Tag Archives: death

Celebrity Passings and the Memento Mori

Jill Maria MurdyJill Maria Murdy
Director of Liturgy and Music
Saint Frances Cabrini Parish,
West Bend, WI

Since Christmas, I have been involved with seven funerals in the parish where I work. My volunteer choir members and cantors have been out to sing for most of those liturgies. In my profession, death is a constant. Some families have been overwhelmed with grief, others shocked, and others just feeling a sense of grateful relief that their loved one is no longer struggling to live. My own beloved mother has been gone since 1992, and there is probably not a day that goes by when I don’t miss her. Recently I have seen posts of many other friends grieving the loss of a parent, young spouse, nephew, or child, and I have felt the angst with them.

Perhaps this is why I’ve been thinking a lot of all the celebrity deaths that have made the news lately: David Bowie, Glen Frey, Alan Rickman, René Angélil, Dan Haggerty, Natalie Cole, Pat Harrington, and Olympian Bill Johnson just to name a few. Radio playlists and newscasts telling of their life’s work have filled the airwaves, and various organizations have sought to pay tribute in different ways (like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra who has already announced a program of David Bowie’s music as part of their fall concert lineup).

But why should these deaths shock us? Surely it is a loss when each of these musicians or actors leaves us, but what about the countless other obituaries printed each day? Don’t we mourn the teachers, the scientists? The factory workers, the grandmothers and grandfathers? Are not their legacies as rich and important to us all?

In his Instruments of Good Works, St. Benedict wisely told his monks to “keep death before one’s eyes daily.” This is something our society is not very good at: the health and fitness industries continue to grow, while others spend money on Botox, cosmetics, plastic surgery, whatever will “keep us young.” Everything we hear focuses on “living the good life,” so when life comes to a screeching halt, we are often devastated, even if the life was that of a celebrity whom we have never met.

For celebrities are those whom we have galvanized with Teflon, those who are “larger than life,” and it is unnerving for us to learn that they, too, suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, or a stroke. Perhaps the reason their deaths resonate with us is because they bring “death before our eyes daily.” If these seemingly untouchable celebrities are no longer young, are in fact dying, it is a sign that we too are perhaps middle aged, a reminder that this will be us someday, that everyone will eventually face death. This begs the question: are we mourning the loss of these creative artists and their gifts and talents, or are we mourning our own lost youth and inevitable death?

As Bowie himself sang in “Changes”:

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time.

Or, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit have we from all the toil
which we toil at under the sun?
One generation departs and another generation comes,
but the world forever stays.

Musical Mystagogy: The Requiem Mass

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Throughout the month of November, the Church has invited us to remember in a special way the souls of the faithful departed, so a few weeks ago I shared a piece by Geraint Lewis written for All Souls Day. As we near the end of November, we are also nearing the end of the liturgical year, which means that the readings in the Lectionary cycle are focused on what is often referred to as the “end time,” so it seems an appropriate moment to highlight a musical tradition that for centuries has shaped the way the Church has sung about the final things: the Requiem Mass.

Autograph (original) score of the first movement of Mozart’s Requiem

Musical settings of the Requiem Mass began to emerge during the Renaissance, and even today, composers are still producing works in the Requiem tradition (though most of these are written for the concert hall rather than the liturgy).

Over the centuries, the theological focus of the Requiem Mass has shifted somewhat, particularly with Pope Pius V’s addition of the Dies Irae sequence to the Roman Missal in the late 16th century. The added sequence required new music; thus, throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras of the next three centuries, numerous composers set the Dies Irae as part of their Requiem Masses. Because “text painting” was a popular compositional technique during this time (in which composers would create musical pictures of what was happening in the text), settings of the Dies Irae often included dramatic and even terrifying music that highlighted the text’s vivid and often disturbing imagery of the final judgment and the fiery punishment awaiting sinners. And yet, these same composers also drew attention to passages in the sequence expressing heartfelt prayer for the mercy of God on behalf of the deceased and on one’s own behalf by setting those texts with some of the most luminous music that has ever been written. The multi-movement setting of the Dies Irae sequence found in Mozart’s Requiem is a stunning example of music that holds these two facets of the text in fruitful tension—the somber, dark reality of death and judgment is shot through with radiant hope in God’s gracious mercy and tender love.

