DAD, AUNT GRETA, SACRED HEART, and OUR LADY: A Tribute

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(Painting: “Extra, extra pickles: A Portrait of Alfred Eaker, Sr.” © 2017 Alfred Eaker)

Fr. Justin will be in Europe for a few months and although I am among those who regularly manage the Hermitage site, I thought while he is gone, I would share a personal reflection.

Almost two years ago, I lost my father. Although he was practically illiterate and deeply flawed, he had old-world values, a giving heart, and late-in-life sense of humor that made his eyes literally twinkle at times and I wish he were here for me to talk to now. His final illness was fairly quick, but not quick enough and he suffered so and I wished, as I was there with him for a few days before his end, that I could have waved a magic hand and taken away his considerable pain.

Still, when I reflect on him, I focus on that twinkle and his naive, but giving spirit.

I grew up in a charismatic evangelical, iconoclastic church environment and it was in opposition to what I held dear, even at that age. In his limited understanding, Dad knew this. So, when my aunt Greta came to visit Indy (from Arizona), Dad okayed my spending the day with her while he and my brother went hunting and mother was away at a lady’s retreat.

Aunt Greta and I were going to visit the grave of a loved one and although we had only met once before that, she felt enough kinship with me to want to spend time together while she was here.

On the way to the grave sight, Greta and I stopped at Sacred Heart parish to light candles for our departed relative. I’d never been in a Catholic parish at all, let alone a pre-Vatican II one and the art there literally took my breath away.

For a moment, I was distracted because I saw a cowboy praying the rosary at the altar. Apart from him (and us) the church was almost vacant. On the previous night, having seen a Johnny Mack Brown western with Dad, I first thought this was that B movie actor at Sacred Heart (I was eight). Of course it wasn’t, but my attention quickly shifted to a sculpture of Our Lady. She even reminded me a bit of Johnny’s leading lady; Beth Marion. Immediately, I was attracted to the Mary image and she was quite the opposite of how I viewed the scary, unloving God of wrath and vengeance that I knew from mother’s church.

Seeing that I was stirred at Sacred Heart, whenever she came to town, Greta snuck me into that parish. It became a pilgrimage every few years. Dad didn’t understand his sister’s devotion and was so naive that he even asked Greta once: “What’s a mass?” What he did understand was that Greta offered something to me that neither he, nor mother could give. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he knew that I was uncomfortable in mother’s Pentecostal religion, had a contentious relationship with her, was inherently artistic, and hyper-sensative. He couldn’t relate, but he knew I needed to be with aunt Greta. So, Dad being Dad; he came up with a lie of an excuse every few years to give mother in order to permit my Sacred Heart pilgrimages with Aunt Greta (mother would never have allowed my stepping foot in a Catholic parish filled with art). I’ve always been grateful to Dad for that because although we never spent much time together and didn’t relate well to one another, he put my needs above his understanding and that’s so authentically spiritual because I don’t know that he ever really believed per se. Of course, his belief or lack thereof doesn’t matter to me one bit.

When I got my first real job, pumping gas at a Philips 66 in Franklin, Dad would bring me White Castles with extra, extra pickles on Christmas Eve, which was his idiosyncratic tradition and he used to joke: “Aunt Greta wouldn’t do that, cuz she ain’t got the taste for ’em-living all the way out in Arizona.” It was a cute competitiveness that was entirely Dad.

Years later, after becoming immersed in Thomas Merton, Flannery O’ Connor, and meeting Fr. Justin, I converted to Catholicism. Dad still didn’t understand why I would want to, but he gleamed when saying: “When your mother’s outta the house, I’m gonna call your Aunt Greta and tell her.” I asked why he had to be so clandestine because I had told mother myself. He answered: “Cuz, I don’t want her to know that I covered for you and Greta back in the day.” After all these years, he still didn’t want mother to know that he had lied for me. When he called Greta, her response was: “I knew your son was going to become Catholic.” “How’d you know?” “Because he said he was going to.” “When?” “On that first day I took him to Sacred Heart when he was eight-years-old. He said that when he grew up, he was going to become a Catholic.” Dad shared that Greta conversation with me a short while later, after mother was safely out of the house. He got a kick out of the idea that he had, in a way, been instrumental in my covert conversion.

The next conversation he had regarding Greta was an ultimately sadder occasion, but a revealing one as well. While Greta had been in the hospital, her husband; Bill had died at home. When she found out, she told Dad on the phone; “I’m going to die too, now.” Dad protested with passion because he loved Greta dearly, but she told him: “Don’t put your fear of death on me, Alfred. I was married to Bill for 50 years and I don’t want to be here without him. I’ll meet him on the other side.” Two days later, she flew off this mortal coil.

When I was doing my Masters degree in theology, I helped care for Dad for about two years when he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimers. One of the cutest things about him during that period was a love for Spiderman, which was odd as Dad was always a Western kind of guy (Paladin being his all-time favorite). He would watch the Spiderman movies repeatedly with his dog Pixie on lap and would ask me to sit down and watch them with him. Once, when I was not in the mood to do so, I whined in order to try and get out of it: “I like Superman better,” to which he responded, “Superman’s old and Spiderman’s more realistic. Sit down, cuz your mother won’t watch it with me.” Once, when he cut his finger, he had to have a Spiderman band-aid, which took trips to half a dozen stores before we found one.

About two years after Greta’s passing, Dad was dying. I flew into Indy to be with him and one of the the first things he said when he saw me was: “Let’s order some White Castles with extra, extra pickles.” Despite the fact that he was eaten up with cancer, he wanted to have that last ritual with me and although it’s doubtful that he would have understood my saying so, that was profoundly Catholic of him.

