Archive for the ‘Special Writings’ Category

CORPUS CHRISTI: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 24-26a
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians 10:16-17
A reading from the Holy Gospel according to John 6:52-58

“I don’t know how many more times I can do this,” Miriam thought as she stirred her morning cup of tea and listened to the strains of the Bach Mass in B Minor streaming from the radio.  She could not hear such music without thinking of those dear days gone by when she had sung in her church’s choir.  She missed the Latin and the glorious polyphony that always lifted her spirit and seemed to provide a window into heaven.  She missed the solemnity when there were not so many distractions to interfere with her being able to concentrate on the Sacred Mysteries being celebrated before her.  She could adore in near rapture as the bells rang summoning her attention to the action at the altar as the smoke swirled from the thurible in graceful puffs of adoration.  It was particularly thrilling when a ray of sun pierced the stained-glass window and radiated through the incense.  She always took that convergence of indicators to be a sign of God’s presence and blessing.

She nibbled a piece of jellied toast from which the crusts had been carefully removed.  Strawberry jelly was her favorite.  If she were disciplined and relished each bite, her toast could last a quarter of an hour.  And she could offer her morning prayer following upon her pronounced grace.

Her gaze wandered over her kitchen so neatly kept.  The floors and counters glistened.  She could not tolerate clutter and prided herself in keeping everything in its proper place with the surroundings spotless.  There had been a time when there was more of a challenge to her tidiness, before her sons had grown and left the home, before her husband had told her it was over and he was leaving for a fresh start.  She had not known how to respond when he said that for years he had felt stifled.  What could he have meant?  She had pondered his words over and over again and decided he must have been going through a mid-life crisis.  He will come back someday, she thought.  She prayed about that.  Wait and see.  One day he will realize what he had had and come home again.  She had decided some time ago that she would not ask any questions.  She would be grateful if he would not share any details of his sojourn away from her.  She would pick up from where they had left off and simply go on.

The clock inched toward ten.  She would have to be getting on her way soon.  Her journey would take an hour and fifteen minutes.  She wanted to be there by noon.  Her path was carefully charted.  She had tried several different routes and found the one she now traveled to be the most direct and free of traffic snarls.

Miriam prayed and stared at the picture on the breakfast bar of her son and his friend.  She always got teary as she noticed the rapturous smile on John’s face.  His eyes are closed as he leans into Joshua’s chest.  His arms enfold John.  And Joshua smiles broadly and defiantly into the camera.

How long had John, her first-born son, been dead?  Could it possibly be a year next month since the choir had sung Stabat Mater while the casket was rolled into the church for the funeral mass?    Joshua, the friend, already confined to his wheelchair, had made his way up the aisle in the midst of the family’s procession.  Miriam had wondered how many judging eyes had looked away rather than be confronted by the evidence.  She had been grateful for the full church and the luscious music specially chosen for the event.  She thought many of those in attendance would be moved by the choir and wish that kind of music could be part of Sunday Mass again.

She rinsed her teacup and placed the cup, saucer, and the plate for her toast in the dishwasher.  She carefully wiped any crumbs from the table and straightened the chair.  She opened the refrigerator and removed the soup and the wrapped food items that would be Joshua’s noon meal.  Steamed chicken breast.  Mashed and buttered potatoes.  Mixed vegetables.  And a bit of bread pudding for dessert.  She placed them in her wicker basket.  She looked over the containers and hoped she had not forgotten anything.  Finally she walked into her bedroom, glanced into her vanity mirror to be sure she looked presentable, put on her coat and gloves, and knew that she was ready.  She had opened the back door when she heard the music and thought twice about turning off the radio.  But then she thought what a comfort the music would be as she re-entered her home after her time with Joshua.

Miriam walked up the stairs to the apartment that had been John’s home, too.  Her throat always tightened as she fought the expectation that her son would open the door when she rang.  She always looked up to the window as she stepped out of her car with the hope to catch a glimpse of the two of them smiling and waving.  The window was empty and the curtains drawn.

She rang the doorbell and waited a few moments before letting herself in.  She closed the door behind her and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior light.  She breathed the heavy and stale air and thought about cleaning their living room after Joshua had eaten.  She knew her touch was needed.  That was fine with her.  She opened a window in the living room and welcomed a zephyr.

