Birth and Death and Rebirth

Birth and Death and Rebirth

In March, before COVID became a full-blown pandemic, I ordered four icons from an Orthodox icon shop I’ve used in the past. They were able to ship two of the icons before needing to close their shop due to state restrictions and for the health of their employees. The other two would be shipped at a later date, as they were able to re-open and continue production of the icons.

When I got an email a few weeks ago, it said the icons were shipping and would arrive the middle of the next week. The situation was humorous since I had been home for weeks on end and during the one week of the summer I was away, the long-awaited icons were delivered to my doorstep, where they waited for my arrival a few days later. Of course, I exclaimed, to anyone who would listen to me, of course the icons arrive when I cannot be there to get the package.

A couple of days later, I learned of the death of a dear friend of the family. There are dozens of memories of my childhood and young adult life that I can return to and find this man filling the scene with his lively personality. He and his wife were friends of my parents. They were present for important sacraments and were the babysitters for my younger sister and me on occasion. Later, they were my bosses as I worked for them during the late-summer and fall. So many reflections on their frequent presence in my life and the unique role they had in relation to my family. Over the next few days, my family and I reminisced over the eccentricities and humor of our beloved friend.

When I returned home a few days later, I retrieved the package on my doorstep, grateful that it wasn’t damaged by rain or heat. I opened up my package and saw the two delayed icons.


The Raising of Lazarus from the dead


“Epitaphios”–an image of the body of Christ used in Orthodox and Byzantine liturgies at the end of Holy Week

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Only to bring him to life

Only to bring him to life

I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life.

Innocent Smith in Manalive, GK Chesterton

The priest at Mass the other day posed the question: if it was possible to know, would you want to know when you would die?

As a melancholic, death is never too far from my mind and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While I don’t have strong feelings about the question one way or the other, I was thinking of some of the benefits of knowing when I would die, even if there is wisdom in not knowing. Sometimes, when death is clearly imminent, it compels us to truly embrace living. When our time is definitively short, we can move from passive existence to passionately experiencing life.

Is that type of wholehearted living reserved only for those who know death is at their door? Could I do that now? If people are able to live more when death comes close, could we just do now what we would do if we knew?

It made me consider how I would change my life if I knew the times of other events. Besides death, there are many other things that seem to be unknown yet shape how I live. For example, if I knew within the next year I would meet someone I would marry, would it change how I live? I believed that I would. What if it was five years, would that change how I live now? Yes, it would. What if I knew I would never get married? Again, yes.

And then I asked myself an important question: why?

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Noli Me Tangere

Noli Me Tangere

Part of the way through the Easter Vigil Mass I realized something I had subconsciously believed even as I intellectually knew it wasn’t true. I realized that COVID-19 wasn’t confined to Lent. The absence of public Masses wasn’t just a wild Lenten penance. It was a reality that was going to endure for who-knows-how-long. In the midst of a time of penance and sacrifice, it was somewhat understandable to accept and embrace this unasked for restriction. Yet in the time of Easter joy, how did one continue to embrace this cross, even while gesturing toward the empty tomb?

Intellectually, I was fully aware that this was an enduring thing. Yet after passing into the Easter season, I have been pondering this odd cross-section of joy and sacrifice. Of course, it is possible to be joyful in the midst of sacrifice. Love, nearly by definition, involves sacrificing ourselves for the good of the beloved. Yet long, protracted sacrifice in the middle of a liturgical season set aside for rejoicing, feasting, and innumerable alleluias being uttered? How does one do that?

I don’t exactly know, but I am trying.

It helps that I try to often remind my students that we are in the Easter season and should do something special to celebrate this time. At times, I find myself recording videos for them and thinking I need to do this, too.

It has surprised me how I can sometimes enter into prayer when I am praying “remotely.” Like when Pope Francis had some time of adoration during the Urbi et Orbi blessing a few weeks ago. Sitting on my couch in front of my computer and adoring Jesus in Rome seemed kind of silly. Yet as I prayed alone yet communally, I found that I was able to enter into prayer. It wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it worked in that moment. This was a moment of joy, to find myself with Jesus even as I was separated from His Eucharistic presence.

