by Kathryn Lopez
“Death? Death is Christ calling your soul for an eternal rendezvous of love. Oh, the joy of at long last being home, in the arms of the beloved!”
This is the end of a meditation of Catherine de Hueck Doherty that appeared in Magnificat on a day on which my prayers were already all about death.
This is true. It’s Christianity! It’s what we believe. And yet we have tears, oh, do we ever have tears …
These last few months can be excruciating. All the joys that are the blessings of family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas can bring with them the great pain of loss a pain that we never quite get used to. The empty chair. The gift you walk up to buy for one who can no longer receive the present we lovingly wrap, address, and place under the tree. The conversations you can’t have. What you wish you said. What you ache to say.
For those of us who call ourselves Christians, death, in a way, exposes our lack of faith, helps us come to grips with our lack of faith, and has us on our knees pleading for more faith.
That’s the journey Amy Welborn shares in her deeply personal, deeply spiritual, deeply real book, Wish You Were Here Travels through Loss and Hope.
The “you” she wishes were here is her husband, Mike, who died suddenly one day at the gym. By the time she got a call and was in a hospital emergency room, he was dead. “He had been dead all day, and I didn’t even know it,” Welborn writes. He had been dead all day and she had been doing “mundane things.”
All those details that we fixate on. It’s only human. Then we notice in a numb way or an ever deeper way that people keep on dying and they won’t stop dying, as she experienced shortly after her husband died. And the conversations we have to have. Welborn recalls one such with her then-four-year-old son.
“Can God get Daddy out of heaven?”
“Because I want Daddy to be with us.”
“He’s happy. He’s with God. He’s the happiest, like we’ll be when we go to heaven.”
I was sitting on the bottom bunk with him, saying words like that, trying to believe them myself. Joseph, now eight years old, was on his way up to the top bunk. He paused on the ladder. All I could see were his feet. He stood there, silent, as his little brother tearfully argued his case: “But I don’t want Daddy to be invisible.”
It’s not easy. No one ever said it would be. But that bites. It seems bitterly cruel. And if it’s your child…
“If we are Christians,” Welborn writes, “we have two kinds of hope constantly held out to us: the hope that the cross gives, that our sins have no more power over us, that in our suffering we are not alone, that God knows, that God suffers, mysteriously with us; and the hope of the empty tomb, that death has no more power over us either, that Jesus Christ lives.”
No more power. But there still is sorrow.
Our sister, widow, human, Christian, captures this, too, in Wish You Were Here. “In the midst of the hope, the pietà remains. There is Our Lady of Sorrows, there is the mother standing at the cross, weeping, there are the friends, uncomprehending and regretful, there is a suddenly empty space and strange silence, there are the doubters scoffing from afar, challenging. Where is your hope now?”
Where is your hope when you feel so completely lost? When you are in what seems to you like a certifiable denial, upset that the phone number changed, because how will he ever be able to reach you when he is ready to call?
Grief means sadness, of course. I would have expected that. But what I wouldn’t have anticipated if I were anticipating my husband’s death, which of course, I wasn’t is this other thing, the thing that haunts as strongly as the sadness, sometimes more so: a strange, confusing, and constant feeling of dislocation and imbalance. He was just here a minute ago. He just can’t not be here, just like that, can he?
I stayed in a room with his body in his open casket for four hours at his wake; I sang (grudgingly) Alleluia along with the rest of my fellow Christians weeks later at the end of that first Lent, feeling like an imposter as I did but the question still hung, unanswered, and every journal entry from those first months ends the same way: Where are you? Where did you go?
I just hoped for a sign, I guess. A sign that it’s all true, that it’s real, those words I say in the Creed and have said all my life: I believe in life everlasting.
At another point, early on, she shares:
This stupid life, in which grace, loss, sadness, and joy are intertwined and even dependent on one another, in which the living are here because others are born and eventually buried, in which we look different because someone died, in which beauty is born of suffering, mystifies me. I can’t sort is out.
I just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.
Death has no more power over you.
St. Paul preached that all the time. What does that mean? That we will rise again? Yes, but I think it’s also about how we keep living under the shadow of death: specific deaths, our own death, and death in general have all kinds of power over how we live.
Death where is thy victory? Death where is thy sting?
Paul could mock death. Me, I’m not there yet.
Me either, I confess. I believe it’s true. I know it’s true. But it can hurt while we’re here. We struggle. No one ever said otherwise. Jesus Christ Himself knows it, lived it, walks with us.
Last Lent I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem in the snow in a skirt and inadvisable shoes with fifty fellow pilgrims at 3 in the morning. Thanks be to God. I can’t think of a better way. It was slippery. It was wet. It was hard to see. It was arduous.
And yet. The Savior of the world did it. He walked it. And He walks it. That day with my American friends in Israel. That day in the pain and struggle it was minor but it drove a point about the reality of this Christianity we claim to believe. He walks with us in loss. He walks with us as we feel like hypocrites, with our tears of sorrow, and increases our faith. He walks with us in agony and we know He knew it. Remember the Garden of Gethsemane?
Feeling forsaken? We feel it, but where do we go with it? That’s the choice. That’s the glory of freedom. If He did not save us we would not have the victory option. Death would be rows of cold headstones. Pity the man whose family didn’t have the money for the tallest monument.
If we were gods and able to figure this all out ourselves, we wouldn’t need a most merciful, ever-loving, everlasting Savior.
And it is sometimes children who see this most clearly. Have you watched the video of Garvan Byrne, a dying 12-year-old, talking about the arms of Jesus outstretched toward him, always welcoming him? Or read the letters to Jesus of the 6-year-old Antonietta Meo, who, during the month in which she would die, wrote:
Dear Jesus the Crucified
I love You so much I love You so I want to stay with You on the Calvary and I suffer with joy because I know I’m on the Calvary. Dear Jesus. I thank You for having sent me this illness because it is a means to get to Paradise.