“Joshua.  It’s me.”

She placed her basket on the dining room table and then made her way to his room.  She rapped once on the door and opened it.  His room was dark, the air, stale.  She saw him lying on his back, propped slightly by two pillows.  He had the quilt pulled up tightly to his chin.  She could see the stubble on his chin and could smell that it had been some time since he had bathed.  Her stomach had always been so sensitive to foul odors.  Oh, God, she prayed, get me through this.

She sat on the side of his bed and took his hand and told him what joy it was to see him again.  She always looked forward to their weekly visit, she said.  “How are you feeling?” she asked as she brushed the hair from his eyes.

“I think I’m better than I was the last time you were here.”  He coughed.  Miriam reached for a tissue and wiped his lips.

“You are looking better, too,” she said.  “I’ll bet you are getting stronger. It won’t be long and you’ll be taking walks outside again.  Just you wait.”  She felt his hand squeeze hers ever so slightly.  “I’ve fixed your favorite foods for lunch.  I even brought a lovely white wine to go with the chicken.”

Silence hung heavily between them.  She knew that their relationship had strengthened.  It wasn’t that long ago that idle chatter filled every pause.  Now there were times when they could be content just to be in each other’s presence.  She could read.  He could nap.  There was peace.  But today the silence was heavy again.

“Joshua, may I?” she asked.  He looked at her in a moment of uncertainty.  She saw tears well in his eyes as he nodded.  She went to the bathroom and filled the tub with steaming water.  She added bubble bath to make the bathing more festive.  She placed his razor and shaving cream on the side table.  Then she returned to Joshua’s bedside and lifted his covers.  She leaned over him and put her arms around him to lift him.  She felt him tense at her first touch and then relax as she helped him from the bed and supported him in his trek to the bath.  His arms hung by his side as he stared into the tub.  Then Miriam said again, “May I?”

Carefully she removed his pajamas and stifled a gasp as she confronted his gauntness.  Then ever so gently she helped him lower himself into the water with an audible sigh.  She soaped the washcloth and washed him, hoping she would not tear his skin that hung like parchment.  She shampooed the wisps of hair on his head and rinsed the suds away.  His eyes stared fixedly at her and tears rolled down the hollows of his cheeks.  In a whisper barely audible he said, “I think of you as mother.  I hope you don’t mind, but you are mother to me.”  Miriam hummed a lullaby as she had when John was an infant.

Later, Joshua lay on his stomach and she rubbed aloes into his back.  Then she helped him roll over and she buttoned his pajama top.  Finally she massaged ointment into his feet, wiped them and put on his socks and slippers.

“You rest, my Dear,” she said.  “I’ll heat up our lunch and then we will sit at table and share our meal.”

She set three places and poured three classes of wine with a bread-roll by each plate.  She placed John’s picture near his plate and smiled.  Then she noticed the curtain stirring in the living room.

“I hoped you would come.  See, I set a place for you.  It is good to have you here again,” she said.  It seems like such a long time that you have been away.”

THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – April 19, 2020

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47
A reading from the first Letter of Peter 1:3-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-31

He sat in the silent church, silent except for the sound of the water trickling down from the raised bowl into the Baptismal Font below.  The stained-glass windows in the western clerestory shimmered as the setting sun’s blue and red rays danced on the east wall and flickered like candle flames in too strong a breeze.  The last of the worshipers had left moments before.  The man seemed unwilling to let go of the moment, reluctant to step out of the mystery into the approaching night.

I watched him for a few moments and felt irritation rise.  I wanted to lock the doors and get on with my evening.  I flicked the switches that extinguished the majority of the interior lights.  Surely that would be a signal the man would recognize as an indication that he should be on his way.  I walked to the narthex and noisily closed the doors and turned the key in their locks to secure them.  Turning to start my way back up the aisle, I gazed over the font.  My jaw clenched as I noted that the man continued to sit stolidly in place.  He gave no evidence that he intended to respond to the audible signals I so clearly had given.

The sound of each step I took on my way back down the aisle echoed through the nave.  When I reached the pew in which he was sitting, I stopped and turned toward him.  His gaze was fixed on the Easter Candle that stood adjacent to the ambo.  Tears glistened on his cheeks.  I sat a few feet away from him and watched.  His breathing was calm.  His arms rested in his lap.  Then he was looking at me, his eyes wide and unblinking.

