As I write this, the weather is gray and cold. It has been raining for what feels like forever, though more accurately it’s been about a week. I miss the summer. I miss a lot of things, and people, when October rolls around. It seems to be a month made for melancholy.
Perhaps it is because two of my grandparents died during separate Octobers in my childhood. This month has always been a time of missing them, remembering the past, and grieving. I was eight the October my paternal grandmother died, and she was the dearest person in the world to me.
Grief is a word we use to describe the feeling of missing someone or something after they are lost to us forever. We grieve days that are behind us, relationships that never grew, opportunities that we missed. But most of all, we grieve persons. Death seems to be the end of all that is, the end of all who is. It is unbreakable, unbreachable, unending.
As Christians, we do not think in those terms because they have been proven false. Jesus Christ, as well as Mother Church, tells us that death is not the end. It is an act of hope to believe this. Death only appears to be final and absolute and unknowable. Through Christ’s resurrection, God has revealed that death is not our final end. It is often hard for us to trust what happens next because we simply cannot know it with the certitude with which we know this world. The Church speaks of the Four Last Things, with Death being the first or entryway to the other three: Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. But that is another topic. What about those of us who remain on earth while a loved one has gone ahead? What do we do? How do we live with loss?
C.S. Lewis told a friend who had recently lost his beloved wife, “Sad you must be at present. You can’t develop a false sense of a duty to cling to sadness if– and when, for nature will not preserve any psychological state forever– sadness begins to vanish” (A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken). Of course we feel sad as a result of someone’s death. A loved one who brought joy and lightness into our hearts has gone, and our sadness is a natural response. There is no Christian commandment forbidding sadness. It is an emotion, which is neither good nor evil. Emotions just are. They come and go, washing over us. If we choose to take them too deeply within ourselves, however, emotions can become dangerous. We can drown in grief, for example, if we make it our cosmology. And the Christian is commanded to have the same mind as Jesus Christ. He sees the world with the eyes of resurrected love.
While we may not always be able to choose our emotions, we can choose our attitude and our response to them. Joy, even in the midst of sadness, “comes of being loved” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est. And love has conquered death in a singular act. Jesus, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinitarian Godhead, the Son of the Father, died on a cross to redeem us from an unredeemable bondage because he loved us and desired us to be with him. It is to that reality that we must orient ourselves. Grief can too easily turn us inward. Like a black hole, it can devour everything surrounding it so that it is the only thing left. Love perpetually calls us out of ourselves, and asks us to give ourselves as a gift, even and especially in the hard times. I do not doubt that God’s heart broke when humanity sinned the first time, and breaks again at every subsequent sin. But God did not become consumed by grief at our fall. God is love, and love gives of itself to the beloved unceasingly. Therefore, God acted in order to redeem mankind.
I want to tell you more about the process of grief, of going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, of reaching acceptance, but I don’t know your process. I don’t know your specific loss, which we all must face at various times of our lives. That’s okay. We can hold a space for each other as we go through the process of grieving. We can let each other remember and smile and laugh and cry and long for the missing one, repeating this process as necessary. As a recent homily reminded me, our God does not tolerate idols in our lives. Our grief cannot consume our love, or else it makes a golden calf of our beloved. May our love of God, united with the love our dearly departed, orient us to the loving heart of the Father. May we know that this present sadness is not the end.
Question for Reflection: Have you grieved the loss of something in your own life? How has your faith impacted your experience of grief?
Just a short week and a half ago, I felt like I was on top of the world! I could sleep in without missing class, I didn't have to wear shower shoes, and was treated to delicious home cooking; yes, it was spring break! However, that week off from school seemed to pass too quickly, as it always does, and soon I found myself back at school, where a mountainous pile of work awaited me. The joy that came with the start of break, a result of time off from an often busy and consuming world of commitments, had quickly vanished, and was replaced by the stress of things to be done.
Today I came across a chapter, aptly titled “Joy”, in a book I’m reading by Cardinal Dolan. Here he gave some suggestions as to what actually helps us attain a true and lasting joy, some of which took me by surprise. He first proposes that the source of all joy is peace. Looking through an exterior lens these seem to be mutually exclusive, particularly when the thought of someone who is quiet and peaceful is juxtaposed with the image of a jovial, fun-loving and joyful person. But Cardinal Dolan is referring to an inner peace that gives rise to a genuine exterior joy and happiness. This peace is rooted in the conviction that God loves us and, in return, we reciprocate this overwhelming love through our actions and interior life.
Knowing and accepting this great love can be a challenge, and is something I still struggle with on a regular basis. A wise religious sister recently told me how we must first let God love us, even with our imperfections, before we attempt to change other people – a tendency of perfectionists such as myself. How right she was! This is often a major stumbling block in finding inner peace, which ultimately leads us to genuine joy.