(Painting: “Goodbye, Brave sweet Man: A Portrait of Alfred Eaker, Sr. ©2017. Alfred Eaker, which now hangs at the Franciscan Hermitage in Indianapolis)

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SUNDAY READINGS 15 APRIL, 2018 WITH HOMILY by FR. ANDREW GREELEY

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third sunday of easter

Reading 1 acts 3:13-15, 17-19

Peter said to the people:
“The God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus,
whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence
when he had decided to release him.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One
and asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”

Responsorial Psalm 4:2,47-9

R. (7a) Lord, let your face shine on us.
or:
R. Alleluia.
When I call, answer me, O my just God,
you who relieve me when I am in distress;
have pity on me, and hear my prayer!
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.
or:
R. Alleluia.
Know that the LORD does wonders for his faithful one;
the LORD will hear me when I call upon him.
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.
or:
R. Alleluia.
O LORD, let the light of your countenance shine upon us!
You put gladness into my heart.
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.
or:
R. Alleluia.
As soon as I lie down, I fall peacefully asleep,
for you alone, O LORD,
bring security to my dwelling.
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.
or:
R. Alleluia.

Reading 2 1jn 2:1-5

My children, I am writing this to you
so that you may not commit sin.
But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous one.
He is expiation for our sins,
and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep
his commandments.
Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.

Alleluia lk 24:32

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Lord Jesus, open the Scriptures to us;
make our hearts burn while you speak to us.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel lk24:35-48

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way,
and how Jesus was made known to them
in the breaking of bread.

While they were still speaking about this,
he stood in their midst and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
But they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled?
And why do questions arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,
he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish;
he took it and ate it in front of them.

He said to them,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you,
that everything written about me in the law of Moses
and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
And he said to them,
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

fr. andrew greeley homily on today’s Gospel reading (2006)

Background:

These words were written not only for the Apostles but for all Christians even up to our own time, especially for those who are nervous or who worry or who think that the Holy Spirit is about to abandon the church. It is a message of hope for those who think the situation is hopeless – which, as Gilbert Chesterton observed is the only time that hope is a virtue. Jesus is risen indeed as the Orthodox Easter greeting says. And He is still with us. And he will always take care of us and protect us no matter how many idiot things we may do.

Story:

There was this young army reservist who had attended college on a military program. After the served his term in the army, he was put on inactive reserve. He had fallen in love and married a wonderful woman. They had lovely, if contentious twins, and he was moving ahead rapidly in his job – financial services, what else? Then he was mobilized and with little training and inadequate equipment he was deployed to Iraq. He was a good officer and protected his men as best he could, though often he had no idea what to do He was wounded twice but returned to duty. Then his unit was redeployed back to America with assurance that he would never have to return to Iraq.The twins were bigger, more attractive, and more contentious. Someone had replaced him the fast track in his company. Then, when it was almost time for him to leave the reserved and, despite all promises, he was deployed to Iraq again. When that deployment was almost over, he was badly wounded. After months in a hospital and then in a rehabilitation center, he finally went home. The twins, now well behaved young persons celebrated. I guess God didn’t take good care of you, one of his friends said. Hey, the young man replied, I’m still alive!

(painting: “Easter Morning” by He Qi)

SUNDAY READINGS 8 APRIL, 2018 WITH HOMILY by FR. ANDREW GREELEY

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Second Sunday of Easter

Reading 1 acts 4:32-35

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.

Responsorial Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24

R. (1) Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
or:
R. Alleluia.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let those who fear the LORD say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
or:
R. Alleluia.
I was hard pressed and was falling,
but the LORD helped me.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
The joyful shout of victory
in the tents of the just:
R. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
or:
R. Alleluia.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the LORD has made;
let us be glad and rejoice in it.
R. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
or:
R. Alleluia.

Reading 2 1 jn  5:1-6

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ,
not by water alone, but by water and blood.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.

Alleluia jn 20:29

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
You believe in me, Thomas, because you have seen me, says the Lord;
Blessed are those who have not seen me, but still believe!
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel jn 20:19-31

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

fr. andrew greeley HOMILY ON TOday’s Gospel (2001)

Background:

Often this Gospel is used as an occasion to prove the Church’s control of the forgiveness of sins and even to demand more frequent confession. The Church, in this perspective, has a monopoly on forgiveness and must be stern in its use. Patently this narrowly circumscribes the passionate forgiveness of God which Jesus came to reveal. God may be generous with forgiveness, it is implied, but the Church cannot and should not. Yet the story of Thomas, immediately after suggests that such an interpretation of the words of Jesus missed the points. Believing in Jesus, the Risen Lord, even when we do not see him, compels us to live as forgiving people. Sometimes it is very hard to realize that we must believe if we are live the unusual life Jesus calls us to.

Story:

Once upon a time not so very long ago, 16-year-old twin brothers received invitations to the big party the senior basketball players were throwing at the lake over the Memorial Day weekend. Now the twins knew their parents would not be too pleased at the idea of them attending this party, especially since the parents knew that the party thrower’s parents believed that they should supply beer for their son’s parties as a way to control the amount of drinking the young people did. The twin’s parents were well aware of the beer, hard liquor, and drugs that the partygoers would bring on their own. The twins decided they would wait until a day or two before the party to tell their parents about the event, hoping that would give the parents less time to check up on the party plans. Of course, as most teenagers do, the twins underestimated their parents and the parental grapevine that spread the word about goings on at the school. The twins also forgot that the weekend of the party was the weekend of their Grandfather’s 75th birthday and that the family was traveling to another city for the celebration. On the Wednesday before the weekend they told their parents about the party, only to be reminded about their grandfather’s party. Of course, the boys tried to find reasons why it would be ok for them to skip Grandpa’s party. They were quickly reminded that they did not have an option on this. It was a family gathering. All the relatives would be there, including the cousins they that are constantly begging their parents to invite for a visit. And so the twins went to the family party, complaining all the way there and all they way home about how unfair it was that they had to miss the party at the lake. Shortly before they arrived home, they heard a radio flash about an automobile accident that had killed two teens and injured four others. The car was coming from the basketball team party and one of the teens that was killed and one that was injured were juniors and friends of the twins. The driver of that car had an alcohol level well above that of sobriety.

