Thursday, April 20, 2017

Because, tonight I miss you...

Dearest Fr. Stan,

It is Easter Monday.  I wrote a blog post about you. About us. About God. About friendship. About grief. About love. I typed it all out fiercely on Saturday evening. Deleted half of it. Rewrote it on Sunday. Deleted most of it. Decided I hated blogging. Wondered why I didn't just write a book already. Decided I have no patience to write a book. Redecided I liked blogging, and loved here it is:

"Dear Fr. Stan," my 23-year-old-self writes to you in a glittery pink gel pen, on what was bound to be a long, disjointed, and rambling letter, scrawled on my Florentine Italian stationery, with butterfly stickers affixed on the corners of alternating pages...

"We've just started Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Have you read it? Surely you must have ages ago." 

Your reply comes neatly tucked into a succinct sentence in one of your letters the following week, "I've picked it up a time or two."

It was only the fourth letter. Our first month of correspondence. Four letters in four weeks. 

I am so young then, with sweet wide eyed piety, an optimistic outlook on life (bordering on the Pollyannaeque), that type of wonder that happens in certain saccharinely disposed youth...seeing and believing in divine goodness---everywhere and in everyone, spiritually high and on fire, wanting to evangelize the world with love, with a penchant for glitter gel pens (that never abates with age, by the way), possessing the attention span of a sizable gnat; quick to minimize the seriousness of all I construed as too horrific or depressing in the world...including any of my own experiences which merited gravitas of consideration or reflection.

You...are, in fact, a world expert on Dante...and had, of course, picked up 'Divine Comedy' a time or two. If I have to be teased for some of my greatest bloopers, this perhaps has been one of the best ribbings...akin to asking Einstein if he'd ever come across E=mc2. My only solace is in knowing that you found it refreshingly charming and comical back then. There was so much I didn't know about you that first month...that you won your PhD in English Literature at Cambridge many decades earlier. How very many hats you wore to so many people who cared for you...beloved priest, religious in the Order of Preachers, professor, wise confessor, dear friend, brother, confidant, retreat master, superior, and colleague.  

Or...that for the nine years that followed, before your death in 2009, we would write letters to one another almost every week, and over the course of that exchange you would become the dearest friend I've ever known. 

We were an extremely unlikely pairing, you an I, as far as pairing go...separated by 50 years in age, diametrically opposed in both temperament and talents. But, we had a common thread you could see at the time, that I could not. "We were both meant for the grand romance of God, seekers of truth and wisdom, and lovers of all in the world, of all of humanity, which was so desperately in need of such love and care. Our hearts were meant for God alone." You saw my vocation to Him long before I was willing to surrender to it. You laughed at me as I told you each new beau, "might be the one," knowing my heart could only be satisfied by the Lord. We also had a thread God could see at the time, that you and I could not. You could love me in a way that would serve as a healing balm for some woundedness in my young life, and I could love you through an extended period of doubt, pain, and depression, and back toward the light. God, in His infinite wisdom and goodness, brought us together in deep spiritual friendship for a decade of this life. And what a decade it was. 

It's been awhile since I've missed you. Well, missed you with a tinge of sadness, that is. Usually, when you come to mind, I feel joy...or you skip across my memory like a pebble across a pond, in a fleeting dash of happiness. The first years after your death, I would envision you talking to Jesus and Mary, to St. Dominic, arguing with St. Thomas, visiting with all your family and friends. Then, I would see you turning toward me, peering over your glasses (yes, I realize you don't need glasses in heaven, but it's my post-mourning fantasy--so roll with it) gruffly telling me to stop wasting my time thinking about such things, I would know soon enough what it was all like when it was my time, focus on living and doing good on Earth, and that you were (of course) right about everything you've ever told me. Then, you would give me a little smile and chuckle, there would be little a twinkle in your eye, and I would (finally) get out of my head and move on with my day. It's been years since even those thoughts were necessary to help me through the grieving process.

Yet, here I am on Easter Saturday night, almost eight years after your death, and...seemingly, out of the blue, a couple hours before I am supposed to be at Mass, I am wracked with gut wrenching, sucker punched filled grief. My mind and heart, suddenly and completely, yearn for you. I am overcome with desperately wanting to see you. Right now. In my living room. I want you to materialize onto the couch. 