“Is there anything I can do for you?“ I asked.

Was there a hint of a smile as he turned his attention back to the Candle?  “I was here a week ago for the Vigil and heard you proclaim Christ to be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  You lit the Candle from the Easter fire and then entered this dark church to proclaim Christ our Light! I joined the others with Thanks be to God! I think I meant it.  I want desperately to believe it.  It was thrilling to watch as one by one the candles we held received light and flickered a moment before the light was passed on to a neighbor.  I remember the darkness of the night yielding as one by one the candles burned brighter.

“We all sat in the candles’ light and listened to the story from the beginning.  The words rushed over us.  Genesis.  Exodus.  Isaiah.  On and on in hypnotic cadence the words washed over the Assembly.  I wondered, do I believe this?  I want to, the way I did a year ago when I entered the baptismal waters back home.  I want to.  But I don’t feel anything.”

His tears continued to flow.

“Feeling and believing aren’t the same thing,” I said, “any more than seeing and believing are.”  His right hand flicked across his cheek, whisking tears away.  “I can see that you are upset.  Is it about this lack of feeling you have; or is there something more?”

“I love the Easter Candle.  When I was being prepared for Baptism, I was told that the Candle is the great symbol of the Lord’s resurrection.  When I was being baptized, I kept my eyes fixed on it.  What an awesome night that was.  The Candle had figured in every step along the course of the service.  It was the first thing I saw when I emerged from the water gasping.  Three times the water poured over me.”

I thought that there must be something more that he wants to talk about.  His body language spoke of someone who had just heard of the death of a loved one.  My need to urge him on his way had subsided.  I was content to wait and listen.  Rather than stare at him, my gaze focused on the Candle.  It was simply decorated this year with the cross and five red spikes and a wrap of marbled wax.  Light of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

“I’m dying,” he said.  “A few months from now I will find out for myself whether there is anything more than silence.  I feel like darkness is enveloping me.  I keep hearing the doctor’s words.  He was sorry to tell me that the headaches I had been enduring are the result of an inoperable tumor in my brain.”  He turned toward me to see how his news registered on my face.  There was a pause, long, but not awkward.  “Thank you for not saying something trite.  Thank you for not saying that you understand.  It is amazing how many people say they understand my pain.”

My heart pounded in my chest as I searched for something to say.  I knew that silence was not enough.  I reached over and took his hand.  “I can pray,” I said.  “I can try to support you with my prayers.”

I don’t have anyone near by, any family.  They are in the Midwest.  I’m not married or even engaged.  But you have to die alone anyway, I guess.  I hate darkness.  I love light.”

His tears had stopped.  He turned toward me and tightened his hold of my hand.  “If I could only see something that would convince me.  I’m a Didymus whose name means twin.  Like him, if I could touch the wounds, even feel his breath, I know I could believe then.”

“You do believe.  You are here.  You celebrated Eucharist tonight with this Assembly.  You were transformed more completely with them into the Body of Christ.  The union in the Body of Christ is closer than family.  The bond is love – Christ’s love for you.  Your love for Christ and for one another.”  I remember feeling that I was struggling, grasping for words, praying that something I would say would touch him.

“Am I loved?  Does Christ love me?  Did God send this thing that is killing me to punish me for my sins?  Maybe if my faith was stronger, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

“Hear me,” I said.  “God does not send you this terrible cancer.  But God does rush in to support you with love during your illness.  You walk with this illness the way Jesus carried his cross.  To the crowds and to the entire world it looked like defeat.  Jesus proclaimed God’s faithfulness and love.  He experienced darkness.  He leapt into the void, believing that the Father would catch him in an embrace and raise him up.

“That’s what God will do with you.  The Father loves you with the same love he has for Jesus.  In fact, God might not be able to tell the two of you apart.  Remember that white robe you put on after your Baptism?  Remember what it symbolized?  You have put on Christ.”

“Do you mean that?  Is that true for me?  Can I believe that?”

“I will tell you more.  Hear me again.  If you want it, when the time comes, I will be with you.  You will feel my hand holding yours.  You will hear my voice.  I will remind you that God loves you and that Jesus waits to take you home.”