So here we are, fully into the Easter season, steadily working our way through the Easter Octave, filled with joy and yet still experiencing sacrifice. But I guess that makes it a bit like that first Easter Sunday when St. Mary Magdalene encountered Christ at the tomb. In her desire to keep him near, we see Jesus saying to not hold onto Him. Wasn’t this miraculous triumph over death the fullness of joy?

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A Thousand Deaths

A Thousand Deaths

When Jesus was confronted with untrue accusations, do you remember what He did? As the Sanhedrin gathered false testimony, as Pilate presented questions given by the chief priests, as Jesus struggled beneath the weight of the cross and the jeers of the people, as Jesus was maligned while on the cross, do you remember what He chose?

Silence.

How hard it is to not rush to our own defense! When situations are misrepresented, when intentions are skewed, when honest questions are left unanswered, it is a tremendous act of the will to not attempt to set all things right. Sometimes, it is necessary to provide clarity and correctness and other times it is completely unnecessary. And sometimes it is necessary to try to show the misunderstandings, but to ultimately fail in convincing them of their skewed view.

We always feel the pains of injustice acutely when it offends our own sense of justice. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and I tend to think about how glorious and courageous were their deaths. Yet each of those martyrdoms was preceded by many, many small bloodless deaths. St. Paul didn’t only suffer beheading in Rome. Before that, he was imprisoned, he experienced riot after riot when preaching the Gospel, he was looked upon with distrust by the Jews and the Christians after his striking conversion, and he spent much time in chains for the sake of the Gospel. His final suffering, the death of a martyr, was simply the last death he experienced in a long line of dying to self.

Most of our stories won’t be quite that dramatic. We probably won’t sit unjustly condemned in terrible prisons awaiting our cruel deaths. We will, however, suffer in other ways. And it will be in ways that will be easy to want to reject or feel the need to correct. As Jesus heard false testimony, I am certain He had at least part of a desire to simply say, “I didn’t say that. That isn’t right. You weren’t there. You are intentionally misrepresenting me.” Instead, He suffered in silence with the Lord. He knew that the truth would be revealed and He rested with the Lord in the midst of being misunderstood. He invites us to do the same, in the small and the large sufferings of our daily life.

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Vanity of Vanities

Vanity of Vanities

I don’t generally consider myself to be vain. Perhaps I have a sort of intellectual vanity, but physical vanity doesn’t usually seem to be my downfall. There was an article I read that said my personal hell would be that every time I open my mouth to say something intelligent, something completely idiotic would come out instead. Based on how strongly I felt that, I assume I must have a rather decently sized strain of vanity when it comes to if people think I am smart or stupid.

A few weeks ago, I asked some of my family if they would rather have people think they were smart or beautiful. For me, the answer was pretty clear—I don’t care too much about beauty, but I care a great deal about intellect. So it seems I would be rather virtuous when it comes to physical vanity.

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Learning the Way of the Cross

Learning the Way of the Cross

Lord, what are you saying to me in this situation?

I was in the chapel with a class of students as we prayed the Stations of the Cross. Only a few were actually praying the words out loud. Others were loudly flipping their papers every time they needed to turn a page. Some acted like genuflecting was a gargantuan task when I know they will go work out at the gym after school. Others were barely alert, kneeling and standing only because the people around them were doing it.

Frustrated and a bit angry, I wondered what I should do about it. It wouldn’t go well to stop them all to tell them to pray louder or ask for more of them to pray. Telling them to not act like kneeling was difficult would only draw attention to it if they continued to carry on in that manner. So I tried to forget about their indifference and enter into the Stations myself.

Interestingly, the words of my spiritual director kept coming to mind. He mentioned that teaching and following the Lord might look like the Stations of the Cross. My life might have to resemble that suffering if I was to do the Lord’s will. And here I was: actually praying the Stations and feeling so done with the antics of teenagers.