The nuances of your physical appearance feel lost to me now: the memory of the exact shade of your eye color has faded away, your hair line, the sound and cadence of your laughter, the shape of your thick black glasses against your eyebrows...time has stolen away what I have tried so purposefully to commit to memory. That I cannot easily call to mind fundamentals which I ought to know so well, lends to the incorrect, though rather pressing belief, that I have somehow failed friendship, and failed love. Like a small child, I am acutely aware, that I will not be consoled by your materialized presence, and become both irrational and inconsolable. Heavy tears stream down my face for a long period of time. I curl up on the rug and cry your name over and over in my head. I don't make an external sound or whimper. It is all too personal for the air to hear. (That sentence doesn't make any sense to me by daylight hours, but it made sense on Saturday night.) What a strange and unusual type of crying this is. Deep confusion sets in as I seek solace from the pillow I am hugging tightly and burying my face against; intellectually stunned and dumbfounded as to why I am so distraught and upset.

Had you actually materialized in my living room, you would have brought me some Earl Grey tea (with honey) and a biscuit. Then quoted Julian of Norwich to me, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” When you had soothed me, and I was composed, I would have looked across to you, to see your eyes brimming over with tears. I wouldn't have needed to ask, "why on Earth are you crying?" Because, I would have already known.  You would have been so moved to see someone love you so much, as to be in such grief at separation from you, that it would strengthen and solidify your belief that such a love must exist in God's heart for you. That emotion would be so overwhelming to your soul, only a response of tears would suffice. I can play out the interactions and conversations that would have unfolded even though you are long gone these many years now. 
In hindsight of a few days, I realize I am so incredibly wrong, that I begin to laugh at the comedic nature of my incorrectness. That scenario would never unfold in the way I imagined, because all your tears have been wiped away. You have no reason to ever doubt, be confused, wonder at suffering, feel sadness, or confusion ever again. You now know God's love in its fullness. My imagination is insufficient because I do not know you, as you are now. One day, I will. But for now, who you are in your new will remain, a mystery to me. Oh, how I shall try not to envy you, and simply rejoice.  

It is a curious business, grief. The moment Fr. Vincent told me you had died all those years ago...oh, the scream that left my body as I dropped the wasn't even a scream really. It was a wail. The next day at Lauds, when we prayed De Profundis, I fell again to my knees. Wailing. There was no way to easily explain our friendship, or the anguish that accompanied the blow that had been dealt to my soul. You weren't my grandfather, you weren't my father, you weren't my parish priest, you weren't in a category that would make sense to most people. I doubt most of your religious brothers, or any of my friends, would have known I was sobbing my broken heart out because my 83-year-old priest best friend had died. They couldn't understand the significance my empty mailbox would carry in those months that followed.

When I pray the Psalms now, read, or listen to stories about grieving; and the word "wailing" comes across the page in a text, I call to mind the moments of those first two days. That was what it was like to wail. The first morning I woke up after you died, I remember thinking, "You're not on Earth today. You're not breathing. You don't have lungs to breath!"  For some reason, knowing you weren't breathing any longer bothered me more than anything else about your death. I cried and cried because you weren't breathing. 

Do you remember...a couple weeks before you died, you told me, "Don't think of me as that little grubby caterpillar crawling along the Earth, Anastasia. Imagine me with my wings outstretched, like a butterfly at the Resurrection, finally free, flying higher and higher, toward the beloved, after so much waiting, finally seeing the face of God." Or, when I pleaded, "Fr. Stan, when you are in heaven with the Lord...will you please send me a butterfly? I need to know. I need to."  

"Just one?" you laughed.  

For those first two years after your death, a butterfly came to me in some form, every day. It was absolutely amazing to experience. Every. Single. Day. That's about how long it took to get through the soul crushing part of missing you. Thank you. 

The vulnerability. Can people grasp what this kind of corresponding relationship does to one's soul? If they could, wouldn't they seek such friendships out immediately? To write and receive a letter to and from another human being every week for almost nine opens the most fragile vulnerability, freedom, duty, dependability, depths of acceptance, loving, knowing, take and cherish part of another person, able to cipher their thoughts and feelings like a sieve. Impulsive, heat of the moment impassioned scribble in anger or stress (which will vanish in a fortnight and should be discarded as such), or new onion layers of the soul being revealed, sentences of intense profundity, seemingly innocuous lines, little gems and invitations into the depths of another's inner life, humdrum activities of the day, commentary on world events, witnessing another's triumphs and tragedies, a welcoming to the soft glow of the embers of the soul fire, stoking the flames of trust and companionship brighter and brighter with each passing year. The ritual, the familiarity of the stationery, the comfort of seeing the handwriting of your cherished friend.  How very deeply I wish this type of experience for others.  

So much that has been the best about my life was in my correspondence with you. To be completely uncensored, accepted, and understood by another person is a beautiful gift. You taught me about love, about God, humanity, about poetry and beauty...about myself, about the world, perception, expanding the way I looked at life...much of my becoming a strong and confidant woman came as a result of my friendship with you. I often reflect upon you as my compass-due North back to Jesus through some very difficult storms during that decade.   