(painting” Caravaggio “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas “)

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A BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE TO A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR: FR. JUSTIN BELITZ

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I’ve never related to the biblical St. Paul conversion story because it unwittingly has given the impression that enlightenment can be microwaved. I inherently identify more with the Peter narrative because after having profound spiritual insight and being proclaimed The Rock, Peter screws up (again) and Christ calls him Satan. Later still, Peter denies Christ three times. Of course, Christ offers forgiveness, which Peter has to accept by doing. Christ asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?” and with each “Yes” from Peter, Christ whites out each betrayal, because yes, there is penance and yes, Penance is Love. Love is the yes of authentic evolving. After Christ’ ascension, Peter missteps yet again, going against everything that Christ taught. However, in the end, there is the yes of Quo Vadis for Peter and that’s how he ends and that’s what counts because he’s a model for our zig-zagging. It’s a good model as we are prone to paint a picture of spiritual evolving as something linear. It rarely is and often, because it’s not linear, or consistent, or easy, we are apt to become superficial towel-throwers, but as Fr. Justin Belitz O.F.M. often teaches “challenges are nothing more than opportunities for growth and commitment.”

I open this birthday tribute to my spiritual director of thirty years with the story of St. Peter because as much as this is a thank you and yes to Fr. Justin, it is also sharing the story of a complex relationship that has seen much zig-zagging (on my part) over three decades. Justin, who teaches an empowering class on success: full-relating, would have it no other way with me.

Fr. Justin is a lucid educator and shaman and when before a group, he keeps the language simple because he’s insightful enough to know that spiritual complexity takes time and some never can or will embrace it. So, as a Franciscan priest, he goes to students where they are. Although, I have taken his classes, it is the one-on-one relationship that I’ve had with him over these many years that I value most and I’m going to share a few of my “God stories,” as Justin has referred to them; not to tell you about myself per se, but to share with you a spiritual director whose ministry and story is relational.

I was in my mid-twenties when I first knocked on the door of the Franciscan Hermitage and was greeted by Fr. Justin. “Alfred?” he asked and after I confirmed, he made a request of me: “Can you help me set up a birthday party? It’s so-and-so’s birthday today. She’s a 102 and I have to get candles on the cake.” I was taken back because this was the first time I had met him; per a recommendation of Fr. Hilary Ottensmeyer, O.S.B. (who I had met at an art gallery and befriended). However, Justin was so natural and inviting that I immediately agreed and found a cake awaiting placement of 102 candles. I was supposed to talk to him one-on-one that day. It didn’t happen. Instead, I participated in the birthday party and, per Justin’s suggestion, “got fat on cake.” In retrospect; that was so smart of Justin because apparently he believed I needed to feel comfortable before we talked one-on-one. He was right and we did just that the following week. Eventually, I became closer to Justin than I was to Hilary, which Hilary knew would be the case (and encouraged). The reason Hilary “pawned” me off to Justin was simple: Hilary knew I was splintered. “Every priest has a niche,” he said. “You have a lot of hostility. Hostility is not my niche. That’s Fr. Justin’s niche. If you want, I’ll give you his number.” Later, when I shared what Hilary had said, Justin acknowledged that hostility was indeed a ministry. I’m sure now that Justin imagined that he had his work cut out for him with me. He did, because I was loaded with bitterness from an abusive evangelical upbringing, which left so many impediments that it took me fifteen years to share all of them with Justin. Looking back at it, I realize he has the patience of a saint.

Justin has often spoke of the spirit river and how she flows with us-if we are receptive to her voice. Because he uses inclusive language, Justin has often been accused of being New Age. He laughs that off, with: “Isn’t that better than old age? Besides, what I teach is actually very old age-all the way back to Hildegard (science, art & spirituality), Julian, Francis, Clare, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.” In short, what Justin teaches is mysticism, but critics take issue with him because they tend to focus on dogma, which is not his niche.

For me, Justin, being egalitarian, is the most Catholic and Franciscan of all because we get caught up in either/or labels, such as the sophomoric progressive or traditional. Like all of us, Justin is both progressive and traditional. On one hand, he esteems traditional values. I’ve heard him thank God that he was raised in a time and Polish community that valued commitment. By choice, it shaped him; enough that by the age of six he knew that he was going to be a Franciscan (around the same age that I knew I was going to be an artist). In his eighties now, Justin continues expressing gratitude toward parents long gone because they gifted him a model of getting through challenges together and by doing so they imprinted their energy upon him; he’s been committed to the priesthood for almost 60 years despite many setbacks and challenges. On the other hand, the theology that he often teaches focuses on the maternal in God and, for the hyper-patristic, that is provocative because while they focus on belief and morality, Justin espouses ethics, modeling, and thirsting. These progressive and traditional qualities are perfectly wedded with the aptly ripe symbol of Our Lady of Czestochowa. When I reflect on her image, I often think of Justin and not just because of her Polish tradition. She is famous for the scars on her face despite many attempts at restoration. Justin, like this symbol, doesn’t need fixed up. He wear his scars with perseverance.

That maternal in God is one of the things that drew me to Justin. Having had a contentious relationship with my earthly mother, I was gifted a sliver of the divine maternal at eight-years-old when an aunt took me to Sacred Heart (a Franciscan parish that Justin is strongly associated with). I was only there for a few minutes, but in that time, I saw images of Mary and St. Teresa that momentarily filled a profound aching. Having already been shattered by the negativity of an oppressively red-blooded and semi-illiterate fundamentalism, I was so taken with the matron-like heart and intellect and artistry there that I told my aunt in a vow: “when I grow up, I am going to become a Catholic.” Of course, I largely forgot about that vow until I met Justin, years later. He awakened that promise within me through his teaching of the mother love of God and it was he who inspired me to follow through with the Sacred Heart declaration.

When Justin gives examples of maternal spirituality, he additionally includes male examples, such as; Jesus, Francis, and John XXIII because Justin practices what he preaches in his egalitarianism. For him, Catholic means universal through our differences whereas with some, it means universal through compliance. Having been exposed to Pentecostalism, Mormonism, Judaism, and Catholicism in my youth, Justin’s interpretation of Catholicism resonated deeply and a few years later, I expressed my gratitude to him and Hilary in the St. Vincent de Paul-commissioned mural: “Modern Spirituality.” Hilary passed away shortly after I completed the mural and my penultimate conversation with him came to mind. Knowing he was dying, Hilary shared: “I hope when I fly off this mortal coil, I’ll go listening to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Less than a week later, Justin and I received news of Hilary’s death. Justin’s response was one of faith: “Good for Hilary; bless him. Let’s listen to Debussy.”

