person toward people of their own gender.  It was not “chosen”; it just is.  “Cute, hot, flirting, love at first sight, a hunk, a babe” — the same reactions and terms spring honestly from both situations.

So are they “perverts”?  “Depraved”?   “Dirty old men”?   “Dangers to society”?  “Deserving of baiting, or beating, or killing”?   “”Unspeakably sinful”?  “Disordered”?         Do we perhaps have more information and experiences in our day to help us think this through?  Due to more frequent “coming out” (admitting ones same-sex orientation) most people know someone who is gay that they love and know firsthand their goodness — child, brother, sister, cousin, friend, fellow-worker.  As some States approved same-sex marriage, many lesbian or gay couples have come forward attesting to their committed unions of decades or more.  They have successfully lived through the trials and joys with fidelity to their exclusive and permanent commitment.  And for those who care what Scriptures really meant in the cultural context of those they were written by and for — did God really want anyone made in God’s image and likeness to be excluded from the love of neighbor and compassion God expects from each of us — and for each of us?  Can someone be “unworthy of love” if God loves them?  And dare someone say God doesn’t?

Regarding specific Biblical texts, many Scripture scholars have written honestly on then extant cultural and historical factors and their significant implications.  One “classic” text, for centuries considered anti-homosexual, was really condemning cultic heterosexual prostitution;  another the betrayal of the greatly revered virtue of hospitality.  Further yet, much of their cultural ethos must be reevaluated since they had no idea that same-sex actions might flow from an orientation not freely chosen.

For our purposes, let’s just call it “same-sex” marriage.  A man marries a man; a woman marries a woman.  They are incapable of physically procreating their own children by what has from the beginning of the human race been considered to be the usual way.  At this point let’s not jump to “new medical techniques” which will continue to develop even further, but meanwhile seduce us away from a more honest and true solution.  Yes, the marriage of a man and a woman, procreating children of their own flesh, is how the human race has reproduced and will probably continue to do so.  Love/unity and procreation.  Genesis portrays God as recognizing that it was not good for man (or woman)  “to be alone”.  To nourish and safeguard this union usually requires:  permanence, exclusivity, and commitment (ideally, love) — human nature and experience validate this truth.  These are included in the essence of the marriage vows.

The service of the teaching Church is to find and articulate the best ways to understand and to live the fullness of Christ and the Gospel values.  Then each baptized follower is challenged to incorporate generously in their daily lives the truths of those teachings.     The means of articulating these truths are subject both to growth in human knowledge and effective means of communication.  What philosophers/theologians in the Church tradition refer to as “Natural Law” has often been interpreted in a way that elevates the physical/biological elements of human actions to the same level of respect/importance as the spiritual, rational, historic, grace-filled, and unique dignity of the whole human person.  They are not the same.  The physical/biological aspects must, if a conflict exists, yield to providing for the individual space for the fullest achievement of the Gospel values he/she discerns is possible for themselves at the time of their conscience decision (e.g. how they best put into practice:  faith, hope, love, compassion, service, joy, life-giving, justice, truth, etc.)

The Catholic Church has taught that God provides a special “charism” (unique spiritual gift) of celibacy for someone who follows a call to ordained priesthood or consecrated life.  Do we have the right to assume God grants that charism of celibacy to everyone with a same-sex orientation who is, therefore, deprived in Church teaching of any physical expression of their love, or sexuality, or committed companionship?    Would this, perhaps, lay on them a burden too heavy to bear?      Each person has only one life to live.            Do we believe God wants us to prevent/impede their human fulfillment by denying what is for them the only path open — a same-sex commitment through which they may truly love and receive another’s love?

Same-sex marriage (not “sacramental” marriage), public and validated by civil authority, is not a “dilution” or “affront” or “against God’s plan” or a “temptation to heterosexuals” — unless we falsely label it as such.    We are recognizing the union  (in love, as we hope for all marriages) of two human beings.   The Catholic Church can welcome, respect and support this for all those of same-sex orientation…The Church will celebrate as a sacrament the marriage of a man and a woman — and the blessing of procreative love bringing new life into the world.    Same-sex couples can show the nurturing and life-giving qualities of their love through the joy and generosity of adoption.   Married same-sex couples are following the only path open to them to celebrate a permanent and exclusive commitment to another human being, including the sexual love which is normally a part of marriage — and, as such, has nothing to do with “sin”.     God does not demand the impossible.

With very little creativity, this dual approach can be a “teachable moment” to exemplify the value of committed love so needed in our society.  The Church, by including all who marry, extends the embrace of Jesus Christ who loves each and every one of them, rejoices in their self-gift and, as with all his followers, invites them to respond to the Good News which Jesus has brought us.    All are part of the parish faith-community of Eucharistic worship, asked to live out in practice the works of mercy by service to the poor and needy, and in union with their sisters and brothers, praise the God who loves them.