And now that our letter writing is no longer dearest Fr. Stan...I read, watch, and listen to others peoples letters... searching for the echoes of familiarity and fulfillment, listening for the intimacy of sharing of souls, of those seeking truth and beauty, of those looking for the face of God in neighbor. I've read all of the books I can find about the world's greatest letters, famous correspondence, any works of fiction about writing back and forth. Last week I listened to a dialogue on BBC called 'My Dear Bessie.The writing and performance was excellent. You would have enjoyed it tremendously. Then we would have talked about how differently their letters would have been if God were actively recognized as part of their lives. If they wrote about God during the war...God and war...some of the conversations we would have had...are still quite predictable. 

I catch glimpses of you every now and then, a moment here or there, but most are hollow echoes...because...they are not your voice, nor your thoughts...many 'nots' that in the end...are simply not you. In new friendships, I still continue to seek you, looking for similar traits in others I suppose. Futile really, and quite unfair of me to do. What a laugh you would have though, for I have become dear friends with one of your brothers who knows Dante well, and finds it unacceptable that I've yet to crack Dostoevsky. Tolstoy is "baby food" evidently. You would be terribly fond of him. You know full well how secretly delighted I was, to be teased, and slightly condescended a sweetly challenging manner (to improve my literary competence). The comment was indeed, "so you."  One of my best girlfriends is busy reading 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.' She has such interesting opinions, and you'd find her as fascinating as I do. Your heart for social justice, in that one. She'd give you a run for your money in conversation, and you would happily argue for hours, purposefully baiting her... to critique the defense of her arguments. Then, if triumphant, you would recite a poem for her on the spot.  

Many of your letters have been returned to your community's archives, to be opened 100 years from now. By then we'll both be dead, and anyone we talked about will be long gone.  Most of what you have given me has been passed along to others.

When I really miss you, I open one of your books and read a chapter. Or I drive out to Beluga Point (listening to that cheesy Celine Dion CD you liked) and pray, hoping you are there listening to me through space, time, and dimensionality. Then you lean over to one of your other dear girlfriends up there and say, "Julian, dear, will you please repeat it one more time for her?"  

And she does, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

IHM, ~Anastasia 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Life

Some days I feel like my emergency broadcasting system has been activated, tested, tried, and now...what?

I wish I could explain what it feels like to prepare for death, and then just go back to daily living like it was no big deal. It's certainly not a scenario I have any kind of a monopoly on...there are many others who have faced serious illness, wars, and traumatic events that brought them to the moment(s) of facing their own mortality, and then, when those moments had passed, back they every day living.  

Several friends have asked when I was going to write a post surgical update- but until now, I couldn't find the wherewithal to write. I had to go through the first part of the healing process and learn the lessons. 

On The Unexpected: I've been to two funerals in the last few weeks. The first, for an acquaintance, a couple years older than me...who was a cherished husband, and father to two little girls. He was an avid coffee aficionado, and a man deeply beloved in my community as a kind and generous philanthropist. He was constantly working to remember and care for the least among us, and encouraged each of us to do the same. 

The second funeral was for the 3 year old son of one of my best friends. I sat in the hospital room in the predawn of the morning...her recently deceased son lying between us on the hospital bed. We stroked his hair, and marveled at his beautiful, peaceful little body. His mother held him, sending him home to God, amidst ample tears and kisses. The following week, still in somewhat of a daze, the Church was packed full of many loved ones, and his funeral Mass was beautiful.  

This little boy had a terrible start in life, the victim of horrific and incapacitating child abuse at the hands of his biological parents. My girlfriend and her husband adopted him from the foster care system. They wrapped him in constant support and care, everyday, in their large and bustling family. As he came to the end of his brief earthly life, that little soul was cradled and rocked in his mother's loving embrace, as he passed into eternal life. I don't know that I have ever experienced a greater intimacy than being present in that sacred space with a parent who has just lost their child. My girlfriend and I speak very candidly and uncensored about many things (read: pretty much everything).  We mused that her son's resting place, and my future den of earthly repose will join us together with yet another thread of connection. Her son was cremated and interred at the same columbarium where my remains will one day be placed. We joked (but were simultaneously quite serious) about how comforting it was to think that we would be there side by side. He in his carved burled wood urn, and I in my butterfly one. A twofer stop for a prayerful visit...nestled in a garden cloister adjacent to the Church.  

These two deaths reinforced for me, the very strange mystery of the time we are given here on Earth...and that there are many questions we will never have answers to this side of heaven...why do some get to live long lives into old age, while others die so much earlier? How can we make sense of the problems of suffering and evil? Why does {when} death comes seem so deeply unfair, with no discernible rhyme or reason as to who will be chosen for its embrace?