Lord, what can I see in this?

As I watched them mechanically perform the proper actions, I thought about how they don’t care. Ah, Lord, sometimes I don’t care, too. I imagined myself on the couch watching a movie and the Lord inviting me to pray yet not caring enough to do so. I pondered the Lord asking me to love my neighbor yet realizing that I do not do that very well at all. The very thing I was lamenting in my students was rooted deeply within my soul, too.

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Where is Jesus in it?

It is painfully beautiful to be alive.

I’ve experienced the piercing blade of beauty.  It makes you wince and feel more alive all at once.  The delicate blanket of fog that covers the lake nestled amidst the Swiss Alps.  A sunrise view atop a radio tower on a mountain in Austria.  Glorious fields of grain stretching to the horizon.  The crinkled eyes of a loved one when they are smiling.  Late nights spent talking with a friend you haven’t seen for too long.  In these moments, the beauty strikes our hearts and it is easy to see, take in, and embrace the glories of being alive.

Sometimes the emphasis seems to fall more on the side of pain as opposed to beauty.  Yet in most moments (I’m not certain if I can argue for all moments yet), one can find beauty in the pain, if one is willing to look for it.

The beauty found in the pain of: waking up early for work, a morning run with a dear friend when talking takes far too much effort, a heart overflowing with all sorts of emotions, and speaking difficult words that later bring peace.

And then there are the moments where life seems to blindside you, where the pain is evident but the beauty is masked.

A young person I barely knew recently died.  I guess I am uncertain what type of response I expected to have.  My heart ached and a heaviness filled it.  At one point, as captive tears broke free, I wondered if this is what it means to have a mature heart, one that can feel pain even when the tragedy doesn’t really change one’s life.  The pain didn’t just last for a few moments but seemed to linger, clouding my thoughts and casting a pallor over the next couple days.

It was uncertain how he died, but I kept imagining the different scenarios I was told.  At Mass on Saturday, I couldn’t help it.  My brain insisted on replaying the possible options, my heart aching with each dramatic death I imagined.  I hoped that maybe I would be able to speak to my spiritual director about it and gain his perspective.  Then I realized that I already knew what he would say to me.

He would ask, “Where is Jesus in it?”

So I tried it.  “Where is Jesus in this tragedy?”  I replayed the awful images but inserted Jesus into the mental video.  There He was–walking right beside the boy, tears coursing down His face, gently whispering his name.  It was a painfully beautiful experience as I watched Him carry him.  Soon I was including a guardian angel and the Blessed Mother into the picture.  It was transforming the scene.  The tragedy was still there, but the beautiful pain was making an appearance.

This truth that I had learned before was once again re-impressed on my heart: Christ never leaves us.  Regardless of what we do, how far we try to run, or what we tangibly experience, Jesus is always present, gently whispering our names, and desiring to enter into the wounds we try so hard to fill with insufficient medicine.

Throughout life, none of us walks or falls or lives alone.  Christ is always there in the midst.  And that is what makes life painfully beautiful.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us.  There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered.  There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us.”     -St. John Paul the Great

The Death of My Grandpa

Before leaving for my silent retreat, I gave my mom the phone number of my spiritual director.  I didn’t want updates or messages, but I wanted her to have it in case something happened.  Specifically, I was thinking about my grandparents’ declining health.  While I knew it was possible something would happen, I really thought things would be fine, that my precaution was simply preparing for the worst that wouldn’t actually happen.

A few days into the retreat, I returned from Mass to find a note outside my door.  My mom had called and my grandpa was not doing well.  I picked up the note, read it a couple times, and then sat on the couch and cried.  My heart was aching, in part for myself but also for my mother.  After lunch, I sat on the same couch and entered into one of my hours of prayer.  Yet at each little noise, I envisioned the downstairs door opening and my spiritual director coming to tell me that my grandpa had died.  Then I realized he would probably just wait until our scheduled time.  But that didn’t make me stop listening for each sound, anticipating the door opening and steps on the stairs.