Easing up on leashes

I know I’m taking a chance, but this Post is offered on what is just a couple of weeks after Easter.    So, it’s much too soon to let the “Good News” fade away– and maybe there really are some “flowers to be smelled”.  After all the excitement of Holy Week and “He is Risen!”, could we just, for a change, “float along like a leaf on the river of life”?  Taking us where we might not have gone, circling for a while in a still eddy, before being gently guided to a new perspective?

Today was a beautiful spring morning — clear, sunny, light breeze, refreshing.  I was walking my dog (and they are perfect models of not rushing — just leisurely moving from one new “sniff” to another).   For her, an unexpected delight is coming across a tuft of new grass.  She so loves searching for just the right few blades to eat, that I often relax the leash to let her explore this one without any pressure to move on.   Does anyone who holds one of the many “leashes” which bind or direct us in our lives ever think to ease up at times, and just let us savor the moment?   Do we ever do it for one another, i.e. remove the pressure to move on to the next thing?   Couldn’t we do it for ourselves more often — such as this coming week so we could “savor” quietly the new enthusiasm and possibilities which Easter brings?

My dog was a “rescue”,  meaning that she had been abandoned by those who should better have cared for her.  After a couple of years together, I found in a shop a paw-shaped bumper-sticker asking “Who rescued who?”.  By then it was a question offering a truth of which I wanted to be frequently reminded — and  has brought many a misty moment.

Yes, as accustomed as we all become to our daily lives together with family and friends —  and my caring services that go with loving someone, we can easily forget that in so many ways they “rescue” me too.  Maybe what we need first from Easter is “fresh eyes” to discover some of the ways those I love, or work with — by their support, challenges, demands, even “quirks” — break me out of my routines or habitual responses.   “Rescuing” should be mutual — since we all need it at times.  And so we have a moment to recognize it when it happens, let’s ease up on one another’s leashes.

EASTER and “The Thing with Feathers”

God’s PromisesYou are my son/daughter, I give you life, I will never stop loving you — and I have never stopped loving you, no matter what you did, or ever will do.

HOPE –  based on the fact that God is always true to his promises.

The great poet, Emily Dickenson, wrote that “‘hope’ is the thing with feathers”.   If we carry that through, then hope is like a bird:  you hear it, then you don’t hear its song;   you see it, then it flies somewhere and you don’t see it.  But unlike a bird, hope never really flies away — it is always near to us, even when we don’t realize it.   [Scripture images the Spirit as a bird.]     The three most important Holy Days of our Faith — we have just lived through them, with hope.   If we took  them as merely “historical” of “play-like reenactments”, we have missed their truth, their being the source of our hope.

Holy Thursday –  Jesus, in heightened awareness of what he wants to do before being arrested, gives us his very self as Eucharist — his body and blood, his very being by which we become one with him,  fed, nourished and,  one with one another, because we are all sisters and brothers, united — actually one body.   Christ’s body.   Was the bird sitting in the open window space?  Hope was present at the Last Supper.  Did it fly near Judas when he went out to meet the enemies — never giving up that he might embrace hope before it was too late?    Was the bird sitting in a tree in the Garden?  Of course.   And it went with Jesus all through the arrest, questioning, beatings, mockery, sentencing to death.  It was always present — as it was with us this past Holy Thursday and the silence of the vigil that night.

Good Friday –  If one looked very carefully, not focused solely on him who was carrying the Cross, one could see the bird darting in and out of the crowd.  Hope was always accompanying him.  This was not “paying our debt to the Father, a precious and exquisite blood sacrifice to ransom us”.   God in Jesus wanted us to know that he would make sure hope was always present at every moment in our lives — as he lived through anything and everything terrible and painful that any one of us might sometime endure:  rejection, bullying, mockery, hatred, beatings, intense pain searing body and spirit, desertion by loved ones, loss, aloneness, wondering where God was and did God care, did anyone care?     Hope helped him through every moment, through it all  [God was true to his promises] — even the nails through his body, the pain, the suffocation, the dying.  Jesus went through everything that any one of us might ever experience when this life slips away.  Three days in a tomb, really dead.  He knew that we had to know it — to believe as everyone else did, that it was over.    Yet the “thing with feathers”,  the bird, hope, was in the trees outside the tomb — singing?   Hope always sings.

Holy Saturday / Easter –  What a brilliant song, what a soaring and darting flight when the stone was rolled away.   HOPE — God is always true to his promises — Jesus lives.  WE live.   You and I live.  And we always will.    Jesus immersed himself in suffering — not because it was attractive or good.  He knew it was necessary to go through it with HOPE to show each of us that it could be done!   He did it.  We can do it.  Though part of our lives may or may not bring terrible suffering, we will each finally enter a tomb — while HOPE waits outside for us — singing.   New and endless life found Jesus, as it will find you and me.  We will join him and one another in the song.   HOPE is the meaning of Easter.