Puffs of smoke seemed to cling to his casket before ascending  as I incensed his body at the funeral’s conclusion.  The pall enshrouding the casket reminded those gathered that at his Baptism he was clothed in Christ.  The mourners stood in testimony to the truth that he had lived in Christ, died with Christ, and now lived in Christ forever.

The Candle went before us as we made our way down the aisle and out into the summer’s sun.

FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – A – March 29, 2020

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 37:12-14
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 8:8-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 11:1-45

Dear Readers,

I invite you to ponder the readings for the fifth Sunday of Lent before you read the narrative for this week’s reflection.

Didymus

I had not seen or heard from him for many years.  I recognized his voice with the first words that came to me over the telephone.  It was well past midnight.  I had been in deep sleep when the ring woke me.  By the third ring I had lifted the receiver and after a cough to clear my throat, I said, “Hello.”

“Do you know who this is?” he asked.

It amazes me the images that can flood the mind in a moment.  I saw him those many years ago as he sat across the table from me in a prison visiting room.  His usual posture was to sit hunched forward with his hands clutched between his knees.  Occasionally he would look at me; but for the most part, he stared at the floor as he spoke.  His voice was soft.  Often I had to strain to hear what he was saying.  When I first was getting to know him, I had thought that was because he did not want to be overheard.  I came to understand that the softness of his voice grew out of the gentle spirit that was at his core.

He spoke with pride of his ethnicity as a Native American.  I do not remember the tribe, but his surname was Eaglefeather.  His heart, he said, could soar like an eagle even when he was behind prison walls.  It is true that he was a criminal.  His crime resulted from alcohol abuse.  In sobriety and doing the time to which he was sentenced, he said he was embarrassed by what wine had driven him to do.

During the sessions when we were getting acquainted, he told me about his childhood and the poverty from which he came.  He spoke of the difficulty of life on the reservation and the alcoholism that plagued his family.  As a child he had vowed never to let alcohol dominate his life.  He had watched his father die and two of his siblings, all still comparatively young, none of them reaching fifty.

When he sketched he was oblivious of his surroundings.  From an early age he had wanted to be an artist.  He showed me books filled with his work.  Granted, his drawings in the beginning were crude; but even the earliest line drawings gave evidence of the talent he possessed.  As he refined his skills, he filled pages with details – leaves, flowers, profiles, hands, ears, and eyes.  And there were portraits of Jesus.  Some were obvious imitations of romantic religious art.  These evolved as his Jesus took on features of people Eaglefeather knew or imagined, all of them suffering.  His Jesus was masculine.  Sometimes he sat against a wall with a cup outstretched, begging.  Or Jesus cowered before those berating him.  Or, he sat whittling, telling stories to children seated at his feet.

Eaglefeather had a deep spirituality.  He prayed often, especially when he drew.  “I see Jesus in people, especially in the poor and the desperate.  I don’t know why it is so obvious to me.  When I was on the outside, I couldn’t pass by a beggar without giving something, even if it was the last dime I had.  And if someone was crying, I felt like weeping, too.  I shared the suffering until drink deadened my spirit and dulled me to the pain that was all around me.”

During our last visit in the prison room, Eaglefeather talked about his faith and how he envied my being a priest.  “You get to do the holy things, to help us to pray.  You tell us that God loves us.  And you get to touch the Holy, the Bread and the Wine.  Do you know what I have always wished I could do?”

“What is that?”

“I have always wished I could look in to the cup as you say the words to see the wine change.  Do you ever get used to that?”

“The appearance of the wine does not change anymore than its taste does.  Faith tells me it is different, not my eyes.  The people you see, how do they change when you see Jesus in them?  Aren’t they the same before and after?  Does anyone else see the difference you do?  It’s not your eyes that see the difference.  It is your faith that makes it so.”

A few days later, I received an Eaglefeather sketch in the mail.  Two hands held a chalice.  The contents of the cup were shadowed.  Just beyond the table, his eyes covered with a cloth that knotted at the back of his head, clad in period-less garb, a man sat in rags and leaned forward, supporting himself with one arm while his other open hand he held outstretched toward the cup.

“Do you know who this is?”

“Is that you, Lazarus?  It has been a long time.”

“I have called to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye?  What do you mean?”

