Saturday, November 29, 2008

In Him We Live... and Move...

It's rather anteclimactic that the liturgical year ends not with a bang, but a whimper... just as it begins in the quiet, a single candle guiding the way.

Along the way, though, this weekend likewise brings to a close the traditional November-long commemoration of those "who've gone before us marked with the sign of faith" -- our family, friends and fellow-travelers who, in time, we'll all follow home.

Last week, in another of the month's reminders of this, a post on these pages included a Washington Times column on the sudden homegoing of Susan Shaughnessy -- a beloved staffer at DC's John Paul II Institute whose death at 30 from a "freak virus" caused shockwaves in the church-circles of the capital and her hometown of St Louis.

As it turned out, Julia Duin's thread of "the Jesus that Susan believed in" from her Times piece became the linchpin of the homily given at Shaughnessy's funeral last weekend. And so, at the close of another month of the departed, as the (liturgical) clock inches toward another 11.59 on New Year's Eve, below is the homily as given by Fr Jose Granados, a professor of patristics at the Washington faculty.

At the end of one liturgical year and the dawn of another, may it remind us all of what matters most, day in and day out, in and out of season.

As ever, emphases original.
* * *
1. Today, before Susan's death, we are left in the darkness with our questions. These are questions regarding the past (Why has this happened?) but especially regarding the future (What comes next?).
This is so because we have seen Susan’s life so full of promises, and we are sad because it seems to us that a promise has not been kept. This is essential for us because it is this promise, the promise of life, the promise we discover in our friendships and in our families, that keeps us going, from morning to evening, knowing that life is worth living. And so we are left in this dark, starry night that Susan so much liked, with the big question: Can we continue to trust in the promise of life, a promise which is ultimately, God’s promise?

2. Someone has written during these past few days about Susan’s death mentioning all the prayers offered on her behalf, referring to our assault on heaven undertaken by so many people during her sickness. This person wrote that the Jesus Susan believed in… was a Healer… someone who hears our prayers. And then, how can this have happened to her? These words are honest and give expression to the same concerns we have in our hearts.

I have been reflecting on these words since I read them. It seems to me that, by pointing to this Jesus Susan believed in, they open up the only real possibility of understanding the meaning of what has happened. This is indeed the answer Jesus offers in the Gospel to the question of Thomas, a question that referred to the meaning of Jesus’ death. He said: “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life”. And so, there is, in Susan's life, an answer to our questions. The answer to the mystery of Susan’s life can be found precisely in this Jesus Susan believed in. It is the same Jesus we believe in, a Jesus able to assure us God keeps his promises. Who is this Jesus?

3. First of all, the Jesus Susan believed in was present in the poor, in those who suffer. We know Susan’s love for the poor and her desire to serve them, to console them in their sorrow. This means that Susan knew that faith in Jesus was not an easy way out of suffering, that faith in Jesus does not eliminate poverty. And, nevertheless, this faith gave her an answer to the question of suffering. For Susan was able to see Jesus in the poor and in this way she understood that the Jesus she believed in is someone who does not leave us alone with our sorrows, but comes to our side and shares them, and by sharing them already gives us an answer, a light in our darkness. The Jesus Susan believed in was inside the world of suffering, transforming suffering into love. For in the end, this is the real thing that matters, that opens our life into eternity beyond death: that we learn to love, that we open ourselves to love and let love transform our lives.

This Jesus Susan believed in does not take away our suffering, but transforms it into a source of love. Perhaps the experience we have had during these days at the hospital is already a token, like a fruit of Susan’s life. One famous writer once wrote referring to his daughter, who was gravely sick at home, that his home had become a Eucharist. Something of this we did experience at the hospital, when we were around a suffering body that gathered us and allowed us to give the best of our generosity and love.

4. In the poor, Susan understood something else: the Jesus she believed in, this same Jesus we see when we pass by the high school she attended, a heart of Jesus with arms outstretched, is precisely a Jesus who calls.

As Vickie told me in Washington right after Susan’s death, Susan always asked God what to do. Before taking a job, going to school or dating someone, she always asked God: “What do you want me to do?”

This means that she understood that in life there is a call, that life itself is a call. That is, she understood that Jesus is not silent but active, present, and calling us from beginning to end, in every small circumstance of our life. It is this Jesus she believed in who has called her now, who kept calling her to this final step.