Dear Jesus tell God the Father that I love Him, too.
Dear Jesus I want to be Your lamp and Your lily dear Jesus.
Dear Jesus give me the strength to bear this pain I offer You for the sinners.
Dear Jesus tell the Holy Spirit to enlighten me with love and fill me with Its seven gifts. Dear Jesus tell sweet Virgin Mary that I love Her so much and I want to stay with Her on the Calvary because I want to be Your victim of love dear Jesus.
Dear Jesus I entrust my father confessor to You and grant him every necessary favour.
Dear Jesus I entrust my parents and my sister Margherita to You.
As Amy Welborn walks us through her painful journey, which no doubt continues, it’s all one journey, after all, to Christ or away from Christ. In her pain, she keeps her compass set on mercy, on the sacramental life. A little later in her book, she outs the understandable nonsense of our struggle:
If I stand in the kitchen… the image of him walking through the door, right now, takes my breath away. What would it be like if I heard that voice saying hello to me and saw that hand tossing his lunch bag up on top of the refrigerator and heard that heavy sigh he’d breathe out before telling me about his day?
Standing there, I can’t think of a bad thing about it. It would make everything every single thing all right?
But would it?
Well, for us … The wife, the sons, the parents, the sisters, and the friends, sure. But when I force myself to follow it through to the end, I have to admit that we are not the only ones with a stake here, in this fantasy. After all, here I am praying for him to be in heaven.
Heaven! We sing about it. We compare things to it. We watch movies about it. We think it pretty and good. But do we meditate on it? Do we want it? Do we want to see everyone there? Do we help to get them there? Do we surround ourselves with people who will challenge us, inspire us, and get us there?
… but I’m also determined that it would be better if he just came back, wrenched away from the Beatific Vision and then tossed back into this world, where he’d have to trudge back to the office on Monday, struggle against sin, be frustrated with limitations, suffer from some illness or another, watch his children suffer (because they will, because we all do), and then die all over again?
To wish that on someone? That’s love?
“Still thinking about that column” was the last thing Michael Dubriel posted on Facebook. The column got written before he left and it explained, “None of us knows what the future holds,” and, quoting a friend, “We have no plans except to be led by God.”
If we have other plans, we might want to go ahead and cancel them. And maybe we’ll be ready to be embraced by Heavenly Father. Maybe we’ll find it in ourselves to celebrate a life and to help others live lives worth celebrating.
Amy is in the garden with Jesus. And her book is a Lenten gift.
Judge Robert Bork, husband of Women for Faith & Family board member Mary Ellen Bork, gave me a Christmas gift. After a long illness, the former federal judge and Supreme Court nominee died December 19. His funeral Mass was a celebration of his life and of the reality of eternal life. Along with his beloved family and friends, six Supreme Court justices attended. Earnest, passionate prayer, along with a beautiful Marine ceremonial of gratitude, on a gruelingly cold and windy day.
“Life is changed not ended,” Father Paul Scalia reminded us powerful DC people and all.
“Our Lord is risen, so there is really never a bad time for a funeral,” he said, amidst the beginnings of signs of Christmas as the last Sunday of Advent approached. And Christmas: Christmas is a “feat of hope, the beginning of the fulfillment of Israel’s longing,” but “we pilgrims in a fallen world lose hope so easily.”
The “reason for our Lord’s birth is to save a fallen world,” Father reminded us. We celebrate Christmas because the world is in utter darkness without that Light of Christ. Christ was born to save us from unending death. We do not grieve like those who have no hope.
This was his message. This message, though, could be seen in the eyes of powerful men and women in Washington humbled by the power of God, the real hope of the world.
God humbled Himself and came into the world to save Judge Bork Bob personally, Father Scalia pointed out. Though a man of impressive academic and professional credentials, he was “so simple, so child-like in his recitation of prayers and reception of Holy Communion,” Father Scalia recalled.
Judge Bork’s peace at the end of his life reminds us. Amy’s book reminds us.
The day after Judge Bork’s funeral, December 23, Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, Dominican theologian and Vatican official, preached at the National Shrine, He quoted the third verse of “Joy to the World”:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found.
This is a reminder of the “the radical peril that surrounds human existence,” Archbishop DiNoia said. And yet, quoting the Letter to the Hebrews: “By God’s will, ‘we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ the divine remedy for the evils that threaten us.”
In his homily at St. Rose of Lima Church, in Newtown, Connecticut, after the December massacre of innocents there, Father Peter John Cameron, OP, editor of Magnificat magazine, said to the grieving families:
All the world needs to know that faith is not optional. Catastrophic events like this make it painfully clear that the human heart is a longing for meaning, peace, truth … is a longing for love that is Infinite. Faith is not optional because it is only there, in the acknowledgement of the existence of God, that we can find the answer to this endless, aching need that we are.
That is why the most reasonable thing we can do is live that faith in love. We must give the world our certainty … the certainty that comes from knowing that we belong to Jesus Christ!
Let this be our Lenten prayer. That we might live in Christ and spread the incredible news that this Christmas and Easter stuff is all true. And let us live like we believe it and even believe it. With, we pray, the saints that we know and love interceding on our behalf.
Archbishop Augustine DiNoia’s homily at the National Shrine: ordopraedicatorum.org/2012/12/25/he-comes-to-make-his-blessings-flow-far-as-the-curse-is-found/
Father Peter John Cameron’s homily: communio.stblogs.org/Fr. Peter Cameron Newtown Homily Dec 16 2012.pdf
Kathryn Jean Lopez, a member of the Voices editorial board, is editor-at-large of National Review Online, and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.
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