Alton Sterling, Philando Castile & What Nuns Taught Me About This Messed Up World

Alton Sterling, Philando Castile & What Nuns Taught Me About This Messed Up World July 7, 2016


“The tragedy in a man’s life is what dies inside of him while he lives.”
― Henry David Thoreau

If you haven’t heard the names Alton Sterling or Philando Castile in the last 24 hours, welcome back from Mars.

But if you stop what you are doing and visit any major (or minor) news outlet, you will find an outpouring of emotion and commentary from presidents and governors, police chiefs and civil rights leaders, family members and shocked neighbors, talking heads and Joe Public. Everyone has something to say in the wake of two deaths resulting from encounters between black men and white police. The videos, to say the least, are disturbing and tragic and for further details and insights, I would point you to my friend, Tom Zampino’s thoughtful piece over at The Catholic Conspiracy.

But as the anger festers and the protests mount and the investigations ensue and the legislation is proposed and the reforms are enacted, it all feels so tragically empty. Because we are living in a modern culture suffocating in anger and fear, violence and revenge. There is uncertainty, fear and rage that brings about terrible tragedy. And there is uncertainty, fear and rage that answers that tragedy with more tragedy. And so, in a desperate attempt to establish a semblance of understanding of what has happened, broad brushes come out and sweeping statements are made. Lines are drawn. Distrust is fixed. Hatred is ingrained.

This is our world.

And so, with these dark musings haunting my day, I must admit the lift I felt when I opened my mailbox and found an envelope sent by my friend (and brother) Rube. As I opened it, I found no letter, no note, no “mark of Rube” whatsoever.

It was simply an essay. Five pages. That was all.

But it was extraordinary.

The piece was from Catholic essayist Brian Doyle, who had penned a sublime introduction for a 2004 (or was it 2006?) anthology, The Best Catholic Writing (available on Amazon). In it, Mr. Doyle invites us into the mists of his memory where he spent a morning and lunch in the company of Benedictine nuns at their monastery in Oregon. Immersing himself in the beauty of their pastoral setting and engaging the nuns in winsome self-deprecating conversation, he felt sure that his remarks (for which he was invited in the first place) would be well-received by this delightful, grace-filled company.

But then something happened.  

As he stood before his audience and told stories with puckish humor and acute poignancy, he arrived at the topic of his mother – his mother whom he loved and cherished for her deep faith, genuine charity, quick wit, earthy accessibility and pure devotion – his aging mother who was now starting to slip away in the receding tide of age and infirmity. It was his mother who gave him pause.

And he started to cry.

“And I stood there at the lectern, in that cavernous room in that lovely old monastery, with its cedarn air like music in the nose, the extraordinary faces of the nuns held up to me in the twilight, and I tried to imagine or articulate or conceive a world without my mother in it, and I started to cry, and I could not stop. Forty-nine years old, and still sobbing in front of nuns.

No one spoke.

After a couple of minutes I got a grip and looked out at those women, and in the sweet silence, the brilliant shine of tears flashing here and there, I saw them for who they really are. I swear I did. I was granted and vouchsafed a vision: these sisters, and all sisters, are the sinews who hold the Church together. Their prayers hold us like hands. The Church has for centuries rested on their thin, bony shoulders. They are brave beyond words and we take them for granted and we should get down on our creaky knees and clasp our hands in prayer and speak to the dust and say, ‘Lord, we thank you for these women; for their grace we thank you, for their sacrifices and sweat we thank you, for their hearts in which we swim, we thank you.’

Look, I am not an idiot all the time, and I know full well, all too well, that the story of the world is struggle and sad, loneliness and loss, but to my mind there just is no way to stay sad as long as there are thin, bony, brave women like these nuns, like my mom, like your mom, in the world. It just cannot be done. We cannot let ourselves despair at the greed and cruelty of the world, and sometimes of our Church, because the sisters do not despair; they fight the brambles all day and night for us, and they are lodestars and compasses and prisms and leaders of the world that will come, the world of joy and light, where no child weeps from fear, where no one huddles in hopelessness…

So let us go, then, you and I, and forge a new thing. We do not know its shape, but we know the astounding idea at its heart, the idea that has driven the Catholic clan through two thousand years, the idea that remains, I believe, the key to the moral evolution of the human race, the idea that fell again and again from the lips of the gaunt, dusty man with the starlight in his veins: love, love, love, love, love.”

I don’t know the firm answer to what has happened in these last days. I can’t fathom the legislation, program, strategy or reform to untie this Gordian knot of fallen humanity. Better minds than mine will work feverishly to answer this. But this is deeper than our earnest, though feeble, attempt to erect yet another teetering structure of self-deliverance.

Of course it is.

And so, perhaps as one of us weeps, we are called for a few moments to sit with them in vigil, “in sweet silence with the brilliant shine of tears flashing here and there”, to pray, to not despair.

And of course – of course –  to love, love, love, love, love.


Photo Credit: Pixabay

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