I am wide-awake in a dark hospital room. I survived a gruesome hiking accident that left me bloody and alone in the bottom of a ravine, but I’ve been told that I’ll have reconstructive jaw surgery the next day. My family and Franciscan sisters have gone home to sleep for the rest of the night. I am alone, except for the woman snoring behind the nearby curtain and the nurses who seem to materialize at my bedside to check my vitals.
Pain is pressing on my body. When I landed at the bottom of the cliff, my face shattered from eyebrows to chin. My hand and arm were crushed under my forehead, because I’d reflexively raised them to protect my skull as I slipped. Now my limbs are screaming reminders of what happened. I am bruised and bloody. I feel as if all the pieces of my bones would float away and disintegrate if it weren’t for the swollen flesh holding me together.
I want to scream, to groan about how my life has suddenly flipped on its side. I can’t sleep. I can’t relax. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this dark, lonely night.
But somehow, my mind and heart turn from agony to appreciation; it’s the only choice I seem to have. I begin to pray: Thank you, God, for saving my life. Thank you for the excellent medical care. Thank for each person who has helped me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
This is the beginning of my latest column for “National Catholic Reporter’s” “Global Sisters Report.” Read more of “Groaning and gratitude” here.
It felt like an ordinary Sunday Mass. I knelt and prayed next to people I love. I sang hymns loudly, straight out from my heart. I bowed and received communion; chewing, sipping and swallowing all to gain union with the Body of Christ.
Then, at the end of Mass, a nice man stood up and made a few announcements. He reminded everyone that November 1st was a Holy Day of Obligation and, November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. He pointed out the altar in the back of the church, and said we were all welcome to bring in pictures of our loved ones and to write the names of our beloved deceased in the book of remembrance. I turned my head and looked back at the altar. I admired the decorations and felt grateful for the opportunity, for the chance to remember those who have died before us, who are part of the communion of saints.
After Mass, I hugged my friends goodbye. I grinned at the many friendly faces that flooded out of the sanctuary. And then, I approached the altar for the deceased and saw the face of one of my friends who died earlier this year, Sharon Chavolla. Surprised to see her beautiful face upon the altar, I quietly moaned, overcome by a sudden wave of grief; grief I was lugging around in my heart unconsciously.
For many months, since Sharon’s passing in May, an item has steadily remained on my to-do list: send Sharon’s family a sympathy card. I don’t know why I have not yet done this, why I have procrastinated on doing something so important to me. Yes, I feel inadequate, like I am incapable of offering comfort and sympathy to a family that is an extension of my friend’s kindness. Many times I’ve started, I’ve tried to write, but found myself frozen and staring at the blank page, numbed by the sorrow.
To be honest, one of the hardest things about living, of being in relationship with others, is the way that it opens me up to suffering and grief. As I have written: I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn’t know so many people, if I didn’t try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.
Separation, though, is contrary to everything I believe in. I believe that the point of all life is relationship, of growing in union with God and others. When I am part of an aging community wherein death is a regular part of my life, though, the separation of death can be a troubling, painful experience. Since death is a reality that I come fact-to-face with on a regular basis I must confront my resistance to it over and over; I must foster my faith that with death there is not actually a separation. I struggle to believe and see, again and again, that with the communion of saints we are truly one — united — always.
That’s what this sacred day is about, the Feast of All Souls. The many people I have grown to know and love, like my friend Sharon, are not actually separate and apart; they are interacting with us through a different dimension. They remain our friends and family who have a power and influence over us, whose presence is real and powerful in our lives. Christ has conquered death, it need not sadden us; with him we all are able to live together.
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For 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:
Sure, death does sting. We miss the embraces, the jokes, the grins of our loved ones. Because our humanity creates an illusion that we are separate from the spiritual world, the gap between heaven and earth can feel enormous and painful.
On the other hand, the truth is that we are very connected to those who have died before us. We are called to pray to them and for them, to continue to share our lives with them and let their love and care influence us. We are not separate; we remain in communion with each other, amazingly.
During this sacred month of November, may we all remember those who have died who are most precious to us, let us honor their legacies. Let us engage in simple gestures that help every human life to be honored. I will finally send a sympathy card Sharon’s family, even though it will likely feel inadequate. I will reach out to others who are grieving the absence of their loved ones, too. This is a way of honoring the dead, of praying for those who may be hurting from the feeling of separation.
Through each gesture and prayer, I hope we may all awaken to the truth that we remain united with those who have died, that they are very close and connected. No matter our fears and heartache, let us honor all the souls who live on forever.
It was a shock to all of us who knew and loved him. His death still remains sad and painful for many of us. Personally, the experience of suffering with my family taught me much about the power of God’s love.
