Friday, December 14, 2012

Literacy on the most important matters

Reposted in light of today's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. May God have mercy on the families, the community and the victims.


On September 14th, 2011, I had the opportunity to visit and have coffee with a grieving father whose 20 year old son died of cancer not even two years ago. During our conversation he was fighting back tears as if it happened yesterday. However, in his son’s name he has launched a foundation to help young men and women who struggle with cancer. The foundation is called Dan’s House of Hope. This act of charity has been a source of unity and strength for his family. Furthermore, it has given meaning to Dan’s death because it is helping other people. Still, the father carries the burden of not being able to see his son. The pain is still with him.

I couldn't help but recall that on every September 15th the Catholic Church honors Our Lady of Sorrows. It is a reminder to all Catholics that the Blessed Virgin was a mother who stood by her Son at the foot of Cross. Indeed, she also grieved the loss of a Son. Her tears, her grief and her anguish were every bit as real as ours. Sometimes we can forget that we love and serve a God who had, at one time, entered into the very shadows of death. To this day our Lord still bears the marks of death on his glorified body in order to demonstrate his deep connection with our trials.

As with her Son, Our Lady of Sorrows also joins us in our losses and in our valleys. She descends into the valley with us and points to the mountain top. But she not only points out the way, she helps us to summit this mountain where we will eventually see the panoramic view of God’s plan. From this height, we will come to understand why God allows those painful circumstances which, at times, have confounded us during our life and even tested our faith.

This leads us to my last consideration: My daughter, while she was in middle school, helped to rewrite- along with another teacher -a Passion play for her school. This play was not only to bring to life the Fourteen Stations of the Cross but it also incorporated the witness of the Catholic martyrs. This “other teacher” (my daughter found out after the Passion play) had lost a close brother through a tragic death. At the funeral of her brother her mother threw herself on the casket and wept copiously, crying “My son! my son! I will always love you!” It just so happened that the teacher (sister of the deceased man) could not shake this image of her crying mother. As such, she had recurring nightmares about the death of her brother as well as her mother's profound grief at his funeral. In any case, when the Passion played debuted, there was a particular act (or scene) that moved her to tears. It so inspired her that it had a healing affect (of sorts) on her soul. Her nightmares about her brother had ceased from that day forward. She was then able to remember her brother’s death in a new light and bear the pain with new strength.

The Lord not only took our sins to the Cross. He also took our pain and our tears to Calvary so that so that suffering and death would not have the last word. To be sure, God's chosen instrument of resurrection and new life is suffering and death. It is the Mystery of the Cross that can permit so much pain in our lives but yet, at the same time, give new life and joy.

The following blog, “Literacy on The Most Important Matters,” was originally posted as three separate blogs. Below they are partitioned accordingly.

Literacy on the Most Important Matters: Part I

Just a few weeks ago [October 11th, 2010] I accompanied my eighth grade daughter to one of her last volleyball games of the season. Her team wanted to celebrate the end of a good season by taking the volleyball coach out to pizza just prior to the game. After dinner was over, they presented him gifts of appreciation for all the good work he had done. As he was thanking the girls, his eyes became teary-eyed. He said that it had been exactly ten months since his son, Dan, had died of cancer. Dan was 20 years old at the time of his death. Among the gifts that were given to him was a little bit of money. The coach expressed his intention to invest the money into a foundation called "Dan's House of Hope," the purpose of which is to give care and treatment to adolescents who suffer from cancer.

What to say? After taking it all in I noticed he was sitting by himself while the girls were chatting amongst themselves. I sat down next him and told him that I heard many good things about his son and that someday I was hoping that he could sit down and tell me all about him. To my surprise, the coach who had just collected himself from an emotional speech, began to recount his son’s death. Th coach went on to tell me that Dan was flown to the Philippines for treatment in late 2009. In order to make a long story short, as a last ditch effort to stop the growth of Dan's cancer, his extremities were amputated…but to no avail. Dan's time to depart this life was at hand. It was a real heart breaker. Towards the end of our discussion, he mentioned that Dan had a tear in his eye just before his passing. The grieving father seemed to think that it was a tear of joy. Perhaps, Dan saw heaven closing in on him.

Interestingly, the coach concluded our conversation by saying that he wished that “God would hit him over the head” to convince him that Dan, his son, was in a better place. It just so happen later that evening I sat next to a lady at the volleyball game who knew Dan very well. Dan happened to be friends with her daughter. During the few months of his cancer treatments, Dan would come over to her house quite a bit to visit. According to her, Dan never complained. Indeed, he was a good Catholic boy who was quite accepting of his condition. Needless to say, my talking companion on the gym bleachers thought that Dan was in heaven. I do agree that people now days are too quick and presumptuous to canonize their deceased loved ones; but it would seem, from all accounts, that Dan died as a friend of God.

As I was driving home I got to thinking: What do you tell a grieving father who had just lost his son to cancer? What could possibly put a father's loss in context? In hindsight, I wish I was more literate on the subject matter of heaven. I understand there is only so much you can say. But the thought occurred to me that the hope of seeing a deceased loved one again in God's presence is something that I, as a Christian, should be able to articulate.

Literacy on the Most Important Matters: Part II

“Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.”

-Hebrews 2:14-15

After my conversation with the coach over the loss of his son, a second thought came to me: Given the duration and permanence of heaven (or hell), a Catholic would expect to hear more about it in conversation, in teachings or in sermons. After all, if we intend to spend eternity there, we should give it some thought. But in order to know something about heaven- and in order to talk about it -we first have to think about heaven. Eternal happiness, according to the Saints, should occupy our thoughts throughout the week and be the content of our meditations. If heaven is given equal consideration to any future event we normally plan for- such as a vacation, a career or a wedding –then it is something that can be eagerly anticipated. When life is understood in light of eternity then death itself ceases to be perceived as the end of all that is good.

