Memento mori.

Sonny’s yearbook from high school
Is down from the shelf
And he idly thumbs through the pages
Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there
Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls
Runs his hand through his thinning brown hair

~ Paul Simon, “The Obvious Child”

How is it that some days, some hours, some periods of time seem to carry with them an obvious theme, sometimes even a theme song?  These can be happy and light themes or heavier and deeper.

This morning we prayed at our church the funeral of a 29-year old man, Eric, son of gracious parents, oldest of four children, smart, funny, interested in the times we live in, creative and talented, dead of a heroin overdose.  A life too short, one of all too many being ended daily now by the vise of this particular addiction.  Outside after the Mass I watched friends embrace his just-younger sister, literally hold her up as she sobbed in their arms.  I watched his parents lean heavy on each other; faces tired; their son’s whole life and all his love outlined in them.

This afternoon I made my way into Brooklyn, passed through Canarsie, parked and walked through double doors into a school hall and to the front of that hall past people who sat in groups talking.  I stood in front of a casket and prayed over the body of one of my classmates from the North American College in Rome, Monsignor John Brown. Those days, featuring us in our 20’s, John strong and tall, serious and brilliant: they seem only weeks ago.  And they are.  Many many many weeks ago.  We have not been in one another’s company, perhaps since the mid-80’s.  Today, I had to go there.  I had simply to be there for a moment and to pray, in thanksgiving and in hope.  I knew no one there except the deceased.  I prayed, signed the visitors’ book, picked up a prayer card, and left.

As I drove away I thought of both of these men, gone in their own time and in their own way, into the mystery that I can only believe is a love stronger and deeper than most of us ever even intuit here.  My life has intersected with each of theirs in vastly different ways and degrees.  Now they know one another in ways I cannot begin to imagine.  And there is solace.  And there is fullness.

Here we carry on, and we wonder the strangest things.  As I drove away from that school hall where John’s body lay in the midst of his people, a thought unbidden began repeating in my mind like a mantra: “John, I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?  I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?”  I’ve no reason to think they didn’t, that in fact a mutual love joined priest and people in God’s sight.  But still, the question rang.

I carried both of them with me in thought and prayer here to the pond.  I cried for them. It carries more meaning than words,  And then Paul Simon sang in the car on I-684 of Sonny, his ‘obvious child,’ who sits with his high school yearbook and realizes

Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there.

And as the late winter woods, dry and bare, rush by on either side I realize that each of us, Eric, John, and me, we all appear in those few words.

 

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There is an end. And a beginning.

Forty minutes ago I arrived at Job’s Pond at Portland, Connecticut. I got out of the car and just breathed. Blue cloud-marked sky. Green grass. Quiet waters of the pond. Absolute silence. Just the kind of moment I love. Just the kind of moment I need much of the time.

But tonight it is different.

Across the water is the local YMCA summer camp. It is still set up as it has been since June. Kayaks and peddle boats upside-down along the shore. The enclosed area marked out where it is safe for the kids to swim. But the sounds of their summer joy have drifted away.

Everything felt different. What was it?

Ah! Obviously. It is the first time this year that I have felt the summer slipping away, pulling away from the dock and beginning the trek to wherever summer’s spend their winters. That must be somewhere deep in the heart of God.

I stepped out on the deck and sat down. I looked over at the empty camp. Although I interact with people all day every day, as individuals or in groups, I also make sure that a certain amount of the time I am on my own. In those latter times I almost never feel what I have felt on this beautiful evening. Alone. Without. Alone.

I am glad that this does not come to visit me much. This feeling of emptiness which teams up tonight with that sense (true sense!) of the passing nature of all things. The camp and the kids were here. Now they are not. The summer was here. Real and bright and loud and happy. And now, it is passing away.

The passing nature of the present moment – as my friend Marina McCoy drew it forth skillfully from her love of Saint Augustine in her post on this, his feast day [see graceinmidlife.wordpress.com – is always true. But there are some “now’s” when that truth can almost take your breath away.

I have been privileged (sometimes in very difficult circumstances over the passing years) to stand with families, to pray and cry and hope with them when a loved one has left this world. In all that time I have managed somehow to almost never think of my own mortality. Maybe the time was not right, although I believe in my heart that to live with a sense of the reality of one’s own passing nature through this life makes life infinitely richer and love (actually) possible at all.