Medieval illuminated manuscript showing a funeral liturgy
Medieval illuminated manuscript showing a funeral liturgy

The Dies Irae remained part of the funeral liturgy until the Second Vatican Council, when the sequence was removed in order that “funeral rights should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §81). In the current Rite of Christian Burial, the images of judgment have given way to reassurances of the merciful love of God and exhortations to hope in the resurrection, and yet, even in the years since the Council, ensembles continue to perform the great Requiems of the past, and composers have continued to set the sequence (see Richard Danielpour’s 2001 An American Requiem), which means that on a certain level, the Requiem in general and the Dies Irae in particular still resonate with people. It seems that, while it is of course a good and holy thing to place our trust in God’s love and mercy and to entrust our beloved dead to that love and mercy, we as human beings must also acknowledge that we will eventually be confronted with the mysterious realities of death and judgment.

The music of the Church can provide us with a way in to this struggle. The settings of the Requiem Mass that have been penned by composers down through the centuries are among the most famous, the most moving (even if this movement is one of disturbance), and the most stunningly beautiful pieces in the repertoire of sacred music. They place the reality of death, the holy fear of judgment, the horror of hell, and the hope of heaven before our eyes and ears, and allow us to contemplate these realities even as we struggle with them. They invite us not only to pray for our departed brothers and sisters, but also to consider the implications of mortality, the consequences of sin, and the need for God’s mercy. In short, the Requiem Mass is an musical momento mori, an aural reminder that we, too, will die, and that we have to give an account of our lives. And yet, the Requiem Mass is also a musical reassurance that Christ has broken the chains of death, and for those who have died with him in the waters of Baptism, death will not have the last word.

Duruflé's autograph score for the Requiem; the Gregorian chant melody is outlined at the bottom
Duruflé’s autograph score for the Requiem; the Gregorian chant melody is outlined at the bottom

While there are numerous settings of the Requiem Mass that are worth listening to on repeat, the one I would especially like to highlight is the setting by French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986). Duruflé completed his Requiem in 1947 and dedicated it to the memory of his father. Musically speaking, what is so striking about Duruflé’s Requiem (as well as  several of his other sacred choral works) is that its melodies are drawn from the ancient Gregorian chants of the Requiem Mass, and yet its harmonic language is crafted from twentieth-century compositional techniques. In other words, this piece utilizes contemporary musical expression and yet is also completely rooted in a centuries-old musical tradition. In this way, it can be seen as a musical form of catechesis: (re)introducing listeners to the beauty of the Gregorian chant melodies while simultaneously appropriating that tradition within an equally and uniquely beautiful contemporary musical idiom.

Like Gabriel Fauré before him, Duruflé sought to highlight the merciful love of God in his Requiem; thus, all but the last two lines of the Dies Irae have been omitted. Yet, the reality of judgment is not altogether absent: it finds a place here in the setting of the ancient Responsory text, Libera me, Domine. The trials of death and judgment are not circumvented or glossed over or skirted around; rather, they are passed through, and as the tumultuous and trembling music of the penultimate Libera me, Domine movement gives way to the utter radiance of the final movement—the In Paradisum—where all is light and peace, the “paschal character of Christian death” pierces through the darkness and gives hope to all who place their trust in God.

Movement VIII: “Libera Me, Domine”

Movement IX: “In Paradisum”

Listen to the full work here.

Sermons in the Cemetery

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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I like to spend time in cemeteries where the dead preach to me, where the sermon is always the same: “Yield”.

When the wind has not been too punishing in late October,
the trees that line the graves still hold their leaves
in early November,
here in Northern Indiana.

The sighing breeze
passing from some place to some other place
flatters the trees and speaks to their leaves,
persuading them to release their grip
and flutter to the ground,
sometimes alone and sometimes not.

These leaves come to rest upon the grass resting upon the soil that rests upon the precious remains of lives once lived and now at rest.

There these leaves thus wait upon
the force of breeze or wind or rake
to tell them what’s next.

Otherwise they wait for frost.

And all the while below the soil the precious remains of lives once lived and now at rest uphold in silence the tiny drama unfolding above, where trees sprout new leaves for the breeze to persuade to flutter down to meet the grass in early November, provided the winds of October mind their manners.

And all the while in the passing of time, each thing below says to each thing above: “Be it done unto me according to your word.”