Perhaps, this is the reason why heaven- as well as hell -is rarely addressed even among Christians: And the reason is that the only way to get to heaven is to first pass through the Gates of Death. Naturally, we wince from death as if it is some alien intruder taking away something that can never be retrieved again. As such, death is regarded as something completely foreign to us; an enemy, if you will. But the fear of death leads to a kind of slavery (Hebrew 2:15); or at least a handicap which inspires a very conservative approach to life. If this life is all that counts, then we tend to hoard earthly goods for fear of losing them forever. We take fewer risks and we even love less because of those risks. Every day that passes is one day closer to the end. And for that reason we are constantly in a hurry to accumulate as many experiences we can. Youth is esteemed as our best days. Wisdom and nobility that used to come with old age is overlooked and under appreciated. Indeed, the ultimate insult is to call a person “old.” All this because death marks the end to all that is worthwhile in life! But grace bids us to think otherwise.

St. Ambrose, a Father and Doctor of the Church, said that “We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body. It must soar above earthly lusts to a place where they cannot come near, to hold it fast. It must take on the likeness of death, to avoid the punishment of death.” Ambrose continues: “It was by the death of one man that the world was redeemed. Christ did not need to die if he did not want to, but he did not look on death as something to be despised, something to be avoided, and he could have found no better means to save us than by dying. Thus his death is life for all.”

Words which seemed so familiar and dear to the early Christians, are, quite frankly, strange and outlandish to twenty-first century Christians. But do they need to be if death is portrayed as a vestibule to heaven?

Literacy on the Most Important Matters: Part III

I heard a voice from heaven say, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," said the Spirit, "let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them." (Revelation 14:13)

To have a “daily familiarity with death” and to “take on the likeness of death” sounds academic and downright foolish if it is not a living reality. For a grieving father who had just lost his son to cancer, all the theological talk about death and heaven can be a poor substitution for real consolation. Even the greatest of Saints, such as St. Augustine, when his mother died and St. Jean Chantal, when she lost her daughter, were knocked off of their feet by the death of their feet. In his book "Confessions," St. Augustine wrote he was surprised at the profound depth of his grief over his mother's death. And as for St. Jean Chantal, she cried copious tears for foour days when her daughter died.

With that said, it is equally true to say that the cause of their mourning was put in the context of eternity. The hope of seeing their departed loved ones was revived by their faith, their spirituality and their daily participation in the Liturgy. Furthermore, their meditation on death as the vestibule of eternal life; acts of self-denial such as fasting; choosing to love God's will whether circumstances were agreeable or disagreeable; and offering simple sacrifices such as bearing criticism and humiliation in silence; all of these practices were practices that St. Ambrose referred to as being "daily familiar with death." As one priest wrote, "Life is born of death and that in God's hands suffering is the chosen instrument of resurrection." Scripture and the prayers of the Mass go to great lengths to remind us of this truth.

In the Sanctus, just prior to the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar, Catholics proclaim to God that “Heaven and earth are full of your glory!” The good things on this earth- and even our dear loved ones –are but the foretaste of better things to come. Whether it be time well spent with family or seeing a beautiful sunset, these things serve as windows to heaven through the eyes of faith. And the human spirit is never completely satisfied with the good things of this earth nor does it feel at home until it rests in God's beatitude.

St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini captured this inspiration when she was on route from Genoa, Italy, to New York in 1894. One day when the weather was pleasant and the ocean calm, she wrote how this scenic moment from the deck of the ship reminded her of heaven:

There is a charming blue sky above and below us one can hardly distinguish the sea from the sky…the glorious splendor renders everything so bright and brilliant that the passengers exclaim, "How lovely, how beautiful!" We seem to see the portals of the heaven which do not close at the end of the day, because there day time never ends, for the day up there is eternal and the light which emanates from the Divine Face never fails.

There, in that abode, exist no night, no ignorance, no blindness, for everything is seen in God; there, no sorrows exist, no tears, no adversity, no sighs… Friends reach there at every moment, every instant; they do not disturb, but, rather, render the repose serene and sweet. Oh, sublime City, send down your beams of Light to these regions of darkness, this shadow of death where we still miserably live. Come, Oh Supernatural Light, to reveal to us the beauties of that Blessed Country, and detach us from the miseries of this earth; make our eyes so pure that, through the shining crystal of Faith, they may behold the eternal good which awaits us after a short time of sacrifice and self-conquering. He who fights will be victorious, and to the victor the prize is Heaven.

With such words, this depiction of heaven seems worth living for. But the difficulties of life, especially losing a loved one through death, reminds us that we are pilgrims in the "regions of darkness." In the Salve Regina we petition the Mother of God with the following words: “To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” As we suffer and as we mourn, this truth is most deeply impressed upon our souls. In the absence of people we love and even in the absence of the things we grow attached to, we are left with a void only God can fill. For those who love Christ and long to see Him face to face, that void will be filled; but only in heaven. In the meantime, we would do well to think, to talk and to write about heaven.

Like the early Christians, we can be literate on this most important matter of life! We too can be a people of hope and thus articulate that hope to those who struggle to find it.

It is my prayer that Dan's father will be filled with that hope...the hope of immortality...the hope of seeing his son again; and even more so, the hope of seeing Jesus face to face!