To mentally and emotionally wade through the agonizing pain and excruciating loss that exists in this world can seem to be both nonsensical and emotionally paralyzing. Keeping despair at bay may become a daily challenge. It might strike with morbid wonder what the purpose the life of a small abused child who would die at such an early juncture? What benevolent God allows such suffering? What God creates an innocent child who will know so much pain? Wouldn't it have been better that he had not been born? It is tempting to pridefully rise up in personal comparison to God. To think (as many of us have done, if we are honest)...if we were to be found at the helm of steering all of Creation, we would never allow a child to suffer, as so many do the world over. We would never allow many of the evils that plague our world. We would have done it differently, we would have done a better job at "being God."  It can be easy to fall into the pride of believing ourselves to be wiser than the Creator. With angered broken hearts, we can begin to believe that we would make better choices. If we presume God to be indifferent to the cries and groaning of humanity, eyes turned away from all of us below, then we can fall into the sad state of deeming God unworthy of our worship and devotion. 

When I was younger, I worked in the field of child protection, and my girlfriend, mentioned in this story, still does. We each carry an indelible mark on our souls and psyches at having seen the darkness, and the abyss of evil that exists in the destruction of innocence.  I've had to wrestle with some of the above questions I mentioned, and I still do wrestle through the night, like Jacob and the angel, with a few of the confusing ones from time to time.

I've made as much peace with the lack of satisfactory answers (and with God) as possible, by acknowledging and truly believing a few things: A. free will must exist in order for authentic love to exist. Each human had to be given free will. It is the misuse of this free will (that we each possess) which creates many of the problems, evils, sins, and suffering in the world. The flip side of this, is that we can each (like my girlfriend and her husband) use our free will for all that is good, virtuous, healing, and holy. 

B. I am NOT, in fact, in any way or by any means, smarter, wiser, or a better planner of how the universe should unfold than God is. There was a point at which I had to decide that if I believed my faith was really truth, I had to surrender to mystery. To be able to say (and to mean) to God, "I can't understand your plan God, I don't know why 'xyz' is happening. It makes absolutely no sense to me, I don't know why you allow this, but "Thy will be done." " Choosing to accept that I just have to live without a complete/acceptable answer to my burning questions this side of heaven, has been oddly peaceful.  

C. I can only seek to assure you of the one part I am absolutely sure of...the lesson of this little boy's life (and each one of our lives) is about love. I fully trust my senses as they have taken in the experiences of watching many loving parents look upon their children with joy, delight, and deep unconditional love. It is not merely an evolutionary accidental that such a capacity exists within us. My nephew and nieces come to mind...and I think of how I love them with a depth of love I never knew existed in myself until they were born. The capacity for that intensely magnificent pure emotion, duty, dedication, determination, and will their good above my own is God given. If it is God given within our souls, it must first exist within God, God must have those delights and joys for each one of us. If that is the case, then I can never be correct in believing God to be indifferent, disinterested, or deeply cruel in His allowance of suffering. It is overly simplistic to lay out these thoughts late at night, in a mish mash way that cannot stand up to exacting rigors of theological and philosophical scrutiny. There is no truth I need to reinvent within my faith; and my theological, intellectual, and spiritual answers come in understanding the person of Jesus Christ. I have 2,000 years of ancestors who asked many of the same questions, and there are catechetical responses and explanations to all that has been posed.

But I mean something different by what I write here...acceptance? It took years to form and solidify the tools I have: to believe in, by my own discernment, firmly for myself...that my lingering questions about the allowance of the horrors I have seen in real life, and through the news around the globe, will (in many respects) remain unanswered mystery. I will not master the understanding or the scope of God's design, in this Earthly life. But, I will (and do) trust God's love as truth, and want to remain within it.


I imagine and believe it all does make sense...the macro design. At present, all we can see is the underside of a large quilt-the scraggly edges, wayward matted, tangled threads, knots, and the mashed together pieces that don't line up. We have an eternal promise that one day all the tears and pain will be washed away. For the virtues of hope and faith do not exist in Heaven. They are unnecessary because they will have been fulfilled. Of the three theological virtues, only charity will remain. After our deaths, when that divine promise is fulfilled, we may finally be able to turn the quilt over to gaze upon it, in its entirety, of swirling colors, shapes, patterns, and beauty. Then, at long last, we will finally understand that which we were incapable of comprehending (while only viewing the under side of the quilt, from our Earthly lives below). The mystery will finally be solved, and in peace, we will fully admire and appreciate the grand design of God's plan. Which, was love all along.