Loss. Strength. Hope.

This is a brief retreat, first time ever at Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson. A beautiful spot. And real peace.

I’ve been reading words I wrote or quoted from others while I was on retreat, back in the spring of 1998. Some of those words belong to the inimitable Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory. This evening I saw again words I copied out of his book on consolation, written after the death of his mother.

I suppose I should have expected what came this evening. This is my first moment of retreat since Mom’s death last December. Sitting in the monastery church tonight in the minutes before Compline, waves of grief rose up, and many tears. I miss her so much, all the time. Life goes on, to use the phrase she always used, but it’s not ever the same. Evenings are hard, every day. Just at the end of the day. I just want to see her, to hold her hand, to hear her voice again, to kiss her goodnight. All once simple everyday things. Now all of them, impossible.

The other day, before retreat, I found myself thinking of both my parents in their last days. The stories of their going-forth differ. Dad had five weeks of weakness, illness, treatment after his diagnosis with cancer. Mom had an extended period of weakening, an a-symptomatic experience of Covid, and a second positive test just days before her death.

Neither of them complained. Neither ever asked anything resembling, why me, why now. Neither of them spoke negative words. Both seemed to accept the gateway coming near. I remember Dad standing in his hospital room before the mirror, his eyes catching mine as he said of his 72 years, “It’s been a good run,” and repeating the words again. I remember Mom, the afternoon before she died, there with the intake nurse from hospice. Mom lay in bed at 91 years, listened as best she could, responded, and smiled. She smiled gently at this new friend, and at me.

From both of my parents came the same very last words I ever heard them speak in this world. They said, “Thank you.” After all the joy, all the struggle, all the sorrow, all the laughter, it came down to gratitude, to thankfulness. It came down to saying yes to life and to the hope for new life. And the other day, remembering, I thought and prayed: Lord, grant me a share in their strength. Just a portion.

They are forever my heroes.

Henri Nouwen, so many years after his own death, speaks to me tonight in my own handwriting from 1998, these words he wrote in contending with death as his own mother went forth from this world:

Our lives can indeed be seen as a process of becoming familiar with death, as a school in the art of dying. … When we see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift.

Mother’s death is indeed an invitation to surrender ourselves more freely to the future, in the conviction that one of the most important parts of our lives may still be ahead of us and that mother’s life and death were meant to make this possible.

Yes, a silent, joyful waiting. No panic, no despair, no screams, no tears or wringing of hands. No shouts of joy either. No victorious songs, no banners or flags. Only a simple quiet waiting with the deep, inner knowledge that all will be well. How? Do not ask. Why? Do not worry. Where? You will know. When? Just wait. Just wait quietly, peacefully, joyfully … all will be well.

[H. Nouwen, A Letter of Consolation]

And so, I wait.

Together in Ireland
Henri Nouwen and family (Nouwen Society)

Morning Light

In the early morning

Under cover of darkness

With only a hint of light in the eastern sky

Looking more like memory than promise

I took the dogs out.

The air crisp, leaves whispering on the trees in a light dawn of creation breeze:

“I hear we’re falling soon; our time has come,” and a leafish response,

“You’re crazy, we’ve been here always and we always will be.”

It’s a day off, so back to bed, granted K-9 permission, “for a nap.”

At 8, a turn in bed brings full sunlight through closed eyelids into my world.

A color, brilliant orange yellow blazes and reveals the leavings of a lifetime of sight floating relaxed within,

And veins and who knows what else, a hidden world suddenly ablaze,

Inner and outer worlds lit in unison, singing silently together

Sitting up at bed’s edge I am filled with a sure appreciation and a word of praise:

I am alive.

The dogs, patiently seated across the room, nod in agreement.

The day begins, not off but on.

Reset

I found,

Without desiring to find

That without Covid-infection

One can be, will be, pandemic-changed

Shifted by the very axis

In ways defiant of definition.

So I know, all this time (how much time?) later, that

I move at 3/4 speed by comparison

I speak at 1/2 speed of before

I think on occasion, if at all

And my default setting is new;

Forcibly reset from hope for to

Hope despite; from joy first to

Joy sought; from all’s well to

All shall be well, by God it shall

If we have to swim the length of hell to get there.

Tears

I’ve been crying every day for many days now.

When I watch the evening news, I cry. When Steve Hartman’s ‘On the Road’ segment shows the amazing love that is in people, stretching over generations, living through war, even joining strangers, in endless variety and power, I cry.

When I see sorrow or fear or abandonment on the faces of men or women or especially children anywhere in the world, I cry. This last week and more, when I see people carrying coffins – long lines of coffins – in Haiti since the earthquake, I cry. When I see families outside the airport in Kabul, sitting there with only the hope that is in their hearts, I cry. When I watch the video taken by the woman in Tennessee in her son’s house as the flood waters roll by higher and higher, until the picture tilts and she cries out, and he says something you can’t quite make out, and then it ends, and so does her life they say . . . then I cry. When the young couple appear on the screen with their two little children and talk about their 7-month old twins, torn away from their father’s arms by that same flood, and the photo of the two smiling babies suddenly is there, I cry.

When I hear the sharp words of division between people in this land of blessings, when I hear people curse each other over their disagreements, when I see individuals make decisions that move Death to rub his cold hands together in glee, then I cry.

When I stand with friends at the bedsides of their loved ones who have lived with disabilities, but also with laughter and a joy deeper than any loss, all their lives; when I recognize their strength and see the light of God’s face in theirs, I cry.

When I feel so tired and near-overwhelmed, when the way forward is fogged and my sight is poor; when I turn to prayer and feel there the embrace of the One who is energy and light and way and truth and life, I cry.

When I visit with old friends over good food and drink, when the blessings of memories are freely shared and conversation brings forth the unity of understanding and the light of a little shared wisdom, I leave their company with a smile at last, and go to the car and sit in gratitude, and cry.

When I see a photo of my Mom, one that I’ve not seen before or for a long time, with that familiar smile and those eyes of light, and I hear that voice crying out in astonishing welcome the name she and Dad gave me to carry, I cry.

When the silence is full here in the little chapel, and the fullness an embrace, and the embrace a promise, and the promise held, then I cry.

I read just recently that Ignatius of Loyola for years cried, all the time. Eventually he just told God he was going to stop, that the tears were affecting his sight, and stop he did. But not before shedding how many tears over the sorrow of sin, of the pain of the world, of what was and what might have been? I just read this for the first time after all these years. And I was glad that God is giving me a life long enough to continue to learn, and a path to find what I need to know. And I cried.

I don’t mean to say that I am always feeling sad. That would not be true. In fact I’m often not feeling sad at all when the tears come. I laugh each and every day as well. Heartily and deeply. But I am learning hour by hour that one fitting response of the living heart to the reality of this human world is precisely,

readily,

willingly,

to cry. It is, as the prayer says, right and just so to do.

The salt water of our tears flows down the cheeks and away,

and joining all the others since Abel’s tears in the face of his brother’s rage,

become the waves of our every ocean, rolling up on every shore in a timeless rhythm that endlessly repeats those first words, heard by none and known by all,

spoken by that Voice never heard and heard always, whispered by the Creator who is the first and the last and the always to cry over us the benediction of loving tears,

“It is good, it is good, it is very good.”

~ JP McGinty 8.25.21 Feast of Saint Louis, King of France

Shifaaz shamoon, on Unsplash