Death in Spring: two Holy Week meditations

Death encounters

On the first day of Spring, I awoke to a voicemail from a friend, her voice cracking with emotion as she said that her mother had unexpectedly died. Please pray for us, Sister.

The rest of that day, I attended a funeral for someone else, for the husband of a friend of my living community. The sons of our friend stood near the altar and wept as they remembered their father. Their father’s body lie silently in a casket in the middle of the Church, while a new Spring light streamed in.

On the second day of Spring, I stood in front of a group of 8th graders at a local parish and discussed the events of Holy Week. How did Jesus die? I asked the youth, pointing to a clue: the crucifix.

On the third day of Spring, I took a walk during sunset and tried not to slip on the ice so I wouldn’t be alone in the woods and injured. Or worse.

On the fourth day of Spring, I drove down a highway, snowbanks slowly melting in the ditches. At 65 miles an hour, I caught sight of a horrid image: a ragged deer carcass, frozen stiff, twisted and statued upright by a chunk of ice. Parts of its flesh and bone were exposed, likely picked at by hungry animals.

Later that day, I learned that two of my sisters had died.

On the fifth day of Spring, I bemoaned the fact that I live in a nation where death by gun violence is common. I carried a sign and marched among hundreds, demanding change so that no pupil in any classroom would ever die.

On the sixth day of Spring, Palm Sunday, I meditated and reflected on the Gospel story of the passion, the story of Jesus accepting his gruesome death on a cross.

On the seventh day of Spring, I attended a wake for Sister Bernyne. I touched her cold corpse inside the casket and prayed, asking her to help me, to keep helping our community. Before going to sleep that night, I watched a documentary about death and mortality. I was riveted by the beauty and vulnerability of the art and truth; I was in awe of the mystery and wisdom.

On the eighth day of Spring, I heard “the end is coming soon … any day now,” about another friend who is in hospice care, who is keeping vigil next to the door of death.

Spring has started, but death is staring me down, it’s around every corner. There’s no denying that death and dying are part of life.

Credit: FreeImages.com

In the Garden  

After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.  —  Luke 22:41-42, 44

He’s agonizing, face pressed close to the earth as he prays, I imagine. Knees crusted with gravel and dust.

He knows he must die and it will be brutal. He knows that new life can only emerge for him, for his followers, if he accepts suffering — if he accepts the true cost of love: self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

As he goes through his head and heart and tries to find another way, trees and shrubs shelter him. But he knows he’s always known — there is no other way. He must die for there to be new life, for the fullness of life to be.

The moonlight illumines the garden. He stares at the exposed roots of a nearby tree, he studies ants crawling on the bark. He examines seeds cracked and littering the ground surrounding him, mixed in with dust and gravel. He remembers what he said, what he told his friends about the kernel of wheat.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” —  (John 12:24)

He understands he must be like the wheat. Or nothing he has told them will bear any fruit. He must be like the snow that elsewhere melts away, to expose new life. Dying and self-sacrifice for the sake of the community. That’s the paradox of life. That’s the paradox of every Spring.

He doesn’t want to accept the truth, but he knows me must. He doesn’t want to cause any hurt or pain. He knows his friends, his followers will be heartbroken, disturbed, confused — that things must become worse before they become better. As he talks to his father about all this, he is praying so intensely he becomes soaked with sweat.

He loves — the deepest affection ever felt by any human. And this love is for every human soul who has ever existed, including those who will live in two millennia. For you.

He sobs, his shoulders and chest shaking for the depth of it, for the love and sorrow and truth and pain. Now his cloak is soaked with both sweat and tears. He sees that blood is dripping from his face — his eyes? — and coloring his garment as well. He sobs and sobs and prays and prays all through the night, disappointed with his friends sleeping nearby.

At dawn, the sunlight cracks through the darkness, colors paint the horizon. He gains courage to embrace the cross, to show us all how to embrace the mystery and promise of death.

He goes through the political and religious trial. He is tortured, he his whipped, and nailed to two cross beams. He cries out from the cross before he breathes his last breath.

