A HOLY YEARNING

I was brand new to this in 1965, naïve and full of enthusiasm for this role of presbyter.  In my naiveté, I have to confess, I was also glib in preaching the hard realities of the Good News.  It was the Easter Season and I preached about how the feast made mourning impossible.  Jesus knew that when he told the crowds that those who mourned were blessed.  He spoke in anticipation of his death and resurrection.  I remember saying that.  Mid-week after delivering that homily a woman came to visit me in the rectory.  She sat across the desk from me, thanked me for seeing her, and told me she had great difficulties with what I had said.  She was deep in mourning following the death of her husband and their daughter in a horrific car crash.  She said that she couldn’t find the blessing in mourning.

She told me the story of what had happened and how at times she found it difficult to believe that her two loved ones were dead.  She said even though she visited the graves at least weekly, often she would wake in the night and listen, expecting to hear the sounds of their voices or to feel her husband in the bed beside her.  It had been two years since the accident and her psychological wounds were still raw.

I remember looking at her and watching as the tears coursed down her cheeks.  I felt the knot in my stomach as I wondered what I could possibly say to ease her pain.  What words could comfort her?  I began by apologizing if my words had added to her misery and promised that from that time forward I would do a better job of thinking before I spoke and listen to what I said through the ears of the assembly.  I would learn to be empathetic and enter into the sufferings of those before me.  That is what I said.  I’ve tried to practice what I opined that day every day since then.  That conversation was the first of many.  Over the course of several months we came to understand each other and she helped me shape a whole new appreciation for the demands a faith response to Jesus’ invitation to be his disciples make on those who accept the call.

Just as I was naïve in that early preaching, so can we be in the assumptions we make as believers.  Before faith is tested, believers can assume that following on the Way will be easy.  Of course there are blessings, but each major step we take on the Way challenges us to let go and let grace help us to see our life and our times through a new filter.  In reality, everything is turned upside down or inside out and we come to realize that the conversion begun at our baptism is a life-long process of dying and rising, of letting go and being caught up in wonder and mystery.  Each day is the first day of the rest of our lives.

At the center of this reality will be the cross.  Each crisis will deepen our understanding of what Jesus meant when he told us that if we were to follow him we would have to take up the cross each day and follow him.

Mourning is a reality in every person’s life who has lost a loved one.  Mourning was part of the lives of our ancestors in the faith in the Hebrew Bible.  The prophets mourned over Israel’s infidelity as they turned from following the Law and the One God and went after Baal and the other gods of the gentiles among whom they lived.  The prophets sorrowed over the exploitation of the poor, the orphans and the widows, by the rich and the powerful.  The people mourned as they watched the destruction of the Holy City, Jerusalem.  They cried out as they were led into captivity.  “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered you, O Zion.  On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.”  Jesus will weep over the restored city because the people would not heed his call: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who stone the prophets and kill those who are sent to you, how often I would have gathered you to myself, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.”  And he would grieve at the death of his friend Lazarus.  Or, did he weep as he realized the implications that would befall him as he raised Lazarus to new life?

Sorrowing, mourning, and grieving are parts of the human condition.  No one who cares for another can live long before experiencing a situation that causes these reactions.  A loved one dies.  A relationship ends.  Betrayal happens.  Then you will know what it means to be plunged into a long, dark night in the midst of which you will wonder if you will ever see the dawn of hope again in your life.  A kin to depression, it is in reality the long, dark night of the soul that gives rise to a terrible longing that only God can fill, a holy yearning.

Remember when it was forbidden for photographers to take pictures of the flag-draped coffins of the war-dead as they were returned from Iraq to these shores for burial.  The thought was that if we did not see the reality we would be numb to the horror and we would not have to share in mourning for the fallen that their families suffered.  Being shielded from the toll it would seem all the more possible to enter into the illusion that soon we would be the victors – divinely appointed as we were in the bloody exchange.  We need to see those coffins.  We need to see the broken-hearted parents and spouses and children.  To join in their mourning is salutary and can help change perspective.

There is one way to make sure that you will not have to mourn and that is to choose not to love.  If, however, you choose to love another, that one becomes one for whom one day you could mourn.  Husbands or wives may have to mourn and survive their spouses.  Often children mourn the death of their parents, albeit often in due time when full lives have been lived.  Sometimes a parent dies suddenly, far from a fullness of years, and grief intensifies.  There is the terrible sorrow that comes when parents have to bury their children.  Death of friends, the end of relationships, the failing health of those once strong bring us up short and challenge our core beliefs.