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.

Over This Your White Grave

GraceGrace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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Over this your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?


Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.


Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
a prayer:
Give her eternal peace–

-Karol Wojtyla

Saint John Paul II, like so many of us, grappled with questions of human fragility and mortality, seeming meaninglessness in death, and the deep pain of losing a loved one.

Poland, 1921 – the infant Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the arms of his mother, Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla.

Karol Wojtyla, as he was known before he became pope, wrote this poem in Krakow, Poland in the spring of 1939.  His mother had died of heart and kidney problems ten years earlier, when Karol was just barely nine years old and had not yet made his First Communion.  After she died, Karol’s father took him to one of Poland’s Marian shrines, Kalwaria, close to their hometown of Wadowice.  It is likely that Karol’s lifelong devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, really began during that time and was strengthened amidst his grief at the loss of his own mother.

The pain of Karol’s loss is very much present in this poem – a relationship that was, a relationship that could have been so much more – yet her life was cut short by her illness and subsequent death.  Years after the event, he continues to reflect on his mother’s death and his own emotions.  Perhaps the reader is to interpret this whole poem as a metaphor for the place in Karol’s heart where the memory of his mother resides.

Each stanza of this poem begins with the words, “Over this your white grave,” which leads the reader into three striking images.  First, there appears an image of a white grave, on top of which is strewn white flowers.  Yet, second, there seems to be a certain covering or “veil” over the grave.  Third, the reader perceives an image of Karol standing over the grave, feeling deeply his love for his mother that still persists even after all these years without her physical presence in his life.

The color white plays a significant role in this poem as well, describing both the grave and “the flowers of life” which cover it.  White often symbolizes notions of purity, innocence, undying fidelity, respect, and peace, and it is frequently used to accentuate important moments in the course of the human life, such as birth, baptism, First Communion, marriage, and death.  In this poem, the use of the color white seems to convey a tone of reverence and tranquility in the presence of the beloved dead, and white seems to frame Karol’s devotion to his mother and his recollections of those pure, essential moments of life (“the flowers of life”) in which love was given and received.

While the color white may indicate aspects of the state of death, it may also point toward new life.  Memory and mystery come together in death and are transfigured in light of Christianity.  Karol writes about some sort of “veil” being lifted, almost like a burial shroud.  Perhaps the reader can interpret this as an image pointing toward the burial shroud being “lifted” from the body of Jesus in his Resurrection, revealing that this man, who underwent human suffering and death at its most horrific, conquered death and is risen with a transfigured body.  Like death, the Resurrection is something so beyond human comprehension.  Nevertheless, it uplifts us; it gives us hope.  Perhaps that is what Karol begins to see.  There is hope; there is something that breaks the bonds of death.  Death does not have the last word, and it is this hope that will give him peace.

Something intriguing happens in the last stanza of the poem.  In the first part of the stanza, Karol continues to address his mother using the first person, but then, he switches to the third person for the rest of the stanza, which is a prayer for eternal rest for his mother.  I suggest that this shift in address occurs because he has learned to let himself into the arms of his spiritual mother, Mary.  Her embrace has been one of utter consolation for the young Karol.  Throughout his adolescent years and the beginning of his priesthood, he was often seen praying the rosary, lost in contemplation before an image of Mary, or sometimes even lying prostrate on the floor before the tabernacle.

jp2maryThis entrustment of his life to Mary becomes a recurring theme throughout his life, especially during his papacy.  After he was critically injured in an assassination attempt, he visited Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to express his gratitude for the protection of the Blessed Mother, placing the bullet with which he was shot into her crown.  He made several subsequent pilgrimages to various Marian shrines around the world, and he led an effort to consecrate the whole world to the protection of Mary.  He promoted the rosary as an essential form of devotional prayer, even giving to the Church the Luminous Mysteries to help us further meditate on the life of Jesus, imitate Mary in her pondering of God’s action in her life through the sending of His Son, and emulate her example of love and humility.  John Paul II’s papal motto was “Totus Tuus,” which means, “Totally Yours,” and is addressed to Mary, for in the act of entrustment of our hearts to her, she leads us to her Son, Jesus, who alone is the One to whom all our love is ultimately directed.