And through it all, deep underneath, behind all the torment, a slight smirk colors his thoughts. A small laugh. Death won’t win. It won’t have the last word. In three-days time he will arise. He’ll show them how death leads to new life!

That which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

— 1 Corinthians 15:53-55

Credit: FreeImages.com

Have a holy and happy Triduum and Easter, Messy Jesus Business readers!  

May the beautiful mysteries of death and life be close,

and fill you with faith and hope. 

Credit: FreeImages.com

Lent’s inevitable disappointment and the constant turn to God

Praying with Fr. James’ Martin SJ’s Examen app recently, I heard the words, “Lent is drawing to a close. For Christians, that means not only is there some anticipation for the celebration of Easter, but also some inevitable disappointment about your Lenten spiritual practices …”

“Inevitable disappointment.”

The words froze me still. And completely validated my experience. Are you saying, prayer podcast creators, that everyone else is just as awful at fasting as I am? Are you telling me no one succeeds in the spiritual life, that none of us are actually excellent at being disciplined?

My mind wandered into the pit of questions, momentarily distracting me from praying the Examen. Why do we work so hard to grow closer to God, to journey on the path of holiness, if we know that we will stumble? Why do we remain dedicated through the trials, even if our efforts become floppy and we mess up so much? Could the trick of Lent actually be that it doesn’t really matter what penance we do, but why we do it?

What if the actual point of Lenten penance is that it teaches us our desperate need for God?

“thorns in the desert” by Julia Walsh FSPA

I’ve been here before, much more in touch with the darkness inside of me at the end of Lent. I seem to repeat my patterns every Lenten cycle; I practically write every year about my failure to make it through.

This year, though, I don’t feel like a failure. I feel grateful to have gotten in touch with the Truth: I am a sinner, a woman who must be fully rely on God. Only with God’s grace am I able to offer my broken, half-hearted self and allow God to make it into something beautiful –something that can be used for God’s purposes.

I can have faith in God’s presence, God’s eagerness to help me grow and recover, again and again, from the darkness in me. I can have faith that God will find a way to use my weak and broken self, and make me more wholly into a woman made for God’s purposes. I learned a new Bible verse at the start of Lent, one that has been a comfort to carry me through: Trust in God’s faithful love forever. (Psalm 52:10)

Even when I fail, God remains faithful. This is what I can trust in, believe in, and rely on.

So, yes, it is inevitable that I stumble and fail, that I become disappointed with myself and my imperfections. But, this isn’t all bad. Each time I become disappointed in my efforts, I see the truth of who I am, I come to know the darkness within me. This causes me to turn to God, to know the power of God’s grace and faithfulness again and again, to open space for God to remake me, which God never seems to grow tired of doing.

And for all this, I am deeply grateful.

The words of Oscar Romero for our Lenten conversion

Around here, deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, the signs of spring are starting to emerge — quite appropriately, since Lent means spring. The deep snow piles are gradually starting to shrink and reveal a little green life around their edges. Tiny buds are forming on tree branches. Buckets are lining paths, making more visible the maple trees that have been tapped for syrup.

The season of spring lines up well with Lent, a season of great conversion. Through our fasting, prayer and almsgiving we aim to change our hearts, minds and lives so we can grow closer to Christ.

The transformations found in nature mirror the conversions happening in our hearts. The conversions happening in our hearts connect to the new life emerging worldwide.

In light of the exciting, happy news from last week that Oscar Romero is going to be canonized a saint and the social movements stirring throughout the world (such as the teens who are leading the advocacy for gun reform), I’ve been reflecting on Oscar Romero’s prophetic words and how his message speaks to our time and our call to live the Gospel with boldness and courage. Praying with this book will certainly influence the last part of my Lenten experience.

What follows are just a few of Romero’s quotes, provided for your own Lenten prayer and reflection. I’ll leave it open for you to make your own connections to our time. Feel free to leave a comment, though, sharing your insights with us!