Yet, even after my conformation and the mural, I was still zig-zagging. When I read of wide-spread clerical abuse in a neighboring diocese, things seemed to have tragically come full-circle. Enraged and feeling betrayed, I unofficially left the Church for a period and responded artistically; holding fundamentalist abusers into accountability and espousing Julian’s teaching of the symbolic “Christ, Our Mother” as more edifying. Justin supported me in that and received a lot of criticism for doing so. Had I known that he would have received grief over it, I never would have sought out his support. Eventually, I returned to the Hermitage, but a couple there, having found out about my work, wanted me kicked out. I tried to explain my work to them, but they were locked in preconceived judgments and seeing it was a vain effort, I offered to leave, which Justin rejected. Their demands unmet, they left instead.

I have been sacramentally in love four times in my life. The first was with a grandparent who told me: “You and I; we are in love with one another, like crocodiles coming from the same Nile.” He meant that in the purest, most liturgical way and inspired me, with his love of mermaids, to paint a canvas that I titled: “Our Lady of the Mermaids,” which now hangs in the sanctuary of the Hermitage. The second time has been with Justin and he moved me sacramentally toward finally embracing the third love of my life-the idea of the mother love of God.

As my spiritual director, Justin has blessed me in an authentic and honest sacrament. He inspires me toward an endeavor to persevere through times that have seemed the best of life on earth and through existential crises. For years, almost handicapped at times in my introversion, my relating to him was confined to the private and I held off taking his classes. When I finally did so, I found communities of people who he has similarly impacted. Yet, when I complimented him on this, he humbly reflected it back: “Alfred, you have done much self-work, but I didn’t do that for you. Neither did Hilary. You made the choice and did that on your own.” Perhaps, but I was broken and when that’s the case, we can’t mend solely by ourselves. We need an authentic mother in the here and now. Justin’s niche; his gift is that of a maternal priesthood. I’ve been blessed in knowing that in order to see the Mother Love of God, I don’t need to cast my eyes upon an image of Our Lady or look into the sky above because Justin is in the here and now. A happy birthday to him.

Alfred Eaker

Landscape: Wheatfields (Thomas Merton Marian poetry)

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Landscape: Wheatfields

Frown there like Cressy or like Agincourt,
You fierce and bearded shocks and sheaves
And shake your grain-spears,
And know no tremor in your vigilant
Your stern array, my summer chevaliers!

Although the wagons,
(Hear how the battle of those wheels,
Worrying the loose wood with their momentary thunder
Leaves us to guess some trestle, there, behind the sycamores.)
Although the empty wagons come,

Rise up, like kings out of the pages of a chronicle
And cry your courage in your golden beards;
For now the summer-time is half-way done,
Gliding to a dramatic crisis
Sure as the deep waters to the sedentary mill.

Arise like kings and prophets from the pages of an
ancient Bible,
And blind us with the burnish of your message in our June:
Then raise your hands and bless us
An depart, like old Melchisedech, and find your
proper Salem.

The slow hours crowd upon us.
Our days slide evenly toward the term of all our liturgy,
And all our weeks are after Pentecost.

Summer divides his garrisons,
Surrenders up his strongest forts,
Strikes all his russet banners one by one.
And while these ancient men of war
Casting us in the teeth with the reproof of their surrender
(By which their fruitfulness is all fulfilled,)
Throw down their arms.

Face we the day when we go up to stake our graces
Against unconquerable God:
Try, with our trivial increase, in that time of harvest
To stem the army of His attributes!

Oh pray us full of marrow, Queen of Heaven,
For those mills, His truth, our glory!
Crown us with alleluias on that day of fight!

(Light falls as fair as lyres, beamy between the branches,
Plays like an angel on the mill-dam, where the lazy stream
Suddenly turns to clouds of song and rain,)
Oh pray us, Lady, full of faith and graces,
Arm us with fruits against that contest and comparison,
Arm us with ripeness for the wagons of our Christ!

Painting: Salvador Dali, Mystical Rose Madonna

POPE FRANICS ON EASTER

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In the Gospel of this radiant night of the Easter Vigil, we first meet the women who go the tomb of Jesus with spices to anoint his body ( Luke 24:1-3). They go to perform an act of compassion, a traditional act of affection and love for a dear departed person, just as we would. They had followed Jesus, they had listened to his words, they had felt understood by him in their dignity and they had accompanied him to the very end, to Calvary and to the moment when he was taken down from the cross.

We can imagine their feelings as they make their way to the tomb: a certain sadness, sorrow that Jesus had left them, he had died, his life had come to an end. Life would now go on as before. Yet the women continued to feel love, the love for Jesus which now led them to his tomb.

But at this point, something completely new and unexpected happens, something which upsets their hearts and their plans, something which will upset their whole life: they see the stone removed from before the tomb, they draw near and they do not find the Lord’s body. It is an event which leaves them perplexed, hesitant, full of questions: “What happened?”, “What is the meaning of all this?” ( Luke 24:4).

Change is Scary

Doesn’t the same thing also happen to us when something completely new occurs in our everyday life? We stop short, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do. Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness which God brings us, the newness which God asks of us.

We are like the Apostles in the Gospel: often we would prefer to hold on to our own security, to stand in front of a tomb, to think about someone who has died, someone who ultimately lives on only as a memory, like the great historical figures from the past. We are afraid of God’s surprises. Dear brothers and sisters, we are afraid of God’s surprises! He always surprises us! The Lord is like that.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives!

Are we often weary, disheartened, and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won’t be able to cope?

Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

Don’t Look Among the Dead

But let us return to the Gospel, to the women, and take one step further. They find the tomb empty, the body of Jesus is not there, something new has happened, but all this still doesn’t tell them anything certain: it raises questions; it leaves them confused, without offering an answer. And suddenly there are two men in dazzling clothes who say: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; but has risen” ( Luke 24: 5-6).

