October 19, 2009

The Promise of Christianity in the Face of Death

In the face of death, it can seem impossible to pray.  How is Christ present when we lose a loved one?  The answer is not always clear and sometimes never is.  All the same, our faith compels us to seek the presence of Christ even when we lose someone dear to us.

I have recently returned from the funeral of a wonderful friend, Carol Sander.  After a struggle with cancer for over ten years, the Lord has taken her home.  She did not seem to willingly accept death until the very end.  Perhaps this was because her love for family and friends was so great, she wanted to hang on as long as she could to be with them. There was a beautiful funeral mass in Glenville, NY for all her friends and immediate family - and then there was a second funeral mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochova, Doylestown, PA to which more friends and extended family came.  

A devout Catholic and Third Order Carmelite, she was remembered as a great wife, a mother of two wonderful adult children, and a teacher who worked with mentally challenged children.  She was especially remembered as someone who really loved everyone the Lord put in her path.  She maintained this discipline even as her struggle with cancer required that she draw back from her career and other activities.  Yet cancer could not stop her generous witness to love.  Even the local grocery store sent her flowers.  At the same time, she was an artist not quite at home with suburban American culture.  I imagine the pain and tension of such a life must have been great, and this all the more so as her physical struggle became more intense.  In her case, this suffering compelled constantly renewed efforts to draw her strength from the Lord, to find in Him what she needed to continue to love, even when continuing to do so felt impossible.

In Doylestown, there was a wonderful experience of the richness of Polish piety and culture.  One had the sense of being with "the children of the forests and the plains."  The enchanting simplicity of the Lord Jesus was central.  At the same time, this rich encounter with Jesus was also with the maternal presence of his Mother, Mary.  I could not help call to mind the great faith of John Paul II and his call to build a culture of life and civilization of love.  All of this was part of Carol's own witness to the Gospel of Christ.

Towards the end of Mass, as her brother, Fr. Raymond Gawronski, S.J., sang a traditional Polish song to Mary for those who have died, the local grounds keeper joined him.  In fact, the grounds keeper was like a living icon of the Risen Lord, the mysterious gardener near the empty tomb.  Always in the background, he was solemn and at the same time generously present whenever he was needed.  Completing this contemplation, two priests of the Society of Jesus stood with Fr. Gawronski and his family.  The gardener, the brother priests, the faithful family members drank together the sorrow, joy and hope of those last prayers as Carol's body was laid to rest. 

All of this has helped me call to mind the great promise of Christianity.  Our faith does not promise us glory, or happiness, or relief from suffering in this life.  Instead, Jesus commands us to love without counting the cost.  This means to love even when there seems to be no reason to do so.  It means trusting that God is at work in love even when what He is doing seems completely hidden and our efforts entirely wasted.  This means we must not avoid suffering when that suffering is for the sake of love.  Suffering in love is never wasted - there is great value in it.  Living in love, suffering in love and dying in love is what the Christian faith calls us to.  Suffering in love for the sake of love touches the very heart of what it means to follow our Crucified God.  This is the power of the Cross.  This is what transforms not only our own lives, but the whole world.  To this end, Carol's brother, as he called to mind her life, remembered the great words of John of the Cross, "Where there is no love, put in love, and you will draw out love."

May Carol Sander and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.  Amen.