“You know that the air and water are being polluted, as is everything we touch and live with. We go on corrupting the nature that we need. We do not realize that we have a commitment to God to take care of nature. To cut down a tree, to waste water when there is such a great lack of it, to let buses poison our atmosphere with those noxious fumes from their exhausts, to burn garbage haphazardly — all of this concerns our covenant with God.” — March 11, 1979 Homily “Lent, the Transfiguration of Gods People”

“The ministry of the Church involves human rights because she is the defender of the Lord’s law on earth. Therefore everything that tramples upon this dignity and freedom is part of the Church’s mission.”  — December 18, 1977 Homily “God Comes to Save Us”

“Participation is one of the actual signs of the time. This refers to the right that every person possesses to participate in the construction of the common good. For this reason one of the most dangerous violations is repression which in fact says: only we have the right to govern; everyone else has to be turned aside. Yet every person can contribute something to the common good and in this way trust is achieved. We should not turn aside those who do not get along with us, as though we alone will enrich the common good of the country. Rather we must try to affirm all that is good in every person and attempt to solicit this goodness in an environment of trust. We must furthermore attempt to solicit this support with a force that is not physical — as though we were dealing with irrational beings. We should use moral force that attracts all people, especially young men and women with all their concerns; moral force that attracts the good so that every one contributes from their heart [interiority], their responsibility and their way of being. In this way we will raise up this beautiful pyramid that is called the common good — the common good that is achieved with the participation of everyone and that creates the conditions for goodness, trust, freedom and peace. Thus everyone will build that which the Republic and which we all have an obligation to build.”  — July 10, 1977 Homily “Our Inner Being”

“In good conscience, I believed my position to be that of the gospel. It has aroused a variety of reactions. Now it is necessary to give an explanation of the Church’s stance as a basis for understanding, in the light of our faith, the different reactions aroused. Some have been delighted. They feel that the Church is drawing closer to their problems and anxieties, that she gives them hope, and shares their joys. Others have been disgusted or saddened. They feel that the Church’s new attitude makes a clear demand upon them, too, to change and be converted. Conversion is difficult and painful because the changes required are not only in ways of thinking but also in ways of living. Many Catholics of good will have been disconcerted, even to the point of hesitating to follow the Church in the latest steps she has been taking. Instead they have preferred to seek refuge in the security of a tradition that spurns growth. ”   — “The Church, The Body of Christ in History” Second Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero. Feast of the Transfiguration. August 6, 1977

“We are therefore invited to embrace the profound philosophy and theology of the cross and to carry this theology in the intimacy of our heart. In this way we become Christians who understand this dimension, namely, that the just are proved through the persecution of the Church and are not ashamed of this fact. We know the meaning of these words because they were applied to Jesus and led him to the gallows. But Jesus knew that he did not die for any other reason except that of obeying the Father who wanted to prove the incredible dimension of truly great people, a dimension that Jesus held in the intimacy of his heart: the dimension of suffering, the dimension of pain.” — September 23, 1979 Homily “In Christ the Three Dimensions of Truly Great People are Revealed” 

Our Lent should awaken a sense of social justice. Let us observe our Lent in this way, giving our sufferings, our bloodshed, and our sorrow the same value that Christ gave to his condition of poverty, oppression, abandonment, and injustice. Let us change all of that into the cross of salvation that redeems the world and our people. With hatred for none, let us be converted and share from our poverty both our joys and material assistance with those who may be even needier.”  — March 2, 1980 Homily “Lent, Our Transfiguration through Christ” 

With holy people like Oscar Romero praying for us in heaven, may new life and courage emerge in all of us this Lent. Let us pray, fast and give so we grow closer to Christ and are prepared for the joy of the Resurrection. Amen!

So naive

“It [grace] strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”

~ Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted”

You have to be pretty naive to be a Christian in today’s world.

This thought strikes me frequently and no more so than during the season of Lent. Lent is that season especially dedicated to penance and spiritual self-renewal and every year I treat my Lenten penances as a sort of Catholic version of New Year’s resolutions. This is the year that I am going to finally rid myself of that troublesome vice. This is the year I am going to improve myself beyond that pattern of sinful thought. This is the 40 days in which I will finally mortify my flesh sufficiently and begin living a saintly life.