When he arrived, I asked if my mom had called.  He said she had.  For a moment, I was hopeful that she called to say things improved.  He sat down, told me that my grandpa had died, and then looked at me.  I, meanwhile, looked down.  And he waited, patiently.  Having already cried, I wanted to just move on and not revisit the tears.  Yet at just a couple questions from him, I was starting to cry.

My grandpa’s death wasn’t tragic.  He was in his 90s and had been waiting for death for a while.  The last time I visited him, he joked that the only thing left to pick out were the pallbearers.  The sense of humor is key to knowing my grandpa.  Over the last few years, I had come to see a side of my grandpa that was new.  He would open up about fears, he would talk about death, and he would get frequently misty-eyed.

I remained on retreat as long as I could, leaving early to go to my grandpa’s wake.  Driving there, I assumed that I would begin to cry as soon as I saw my mom.  Had she started to cry, I would have started, too, but she did not.  After greeting a few of my aunts and uncles, I sat in the church with some relatives and my grandpa’s casket.  I made it through that and the wake that evening without crying.  The next day at the funeral, I was near tears only a couple times, but never succumbed.

The burial is where I wept.  Prior to this, I wasn’t refusing to cry.  I was grieving, I had cried, and I felt very much at peace with my grandpa’s death.  While I didn’t see him all the time, I saw him fairly often and he had lived a good, long life.  The sight of uniformed military personnel is enough to get me near tears.  There is something so beautiful about the uniformed men, following commands, paying their respects to the deceased.  The twenty-one gunshot salute for the World War II veteran was jarring and the crying infant seemed appropriate.

But then one of my uncles brought out a couple five-gallon buckets of dirt from the family farm.  Each person was able to go over and scoop up some dirt, placing it on the casket.  First the line wove past my grandma, as well as my grandpa’s siblings.  Sobs were coming up before I even got to them.  I couldn’t help but consider their sorrow–losing a husband of 65 years or a sibling.  My grandma sat there, looking tough and frail all at once.  My heart ached for her as I bent down, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  I was then shoveling a bit of earth, so dear to farmers, and pouring it on the casket.    

I watched as the others filed through.  My immediate family happened to be standing on the other side of the grave, but I was busy pulling myself back together.  One of my uncles saw me and came over to me and gave me a side hug.  Though we are not particularly close, we were united deeply in our grief.  His hug was strong as his head leaned on mine, messing up my hair.  We spoke briefly, but remained in that hug for a while.  It was the familial bond that I was blessed to experience so ardently that day.

The Providential God

The only thing certain about life is that it is uncertain. 

That isn’t deep or profound.  But it is true.  Yesterday I found out that a young woman I went to college with lost her husband of 5 months.  It made my heart ache even though we never talked much.  I was surprised the effect it had on me.  That evening and this morning I found myself thinking a lot about her and how hard it must be. 

Yet it made me worry for myself.  Too often I trick myself into thinking that my complete happiness will come when I am engaged, or finally married, or starting a family.  Everything is transient, though, and it can all be taken away in a moment.  My heart began to feel restricted and desired to be closed off.  I began to desire that I would never be in a situation where so much could be lost.  So quickly I was being tricked into thinking that to be closed off was a better option than suffering at the hands of love or for the sake of love.

I imagined what she was feeling and I knew I never wanted to feel that.  I didn’t ask the age-old question, “God, why do bad things happen to good people?  Why did this tragedy happen?”  I didn’t ask that question because I didn’t wonder it.  The question I asked instead was “What can I cling to, Lord?  How could I endure losing that which I hold closest to my heart?”  In honesty, I was thinking that having God alone wasn’t enough for me.  I wanted more than the assurance that God would always be with me.  Instead I wanted promises that specific people would always be in my life, that certain things would never happen to me, and that parts of my heart would be left unbroken. 