Recently we have been confronted with the phenomenon of natural disaster.  The memory of the Tsunami caused by the earthquake in Japan is not that remote as we consider the havoc caused in the Midwest by the storm that left over a million people without electricity in the midst of a record breaking heat wave.  The forest fires in Colorado and else where in the west ravaged land and reduced the homes of hundreds to ashes.  We grieve individually and as a people.  Sometimes we respond.  Sometimes we forget.

Why does Jesus say that there is blessing in mourning?  Precisely because of the emptiness that mourning brings.  But mourning is not an end in itself.  Life doesn’t stop there.  Those who mourn can be happy only when mourning leads the mourners beyond their sorrowing state.  Rather, only when the Spirit inspires faith and renews hope.

The Rite of Christian Burial acknowledges the reality of death and the sorrow death brings to the survivors.  Those who come together as church to celebrate the ritual are embraced by the signs and symbols that speak much more of life than they do of death.  The Rite begins even before Death has claimed the loved one.  Family and friends, indeed the whole church, gather around to pray over and anoint with Holy Oil the one who is dying.  Why would we do this unless there is a belief in something more than what can be seen, a conviction that death is not an end to anything more than a life as it was lived in this world?

The casket is draped with a funeral pall.  The faithful recognize the baptismal garment in which the deceased was clad when s/he came out of the waters, having died there to sin and everything that separates one from God, came out of the waters identified with Christ and destined to live in God’s love forever.  The burning Easter Candle stands by the coffin, the candle that was carried into the dark church in the course of the Easter Vigil to proclaim Christ, alive in the Resurrection.  Those gathered celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks and renewing the Lord’s dying and rising.  They are reminded that those who eat this Bread and drink this Cup will live forever “and I will raise them up on the Last Day.”  Death, where is your sting?

Some may think that there is something therapeutic in telling a mourner to “get over it and get on with your life.”  I don’t agree.  Certainly I would not encourage weeping and wailing and wallowing in self pity.  That may be self-indulgent behavior that can paralyze.  But neither would I be the glib speaker I was as that young priest 43 years ago and come across as minimizing the reality of grief and mourning.  It is necessary to weep as a natural response to the loss.  Wailing can help to let out the terrible pain.  But then the Spirit reminds us that when the mourner experiences the darkness, the emptiness resulting from the loss of someone who was an integral part of our life and accepts the fact that no one else can fill the void the mourned leaves, there is still hope.  Joy comes from grace’s reminding us that God will wipe away every tear, embrace us who have mourned, and help us to live in hope that one day we will see the one we mourn in the Resurrection on the Last Day.

A challenge for believers is to be signs that inspire that hope.  It is not enough to look on with pity and even weep for those who suffer loss.  Believers must respond like the Eucharist they celebrate by allowing themselves to be broken and poured out in loving service of those who grieve.  They must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn and support with love.  Bringing meals in the initial days of sorrow is one thing.  Sitting and listening weeks later and resisting the temptation to say, “I know just how you feel” is another.  No two people mourn in the same way.  There is no time limit on the mourning process.  But the love and support of fellow believers will assist as the bereaved experience the grace that will empower them to go on.

St. James said, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, ‘Good-bye and good luck!  Keep warm and well fed,’ but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that?”  It is not enough to mourn for those who suffer loss as a result of natural disasters.  We have the collective and individual responsibility to support them with more than our prayers and good wishes.  Faith demands that we recognize those suffering to be our brothers and sisters.  (An aside: could the Holocaust have happened had the German people recognized the Jews to be their brothers and sisters?  They had to deny the Jews’ humanity in order to carry out the Nazi atrocities.  Would the Ku Klux Klan have been able to burn crosses in the yards of those they recognized to be their black brothers and sisters, or to hang them from the nearest gibbet?  We are what we are, sons and daughters of our God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.)

A final consideration.  Many of the saints prayed for the gift of tears.  They prayed for the grace to see and understand their sins so that they could truly repent.  Again, this is not a prayer for the grace to wallow in self-pity, much less to see one’s sins as unforgiven.  (If the truth be known, most people find their own sins understandable.  It is the sins of others, those sins they would never be tempted to commit, that are unforgivable.)  The gift of tears enables us to see the horror of our sins and to know that they are forgiven.  Repentance means to turn away from sin, to believe in the Good news, and to live the Gospel practically as one who is forgiven.

So, when we mourn, we do not yield to grief, as those do who have not hope.  Our joy comes from our believing that the sorrowing will be consoled by the God who loves unconditionally and forever those who allow God to be the light in the darkness and to fill the emptiness with which threatens to break them.  Our acclamation is: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Amen!  Alleluia!

Sincerely,

Didymus

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