Mary and the Fourteenth Station

Today is Friday and Fridays during Lent are a traditional day for Stations of the Cross. Many churches have evening services where people do the Stations in groups. Others like to pray them individually.

There are many versions of the Stations and many people have their own favorite – whether it is Clarence Enzler’s Everyone’s Way of the Cross (one of my favorites) or the St. Alphonsus Liguori Stations of the Cross or the Social Justice Stations of the Cross and so on.

The one I picked to reflect on this week is The Stations of the Cross with Mary, from Creighton University Online Ministries.

For all of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one (which I’m guessing is pretty much all of us), the prayer of the Fourteenth Station, Jesus is laid in the tomb is a very powerful one. Here it is:

No mother should ever have to bury a child. Just a short time before this day, Jesus looked into Lazarus’ tomb. He must have known he would be laid in a tomb like that soon. And when he thanked God for hearing his prayer, he must have known that the Father who sent him would give him life that would never die. In just a few days, this tomb would be empty and forever a sign of Jesus’ surrender to the forces of sin and death, for us.

As we picture this scene, let us place the image of the empty tomb before our eyes. Whenever you are tempted to stand outside any tomb and grieve, remember this empty tomb and know that, through the eyes of faith, all tombs are empty. Today, join me in giving him thanks. Join me in signing ourselves with the sign of his cross, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Even during Lent, we remember that the tomb is empty. I’m reminded, as I pray Mary’s prayer, of the some lines of a song I’ve heard used as a recessional hymn, Goodness is Stronger than Evil: “Vic’try is ours, vict’ry is ours through him who loved us. Vic’try is ours, vic’try is ours through him who loved us.”

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I Am Not Afraid to Die

My cousin Bobby was a fireman for almost twenty years when he lost his life fighting a house fire on November 23, 2008. Since his death, family and friends have annually held a toy drive for children of the burn center where he had been treated after a previous job-related injury.

The website for this year’s drive, which is going on now, includes two videos, one of pictures of Bobby through the years (which was both sweet and painful for me to watch) and the second of which scrolled through a journal Bobby was required to keep in one of his 8th grade classes.

On June 2 of that 8th grade year, at the age of about 13, Bobby wrote an entry in his journal titled Life and Death! The post begins on a note I suspect resonates for most of us, whether or not we articulate it.

I’ll tell you right now, I don’t plan on dying for another seventy years.

Intellectually, we know we can die any time, but that’s not how we live our lives. We live with an expectation that we can plan for things that will happen next year….when we retire…when our children have children, etc. We don’t plan on dying – and we certainly do not plan on dying young.

Bobby went on to say

I would like to live to be about eighty or eighty-five. A lot of people would rather be dead than alive. I think that they are damn fools… Life is the most precious gift God ever made, and it should not be taken advantage of.

Bobby knew then – and continued to know as he grew to adulthood that life is precious. That it is a gift from God. And he lived that way.

The next line was chilling to me – Bobby’s hope for how he would die.

When I die, I would like to die in my sleep, because it is painless and peaceful.

Bobby didn’t die in his sleep. He was killed when an attic ceiling collapsed on him as he was fighting a house fire, knocking off his helmet and air mask. I’d like to think his death was painless, but it is hard for to me to imagine that possibility given the circumstances. In any event, it certainly wasn’t peaceful.

Even at that young age, Bobby understood that his hope was only just that – a hope. His next journal line reads

But, then again, I can’t control when or how I die.

An important realization, but one we have trouble acknowledging.

How did that lack of control make him feel? The final line – the last thing he felt he needed to add to his journal entry – gives all the answer that is needed. I read it and simultaneously smiled and cried:

There is one other thing too, I am not afraid to die.

The words of an 8th grader. How deep was his theological understanding of resurrection of the dead when he wrote those lines? I don’t know. But I hope as he grew he continued to know that the God who gifted him with life would also be there holding him when he died.

“I am not afraid to die.” May we all have the security of God’s boundless and eternal love, the security that allows us to face death without fear.

What Will You Say at the End of the Day

As part of programs designed to help people discern their vocation in life, I’ve sometimes asked people to do a version of an obituary exercise. There are many versions of the exercise, but the thrust is to get people to focus on how they want to be remembered.

I thought about the exercise in connection with today’s first Mass reading. In the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul, knowing that the time of his death is approaching, says: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” Not a bad thing to be able to say at the end of the day.

When asked at the time he retired from the Supreme Court what he thought was his greatest accomplishment, Thurgood Marshall replied: “I did the best I could with what I had.” I’d like to be able to say that also.

And then there is the humorist Erma Bombeck, whose version of Marshall’s sentiment was, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.” I can’t think of a better way of expressing gratitude to God for all of our gifts.

What will you say to God as the end of your human life? What do you want to be able to say?