I know that God alone is enough.  That He provides the graces for every heartache.  Yet in all honesty, I do not live as though He is enough.  I do not cling to Him now as though He is all that is certain.  I cling to other superficial things or to things, good as they are, that cannot fulfill me.

My mind knows the correct answer.  God will provide.  In fact, God is providing.  It is not some future promise but rather a lived reality.  The paradox of love is that one must love with one’s heart vulnerable and revealed or it is not actually love.  Yet to love means one will suffer and feel sorrow.  I have a natural tendency to want to protect my heart, to guard it from all that could injure it.  This can be good but it can also close it off from a deep, penetrating love.  The battle within is between self-preservation and self-gift.

This little heart has a lot of expanding to do.  She needs to begin to live as though everything rests in the hands of God and that He will truly provide for every need.  To be so grounded in the Lord that should all else be lost, she could rest assured that not everything was truly lost.  Sacred Heart of Jesus, sanctify our hearts.

P.S. My household sister who lost her husband has a fund set up for her and their unborn baby.  If you feel your heart moved in that direction, please give a gift of money.  Regardless, please pray for them.

http://www.gofundme.com/5fd75k   

The Lord provides for the tender hearted

The Lord has given me the gift of a tender heart.  I don’t always view it as a gift, I don’t always want people to know about it, but on occassions I am reminded to be thankful for it.  Now this sensitivity doesn’t mean I cry when I see a dead deer and worry about Bambi.  It also doesn’t mean that I sob over soap operas and run to see every chick flick in theaters. 

What it does mean is that I nearly cried the other night when I saw a gorgeous sunset.  It means I cannot read “A Child Called It” because I feel physically sick and begin to feel depressed.  My sister brought the book home from the library several years ago and I tried to read part of it.  The story focuses on the abuse a young boy endures at the hands of his mother.  I feel sick just thinking about the way I felt when I read the first pages.  This sensitive heart causes me to remember things people said or did years ago that they probably didn’t intend to be lasered into my memory.  It meant that I had to will myself to not cry when my principal was talking to me about how I handled a situation last year.  He wasn’t even angry or yelling at me but I had to keep willing myself to not let the tears fall.  “Trish.  You cannot cry.  You are an adult.”  So I managed to not cry…until he left the room.  Then I sobbed.  This tender heart causes me to cry each time I open it up a little in spiritual direction.  I plan to high-5 Father the first time I manage to walk out of there without having shed tears.  This tender heart causes me to long for Heaven as though I have been homesick my entire life.

Recently a man who had worked with my dad died due to brain cancer.  He kept a blog about the journey he was making with the cancer.  Instead of becoming bitter and cynical or blaming God, he called his cancer “the gift.”  I didn’t really know him, but I loved seeing him at the different Masses around town.  As I read through some of his blog entries, I cried.  He writes about how he sees God each day and encouraged people to look for God wherever they were.  I think of the family he leaves behind and I mourn for them.  Yet I also think (though I don’t intend to minimize their pain) about what a gift all of it actually could be for them.  To know that you will be dying and soon.  It would make me live each day to the full.

But shouldn’t I already be doing that?  Why is it that the fear of death suddenly makes us desire to live?  St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  I want to be fully alive.  Sometimes it takes a sunset to wake me from my stupor.  Or the feeling of holding a beautiful niece in my arms as she squirms and smiles.  Every now and then I am just struck by reality–the grass is really green or the sky seems so clear.  Suddenly I can see and I realize how blind I let myself become 

Lord, help me to embrace this tender heart.  This heart that causes tears to well up in my eyes at inconvenient times and yet allows me to see a beauty that is perhaps overlooked.  Above all, help me to place my tender heart within the wound of Your Sacred Heart.  Only there is it truly safe, only there can she find rest.  Thank You, Lord, for this gift called life—the challenges, the heartaches, the joys, the blessings, the experiences of You that reaffirm that all of this has a purpose.  Thank You, Lord.  Amen.