“I am tired and I can’t do this anymore.  It has been such a long struggle.  You never knew about his, did you?  A short time after I got out of prison, my kidneys failed.  It wasn’t because of my drinking.  It was genetic and had to do with my high blood pressure.  I tried raging at God for a while which, as always, proved pointless.  Doctors told me that the only hope was a transplant.  In the meantime I would have to be on dialysis.

“Do you know what that means?”

I told him that I did know what dialysis is but that I had never dealt with anyone using the system.  He described how for four hours a day, three times a week, he was attached to the dialysis machine, a line coming out of one arm and another going into the other.  Four hours of purifying his blood of the toxins that, if allowed to build up in him, would kill him.  He spoke of exhaustion as he began the process and fatigue at its end.  The only day he felt normal and had any energy was the day after the treatment.

“I have a love/hate relationship with that awful machine.  I love it because it is a lifeline for me.  I hate it because I am enslaved to it and would die without it.

“I have tried to stay away, to quit, telling myself it is not worth it.  But I always went crawling back, limp, spent and barely able to stand.  They would hitch me up again and the process started all over again.  Five times I have done that.  I have decided I won’t go back again.  Ever.”

I heard the determination in his voice, even as I feared the implications of what he was saying.  I said nothing as I felt my heart pounding in my chest.  Finally I faltered: “Lazarus…Lazarus, is there anything I can do?”

“You are doing it,” he said.  “You’re listening to me.  I’m not telling you where I am so that you can’t come after me.  I won’t tell you where I am going so that you won’t be able to send help.  No one will find me until it is over.”

Tears welled in my eyes and my throat constricted.  I prayed for the right words, but nothing came.  I stood at the window of my bedroom and looked out into the night and the city lights.  I wondered if he could be in one of those windows looking out in my direction.  It was clear that he was alone at a time when no one should have to be.

“I want to ask you something,” he said.  “Do you think dying is the worst thing?”

“The worst thing?  I don’t know.  I do know that it is the one experience we will never understand until we go through it.  We can be with others as they die.  We can watch the last breath and see the change as life leaves the body.  But we can’t know death until we die.  I believe there is more.  But that is not because of what I have seen.  It is because of what I believe.”

“You told me once that we believe in the resurrection of the body because Jesus rose.  I have thought about that.  Will my body still be broken when it rises again?  Will my kidneys still not work?  Will I still be plagued with desires and feel the loneliness of my isolation?”

Oh, Lazarus, I don’t think so. I don’t know what your body will be like in the resurrection, only that it will be.  It is mystery.  It will lack nothing.  Your kidneys will work very well, if they have to.  Even the feminine part of you will be as complete as the masculine.  You are made in God’s image, after all, just like the Earthling before the fall.  And you will know love, inexhaustible love that is God.”

I’m blathering, I thought.  I felt desperate to find words that would soothe and comfort him.  I wanted to find a way to encourage him to try again, to continue with the dialysis process that he loved and hated.  But that was not what he was seeking from me.  He said he wanted me to listen.  I think he wanted me to support him and assure him that everything would be resolved in God’s love.

“Lazarus, I want you to feel my arms around you.  In the strength of that embrace, relax and rest your head on my shoulder.  I am with you.  I love you.  I will be with you to this journey’s end.  I promise you that.  That is all I can do.  And I will pray.”

I listened to the silence.  Then I heard a sob and a strangled voice cry out, “Oh, God!  Father, will Jesus be there?”

My cheeks were wet with tears.  I remember that my voice was clear and that I spoke with ease.  “Do you remember when you told me how you could see Jesus in all the people you met, especially in the poor and the suffering people?  God sees that way, too.  God is looking at you now.  In your suffering he recognizes Jesus in his passion.  God loves you with the same love God has for Jesus.  God is with you.  Nothing will separate you from that love.  God will take you by the hand and call you forth from the grave.  God will embrace you and lift you up.  God will wipe away your tears and put fine clothes on you and prepare a Feast….”

Is that where I stopped?  I don’t remember.  How did we say, “Goodbye?”  Could I have gone back to my bed and slept?  Or did I spend the night staring into the darkness yearning for the first signs of dawn?

I read the story in the newspaper.  They found Lazarus Eaglefeather in a campground on the other side of the mountains, seated cross-legged on a blanket on the ground and facing the east.