What was a simple act, done surely out of love … going to the tomb … has now turned into an event, a truly life-changing event. Nothing remains as it was before, not only in the lives of those women, but also in our own lives and in the history of mankind. Jesus is not dead, he has risen, he is alive! He does not simply return to life; rather, he is life itself, because he is the Son of God, the living God (Numbers 14:21-28, DT 5:26; Joshua 3:10).

Jesus no longer belongs to the past, but lives in the present and is projected towards the future; Jesus is the everlasting “today” of God.

This is how the newness of God appears to the women, the disciples and all of us: as victory over sin, evil and death, over everything that crushes life and makes it seem less human. And this is a message meant for me and for you dear sister, for you dear brother. How often does Love have to tell us: Why do you look for the living among the dead? Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness . . . and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive!

Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do.

A Fearless Future

There is one last little element that I would like to emphasize in the Gospel for this Easter Vigil. The women encounter the newness of God. Jesus has risen, he is alive! But faced with empty tomb and the two men in brilliant clothes, their first reaction is one of fear: “they were terrified and bowed their faced to the ground”, Saint Luke tells us … they didn’t even have courage to look.

But when they hear the message of the Resurrection, they accept it in faith. And the two men in dazzling clothes tell them something of crucial importance: remember. “Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee . . . And they remembered his words” ( Luke 24: 6,8). This is the invitation to remember their encounter with Jesus, to remember his words, his actions, his life; and it is precisely this loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others ( Luke 24:9).

To remember what God has done and continues to do for me, for us, to remember the road we have travelled; this is what opens our hearts to hope for the future. May we learn to remember everything that God has done in our lives.

On this radiant night, let us invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who treasured all these events in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51) and ask the Lord to give us a share in his Resurrection. May he open us to the newness that transforms, to the beautiful surprises of God. May he make us men and women capable of remembering all that he has done in our own lives and in the history of our world. May he help us to feel his presence as the one who is alive and at work in our midst. And may he teach us each day, dear brothers and sisters, not to look among the dead for the Living One. Amen.

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FULTON SHEEN ON EASTER

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The Divine Romance: Dying And Behold We Live

Fulton Sheen

Having delivered His farewell address from the pulpit of the Cross and finished the work of His Eternal Father, Jesus bows His head and dies. To make certain of His death, a centurion, Longinus by name, pierces His heart with a lance and the Divine Master, who saved up a few drops of His Precious Blood, now pours them out to prove that His love is stronger than death.

Two men who lacked courage to declare their affiliations while He was living, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, brought perfumes and spices and embalmed the body of Jesus. It was first laid on Mary’s lap, and it seemed to her that Bethlehem had come back again — but really it had not. Between Bethlehem and Calvary our sins had intervened. The body was lifeless. Jesus was dead.

His enemies remembered that He had said that He would rise again, but they were certain He would not. They were afraid that the Apostles would come and steal away the body and then say He had risen. Guarding against such deceit, they went to Pilate, asking him to set a watch of soldiers about the tomb for three days in addition to which they would attach their own official seal to the stone before the entrance. Pilate acceded to their request. In the words with which the Evangelist Matthew closed his Gospel, the most ironic sentence in literature: “And they departing made the sepulchre sure.” The seal was placed on the sepulchre and a great stone rolled in front of the door. They took every precaution against fraud, but could take none against Divinity. As they made their way down Calvary’s hill, such thoughts as these ran through their minds: “Now his fisherman can go back to their nets and their boats; their kingdom is a mockery. As for their master, his heart was so pierced that blood and water came from it. Even though he had a breath of life left in that bloodless body, it is now being suffocated by the hundredweight of spices with which he was embalmed. Our vigilance and that of the soldiers will not permit any one to steal away the body. He who said he had life in abundance is now dead; he who said he could summon twelve legions of angels to his assistance now is cold as death; he who said he could raise up a child of Abraham from a stone is now buried under stone. The imposter is dead! How wonderfully effective is a Roman death! Nothing can survive a crucifixion! He will never rise again!”

Is that true? Can one rise from the dead? Does not the very fact that He was born in a stranger’s cave and buried in a stranger’s grave prove that human “birth and death are equally foreign to Him? Look about at nature. Is not the springtime the Easter Day of the Good Friday of winter? Has not all death within itself the germs of life? Does not the “falling rain bud the greenery”? Does not the falling acorn bud the tree? Why should all creation rise from the dead and not the Redeemer of creation?

“If this bright lily
Can live once more,
And its white promise
Be as before,
Why cannot the great stone
Be moved from His door?

If the green grass
Ascend and shake
Year after year,
And blossoms break
Again and again
For April’s sake,
Why cannot He,
From the dark and mold,
Show us again
His manifold
And gleaming glory,
A stream of gold?

Faint heart, be sure
These things must be.
See the new bud
On the old tree! …
If flowers can wake,
Oh, why not He?”

Sunday morning came, and it was one of calm, like the sleep of innocents, and the clear, benign air seemed almost as if it had been stirred by angels’ wings. Mary walked in the garden and someone near her spoke a word, and pronounced it longingly, wistfully, in that touching and unforgettable voice which had called her so many times: “Mary.” And to this one and only word, she made an answer, a word and only one: “Rabboni.” And as she fell at His knees in the dewy grass and clasped in her hands those bare feet, she saw two scars, two red-lined marks of nails — for Christ was now walking in the glory of His new Easter morn.

That was the first Easter Day. Centuries have whirled away since, and on this new Easter Day as I turn from that garden to the altar, I behold placed over the tabernacle, on this Resurrection Day, the image, not of a Risen Savior, but the image of a dying one, to teach me that Christ lives over again in His Church, and that the Church, like Christ, not only lives, not only dies, but always rises from the dead. She is in love with death as a condition of birth; and with her, as with Christ, unless there is a Good Friday in her life, there will never be an Easter Sunday; unless there is the crown of thorns there will never be the halo of light; and unless there is the Cross there will never be the empty tomb. In other words, every now and then the Church must be crucified by an unbelieving world and buried as dead, only to rise again. She never does anything but die, and for that peculiar reason she never does anything but live. Every now and then the very life seems to have gone out of her; she is palled with death; her blood seems to have been sapped out of her; her enemies seal the tomb, roll a stone in front of her grave, and say: “The Church will never rise again!” But somehow or other she does rise again.