In a new way I now understand: no matter how hard or heavy an experience of suffering, God is stronger than the pain. God who is Love and Light is not overcome by any darkness.
This past weekend at mass, I was reminded of the lessons I learned about love and light through my cousin’s death. I remembered how my family amazed me by the ways we united and showed up and showed love to one another in all the ways we knew how.
Yesterday’s scripture readings speak about this part of our Christian faith. Jesus reaches out to those who suffer and Jesus suffers with us when we suffer.
God became a person as Jesus. He entered into a particular time and place in history which was full of intense suffering. Then, Jesus who was fully God even suffered during his life and in his death. As yesterday’s scripture said, God amazingly heals the brokenhearted. Jesus tended to the sick and the suffering, including people of all types in the healing.
This is our story. We are Gospel people. People who suffer and enter into the suffering of others. We live the Gospel by exposing ourselves to the suffering of others and allowing their pain to be part of our story.
In fact, the Gospel Truth is that “the birth of Love …came to guide us and lure us toward beauty and hope and justice. It didn’t overcome [suffering] with it’s own sense of fear.” (I recently listened to a podcast that said this.) In this Truth there’s another important dynamic. Our story of suffering is God’s story of suffering.
Our culture is clogged with noise that can distract us away from the ways that our Gospel living ought to compel us to be uncomfortable and enter into suffering. Instead of avoiding suffering like advertisements tell us to, those of us who are Gospel people try to move toward it.
How do we move toward suffering? Through action and prayer. We happily hang out with people who are homeless and see what they can teach us about Truth. We advocate for the closing of unjust prisons and for reform to laws that cause more harm than good. Or as I find myself doing a lot lately, we pray with and care for those who weep because they have known sudden death. All this Gospel activity is mercy-making in the mess.
Surrounded by it and challenged by it, we are reminded of important truths of this Gospel of Love. Suffering is a mystery that can’t be avoided. Our Christian life is tough and challenging on purpose. The Paschal mystery insists that Easter Sundays must be followed by Good Fridays.
When we suffer, God also suffers. Somehow, by suffering we can come to know God.
At my cousin’s funeral, the hugs from my relatives were all a little longer and harder than they normally are. Our shoulders were all a little damp as we cried together. For me, these physical expressions of Love were a bit of light in the darkness. Simple human acts help me experience the closeness of our amazing, suffering God. God who is a light stronger than any darkness or pain. Alleluia! Amen!
The solid statues seem to suggest that the horror of the cross is only historical. We gather in dark churches to remember, and mix the meaning into our mind right along side wars, genocide, crusades and the holocaust. Black and white photos in the history books tell us to keep telling the story and memorialize the dead.
This cross, though, is different from those other events. Although it’s historical, it’s also eternal. Every day we are wounded, nailed, bled, broken, bruised. We’re doing it to ourselves and each other. It happened before, and it’s happening today. The pain we acknowledge today is as real now as it was then.
Maybe our praying with the cross today matters to our brothers and sisters of history after all. Maybe this cross is broad and bigger than our mixed up human minds can fathom. Maybe it can heal the wounds of history and change all humanity.
My holy week began in a simple rural church in Iowa. With crowds of farming families I chanted “crucify him, crucify him.” My voice shook with shame. It’s not pretend, it’s prayer. Tears welled up within. Why did the Church design it that I have to be the one who sentences my love to death?
Stone-cold statues of the stations of the cross lined the peaceful church. In each, I see a face of Jesus etched with history and sorrow. Jesus leans over an angel and looks at me in the pew, praying with questions. Suffering is redemptive, I’ve learned. Emotions stew within as I think of my love beaten, bruised, bloody, broken.
I sang “Hosanna” and held crisp, spring green branches but knew where the story was going next. I knew about the cross, the death and the resurrection. Except for the cooing children, I think we all did. Yet, we’re intense. It’s ugly to face it: Love nailed to death.
As I gaze upon the cross this week, I shall consider all the hurt that I know. I have been hurt and I have hurt others, at times I have even hurt myself. The hurt of all humanity and creation stares back at me from the wood of the cross.
It’s personal and universal. Personally, I have turned away from my love every time; I’ve allowed my good intentions to get clouded by pride, selfishness and lies. Together, our social sins continually crush earth and community onto bloody boards. The body of Christ is wounded. We are that body.
Our eyes sting with the truth that love hurts. I ache and I remember that the journey of the cross is the story that we live everyday. These are the moments of our community. It’s not tidy at all, nor crisp with clarity.
The dust stirs on the statues. Chipped memories acknowledge that redemption began with the incarnation. He came to love, live, set free and therefore die. It’s because His love was so bold and non-violent that he was killed. I am stuck in the story.
Hurt throbs through the questions. Do I really understand? Am I willing to die for what he lived? Can I? Am I?