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The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and will save those whose spirits are crushed.
Many are the troubles of the righteous, but the LORD will deliver him out of them all.

—Psalm 34: 18-19

Today, Sunday, is the feast day of St. Mary the Virgin, and the appointed Gospel reading is the Magnificat, which consists of ten beautiful verses in the first chapter of Luke attributed to the mother of God that begin with the phrase, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  That is a wonderful image, but I found myself lingering on a section of today’s reading of the Psalms, from the 34th chapter, in which we are told among other things that “many are the troubles of the righteous.”

Yes, the troubles of the righteous.  Here we have an answer to our questions about bad things happening to good people.  I am reminded of three lessons by those words.  The first came in a homily I heard years ago by a worldly-wise old priest, Monsignor James Jones.  He told the fable of an impoverished man who lived in a hovel within sight of the glorious palace of a royal prince.  The man pleaded for years for the prince to relieve him of his misery.  One day the prince came to the man’s door, dressed as a pauper, and said to him, “Your pleas have been answered.  I have left my kingdom to share in your sickness and poverty, and comfort you.”  The man was crestfallen.  He had intended for the prince to bring him to the palace, where they both could share a life of ease and abundance.  But the cost of the gift given by the prince was not merely a share in the kingdom.  He had given up his title and all that he owned, which was infinitely more precious and valuable.  So too was Christ’s gift to the world, and so too has been the world’s disappointment in receiving it.  When we presume to indict God for the bad things that happen to good people, we are complaining that he has joined us in the sorrows of this world.

The second lesson that comes to mind is actually a great sailing story of the voyage of the Apostle Paul to Rome around the year 60 A.D., told in the 27th chapter of Acts.  Paul left the port city of Cesarea, not far from Jerusalem, and sailed an impressive 80 miles north in the first day, landing at Sidon—the district of the same name which remains in modern Lebanon.  From Sidon, Paul sailed “under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us.”  Paul’s navigational difficulties did not improve.  “We sailed slowly for a number of days,” the writer tells us, “and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus,” believed to be the modern Turkish city of Knidos in the Aegean Sea.  That was when things went from bad to worse.  Paul tries to warn the Roman crew of impending disaster, “[b]ut the centurion paid more attention to the captain and to the owner of the ship than what Paul said.”

The captain weighed anchor on what seemed to be a favorable, following wind that “blew gently,” but that didn’t last.  (Any sailors reading here will find this eerily familiar.)  “[S]oon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land; and when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven . . . As we were violently storm tossed, they began the next day to throw the cargo overboard; and the third day they cast out with their own hands the tackle of the ship.  And when neither sun nor stars appeared for many a day, and no small tempest lay upon us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”

As the story goes, Paul and his shipmates travailed for fourteen days at sea until running the ship hard aground on a reef, thought to be near the modern-day island of Malta.  The ship broke apart. Paul and the others jumped into the surf and swam to shore, where they were saved.

As a sailor, I have never begrudged occasional bad weather or bad luck, broken gear and navigational mistakes.  I have assumed this is my lot, frail and flawed man that I am.  But I have always thought that if only I were as saintly and righteous as the Apostle Paul, and if my goals in life were as lofty as his, the angels would do all in their power to ensure that I at least had the benefit of fair winds and following seas.  In other words, if I were a better man, life would be easier.  My road in life would be smooth.  Good things would surely come.  That’s a hard argument to make after reading this passage of Acts.  The same story could have been written of more than a few of my voyages, although (so far) it hasn’t ended so dramatically for me as it did for the apostle.  Yet if this was the lot of St. Paul, can we ever doubt that “many are the troubles of the righteous”?  And if so, should we not despair but rejoice when our ship, as it were, runs aground and breaks apart?

The third lesson comes with words of hope for the righteous and sinner alike, in their troubles, and it was spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of John. “These things I have spoken to you that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Indeed.  With all of its tragedy, sorrow, success and joy, “this is the day the Lord has made.”  Life itself is a mystical, unfathomable, incalculable gift.  How can we not, like Mary, magnify the Lord?  How can we not “rejoice and be glad”?