At least a dozen times in history, the world has buried the Church and each time she has come to life again. I shall mention but a few such instances.

A hunted Savior must always have hunted children; and in those days of the Roman persecution the Church, like a mole, had to dig into the caves of the earth. There, under the foundation of Rome’s proudest temples, under roads that rocked with the tramp of Rome’s resistless legions, these children of God were nourishing themselves on the Bread of Life, fortifying their bodies as well as their souls, for the day when they would be led to the “thumbs-down” crowd of the Roman Colosseum to testify to their faith, even with their blood. The day came; they were led into the center of that great amphitheater with enemies round about. There was no escape, except from above — but that was enough. They met death with a smile upon their lips. Caesar’s minions scattered fresh sands to hide their blood, but could not still their voice. It rose from the din of that arena; it entered into the very chancery of God’s Justice; it pierced the mist of undawned ages with no uncertain challenge: “In our blood has been mingled the blood of the Living God — dying and behold we live.” Roman swords blunted by massacre no longer fitted their sheaths; the wild beasts overfed on the living flesh of the Church lost their craving for food — but still the bloody warfare went on. Caesar was certain he had conquered. He rejoiced that the Church was dead. Her life was sapped and drained; she could never survive the Roman sword. A stone was rolled before the door. The Church would never rise again. And as they set their watch, and even as they watched, the Church like her Risen Savior came from the grave of the Catacombs and was seen walking in the glory of her new Easter Morn.

There came other moments in her history when in the eyes of the world she seemed to have her very life drained out of her. Whenever the Palm Sundays of earthly rejoicing came her way, and the world proclaimed her Queen, and strewed palm branches beneath her feet — in a word, whenever a great measure of temporal prosperity came her way, and she began to rely more upon action than prayer, she became weak. The yoke of Christ then seemed heavy to her children; bodies craved for the line of least resistance and hearts yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt. It is a strange but certain fact that the Church is never so weak as when she is powerful with the world; never so poor as when she is rich with the riches of the world; never so foolish as when she is wise with the fancies of the world. She is strongest with Divine Help when she is weakest with human power, for like Peter she is given the miraculous draught of fishes when she admits by her own power she has labored all the night and taken nothing.

When her discipline, her spirit of saintliness, her zeal for Christ, her vigils, and her mortifications, become a thing of less importance, the world makes the fatal mistake of believing that her soul is dead and her faith is departed. Not so! The faith, even in those days of lesser prayer, is solid — for it is the faith of the centuries, the faith of Jesus Christ. What may be weak is her discipline, her prayerfulness, and her saintliness, for these are of men, whereas her faith is of God. A renewal of spirit, then, will come not by changing her way of thinking, for that is divine, but her way of acting,for that is human.

But the world, failing to make this distinction between the Divine and the human in her, as it failed to make it in Christ, takes her for dead. To the world, her very life seems spent, her heart pierced, her body drained; in its eyes she is just as dead as the Master when taken down from the cross, and there is nothing left to do but to lay her in the sepulchre.

Once more a great stone is rolled before her tomb; the official seal of death placed upon it, the watch set; but as they watched saintliness came back, Christ stirred in Peter’s bark, and at the very moment men were saying she was dead, she was seen walking in the glory of her new Easter Morn.

Then came our own times and with it another death. Her death this time was inflicted not by executioners, but by other Pilates. These were dangerous days, for any civilization is in a bad way when it becomes indifferent, like another Pilate, to the answer to the question: “What is Truth?” From inside and outside of the Church sprang up that old Greek error that there is no truth — an error which, for want of a knowledge of its ancient ancestry, was called Modernism. Truth was derationalized, error rationalized, and proofs brought forward to prove all proofs worthless. Teachers who bedecked themselves in the robes of prophets became insulted if told they were not gentlemen, but remonstrated mildly if told they were not Christians. Minds now were told, and they began to believe, with the force of repetition, that we must be indifferent to both error and truth; that it is a lack of broad-mindedness to make up one’s mind; that it makes no difference whether God exists, whether Christ is God, or whether the Sacraments do actually communicate Divine Life — the only thing that matters is the subjective impression such beliefs have upon the feeling of the believer. Minds began to live by catchwords, phrases covered up loose thinking, and there was hardly an ear that did not hear such catchwords and phrases as “Life is bigger than logic,” and “The Christ of Faith is not the Jesus of History.”

The new spirit of the age was seemingly burying the Spirit of Christ. Books and articles were shot from the press, and in 1907 there hardly was an article written that did not say that the Church had now definitely reached its end. The world was asked to chant her Requiem; a great stone was rolled before the door of her sepulchre; the watch set. “She would never rise again.” And according to every human law she never should have risen from the dead! But for some mysterious reason the Giant stirred. War was on. Long-range guns were tearing great gaping wounds in majestic Cathedrals; ploughshares were beaten into swords; cannon fire changed poppy fields into Haceldamas of blood. And lo and behold! That which was thought dead was seen on the battlefields pressing a crucifix to dying lips; and when the smoke of battle cleared and the mist lifted, she was seen walking in the glory of her new Easter Morn; and even now as men watch her she grows! Christ, then, must have meant what He said when He declared that His Church would endure even to the consummation of the world.

There emerges, then, from her history one great and wonderful lesson and it is this: Christ rose from the dead, not because He is man, but because He is God. The Church rises from the sepulchre in which violent hands or passing errors would inter her, not because she is human, but because she is Divine. Nothing can rise from the dead except Divinity. The world should profit by experience and give up expecting the Church to die. If a bell had been tolled on a thousand different occasions and the funeral never took place, men would soon begin to regard the funeral as a joke. So it is with the Church. The notice of her execution has been posted but the execution has never taken place. Science killed her and still she was there. History interred her, but still she was alive. Modernism slew her, but still she lived.

