Dying right? another look

Several weeks ago, I reflected on a moving and thought-provoking account of a woman’s experience of her father’s suffering and death. End-of-life issues are difficult–I recently wondered aloud to a colleague about what we have lost in the advances that medicine has made against illness and tragedy. Death is pushed farther from us, out of our everyday experience, at least in the well-fed and comfortably housed regions of the developed world. Do we not begin to think of death as the opposite of life, rather than a part of life? My colleague, a sociologist who studies religion and death (among other things), nodded.

Having been thinking about death–not for any morbid reason, I think (though who really knows her own mind that well?)–I was drawn to another account of accompanying the dying. Sunita Puri writes engagingly about the challenges facing those patients who are dying at home, but without adequate care. Those who opt to die at home require a certain level of help, not only from family members, but from professionals who can provide the necessary medical care. Such support enables family members simply to journey with their dying loved one. What Dr Puri describes is a situation in which incredible strain is placed on family members (and in some cases, friends and neighbors).

In an earlier post, I recommended Arthur Brooks’ advice for living well in 2016: to think about our own ends. Perhaps for us all to live better, we ought also to think about others’ ends. Death comes to all of us eventually; I hope that we can learn to accompany each other as we meet it.

 

 

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hope in difficult times

11986612_1707051179515358_7868352098734767431_nI cried when I saw the photo of that very small boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. How could I not? My own so small girl went to school this morning, dressed in her uniform, curls bouncing behind her. That is how it should be. Yet so many parents are struggling just to get their children to safety. As a parent, I am heartbroken. As a citizen of the so-called developed world (developed technologically, perhaps, but downright backward in its values), I am ashamed of us. How did the world get to be like this? In the words of Cardinal Altamirano at the end of The Mission: ‘Thus we have made the world. Thus have made it.’

But I cannot stay here: babies are being born in safety, people are finding their way, and the little things must still be occasions for joy, even in the midst of such powerful and deep grief. Though I mourn for this small boy, his only-slightly-less-small brother, and his parents, I must hope. I must hope and allow joy to break through. So I turn to one of my very favorite passages in a very good book: The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen. He talks in this passage about ‘a friend’ whom I have always admired. (I think it is Jean Vanier, but Jean doesn’t admit it!) I pray that we can all find this joy and allow it to give us courage as we work to make the world a place in which small boys and girls play and sleep and laugh in safety.

I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, of a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realize I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying: “I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.”

The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings to him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life when even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and, woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy. 

I don’t know how to celebrate in the midst of this deep sadness. I don’t know how not to feel guilty about the comfort and safety of my situation. So for the dead, I pray, let perpetual light shine on them; may they rest in peace. And for myself and all the world, I pray, kyrie eleison.11990663_1707154162838393_6753303827297769423_n

Friday of the first week in Lent

I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait,
   And in His word do I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
   More than the watchmen for the morning;
   Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord;
   For with the Lord there is lovingkindness,
And with Him is abundant redemption.
   And He will redeem Israel
   From all his iniquities. (Psalms 130:5-8 NASB)

.        .      .

Today, a challenge: can I be quiet enough in the midst of a crowded airport to reflect properly on the Scripture? The last few days have not been especially Lenten: a trip to Rome for my birthday and to see a friend. Gelato was involved.

Also, though, lots of visits to churches. Although I am a terrible tourist, and hate seeing ‘the sights’, I love visiting churches. I especially love those churches whose long years have seen many, many penitents and worshippers on their knees before God. Rome is full of those–churches where for centuries people have waited on the Lord.

But none of those churches is as dear to my heart as the beautiful and unassuming Santa Maria in Trastevere. Turing the corner yesterday evening, and finding myself in the piazza in front of the church was pure joy. And entering the church, hoping for a moment of quiet prayer, to find Mass beginning…was whatever is more wonderful than pure joy. It was the thing I had most desired, perhaps, as I thought about this trip to Rome. But I had not said so.