True joy can come about through trust in God’s plan, but requires a complete surrender of ourselves and our desires. As cliché as it may sound, Cardinal Dolan suggests this simple ordering of our lives to reach this joy:
J => Jesus
O => Others
Y => Yourself
When we are ordered this way, and place ourselves last in the line of priorities, our happiness no longer relies on promotions, accolades, or spring breaks, but from a much deeper source that doesn’t fade away despite busy schedules and stressors.
Lastly, Cardinal Dolan highlights an important distinction between joy and pleasure. C.S. Lewis once said, “Joy is never in our power, and pleasure is. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted joy would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world”.
I realized that, while going to the beach in Cozumel, cruising the Caribbean, or simply sleeping in can all be good things and may bring me pleasure, these things will never be able to bring me real joy.
Perhaps we can all take a “Spring Break”, not in the sense of a vacation (although I’m sure none of you would object to that), but rather use Holy Week to take a break and reflect on what motivates our Joy. Is it an inner peace within ourselves and an acceptance of God’s immense love, exemplified in the Paschal Mystery that we will soon be celebrating? Or, is it based on the next compliment, promotion, or good grade? What do we need to change in order to reach this true Joy?
Fortunately, this joy is lasting; it is a joy that won’t leave you sunburned or yearning for more in a week’s time.
David Burkey is the Communications Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) Student Leadership National Conference at the invitation of one of our campus FOCUS missionaries. The distinguishing feature of this conference was that it was geared toward student leaders with a special emphasis on equipping those present for engaging in the New Evangelization.
Curtis Martin, the founder of FOCUS kicked off the weekend with a roll-up-our-sleeves and get to work talk that laid out the mission before us. He painted the bleak reality, presenting the Catholic population of the United States. Although 77 million strong, research has found that only about 22% attend mass on a weekly basis and even fewer support the Church’s teaching on procreation and life as found in Humane Vitae. However, Curtis’s call to action urged us as active members of the Church’s young adult laity to help increase this small but powerful number of Catholics. It’s not enough to simply increase the existing 77 million, rather we need to take the 77 million and, through evangelization, help to form new apostles who are more learned in – and ready to spread – their faith.
This is all well and good, we may say, but that’s a lofty goal even for the average engaged Catholic layperson. Therefore, it’s good to understand this entire New Evangelization movement. Many of us are familiar with the term evangelization but not exactly sure what makes it “New.” Fr. Michael Keating shared three thoughts explaining precisely why this New Evangelization is just that… “New.”
First, we must understand this as a re-evangelization that is rather new in the light of the entirety of Church history. The Church has been evangelizing since Christ himself walked the earth, but this concept of revisiting those who have heard the Gospel message and in return have either grown indifferent toward it or outright rejected it, can prove much more difficult. As C.S. Lewis once said, “It’s the difference between a man attempting to woo a young maiden and a man attempting to reanimate a relationship with a cynical divorcee,” which, unfortunately, aptly describes the challenge before many of us.
Secondly, Fr. Keating noted that this evangelization has to happen in a different context than it has throughout history because the Church is no longer mainstream. Throughout the centuries, evangelization was made easier because the teachings of Christ permeated the culture and the very way that people lived their lives. In the span of Church history, this is considered a very “new” problem.
Lastly, the moral and human truths the Church teaches have never before been under attack as they are now. Some of these are direct attacks and others are more subtle, as they have existed in our culture for many decades and have now became mainstream.
The only way to help turn this around and face these new challenges head on is through building and promoting a culture in which the moral truths and teachings of the Church are promoted. Fr. Keating emphasized this change, saying that the deciding factor of the success of the New Evangelization through this change of culture lies within the very source and summit of everything we are as Catholics – the Mass. Our ability to be engaged in the Mass and submit ourselves to the liturgy so that it may form us needs to be our primary concern in building ourselves as apostles.
It is in the Mass that we are united with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, including all the saints who have gone before us. We should use the saints as examples of how to be evangelizers, and they should serve as our inspiration in our task ahead. Jesus didn’t choose the most talented or skilled rhetorical speakers to be his apostles – take Peter and Andrew who we recently heard about in the Gospel reading. They weren’t scholars of the ancient Jewish law or customs – just fishermen. Yet it all started with them and ten other humble apostles as they evangelized throughout the lands and, as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of spirit” (1 Cor 2:4).
This is certainly reassuring to someone like myself, who is no theologian and writing a blog post on the Church. But, perhaps, that’s just how God intended to use me. And perhaps He is just waiting to use you, too.
David Burkey is Communications Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center.