Even civilizations are born, rise to greatness, then decline, suffer, and die; but they never rise again. But the Church does rise again; in fact she is constantly finding her way out of the grave because she had a Captain who found His way out of the grave. The world may expect her to become tired, to be weak when she becomes powerful, to become poor when she is rich, but the world need never expect her to die. The world should give up looking for the extinction of that which so many times has been vainly extinguished.

Like a mighty oak tree which has stood for twenty centuries she bears fresh green foliage for each new age, that the age may come and enjoy the refreshing benediction of its shade. The flowers that open their chalices of perfume this spring are not old things, but new things on an old root. Such is the Church. She is reborn to each new age, and hence is the only new thing in the world. It is the errors that are old, for our so-called new thought is only an old mistake with a new label; it is not anew enthusiasm nor is it a new loyalty. The Church has put to bed all the errors of the past for she knows that to marry the passing fads of any age is to be a widow in the next. She is therefore not behind the times, but beyond the times, always fresh while the age is dying.

She will go on dying and living again and in each recurring cycle of a Good Friday and an Easter Sunday her one aim in life will be to preach Christ and Him Crucified. As a student I may be expected to know something of her aims, and as her priest I may be expected to know something of her secrets; and I honestly assure you, at the close of this series, that the Church seeks not the overthrow of governments, desires not to impede progress, strives not to persecute those who differ with her. (I know all these things are said about her). But what she does seek, with the full ardor of her soul, is to bring minds captive to the understanding of Christ, to lead wills to the glorious Liberty of the sons of God, to thrill human hearts with the Love that leaves all others cold, and to open eyes to a Beauty that leaves all other beauty pain. And, hence, if any single word of mine has lifted up but one soul to a nobler understanding of Christ, or fanned a single spark of love for His cause into a flame, or induced the tendrils of a single heart to entwine about the Heart of Hearts, then I shall believe that my words and my life shall not have been spoken or lived in vain.

The Catholic Hour will go on, under still nobler guidance, but its end and purpose will ever remain the same: To bring the peace of Christ to the souls of our countrymen. There will be no weapons to make that peace an armed peace, but there will be two insignificant instruments used, which have been used from the beginning, and they will be the instruments Our Lord taught His Apostles to use, namely those of fishermen and shepherds. I might say, therefore, we will go on “by hook and by crook” and the hook will be the hook of the fisherman, and the crook will be the crook of the shepherd; and with the hook we will catch souls for Christ, and with the crook we will keep them, even to the end of time; for as fishers of men and shepherds of souls we are committed to the high destiny of making Christ the King of human hearts, and with only the sign of Jonas the prophet, the fulfillment of that destiny can never be doubted, for if truth wins, Christ wins; if truth… Ah! But truth can’t lose.

 

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THOMAS MERTON ON EASTER

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Lent has summoned us to change our hearts, to effect in ourselves the Christian metanoia. But at the same time Lent has reminded us perhaps all too clearly of our own powerlessness to change our lives in any way. Lent in the liturgical year plays the role of the Law, the pedagogue, who convinces us of sin and inflicts upon us the crushing evidence of our own nothingness. Hence it disquiets and sobers us, awakening in us perhaps some sense of that existential “dread” of the creature whose freedom suspends him over an abyss which may be an infinite meaninglessness, an unbounded despair. This is the fruit of that Law which judges our freedom together with its powerlessness to impose full meaning on our lives merely by conforming to a moral code. Is there nothing more than this?

But now the power of Easter has burst upon us with the resurrection of Christ. Now we find in ourselves a strength which is not our own, and which is freely given to us whenever we need it, raising us above the Law, giving us a new law which is hidden in Christ: the law of His merciful love for us. Now we no longer strive to be good because we have to, because it is a duty, but because our joy is to please Him who has given all His love to us! Now our life is full of meaning!

Easter is the hour of our own deliverance— from what? Precisely from Lent and from its hard Law which accuses and judges our infirmity. We are no longer under the Law. We are delivered from the harsh judgment! Here is all the greatness and all the unimaginable splendor of the Easter mystery— here is the “grace” of Easter which we fail to lay hands on because we are afraid to understand its full meaning. To understand Easter and live it, we must renounce our dread of newness and of freedom!

Death exercises a twofold power in our lives: it holds us by sin, and it holds us by the Law. To die to death and live a new life in Christ we must die not only to sin but also to the Law.

Every Christian knows that he must die to sin. But the great truth that St Paul exhausted himself to preach in season and out is a truth that we Christians have barely grasped, a truth that has got away from us, that constantly eludes us and has continued to do so for twenty centuries. We cannot get it into our heads what it means to be no longer slaves of the Law. And the reason is that we do not have the courage to face this truth which contains in itself the crucial challenge of our Christian faith, the great reality that makes Christianity different from every other religion.

In all other religions men seek justification, salvation, escape from “the wheel of birth and death” by ritual acts, or by religious observances, or by ascetic and contemplative techniques. These are means devised by men to enable them to liberate and justify themselves. All the other religions impose upon man rigid and complicated laws, subject him more or less completely to prescribed exterior forms, or to what St Paul calls “elementary notions.”

But Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system. This is asserted with such categorical force by St Paul, that we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to “the Law” rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ; “Do you seek justification by the Law . . . you are fallen from grace . . . In fact, in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor its absence is of any avail. What counts is faith that expresses itself in love” (Gal. 5: 4,6).

. . . This gift, this mercy, this unbounded love of God for us has been lavished upon us as a result of Christ’s victory. To taste this love is to share in His victory. To realize our freedom, to exult in our liberation from death, from sin and from the Law, is to sing the Alleluia which truly glorifies God in this world and in the world to come.

This joy in God, this freedom which raises us in faith and in hope above the bitter struggle that is the lot of man caught between the flesh and the Law, this is the new canticle in which we join with the blessed angels and the saints in praising God.