And while Lent has undoubtedly been good for my soul, it so often falls short of my expectations. Most of my pet sins remain. Most of my largest spiritual struggles are still exactly that, entrenched in my soul as they always have been. This year my self-renunciation is aimed at a spiritual trouble spot that I have been attempting to reform for years. For years.

I am naive to think that this Lent will be any different, any better. It is naive to think that, after falling 70 times seven times, this will be the time I get up and stay up.

Our society is faring no better than I am in its battle against its demons. The problems that have always plagued us plague us still. Columbine was 18 years ago and yet more children than ever are victims of a violence that back then was unthinkable, but now habitual. The sirens about the terrors of climate change have been sounding my entire life; now they are here, with Cape Town set to run out of water in mere months. Dorothy Day died in 1980, and yet her country is more inequitable and more violent than when she departed from it. Yet so many people — faithful people, and people of good will — continue to work and march and witness against injustice all the same.

We are naive to think that we can fix our broken world. It is naive to think that, after failing to heed the warning signs and to learn from the pain for so long, that now is the time things will change.

But here I should confess that I do not consider naiveté a bad quality, especially when it is not something we possess without realizing it but rather something we specifically cultivate. To be naive means to be simple and a little foolish, and it is sometimes simple foolishness that gives us the courage to persevere.

For all the darkness that surrounds us in our lifetimes alone we have seen miracles happen. For all the darkness that fills me I can think of some demons I have beaten, some sins I have shaken.

Naiveté, when chosen, when specifically engendered within ourselves, is the antidote to a cynical word. It means trusting people who are not trustworthy. It means forgiving someone you have already forgiven a multitude of times and believing this will be the last time you will need to. It means thinking they will be better this time. It means thinking you will be better this time.

But this foolish, simple belief is what makes the space, what gives the time for true repentance to occur. Our act of believing translates to endurance in the face of failure, and it is the very thing that helps bring about the conditions for change to be realized.

stonecutter-cartoon-zenpencils.com
Cartoon courtesy zenpencils.com

It takes a lot of telling to make a city know when it is doing wrong. However, that was what I was there for. When it didn’t seem to help, I would go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I knew it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.

When my fellow-workers smiled, I used to remind them of the Israelites that marched seven times around Jericho and blew their horns before the walls fell. “Well, you go ahead and blow yours,” they said; “you have the faith.” And I did, and the walls did fall, though it took nearly twice seven years. But they came down, as the walls of ignorance and indifference must every time, if you blow hard enough and long enough, with faith in your cause and in your fellow-man. It is just a question of endurance. If you keep it up, they can’t.”

~ Jacob A. Riis (1849-1949), photojournalist and social reformer, on his attempts to improve living conditions for the poor in the slums of New York city. (I was introduced to the quote via this illustrated rendition of it.)

When we look at all the realities of our corrupt world, at our corrupt selves, and choose to try again anyway, we are being naive. But in just such instances, when we choose it freely, ‘to be naive’ means the exact same thing as ‘to have hope.’ And unlike the occasional unsuccessful Lenten resolution, hope is something that does not disappoint.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Love in the midst of the mess

You are dreading another meal of ramen noodles and canned vegetables, but you know that’s all that’s left in the cupboard, that it’s the best you can offer your son tonight.

You’re thinking about this as you enter the dimly lit child care center to pick him up, with hunger pulling on your stomach, only to see him sitting on a grimy, stained rug. He gazes upward, engrossed in a cartoon, his face stone-still like an icy zombie. You remember that you once asked if the TV was safe — it still looks as if the smallest bump to the cart could make the heavy machine plummet down and crush a child — but the one time you tried to ask about it, you felt like a nuisance, so you never brought it up again.

Before you gather your son into your arms, you notice a child care worker with thinning hair scolding a girl; the girl stares at the dusty floor as tears roll down her cheeks. The scene tightens your throat with discomfort, awkwardness; you ignore this and scoop your son into your loving arms instead.

You don’t like this place; you have a feeling that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Feeding Time at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander
Bubbles at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander