on the passage through life

LateAfternoonLightToday (at 11:45 am, to be precise), I turn 49.

If I were going to take my cues from the culture, I should be surrounding myself with black balloons and all sorts of birthday cards evoking nostalgia and/or grief. For all of the talk about being “forward-looking,” we sure spend a lot of time longing for the past.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years thinking about our passage through time… especially as both my father and the man I consider one of my primary spiritual fathers passed from this life to the next. Experiencing these deaths, and especially being present at the side of my father as he took his last breath, had an unexpected effect on me. Of course I expected the grief and sense of loss. But what surprised me was the way it stirred up a desire for the life to come, enkindled, I’m sure, by the fact that both men had pilgrim hearts: They took great joy in this life but never forgot that they were still on the way.

About a year before he died, my dad sent me an essay he’d written in college about Robert Frost’s After Apple Picking, which includes this passage:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

Dad enclosed a short note with the essay, very matter-of-fact, saying he found it among some old files he had been sorting through. He didn’t need to say anything more; the consummate teacher, he allowed his own peaceful – and I might hazard to say joyful – entry into the next life to interpret the poem for me. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy this life, but he had tasted something more and wasn’t going to stick with the hors’d ouerves when an entire banquet was being laid out before him. As C.S. Lewis once put it,

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Or in the words of Saint John of the Cross:

I will never lose myself
for that which the senses
can take in here,
nor for all the mind can hold,
no matter how lofty,
nor for grace or beauty,
but only for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.

Or as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets,

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass….

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

So I think my perspective on age is a bit different, a bit changed this year. If someone approaches me today and asks, “So how does it feel to be a year older?” I think I will respond, “The real question is: how does it feel to be a year closer to the life to come?”

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

 

Divine Mercy Sunday

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, a time to remember in a special way the message of our Lord to St. Faustina Kowalska, a simple nun from Krakow in early part of the 20th century.

When I was studying in Europe as part of a semester-abroad program in 1992, I had a chance to visit Krakow and visit the convent where Sister Faustina lived. I remember leaving from Steubenville’s Austrian campus early that day — which meant skipping out of the end of a talk given by Cardinal Schönborn, who was reading to us from the latest draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Just one more thing to lay before God’s mercy…

When we arrived in Krakow, it was hard to find Sr. Faustina’s convent — although the fact that none of my classmates spoke Polish might have had something to do with it… We just pulled out our holy cards with the image of the Divine Mercy on it, and first were directed to the wrong church! But we eventually got there, and the sisters were kind enough to show us around… we saw the sisters’ cemetery, the chapel that contains the image, and the tomb of St. Faustina. Here are a few photos…

The sister’s cemetery

Praying at the tomb of St. Faustina

The Divine Mercy image in the chapel

A Polish holy card

XIII: Jesus is laid in the arms of His Blessed Mother

At the foot of the Cross, Mary lovingly receives the lifeless body of her Son. She kisses Him, and then gazes out at us as she holds Him. Her eyes are filled with grief but no bitterness. “This is for you,” her eyes say to us. She is the gracious hostess of the divine meal, expressing a hospitality that has cost her everything.

Mary is… the Mother of Mercy because it is to her that Jesus entrusts his Church and all humanity. At the foot of the Cross, when she accepts John as her son, when she asks, together with Christ, forgiveness from the Father for those who do not know what they do, Mary experiences, in perfect docility to the Spirit, the richness and the
universality of God’s love, which opens her heart and enables it to embrace the entire human race. Thus Mary becomes, for each and every one of us, the Mother who obtains for us divine mercy.

Saint Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth

XI: Jesus is nailed to the Cross

John the Beloved watches as the body of Christ is elevated on the Cross. He remembers the words of the Master as He elevated the unleavened bread: “This is my body… do this in memory of me.” The Supreme Teacher does not want us to forget that love is self-offering, and so the meal He asks us to share, again and again until the end of time, takes the very shape of His sacrifice.

Christ’s blood reveals to man that his greatness, and therefore his vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self. Precisely because it is poured out as the gift of life, the blood of Christ is no longer a sign of death, of definitive separation from the brethren, but the instrument of a communion which is richness of life for all. Whoever in the Sacrament of the Eucharist drinks this blood and abides in Jesus is drawn into the dynamism of his love and gift of life, in order to bring to its fullness the original vocation to love which belongs to everyone…. It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the strength to commit themselves to promoting life. It is precisely this blood that is the most powerful source of hope, indeed it is the foundation of the absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious.

Saint Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life

Nine days of prayer for Divine Mercy… begins today

The Divine Mercy novena begins on Good Friday and ends on Divine Mercy Sunday (the Sunday after Easter).

The devotion to Divine Mercy is a powerful one, and it has spread like wildfire through the Church in a very short time.

I once visited the convent in Krakow, Poland where Saint Faustina Kowalska lived and prayed. St. Kowalska is the nun who received the devotion to the Divine Mercy in a series of private revelations from Jesus in the early part of the 20th century.

Wishing you a blessed Triduum and a happy and holy Easter!