Celebrating a Life

Yessterday we buried my Aunt Bunny. After a two-day wake during which family and friends from came from far and wide to pay their respects, we gathered at St. Clare’s Church in Staten Island for the funeral mass, following which a caravan of cars followed the hearse to Resurrection Cemetary, where my aunt was buried alongside her husband (Uncle Blaise). While there, we visited the graves of my father and uncles Bob and Michael, all of whom are buried within about 100 feet of each other.

We then regrouped at the condo Aunt Bunny shared with Aunt Carol, my father’s other sister. Family and friends spent the whole day there, eating, drinking, talking, telling stories and just being together.

Later in the afternoon, someone brought out some games and several groups sat at various tables playing cards or scattegories or something else. At one point, Aunt Carol turned to me and said, somewhat troubled, “Why are we doing this? Look people are laughing and having a good time. How can we be doing this today?”

My answer was swift and firm: Because Aunt Bunny would have wanted this. Because she would have been happy to see all of us here together. Because she would have wanted us to celebrate and enjoy our love for her and each other. We are all deeply pained at the loss and we have all cried a lot over the last weeks, and especially the last few days. But she would not have wanted us to sit all day glum and silent; that would have done her no honor.

As I answered her, Aunt Carol nodded her head in agreement. She, who knew her sister better than anyone, knew that Aunt Bunny would have wanted exactly what went on yesterday: the family she loved gathered in love and enjoying each other’s company.

Death and Complicated Feelings

In a couple of hours my husband and I will fly to New York for the wake and funeral of my aunt, who died Tuesday night. I was fortunate enough to spend this past Friday through Monday visiting with her in the hospital in New York – getting to say good-bye and I love you and hear her say she loved me also, and getting a few final doses of her humor in those moments of lucidity.

Our reactions to death are never simple. My aunt was suffering tremendously near the end from her pancreatic cancer, making it impossible not to pray for a speedy death to put an end to the torment. (As I did when my own father was dying of this disease, I prayed to God to take her quickly.) On the other hand, none of us wanted her to be gone; the idea of not having her around is deeply painful to all of us. Intellectually, it is easy to separate those: to recognize that the relief at the end of her suffering is other-directed and the grief of her absence is about us. But the feelings get all jumbled up inside.

For me, what emerges from the complicated pool of feelings is one simple thought: I believe in the resurrection. My deep consolation is that Jesus’ own resurrection was victory over death for all of us. Our death means resurrection to eternal live.

I’ll miss Aunt Bunny’s humor, her strength, her fierce protectiveness of all those she loved, her storytelling, her instructions for how to cook baccala. (I sure hope I can find the notes I scrawled last time I forgot how she told me to make it.)

I’ll miss a lot. But I can’t begrudge her the joy of eternal life with God. So my tears these upcoming days – and there will be tears – will be mixed with consolation.

How We Greet Death

Yesterday I picked up my Bible and it opened to Chapter 41 of the Book of Sirach. The first four verses of that chapter read

O death! How bitter is the thought of you
for the one at peace in his home,
For the one who is serene and always successful,
who can still enjoy life’s pleasures.
O death! How welcome is your sentence
to the weak, failing in strength,
Stumbling and tripping on everything,
with sight gone and hope lost.
Do not fear death’s decree for you;
remember, it embraces those before you and those to come.
This decree for all flesh is from God;
why then should you reject a law of the Most High?
Whether one has lived a thousand years, a hundred, or ten,
in the netherworld he has no claim on life.

Fitting words for me to read at this time: “Whether one has lived a thousand years, a hundred, or ten…he has no claim on life.”

My aunt is dying. In one sense, she has been dying for over two years: She was diagnosed in November 2009 with pancreatic cancer, the disease that killed my father (her brother) as well as my uncle (her husband), a disease that always kills. But in the last couple of weeks she has taken a very bad turn for the worse and it is now clear that we are nearing the end.

We’re never really ready for death when it comes. We always want more time with our loved ones. And we always think there should be more time, since we expect that everyone should live to a ripe old age.

It is good to be reminded that none of us have any claim to a particular life span. We all die. Some older, some younger, some from disease, some from natural causes, some from accident, some at the hands of another.

The consolation is that death – no matter when or how it occurs – always means return to full union with God. Death means resurrection to eternal live. And, in the case of those suffering as my aunt now is, death means the end of pain.

The Other Side of Death

Thanksgiving has become a bittersweet holiday for my family. Three years ago today, my then 46-year old cousin died.

Bobby was a New york City firefighter. Described by those with whom he worked as “a fireman’s fireman, he took a shift from another firefighter who had been scheduled to work on the evening of November 23, 2008. Answering a call that evening, he led the first unit of firefighters into a two-story house in Staten Island where a fire had ignited in the attic. It wasn’t the kind of fire that usually takes lives, but this one did. A ceiling collapsed on my cousin, knocking off his mask and air supply as he battled the fire from the second floor of the house.

“Cousin” in some families doesn’t mean a whole lot. But in families like mine, where aunts and uncles are extra sets of parents, cousins – especially those you grow up side-by-side with – are more additional siblings than cousins. So along with my aunt (Bobby’s mother), his siblings, his wife and his children, the rest of us – cousins, aunts, uncles, all of us – continue to shed the tears of loss.