God who is rich in mercy, was moved by the intense love with which he loved us, and when we were dead by reason of our transgressions, he made us live with the life of Christ . . . Together with Christ Jesus and in him he raised us up and enthroned us in the heavenly realm . . . It is by grace that you have been saved through faith; it is the gift of God, it is not the result of anything you did, so that no one has any grounds for boasting. (Eph. 2: 4– 9)

Let us not then darken the joy of Christ’s victory by remaining in captivity and in darkness, but let us declare His power, by living as free men who have been called by Him out of darkness into his admirable light.

(From Seasons of Celebration)

(painting: Thomas Merton celebrating mass)

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POPE FRANCIS HOLY SATURDAY HOMILY

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After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Mt 28:1). We can picture them as they went on their way… They walked like people going to a cemetery, with uncertain and weary steps, like those who find it hard to believe that this is how it all ended. We can picture their faces, pale and tearful. And their question: can Love have truly died?

Unlike the disciples, the women are present – just as they had been present as the Master breathed his last on the cross, and then, with Joseph of Arimathea, as he was laid in the tomb. Two women who did not run away, who remained steadfast, who faced life as it is and who knew the bitter taste of injustice. We see them there, before the tomb, filled with grief but equally incapable of accepting that things must always end this way.

If we try to imagine this scene, we can see in the faces of those women any number of other faces: the faces of mothers and grandmothers, of children and young people who bear the grievous burden of injustice and brutality. In their faces we can see reflected all those who, walking the streets of our cities, feel the pain of dire poverty, the sorrow born of exploitation and human trafficking. We can also see the faces of those who are greeted with contempt because they are immigrants, deprived of country, house and family. We see faces whose eyes bespeak loneliness and abandonment, because their hands are creased with wrinkles. Their faces mirror the faces of women, mothers, who weep as they see the lives of their children crushed by massive corruption that strips them of their rights and shatters their dreams. By daily acts of selfishness that crucify and then bury people’s hopes. By paralyzing and barren bureaucracies that stand in the way of change. In their grief, those two women reflect the faces of all those who, walking the streets of our cities, behold human dignity crucified.

The faces of those women mirror many other faces too, including perhaps yours and mine. Like them, we can feel driven to keep walking and not resign ourselves to the fact that things have to end this way. True, we carry within us a promise and the certainty of God’s faithfulness. But our faces also bear the mark of wounds, of so many acts of infidelity, our own and those of others, of efforts made and battles lost. In our hearts, we know that things can be different but, almost without noticing it, we can grow accustomed to living with the tomb, living with frustration. Worse, we can even convince ourselves that this is the law of life, and blunt our consciences with forms of escape that only serve to dampen the hope that God has entrusted to us. So often we walk as those women did, poised between the desire of God and bleak resignation. Not only does the Master die, but our hope dies with him.

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake” (Mt 28:2). Unexpectedly, those women felt a powerful tremor, as something or someone made the earth shake beneath their feet. Once again, someone came to tell them: “Do not be afraid”, but now adding: “He has been raised as he said!” This is the message that, generation after generation, this Holy Night passes on to us: “Do not be afraid, brothers and sisters; he is risen as he said!” Life, which death destroyed on the cross, now reawakens and pulsates anew (cf. ROMANO GUARDINI, The Lord, Chicago, 1954, p. 473). The heartbeat of the Risen Lord is granted us as a gift, a present, a new horizon. The beating heart of the Risen Lord is given to us, and we are asked to give it in turn as a transforming force, as the leaven of a new humanity. In the resurrection, Christ rolled back the stone of the tomb, but he wants also to break down all the walls that keep us locked in our sterile pessimism, in our carefully constructed ivory towers that isolate us from life, in our compulsive need for security and in boundless ambition that can make us compromise the dignity of others.

When the High Priest and the religious leaders, in collusion with the Romans, believed that they could calculate everything, that the final word had been spoken and that it was up to them to apply it, God suddenly breaks in, upsets all the rules and offers new possibilities. God once more comes to meet us, to create and consolidate a new age, the age of mercy. This is the promise present from the beginning. This is God’s surprise for his faithful people. Rejoice! Hidden within your life is a seed of resurrection, an offer of life ready to be awakened.

That is what this night calls us to proclaim: the heartbeat of the Risen Lord. Christ is alive! That is what quickened the pace of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. That is what made them return in haste to tell the news (Mt 28:8). That is what made them lay aside their mournful gait and sad looks. They returned to the city to meet up with the others.

Now that, like the two women, we have visited the tomb, I ask you to go back with them to the city. Let us all retrace our steps and change the look on our faces. Let us go back with them to tell the news… In all those places where the grave seems to have the final word, where death seems the only way out. Let us go back to proclaim, to share, to reveal that it is true: the Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity. If we cannot let the Spirit lead us on this road, then we are not Christians.

Let us go, then. Let us allow ourselves to be surprised by this new dawn and by the newness that Christ alone can give. May we allow his tenderness and his love to guide our steps. May we allow the beating of his heart to quicken our faintness of heart.

THOMAS MERTON FOR GOOD FRIDAY

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The Unspeakable. What is this? Surely, an eschatological image. It is the void that we encounter, you and I, underlying the announced programs, the good intentions, the unexampled and universal aspirations for the best of all possible worlds. It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience, the void which drawls in the zany violence of Flannery O’Connor’s Southerners, or hypnotizes the tempted conscience in Julien Green.

It is the emptiness of “the end.” Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God. Yet nowhere do you despair of this miracle. You seem to say that, for you, this is precisely what it means to be a Christian; for Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of The Unspeakable. I am glad you say this, but you will not find too many agreeing with you, even among Christians.

….The goodness of the world, stricken or not, is incontestable and definitive. If it is stricken, it is also healed in Christ. But nevertheless one of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that it is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable.

Those who are at present so eager to be reconciled with the world at any price must take care not to be reconciled with it under this particular aspect: as the nest of The Unspeakable. This is what too few are willing to see….

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. You agree? Good. Then go with my blessing. But I warn you, do not expect to make many friends. As for the Unspeakable—his implacable presence will not be disturbed by a little fellow like you!

 

(From “Raids of the Unspeakable’) as originally posted for Good Friday  6th April 2012 by David Backes