Reaching Deep When There Seems to Be Nothing Left

Over the last couple of weeks, a number of people have posted on Facebook (and doubtless on other sites) a video of a song from a concert Elvis Presley performed about six weeks before his death. I found myself watching the video several times over and it took me a while to realize why I found it so compelling. It is true that I have always loved the song in question – Unchained Melody – but that wasn’t it.

At this point in his live, Elvis was a mess. Years of drug abuse had taken their toll. One journalist wrote that by early 1977, “Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopoeia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the following video, Elvis is barely understandable as he staggers to the piano. But then he starts to play and to sing. And when you hear that voice, and see the occasional smile on his face, something happens. What you see is a man who had almost nothing left reach somewhere deep within himself to remind both himself and us who he was. It was his last great moment, and a deeply touching one.

[If you are getting this by e-mail and can’t see the video, click through to the blogsite.]

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Let Us Also Go To Die With Him

Today’s Gospel reading is the account in John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, a passage I have often taken to prayer.

It is an incredibly rich passage and there are any number of directions our prayer with it might take us. We might identify with Lazarus, growing in despair as he nears death without any sign of his friend Jesus. Or with Martha, who gives Jesus the full brunt of her anger and pain when Jesus shows up after her brother died. Or we might focus on her faith in the resurrection…or on Jesus’ act itself.

Most of the time, we are so focused on what happens once Jesus arrives in Bethany that we pay little attention to Jesus’ colloquy with his disciples when he tells them they must go back to Judea.

The disciples must know that this trip will be a dangerous one and we might imagine that at least some were tempted to try to talk him out of it.

But not Thomas, not the one to whom we give the label “Doubting,” because of his later statement that he would not believe Jesus had been resurrected until he could stick his finger in Jesus’ wounds. Learning Jesus plan, we are told that Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

Perhaps he said it with some fear. Perhaps he said with some resignation. But he said it nonetheless. Thomas has the faith, and the love, to say, well if he is going to die, let’s go off and die with him.

I suspect we’d all like to think we’d be right up there with Thomas, ready to push toward Judea with Jesus, despite the fear that death would be waiting there. Would we? It is worth reflecting on how we would respond if faced with that situation.

The Set of the Sails

I recently read a description by Father Paul Keenan of a story of a poet who stood on the seashore and noticed two sailboats moving in opposite directions on the water. This confused him since the breeze was blowing in only one direction, so how could the two sailboats be moving in different directions?

After considering the situation, the poet wrote this:

One shop goest east
The other west
It’s the selfsame winds that blow.
it’s the set of the sails
And not the gales
That teach us the way to go.

The poem conveys a basic but important message. Sometimes the winds will blow in a direction that is helpful (or pleasing) to us. Other times they won’t. We have two choices when faced with winds that don’t blow in an optimum direction: we can let them blow us where they will and curse them and complain about our lot. Or we can seek for a way to set our sails in a way that works with the wind to blow us in a better direction.

Now my sailing experience is pretty limited – years ago when I lived in Hong Kong I had friends that took me out on their boat now and then. I remember those experiences enough to know that setting sails in the wind is not always easy. Nonetheless, we can learn to use the wind – to work with what we’ve got rather than to let it overcome us.

Always Run Them Out

Hall of Fame Baseball Manager Joe McCarthy (who managed the New York Yankees from 1931-1946) had a “Ten Commandments of Baseball” that I recently saw posted somewhere. Commandment #7 was: “Always Run Them Out. You Can Never Tell.” Sound baseball advice: you don’t have to watch too many baseball games to know that you never can tell when an off-the-mark throw from an infielder or a funny bounce of the ball on the infield will allow a runner to be safe at first base on what looked like an easy ground ball.

It is also sound advice off the ballfield. We are sometimes tempted to give up too easily when things don’t go smoothly. We anticipate failure and give up the effort. The task seems impossible so we stop trying. This temptation arises as easily in our spiritual journey as it does in other aspects of our lives; sometimes it just seems impossibly difficult. (Think of the many disciples who went home shaking their heads, deciding that following Jesus was just too hard.)

Yet, we also know that in any number of situations if we keep at it, if we give it our all, we can make headway, even in situations where we didn’t think it would be possible.

I heard a different version of McCarthy’s commandment at a graduation talk one year. The speaker’s advice to the graduations was to remember this: If you think you can, you may be right. if you think you can’t, you will almost certainly be right.

Always run them out. You can never tell.

Fortitude

Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension. We read in Acts that after Jesus ascended, the disciples devoted themselves to prayer. One imagines that they were a little confused and frightened both by what had just transpired and by being on their own. And so it is easy to guess that one of the things they prayed for was the courage and strength to carry on without Jesus.

The strength to conquer their fear. The strength to face trials, persecutions and even death. What the disciples required was fortitude, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Fortitude is the virtue ensures firmness when we are faced with difficulties and constancy in our pursuit of the good. It strengthens our resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles.

As Christians in today’s world, most of us will not be called to face persecution and death for our faith. We will, however, face challenges, be asked to make sacrifices, and to choose to say and do difficult things. We will be asked to have the moral courage to act on our convictions, even if it costs something, such as convenience or social acceptance. As Christians, we are be asked to put Christ first, no matter what.

In less than a week we will celebrate the Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. As Christ’s disciples, let us pray during this week for the gift of fortitude.

Come, Holy Spirit

Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord.  The gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I memorized them for Confirmation 40 or so years ago and they still roll off the tongue. (OK, they only really roll off the tongue smoothly so long as I say them in the order in which I memorized them, starting with “Wisdom.”)

I sometimese think of Pentecost as giving us an annual “booster shot” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that were magnified in us when we received Confirmation. Of course, that is not completely accurate, since we are always blessed by the Spirit. So perhaps it is more accurate to say that Pentecost helps us to be more open to receipt of the gifts of the Spirit.

As I contemplate the list of gifts, the one that I seem in need of so often is the gift of fortitude. It is the gift of fortitude that gives us the strength to overcome difficulties and to endure pain and suffering.

Sometimes things seem so hard…too hard. Maybe it is that I’m having difficulty discerning God’s will in a given situation. Or obstacles arise that seem to frustrate my ability to do what I think I’m supposed to be doing. Or, I just feel like I’m not doing a very good job at a particular task. In such moments, I feel a temptation to give up. To say, it is just too hard. To want to throw in the towel and start over again. To ask for a “do-over.” The feelings are often magnified because when I look around, it doesn’t seem like other people are struggling as much as I am. They seem to be having such an easy time of things. (Of course, at some level I know that I have no idea how much others are or are not struggling, just as no one looking at me – except perhaps my spiritual director and one or two close friends – can tell when I am struggling. But in moments of weakness, that is not the level on which I am operating.)

What I realize is that what allows me to go on in those moments – whether or not I label it as such at the time – is precisely the gift of fortitude. It comes in that feeling that wells up inside in response to the frustration and temptation to give up. The feeling that allows me take a deep breath and say – you know, it is not really so tough…we can manage this together, Lord, …it is not really all that bad. The feeling that lets me slough off the frustration and temptation to give up. The feeling that strengthens me to go on.

So whether we think of Pentecost as giving us an annual booster shot of the gifts of the Spirit, or making us more open to receive the gifts of the Spirit or maybe just reminding us of the gifts that are always at our disposal, we are blessed. We are given the gifts we need to allow us to live the fullness of our lives as Christians.