But tonight, I do think, not in a morbid sense but truly – and unexpectedly – I am going to die. I am going to die. There is going to be a day, and indeed hundreds, thousands, likely millions of days, when I will be a memory if that, a part of the past, here no more.

The thought makes me want all the more to live this evening, and this night, and tomorrow. To live them fully and humanly and lovingly and well.

Out on the deck one of the neighbors greeted me as she swam by, as she does the length of the pond every morning and every evening. We each commented on the beauty of the evening. And of the truth that summer is passing, and of our hope for an easier winter. And then my next-door neighbor, out on her porch, unseen through the century-old yew tree between us said, “And then spring will come, as it always does. A new spring. Thank God for that.”

Indeed. Thank God for it all. For the coming of all, for its growth and blooming, for its life and color and noise, for its quieting and weakening and moving toward divine silence, and for the rebirth of new things that are also the same.

Thank God.

Job's Pond, Portland CT
Job’s Pond, Portland CT

For the Digger

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

 

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

~ from Digging, by Seamus Heaney, published 1966

 

I woke this morning to news that his life had ended.

Why do I weep tonight for a man I never met?

Is it because I read his words of poem and

Prose and find their hearty truth gentling and

Wrestling deep in me? Is it because his humanity

Looms larger than the conflicts he lived through, or

Because his mind and heart from a distance appear

Conjoined such that he looks real even from here, or

Because from the time he picked up the pen to dig

He excavated not a hole, much less an abyss,

But rather an open place, a window to what is above,

And to truth seen hovering just above meaning?

Whatever it be, it is, and I give thanks for the words

He leaves behind, while mourning to see his back moving

Away. I want to call “thank you Seamus” for working a

Lifetime but respect for the man bids me silent

Save for this fainthearted trowel.

(J McGinty 8.30.13)

Digging, by Seamus Heaney.

At the Tomb with Mary Magdalene (Easter Homily 2013)

Easter Day 2013

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Throughout the latter days of this Holy Week, the church in every corner of our world has been focused on Jesus, walking with Jesus, praying with Jesus, witnessing his suffering and his dying, standing by his grave in the silence of death.

 

This morning, on this 3rd day, one woman (according to John’s Gospel) has gone in the darkness of early morning to the place where Jesus was buried. Mary Magdalene has gone there alone, but as the representative of all of us who have ever known loss, of all of of us who have ever seen the life drained out of someone we love more than life itself, of all of us who have seen violence from afar or up-close and have not known how to respond. Mary went to the tomb representing all the human tears that ever have been cried.

 

What she saw there, as the gospel recalls, is the tomb open and the stone rolled away. Now humanity has suffered so much at the raw hands of death, and we have learned through war and cruelty and dread sickness so to respect death’s reign, that Magdalene assumed only one thing when she saw this, one final indignity: that someone had come and stolen Jesus’ lifeless body and carried him away to God knows where. And so she ran.

 

She did what anyone would do faced with a radically new and unexpected situation. She ran to friends, to share her news, to ask them to help her to understand. And so Peter and the other disciple (likely the author of the fourth Gospel himself) ran to see for themselves. Mary Magdalene returned to the cemetery as well. They were all running toward a radically new situation. They had no idea how radically new it was. They had no idea they were running toward the scene and center of the re-creation of hope, the revealing of true life, the re-creation of humanity and creation itself.

 

When Peter and the other disciple arrived, their eyes could tell them only these things: the tomb is empty; Jesus’ body is gone; and the wrappings that had been gently placed around his wounded torso and head are still there, some of them carefully rolled up. What was there to believe? Was it only what they could see? Or was there something more?

 

Magdalene’s friends returned to their homes. She remained. She remained crying. She remained confused. She remained on that spot, because love would and could not allow her to go anywhere else. Love, I think, whispered in the ear of her heart that there was something more to understand, something more to know, something more still to believe. And so she remained.

 

For me, one of the most important questions we have before us this Easter morning, and indeed on all the mornings of our lives as the light dawns and we come back to life, is this: as she remained there at Jesus’ empty tomb, how did Mary Magdalene come to understand? How did she come to believe?

The question is so important because like us, Mary Magdalene is a human being; and like her, we have faced, and will confront many times again, situations that seem to proclaim only death, only silence, only despair, only emptiness. How can we, like Mary, come to know in those moments

that wrapped in the silence is song,

that behind the despair hope shouts,

that every emptiness will be filled,

and that beyond death is – always – yet more life?

 

What does the Gospel this Easter morning teach us in the very words it uses, and the story it shares? Listen to the words again:

 

“As she wept, she bent over into the tomb.”

 

What was Mary doing? She was taking a second, a deeper look. Before, she thought she knew and assumed she understood when she saw the stone rolled away and the tomb open. Now, she looks deeper, and perhaps with some more profound expectation.

 

“She saw two angels in white.”

 

There is more to every moment, to every question, than we can humanly recognize. There are advocates and helpers nearby that we do not always see and almost never recognize. But they are there.

 

“They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

 

The seemingly most obvious questions are worth asking, and worth asking yet again whenever we feel alone and undone and overwhelmed by death. In their answer may be hidden more than we thought we knew.

 

“She turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”

 

We need not presume that we are at first going to recognize the best of all gifts by our side, even when the Word made flesh is there and living and visible and speaking to us. First there must be conversation – some call it prayer – and perhaps misunderstanding. But it needs to be spoken, and we will be heard.

 

“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!'”

 

To be known by name and to be called by name are transformative experiences in any human life; to be known as who we are, and valued and loved as we are: this is what opens up the deepest human possibilities in us, and reveals the presence of the divine in our time and place.

 

“Go to my brothers and say to them . . . ‘I have seen the Lord.'”

 

When we come to recognize Jesus risen and alive and loving and speaking to us, to our hearts, as Magdalene did that morning, we are inevitably given a mission. Somehow, in a unique fashion for each one of us, that mission will mean: Go, and share what you have experienced, what you have come to know, what has changed your life, what you believe.

 

This morning we stand at the tomb with Mary. She is the first evangelist, the first to proclaim the truth of resurrection. What do we learn from her? What will we carry from this beautiful church this morning back into the corners and crevices and the darker moments of our own real lives? Maybe simply this:

 

  • Take a second and a deeper look. Expect to find more.

 

  • Look for the advocates and helpers, God-sent, who may not be immediately obvious.

 

  • Allow them to raise the simple questions that you told yourself were answered. Hear them again.

 

  • Know that God’s own risen and living answer to every situation of death is standing directly by our side, even when we cannot recognize him. He is there. Talk with him.

 

  • Hear Jesus call you by name; hear him recognize both your need and your goodness; allow his recognition of you to open wide your eyes and your understanding.

 

  • Accept the mission he gives you: to share the good news you know by heart with the world around you. This particular telling of the Gospel of Christ can only, uniquely, come from you.

 

And finally, in and through all this, rise with Christ! His birth, his words and works, his suffering and death, and today his rising, are all for you. For all of us. As the Creed puts it, “for us and for our salvation.”

 

My friends, ‘this is the day that the Lord has made! Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” For Jesus is risen from the dead, and he lives forever. Alleluia!

 

(c) John P. McGinty

Life, Death & the Olympics

The Olympics opening ceremonies were broadcast tonight from Vancouver. Colorful, musical, international of course, and also proudly Canadian.
I came to them from visiting two friends living with uncertainty and illness. One is a monk, a brother, hospitalized for four weeks now. He was beaming with joy, even as he expressed freely the full range of his feelings as he faces massive changes in his life due to the limitations imposed by illness.

A second friend, husband and father, sits quietly among his loved ones, doctors trying to discern what has affected so quickly and massively his ability . . . to actively live.

A third friend, a US postal worker and a valued minister to youth and of parish spirituality, died today after a brave, confident struggle with lung cancer. He knew and loved many – and they him. He was at Mass even this past Sunday. Paul, good man and friend of Jesus, rest in peace!

And then at the end of the day, the pageantry of the 21st Olympiad’s opening ceremony celebrates for me the human spirit present in these three friends. The ceremonies included a moment of silence for the 21 year old Georgian athelete who tragically was killed there earlier today. For me that moment paid tribute also to my three friends whose lives has crossed mine with love and pain this day.

How does the saying go? “Oh, the humanity!”. At this moment those words make sense to me. Oh the length and breadth, the bravery, the faithfulness and constancy, oh the greatness of the human spirit.

We live. We die. We strive for the best. And in the striving lies our personal best, and our hope in God.