Merton — A Detective Story

Thomas Merton, born on January 31, 1915,  eventually became a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky  — and was a “spiritual giant” who influenced countless thousands of people in their search for God and for the meaning of their lives.  He was a personal “hero” of mine and I am one of the many beneficiaries of his copious writings and tapes on contemplation, spirituality, peace and war (as the monastic contemplative life did not keep him from reflecting on some very pressing and timely challenges to a Christian response to political and armed conflicts, especially in the Fifties and Sixties).

This dedicated monk hardly ever left the cloistered monastery in Kentucky and its commitment to silence.  But he died on December 10, 1968 of electrocution near Bangkok, Thailand.

Merton had requested a rare permission to respond to the invitation of Asian monastics to share his thoughts with them at a significant meeting to be held at a Red Cross conference center at Samut Prakan, 30 kms. north of Bangkok.  He had presented his paper that morning, and had returned to his room in one of the cottages to shower and rest.  He died immediately after an accidental shock from a large electric fan he turned on near his bed.

From the day the world received the tragic and unexpected news, I’ve always been moved to reflection on the fragility of human life — no difference in how valued and lauded was the victim.

When the opportunity arose in 1985 for a priest-friend and me to plan a visit to Thailand (actually to hike for a week or so in the northern jungle area known as the “Golden Triangle”–where Laos, Burma and Thailand meet),  I was determined to follow that adventure with a “pilgrimage” to pray at the place where Merton died.  In keeping with the common Asian culture of not drawing attention to tragic or embarrassing events (especially of worldwide interest), after the Conference was over the place was never used again and, pretty much, never discussed at all.  “Nothing happened” was the attitude.

Fortunately, Dom Bede Griffiths, a noted Benedictine monk, was also at the Conference and later wrote some details of that day in one of his books.  I found it and discovered the “time-line” and a description of the cottage and the room in which Merton was staying.  To spare you the details, through considerable inquiries and use of maps and translators, we hired a taxi to drive us the 18 miles to where the Conference Center had been.  Finally we came upon an overgrown and almost abandoned group of small cottages — with one caretaker who knew no English.  Somehow, we managed to get his permission to wander through the area and take a look at where, unknown by him, a wonderful spiritual conference of monks (Buddhists have them too!)  had taken place in 1968.  The doors to the cottages were not locked though no one lived in any of them nor did they seem in regular use.

The first two cottages did not match Bede Griffith’s description of a partition-type wall which was about twelve feet long and ceiling high, but oddly open about two feet from the floor.  This was the room Merton was assigned.  We found it in the third cottage, and opened the door to find a bedroom about 12 by 16 feet, with a single bed and mattress in the far right corner — and a tall metal electric fan up near the bed!  He had noted that Merton hit his head and bled when he fell by the fan after the shock.  The floor was terrazzo, but no sign of anything unusual.  Apparently someone had moved the bed to cover the rather large blood stain because, when I moved it away, our quest was completed.  We were awestruck, and humbled.

After about a half-hour of silence and deep prayer– grateful for the gift to the world of Thomas Merton– and joyful that our pilgrimage had been rewarded so wonderfully, we returned to the taxi which had been waiting at the entrance to the compound.  For us, it is even twenty-nine years later as profound and real as though it were yesterday.  And we still profit greatly from his wisdom and holiness.    May he be with God forever.



The Pains of Love are Worth It

Marc Gellman says that his favorite wordless definition of romantic love is what he looks for when he interviews brides and grooms in advance of their wedding day.  “If they touch and laugh, I know they are truly in love.”   His favorite wordy definition of love is from D.H. Lawrence, who called love having “the courage of your tenderness”.   “My blessings of joy go out to all those courageously tender lovers who still have someone to touch and someone with whom to laugh.”

He adds a reflection, however, about the connection between love and faith.  “Faith expands our experience of love by teaching us to love God.  Loving God allows us to see the universal power of love because it teaches us that all people, not just those whom we choose to love, are made in the image of God.  Love of God thus expands our capacity to love each other.”    Jesus made the generous and joyous love for other people and for God the very core and meaning of any truly human life.   “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  Jesus said to him: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22,35-40)

“There is also the dark gift of love, which is the pain we feel when the ones we love die.  Love makes us exquisitely vulnerable to loss.   When I counsel mourners who are broken by grief, I will often ask them if they would trade their present pain for never having loved their dearly departed.  Nobody has ever said they would take that deal.  Here again, Mary Oliver has the truth of it in her poetry:  ‘To live in this world you must be able to do three things:  to love what is mortal;  to hold it against your bones knowing that your own life depends on it;  and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.’

So love is a not just a gauzy feeling of passion and desire.  Love is a truly wonderful and courageous choice, to be embraced fully while knowing that one may become eventually wounded — and knowing as well that it is indeed “worth it”.