The death of a family member is hard enough when death hits an older person. But deaths like Bobby’s three years ago, and like that of my then-50-year old Uncle Mike on 9/11, hit us deeper because they are so contrary to our expectations and our sense of fairness. People shouldn’t die young. Children shouldn’t die before their parents do. Parents shouldn’t die while their children are young. And those I love shouldn’t die without my being able to say good-bye, and tell them once again how much I love them. Except – sometimes they do.

I don’t know how people without faith bear such losses because, for me, death is bearable because I know what is on the other side of death. The only thing that makes it possible for me to bear death is the certainty of resurrection. My confidence in the words Jesus spoke to Martha after the death of her beloved brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

I still feel sadness that Bobby – the younger cousin who i loved – is no longer in our midst. But I know that he – along with Michael, my dad and all of the rest of those who have died – live with Christ.

A New Parable

As everyone knows, Sunday will be the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Two more days until Sunday, and already I feel saturated with all the media coverage surrounding that tragic day. Coverage that I could easily live without – I can still close my eyes and summon the sights, smells and pain of Manhattan on September 11, 2001 and the days following. I need no reminders.

I did read one thing this past week relating to the events of ten years ago that was welcome to me – James Martin’s Of Many Things in the current issue of America. He describes his primary experience of 9/11 to that of resurrection. Describing the time he spent working with the rescue workers at ground zero in the aftermath of 9/11, Martin writes:

In this hell I found grace. Working at the World Trade Center was one of the most profound experiences of the Holy Spirit I’ve ever had. For there I encountered an overwhelming sense of charity, unity and concord. Every person working at ground zero was other-directed. Every person was utterly unconcerned for himself or herself. There I found great kindness.

Everyone’s work, of course, was informed by the sacrifices that had been made days before by the firefighters and rescue workers who gave their lives as they raced into the burning buildings on Sept. 11. For me, it seemed as if God was offering us a new parable, the way Jesus had done for people of his time. I thought: “What is God like?” God is like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone. That’s how much God loves us. And I saw this love expressed in the charity of the rescue workers who gathered at the American Golgotha.

The pain of that day is still there for many of us who suffered the loss of family members and friends. But I thank Fr. Martin for the reminder that that day was also about God’s love. And about resurrection.

Living at the Cost of Others’ Lives

One of the CD’s currently in the player in my car is Danielle Rose’s Mysteries of the Rosary, a two-CD set sent to my some time ago by my dear friend Maria.

As I listened to the CD the other day, I focused on the opening lines of the song titled Crucify Him. The lines, although phrased as a question, are really an accusation the can be leveled against most if not all of us:

We wash our hands of the thoughts that slip through our minds.
Like Pontius Pilate, we blame others for the atrocities of our times.
Do we stay silent while the world screams out its lies?
Sell your body, buy your beauty, live at the cost of others’ lives.

The line that most affected me was the last one. What passed though my mind in an instant was all of the ways we live at the cost of others’ lives.

When we purchase cheaply an item produced by child labor, we live at the cost of the lives of those children.

When we support an industrial agriculture system that distorts food production in lesser developed countries in ways that actually increase hunger, we live at the cost of the lives of starving people.

I could list other examples, but the point is simple: Every decision we make has consequences. Every choice we make affects the lives of others – positively or negatively.

And when we live at the cost of others’ lives because doing so is easier…less costly…more convenient, we are no better than, no different from, Pontius Pilate.

The Space Between Then and Now and Then

We all have different ways of reflecting on our lives – considering both where we’ve been and where we’re going. Sometimes the goal is realizing places God has been operating in our lives where we may not have realized it before. Sometimes it may be a means of dealing with particular places of pain or transition.

I was looking for a particular file on my computer and came across a description of an exercise I (presumably) had considered using in a program at one point or another to help people engage in this reflective process. I share it here with the thought that some may find it a fruitful means of prayer.

The instructions were these: Start by drawing a line lengthwise down the middle of a piece of paper. Then place a dot the bottom of the line, indicating your birth. Viewing the top of the page as the point of your death, place a second dot on whatever spot on the line seems to correctly represent for you the point in your life you are at now.

The line between the two dots you drew indicates the life you have lived thus far. Go through and identify on the line points of significance – events and incidences that have shaped the person you are now. Represent those points with dots on the line, labeling the points you have identified.

As you look at them, consider:

What is it that made those points significant to me?

What do they say about me? My relationship with God? My relationship with others?

What did I learn from those experiences?

After considering the past, look at the line between where you are now and the top of the page, which represents the remainder of your human life. As you look at the line, reflect on:

What do you imagine will be the significant points on that line?

Are there particular things you feel you need to do?

Based on your consideration of the past, are there particular areas in which you need to grow?

Finally, ask yourself: What do you need from God at this point in your life having reflected backward and forward?