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

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!

Mud, muck, and the courage of change

I love hearing the stories of the early Church, especially as they are proclaimed everyday at Mass during the Easter season. Their adventures, as are found in the Book of Acts, reminds me that the truth and joy that come from Christ’s resurrection has truly established renewal for all creation. We are one. We are free!

The energy and courage found in the early Church can enliven us today. None of us need to be afraid to share our faith. We can let go of our fears to take risks for the reign of God. We can live with strong trust in God and faithsuch courage can set all sorts of miracles into motion.

God has graced us with all we need to truly change the world!

Certainly, we don’t need to look too far to see that Christ-centered change is actually very messy. The season of springof beauty and life poking out of the mud and muck of what was once dead and dormantshows us that being courageous with our compassion and witness is far from neat and tidy. The mess of transformation is demanding, active, and fierce.

Photo credit: https://strangfordloughnationaltrust.files.wordpress.com

Parker Palmer’s recent reflection Spring is Mud and Miracle (published online at On Being with Krista Tippet) reminded me of this:

There’s a miracle inside that muddy mess: those fields are a seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word humus, the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to humility. It’s an etymology in which I find forgiveness, blessing, and grace. It reminds me that the humiliating events of life — events that leave “mud on my face” or “make my name mud” — can create the fertile soil that nourishes new growth.

Spring begins tentatively, but it advances with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, pressing up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops don’t bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope — and from those small beginnings, hope grows at a geometric rate. 

During this Easter season I desire to accept the mess and muck as natural. My humanity is a gift. The muck of life can be thick and heavy, but it really is a sign of hope out of which can spring forth the determination of goodness.

True, it is messy and disturbing to encounter the world, but the muck is a necessary part of the freedom that comes from growth. We can have courage to change. Even though it can be hard to learn the truth, new awareness can crack light into my soul. Yes, service may wear me out but my weakness can open a way for me to get closer to my community. Although reaching out will mean I’ll inevitably encounter the hurting parts of our world that I’d rather hide from: witnessing as a healer, lover, server and friend may mean that I will end up bruised and broken. And changed.

In the midst of the muddy mess, I will choose to be encouraged. It is only through decay that new life can come. It is only through the stink, the goo, the pain of life that transformations will emerge. I know I am on the right path and really walking with The Way if I am breaking through barriers and getting hurt outside my comfort zone. This is the life of abundance, life to the fullest, the real Gospel way. The mud means I am moving in the right direction, serving and loving in union with Christ.

Yes, let us move out, singing songs of service and love, not afraid of the inevitable mess and muck, because it is part of transformation! Pope Francis encourages us:

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”  – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, #49)

And, Alex Street’s song Beautiful Mess can be our anthem as we go:

Amen! Alleluia!

Signs of spring in Lent

During this Lenten season, more than any other Lent, I am getting how significant it is that Lent means spring.

Lent is also a time for us to connect to the meaning of desert; to magnify the event of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days to prepare for his public ministry in our own lives.

As a Midwesterner, I don’t know much about deserts. I’ve visited some deserts in places like Namibia and New Mexico though, and have always found the environment very strange and mysterious; it’s not really barren as a lot of life and beauty thrives in the dryness. I certainly don’t know much about springtime in such a landscape, but I understand that desert dwellers also experience the season—just very differently than we do here in the Midwest.

Yet, I know Lent is really not about the dryness and emptiness we associate with deserts—even though it’s often what fasting feels like at first. Rather, Lent is about signs of spring: refreshment, renewal and growth.

We manifest these signs of spring to each other as we offer gestures of love, kindness and service to one another during these 40 days. Our actions make us into signs and transform the world around us. We freshen the environment, the culture, and our community and make marks of preparation. In a way, our actions become like little party decorations that get us really ready for the power, mystery, conversion and celebration that happens in Holy Week.

Our Lenten actions are definitely signs of spring. Our prayers, fasting and almsgiving are vibrant signs of hope for a hurting humanity. Our works of mercy in motion can be encouragement for each other, when we keep flopping and failing in our Lenten practices, getting discouraged and realizing, again, how much we need God.  As we share Christ’s love may we keep our eyes open and see the green life coming forth from each of us, and may we keep our ears open to hear the beautiful, encouraging songs of the returned birds.

The signs of spring are all around us in this Lenten desert. May we lean on each other as a beloved community and see each other as signs of real renewal and hope.

Amen!

photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Still, I am moving

During prayer this morning, I tried to count up all the major changes that have happened or are happening in my life lately. I totally lost count.

The school year ended just four days ago. My youngest sister got married about a week and a half ago. Now, I am in the middle of packing for seven weeks out-of-town, for graduate studies and then an exciting pilgrimage. When I come back to town in early August, I’ll be moving. With the same sisters, down the street, and into another community property, but still–I’m moving.

Transition can be a testy, disorienting time for me. Sometimes my prayer gets tainted by talking to God about the tasks on my ever-evolving to-do list.

When I realize how my busyness is impacting my relationship with God, a strange shame can start to color my thoughts. I find myself thinking hard questions: Am I being too self-centered? Have I made my blessings into burdens? How is God calling me to Love right now? Why do I keep messing up? 

The questions, doubts, shame, self-criticism, to-do lists quickly get tangled together in a big mess of awkward prayer.

Truly, God’s mercy and love is abundant. And, God wants me to remain open to love. I know this stuff, but I don’t always remember it. I am not always rooted in it.

God tends to figure out a way to get through my thick thoughts and calm me down with holy reminders. In fact, that just happened.

In my sorting, I came across a poem I wrote about a month ago, when the transition into Spring was vibrant around here. I forgot all about the poem but now it offers words that I want to dwell in and remember, as I keep moving.

"opening buds" by Julia Walsh FSPA
“opening buds” by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

“Spring Life”

The squirms of Spring speak of salvation.

Blooms that burst & bless & remind us of

Resurrection

Opening New

Life where we once saw death.

So to shall it be in me-

New openings

full of promise & color & creative

commotion –

all in Him-

indeed!

the lesson of spring soil

"cracked through" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“cracked through” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
 
soil slides aside
allowing an emergence
flower seed breaks, becoming
resurrected over the reasons and chances
that it might not make it
or shouldn’t come
alive it rises, a new life
a new colorful character in the neighborhood
sustained by the power of the sun
Earth knows how to welcome the stranger
room is made, food provided
a warm loving home to the foreigner
yes to new life, yes to self-sharing
praise for Earth knowing and role modeling
it’s actually quite natural to boldly give
radical hospitality
A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
A bus full of immigrants leaves a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, to bring people to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA