In November, each year, we especially remember those who have gone ahead of us: ‘marked with the sign of faith’. These last few months I have been thinking – many times during the day and night – of my younger brother Stephen, who passed over into the light of Christ in late August 2015.
As I sat by Stephen’s bedside, in the last week of his life, as he literally thirsted for water and struggled for breath – I wasn’t sure what to make of the ‘silence’ of God. Grief, sorrow and raw pain were very real for me and the others around me … Where was God?
Part of me easily identified with the poet Denise Levertov when she cried out: “There is anger abroad in the world, a numb thunder, because of God’s silence.” (The Immersion)
And yet I did also sense a presence. As I was praying the Hail Mary, over and over again, the simple words: “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” echoed in my heart.
The English medieval mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, once wrote that Jesus came among us to suffer on the cross from two great thirsts: the physical thirst of his bleeding, dying flesh, and his spiritual thirst, his “love-longing” to possess all his people together wholly within himself, united in love with him and with one another.
I knew the work of the Crucifixion was not yet finished as I sat by Stephen’s bed as he thirsted.
But I also caught a glimpse of the Resurrection breaking through. Stephen in his ministry as a psychiatric nurse – as one who had the ‘gift of tears’ for others – also shared in the spiritual ‘thirst’ of Christ and his ‘love-longing’.
In the darkness I sensed a gentle light. For Stephen, in his many daily selfless acts of compassion, had somehow taken the ‘sting’ out of his own dying.
Yes, eternal life begins now – whenever each of us acts for mercy. Underneath each one of us are the ‘everlasting arms’ of a presence that does not abandon us.
As the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral has written addressing God: “No, I don’t believe I will be lost after death. Why should You have made me fruitful, if I must be emptied and left like the crushed sugarcanes? Why should You spill the light across my forehead and my heart every morning, if You will not come to pick me, as one picks the dark grapes that sweeten in the sun, in the middle of autumn?”
Not for a moment, of course, would I downplay the pain and loss of death. Grief creates a wound that will never be fully healed in this life.
And far from faith being some type of ‘aspirin’ which magically dissolves the pain – Christian faith is both a surrender and a daring risk… a ‘leap of faith’.
Plenty of others these days ‘leap’ in another direction – and choose instead an almost total ‘faith’ in the scientific method and western rationality. These valuable ‘instruments’ certainly explain (at least partially) the mechanics – the ‘how’ questions of existence.
But can they ever really explain the ‘why’ questions which are deep in our hearts and keep us awake in the middle of the night?
I don’t think so. For as Pascal noted: “The heart has reasons, that reason itself does not know.”
Like in any relationship, therefore, it comes down to making an ‘act of faith’ in another person. Every day I pray for the grace to ‘let go’ and trust in Jesus of Nazareth as the only One who can save.
And yes, that relationship will inevitably have its tough periods full of questions, doubt and anguish – its ‘dark night of the soul’.
For example, if you asked me: “What precisely lies ahead of each of us after death?” My honest answer would be: “We don’t ‘know’!”
Nor need we! As – believe it or not – we are not God! That’s ultimately a terrific relief and very Good News! ‘Certainty’ is neither possible nor necessary for followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead we make our act of trust in the Risen One – who reveals that we are safe in the depths of the God in which we are learning to live…
I pray that Christ ‘spills’ the light across our foreheads and hearts every morning. It is more than enough just to be ‘fruitful’ for others – as we journey into the light of Christ. For as Dame Julian of Norwich consoles us: “All shall be well”.
This article is part of a series of Lenten reflections entitled A Spirit of Mercy: Reflections on the Works of Mercy by Br Mark O’Connor FMS.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.