We can see Susan’s death as something that happened to her, something that fell upon her with the blind force of disease or destiny. But the Jesus Susan believed in offers us a different vision: Her death was a call, the ultimate call of Jesus to follow him home. From what we know of his life we can be sure that she gave a yes to this final call, that she was also willing to follow again her Lord.

We too, if we live our life as a continuous call of God, will be able to see in what happened to Susan a call to us: a call in with Jesus keeps calling us to believe in him, to follow him, to expand our generosity and love, our service to God and neighbor. And in this light we will be able to see also our death as a call, the final call that leads us to the embrace with the Father.

5. It is to this final embrace we hear referred to in the Gospel today. The Jesus Susan believed in told us: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. This Jesus Susan believed in, was indeed a Son, someone with total trust and confidence in his Father, able to see his provident hand even in the suffering of the Cross. The Jesus Susan believed in was a Healer, to be sure, but he did not want to come down from the Cross. For he found there the only thing that matters in life: God’s ultimate embrace of love.

And because of this total confidence in the Father, he now has a Home and He is able to offer us a Home, a dwelling place in heaven. He himself has become this dwelling place that awaits us after death.

One of Susan’s favourite books was a poem of hope by the French writer Charles Peguy. In this book she had underlined a sentence Patrick showed me in the hospital. It went something like this: “God says: I love those who sleep. Those who sleep have a pure heart”. And to sleep is proper of the children, of those who, like Jesus, have a Father.

And so Susan went to sleep. She went to sleep a bit early, we could say, for we would have liked to have her here for a longer time. But we also know that she is in good hands, that she went to sleep in the confidence of Christ, the Son. A sign of this confidence is that she received forgiveness for her sins the day before falling sick; just like a child asking for forgiveness before going to bed.

We think of life in terms of activity and productivity, of what we can accomplish or acquire. God thinks in terms of confidence, of trusting in His hand. We think in terms of getting far in life, he thinks in terms of getting close to him. Only from this confidence in God, placing everything in his Hand, can we really transform our life and the world. Only from this confidence, given to us by the Jesus Susan believed in, can we understand what happened to her.

The Jesus Susan believed in, is the Son who allows us to trust in God and His mysterious ways, to place our questions in his hand knowing that the love of the Father is the ultimate answer to them.

6. Finally, the Jesus Susan believed in does not leave us alone. When he ascended into heaven he did not abandon earth. For the Jesus Susan believed in, life was a journey towards Home, towards the Father. He came first to this place to open us a way and in this way allows us to follow him. From heaven he continues to support us, to sustain us, to accompany us in our journey. And if Susan is with Jesus, we know that she has not abandoned us, that she is present in a different, mysterious way, encouraging us in our way to heaven.

The first Christians had a beautiful symbol they engraved on their tombs, a symbol unknown to the pagans: the anchor. With it, they signified that their ship, on its final voyage over the ocean of death, was not without security in its crossing the waves. There was a sturdy device aboard that would firmly secure them on arrival in the final harbour.

This anchor is placed in Heaven, and, as the letter to the Hebrews tell us, is a symbol for Jesus, who has entered heaven before us, opening us a firm path in the ultimate journey of death. And thus, this anchor is not totally like the anchors we let fall into the deep, because this anchor is thrown upwards, similar to what mountaineers employ to climb mountains.

The Jesus Susan believed in is this Anchor. Now Susan has undertaken this last trip and, having entered with Jesus, she can be also for us like an anchor, a firm point in Heaven that we can grasp tight, and in this way be lifted up. As her family, as her friends, Susan will continue to help us, to work on our behalf as an anchor of our hope, in Jesus, that allows us to look upwards. And may also our beautiful memories of Susan be transformed into this anchor, becoming a force that impulses us towards the future, towards heaven.

We don’t know God’s plans; we don’t understand fully why Susan left. But, as children, we are able to place these questions in God’s hands. And we know at least this much. That the ultimate answer is Love and that God’s plan is to lift us up to him, to the Father’s home.

If her death gets us closer to the Jesus she believed in, this will be enough for us; it will be enough to understand the reason of her early departure, to understand that her life and death was full of fruit. This Jesus, being our Anchor above, will be able to reopen again our future, to ensure us that we can continue with hope our way in life. The promise is not broken, it is kept alive in him, it will be fulfilled in the last day. And our life will again be rich in promises, because we will be closer to the Jesus Susan believed in.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine... Eternal rest grant unto them all, O Lord....