Let us, too, entrust ourselves and our loved ones, especially those who are sick, suffering, dying, or have passed on, to the maternal embrace of Mary.  For it is she who knows most intimately the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus.  It is she who carried God in the flesh at his most vulnerable state – as an infant in her womb and as a dead man taken down from the Cross and buried in the tomb, and it is she who carries the Church and all people, especially at their most vulnerable state.  It is she who understands the pain of human loss, and it is she who enjoys the fullness of life in God’s glory in heaven.  Let us be wrapped in her mantle, a veil which protects and uplifts us, and brings us ever closer to her Son who conquered death and gives new life.

Musical Mystagogy: All Souls Day

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today the Church observes the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls Day. Indeed, the entire month of November has come to be associated with the remembrance of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and the music of the Church in no small way helps us to remember and to grieve, but ultimately, to find hope in the promise of the Resurrection.

Today’s piece is one that finds a balance between acknowledging the human struggle in the face of death and upholding faith in God as the only answer to that struggle. Welsh-born composer Geraint Lewis (b.1958) began composing his All Souls Day anthem The Souls of the Righteous in December 1991, and finished the piece in 1992, in the wake of losing his close friend and colleague—fellow composer William Mathias—to cancer. The piece testifies not only to his grief, but also to his faith in God as a source of solace and comfort even in the midst of that grief.

The text for this piece is taken from chapter three of the Book of Wisdom, which is one of the optional Old Testament readings for All Souls Day (Wis 3:1–9). It is also one of the optional Old Testament readings listed in the Rite of Christian Burial. Rather than set the entirety of the passage, Lewis distills the Wisdom text down and focuses on the texts that convey its two most essential truths: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them,” and “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.”

Musically, Lewis conveys these two truths by constructing the entire piece around two central motifs. The first of these motifs unfolds in the extended organ introduction; the second is sung by the choir at its first entrance. The first motif consists of two brief phrases followed by an extended phrase—each phrase feeds into the next, and the effect here is evocative perhaps of the shortened inhalations and exhalations of a person in the final hours of life, culminating in the breathing forth of one’s spirit in the soaring extended phrase.

The second motif, in contrast, is constructed of long, even, sustained notes as the choir sings the text, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.” The simple yet noble choral melody seems to suspend the text in mid-air as an object held up for our contemplation. Here is the consolation offered by a loving God—the truth that never wavers, that sustains both those who face their final trial and those who mourn them after they have passed from this life into the next.

The organ and the choir engage in a dialogue, each repeating and developing its own motif as though the music is trying to help the listener come to terms with these truths which are ultimately beautiful and hope-filled, yet still challenging in the midst of grief. This dialogue continues until the piece reaches a turning point and, after an extended organ interlude, everything fades away save one low sustained note. It is in this moment, suspended between time and eternity, that the choir takes over the first motif with the text, “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.” This is what the organ has been trying to tell us all along. The souls of those whom we love and mourn are at peace, and we, we are the foolish, the slow to understand, the ones who struggle against their passing in our limited human ability to perceive the truth—that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.

Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day
Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day

Even though we might assent to this profound truth intellectually and spiritually, the process of grieving is still a profound human and emotional struggle, because the experience of death remains shrouded in mystery. To gloss over this struggle or seek refuge in worn-out, shallow platitudes is to reduce the gravity of death. Yet, every moment of heart-rending grief can become a moment in which we who mourn can make an act of faith by acknowledging our devastation and, from the depths of our grief, placing our trust in God and the souls of our loved ones in his hands.

Lewis reflects this continuous struggle to seek and find consolation in God through his gentle use of dissonance in the organ accompaniment. Every so often, a chord grates against our ears as a reminder that there will always be moments in which we rail against the harsh realities of death; nevertheless, by turning to God in faith, even these moments of struggle will become moments in which we are drawn ever closer to the One who holds our beloved dead in his care.

The final phrase captures this mysterious juxtaposition beautifully: the choir sings “but they are at peace” one last time in a return to the sustained notes of their original motif, and the final chord of the organ lingers in its dissonance as a musical symbol of the fact that we who are left behind will continue to struggle with the mystery of death, a struggle that can only be ultimately resolved for us when we ourselves pass from this life, for it is only when our own souls are in the hands of God that we will truly be at peace. Nevertheless, in the meantime, we are comforted and sustained by the truths that invite us to put our faith and place our trust in God, even—and especially—when we are confronted by the mysteries of death.

