Eternal Memory

Eternal Memory November 5, 2013

On this day, exactly 30 years ago in 1983, my Dad died. Here is a chapter from Salt and Light I offer in his honor. I love you and miss you, Dad.  May you find eternal rest with God our Father through Christ our Lord.  Amen. Mother Mary, pray for him and for us all at the hour of our death.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

I remember it like it was yesterday. The kitchen phone was ringing insistently on the other side of the wall as I awoke. I had gone to bed exhausted with sorrow and fear the night before, having returned from the hospital where my Dad lay snoring loudly in the depths of a coma. Just as my eyes opened, I heard Mom pick up the phone and say, “Yes?” I held my breath and could hear the stroke of my pulse in my ears. Then I heard my Mom moan, “Ohhhhhhhhh!”—as though all the sadness of the earth was in it.

My heart pounded, and I jumped out of bed, numbly groping for the door. The worst thing in the world had finally come. I rushed to my Mom and held her for a minute, then went down the hall to tell my older brother that Dad was dead. Trembling, I went back to my bedroom, fell to my knees, and bawled, asking God to take Dad’s soul and grant him peace. I still feel the grief as I write about it, twenty-nine years later.

When I tell people this story, they often tear up even if they know neither me nor my Dad. That tells us something hugely important about what a truly personal experience is.

Our culture, intensely individualistic as it is, tends to identify personal experience with esoteric experience—something only knowable to a select few individuals, not commonly shared, and incommunicable to the noninitiate. When people say, for instance, that religious belief is personal, they often mean that it is supposed to be private and not public because it is supposedly esoteric. Therefore, it’s supposed to be one of those things we don’t include in polite conversation.

Now, to be sure, there is something properly private about the intensely personal experience of mourning. We aren’t supposed to intrude on somebody’s grief with platitudes and “buck up” speeches. But it is emphatically not true that mourning is therefore something esoteric, only knowable to a select few individuals, not commonly shared, and incommunicable to the non-initiate. On the contrary, mourning is universal and common—as are all our deepest experiences. In fact, the things that are most universal are also the things that are the most personal. Everybody falls in love. Everybody has felt fear. Everybody has known delight. Everybody wonders what the point of life is.

And everybody mourns. We may think that when we mourn we are utterly alone. But the truth is that we join the ranks of all the weeping children of Adam and Eve and feel in our marrow what the great pagan poet Vergil called “the tears of things.”[1]

We experience this in mourning not only the death of loved ones but also the loss of things, places, times, abilities, hopes, dreams, and many of the other goods of this passing world. We can feel it in the passing of a pet. The ache comes upon us when we go back to that Little League field of our summer youth, now rank with weeds and slated to have a condo built on it next month.

Grief assails us as we think of the things we never got to say before she died. We find ourselves nursing a drink in the wee hours, wishing we’d screwed up the courage to pick up the phone and tell Grampa how much we loved him, before Alzheimer’s took away his ability to know who we are. We see that dream of going to France slipping irrevocably away. We face the verdict of the doctor bravely, but in our hearts there is sorrow for our own plight and for the beloved whom we will leave helpless on the shore of this world as the bark of death carries us away, with us powerless to stop it.

Mourning stalks us. We know that sooner or later our time will come, and we hope to ward it off. So we chase death and loss away as much as possible. We often act out of a sort of superstitious fear that it is “catching,” so we avoid those in mourning lest we get some of it on us should they erupt in some unseemly display of shouts or tears or begging for the past to return. But for all that, mourning comes to us anyway—because God wills that we be blessed.

The blessing, says Jesus, comes not in the form of avoidance of mourning but in the form of comfort. The great model and prophet of this truth—Isaiah—spoke to the Jewish people in the midst of their great national trauma, the Babylonian Captivity when Jerusalem was destroyed and her population deported to what is now Iraq in 587 BC:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1–2)

Isaiah looked both backward and forward, as was the custom of the prophets. Looking backward, he likened the coming exodus from Babylon to the old Exodus from Egypt. He spoke of making a highway in the desert, just as God had made a way through the desert the first time (see Isaiah 40:3).

Looking forward, Isaiah prophetically foreshadowed the final exodus God would accomplish when Christ would lead his people through death to life. That’s why the evangelists read the prophecy as completely fulfilled not by the return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon but by the Messiah, as heralded by John the Baptist (see Mark 1:1–4). For the ultimate deliverance is not from geographic exile but from the exile from intimacy with God, who is our true home. It is the loss of life with God—and that deepest resultant mourning—that the gospel comes to comfort.

All true words of comfort do the same thing as Isaiah does in that passage to some degree or other. We are called, however feebly, to look back on goodness and forward in hope. God builds on this pattern by reminding us of what he has done for his people and urges us to attend to the good that he will yet do. False comfort, in contrast, urges us to numb or distract ourselves with lies or booze or some other drug.

Not all mourning is private. A whole world can feel it, as we did, for instance, after the assassinations of the sixties and after September 11. But public or private, mourning can be immensely fruitful, spiritually speaking. The world abounds with examples.

September 11 is again instructive: The manifestations of courage, nobility, love, and prayer that issued from the wounds torn in the side of our nation show what riches we can discover in mourning. The blood that poured out of our hearts that day was an intimate sharing in the blood that poured from the wounded heart of Christ. Many knew both his anguish and his consolation. That is why the Ground Zero Cross remains, to this day, a potent source of consolation and healing for so many.

On the other hand, just as there can be false comfort, so there can be false fruits from mourning. It can be stillborn as bitterness, despair, rage, and vengefulness. Blasphemy as well as blessing can proceed from mourning.

The point of the beatitude is that a blessing comes to those who mourn due to the love of Christ, not the goodness of man. For God’s tenderness is vastly greater than we can understand or imagine. The tears that Christ shed on the cross can put out the fires of hell for us, if we receive them. The suffering that we have to endure in Christ is not divine vengeance but a sharing in his own suffering. And even when chastisement comes to us for our real sins, it is ordered, always and forever, toward our final bliss and blessing, not toward our destruction.

But before, behind, and above all is that tenderness, a desire for our true comfort (not the TV or some alcohol-numbed counterfeit the world sells us) that is the deepest, sweetest comfort there is. It is a comfort that made Paul actually rejoice in his sufferings (see Colossians 1:24). It is a comfort so intensely beautiful that sane men have walked straight to their deaths rather than lose it. To taste it is to lose the desire for the cheap imitations the world routinely offers.

When your hour of mourning comes, as it surely will, may you know the comfort God gives in Christ and drink of it deeply.

[1] Vergil, The Aeneid, Book I, line 462.

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