As I visited other churches in Rome over the past couple of days, I sometimes wondered about all the grandeur, and all those who had gone before, hoping in the resurrection. Eschatology has never been my strong suit. But there, in Santa Maria in Trastevere, I knew the lovingkindess of God. So, back to the usual tension between knowing God, and wondering how it all fits together. God is good, and yet…things can be hard, I can be uncertain.

So this psalm is for me, and for all who find the way difficult: ‘hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is lovingkindess and abundant redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.’

Deo gratias.

Tuesday of the first week in Lent

Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours, but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.
                                                                        Matthew 6:15
When Isaac of the Thebaid visited a community, he saw that one of the brothers was sinful, and he passed sentence on him. But when he was returning to his cell in the desert, the angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, “I will not let you go in.” He asked, “why not?” The angel of the Lord replied, “God sent me to ask you, ‘Where do you tell me to send that sinful brother whom you sentenced?’” At once Isaac repented, saying, “I have sinned, forgive me.” The angle said, “Get up, God has forgiven you. In future take care to judge no man before God has judged him.”

*        *        *

The desert fathers and mother have quite a bit to say about forgiveness. Forgiving plays a key role in the training of the soul in humility. They seem to have taken Matthew’s warnings about forgiveness and not judging quite literally and very seriously.

I wonder if we really believe the words of Matthew’s gospel. On the face of it—reading the way the words go—it seems clear that forgiving is absolutely essential Christian practice. To refuse to forgive others is to refuse to receive the forgiveness of God; as it says elsewhere in the gospel, “the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

It is vital, according to Matthew and the desert ascetics, to forgive. It is also perhaps the most difficult of all sayings. We are not programmed to give way. Even the youngest talkers learn early on to exclaim, “No!” and “Mine!” We do not, on the whole, uphold turning the other cheek as a moral standard. Anger, bitterness, resentment, even murder can be justified (though not excused: justifiable homicide does not mean the perpetrator is innocent). We learn the right reasons for holding onto the wounds we have suffered. We recognize, of course, the failure in losing our temper over something insignificant. But we also know how to be properly angry, to retain the sins of those who have wronged us. We have been hurt: it is they who have hurt us who should ask forgiveness. They ought to make the first move. We want to make repentance or contrition the prerequisite for forgiveness.

But God doesn’t. God, the Lord, is slow to anger and rich in mercy. God is like the prodigal father, who goes out to meet his son, and interrupts his act of contrition with a call for celebration. God makes the first move…and the second, and the third, and so on. Always God’s mercy goes before us, making the way for our repentance. Forgiveness is part of God’s creativity—yes, God’s creativity. God makes a way where there is no way; God’s mercy is new every morning, welcoming sinners like me back into the sheepfold. And out of that same inexhaustible supply, the fountain of living water, we can draw grace to give away—if only we will.

Eternal Father, you forgive us without resentment and love us without reserve. By your Holy Spirit give us the grace to live in that love and to extend it to everyone we meet.

First Monday in Lent

Be holy, for I, the Lord am holy.

                                                           Leviticus 19:2 

Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
                                                            Matthew 25: 34-40

.         .         . 


I confess I still tend to associate holiness with piety. But the rest of the passage from Leviticus, and the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel suggest otherwise. God says, ‘be holy’; what follows is not an order for prayer and worship, but instructions in dealing with our neighbours. To live charitably–that is holiness.

So Jesus identifies with the needy: I was hungry, I was naked, I was thirsty, I was in prison. 
Jesus changes everything. We expect to find God in holy places; he comes to us in a stable. We encounter God in the Eucharist; we also meet God in the person of the hungry, homeless stranger. Jesus is the image of the invisible God; in him the fullness of the deity was pleased to dwell. And he says he dwells among us still–in our hearts by the Holy Spirit; in his holy church, his body and his bride; and in those who hunger and thirst, those who are sick or in prison. 


If I cannot love my brother or sister, whom I can see, then how can I say I love God, whom I cannot see? And how can I profess love for God while failing to love his image in the world, in every person? Holiness is as horizontal as it is vertical. And I am not very good at either loving God or loving neighbor, I realise. I need that new heart, that heart of flesh, that God wants to create in me, the heart fit to receive his love and to pour it our lavishly on others. 

Lord in your mercy…