Follow Carolyn on twitter: @carolyn_pirtle

Christian Hope and the Holy Souls

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

“Ego sum lux mundi,” read the ancient words of Christ engraved in the weathered, grey stone above the high altar of St. Colman’s church in the quiet country parish of Ballindaggin, County Wexford, Ireland. “I am the light of the world.”

St. Colman's Church, BallindagginI was there to pay my respects for a deceased relative of a nun with whom I had become quite close over the last year. Following traditional Irish funeral observances, it seemed like the inhabitants of the entire village had packed the church for the customary removal service. These traditional Catholic prayers recited at the church in the evenings before funerals are about as ingrained in the Irish consciousness as their love for piping hot tea, spuds, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), and commiserating about the weather. We were there to pray fervently for the commendation of this dearly departed soul to heaven, that she would in turn pray unceasingly for us from there with the eternal communion of saints, in the company of Christ and our Blessed Mother.Removal Pic 2

No instructions were given at any point in the ceremony about when to sit, kneel, or stand; the people around me just knew.

The parish priest sprinkled holy water over the casket, and the moment the prayers were finished, everyone leapt from their seats in a rush to shake the hands of the grieving family members, while the many conversations among the mourners elevated the noise level in the church to a dull roar. Our religious duties accomplished, we spilled out of the mid-19th century church–the men headed straight to the village pub, the women congregated outside for the latest gossip, and I strolled pensively around the small cemetery nestled against the church walls, waiting for my companions to emerge so we could make the hour’s journey home.

As we remember the souls of the faithful departed in this month of November, I find myself increasingly struck by the visceral manner in which the Irish honor, mourn, and think about the dead. Carlingford ChurchFamilies and local communities band together immediately following the death of a loved one: they fill normally-empty church pews to the brim in order to somberly commemorate “anniversary Masses,” and to pray en masse for the deceased at removal services, wakes, and funerals. Conversations about death in Ireland are quite open–almost bruisingly candid–and happen over a cup of tea, in the street, or out at the pub. The famed Irish wakes still happen–albeit less often now, due to the rising popularity of funeral homes–and are completely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The open casket lies in state in the family’s living room, mourners sit in chairs around the body and take turns swapping humorous or emotional stories about the deceased, and a seemingly endless supply of scalding hot tea and coffee, and freshly-baked cakes and scones in the adjoining rooms provides much-needed spiritual and bodily nourishment, and still more cathartic conversation.irish_wake_paintingThere is a freshness in the Irish perspective towards death and dying, however unsettling it may be to a young American in her mid-twenties, who, before moving to Ireland, had attended only a couple funerals–all with closed caskets, all conducted as swiftly and discreetly as possible, the reality of death too uncomfortable for the American psyche. In Ireland, though, I see the true embodiment of Christian hope lived out each day; even in the throes of sorrow and grief, death here is no frightening spectre, but an almost-friend–a constant, quiet companion on life’s journey.

Here, mourning is a public act, and the healing process truly is communal. Churches see their numbers swell dramatically in the month of November in Ireland, as the annual remembrance of the dead draws people from all walks of life–the old, the young, the rich and poor, Travellers and settled, the faithful, and, surprisingly, those who have drifted away from the Church. They are all connected in their grief, and their desire to remember the ones they have lost. The liturgies of this month in particular somehow seem to tap into the deepest recesses of the heart, compelling all of us to congregate, remember, and pray for our loved ones, that they might, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.vigil at maynoothPope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, tenderly refers to death as a sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no one living can escape.” There is an inexplicable comfort in this Month of the Holy Souls here in Ireland, for alongside the heartache of loss accompanies a lingering sense of peace, and hope.  

Practicing Lent: Illness and the Frailty of the Human Condition

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Several weeks ago, I received (as a dear gift from my undergraduates) a flu-like illness. The sickness started out as what seemed like a mere cold with the arrival of congestion in the middle of the night. Yet immediately after teaching an 8:00 AM class, my body began to rebel against my plan for a full day of work. Chills overtook me. Fever increased. I felt like someone had smacked each of my joints with a hammer. I traversed home, quarantining myself in the bedroom. For three days, as I let the illness unfold, I was cut off from seeing my toddler son and my wife (except for the briefest moments). My self-inflicted quarantine ended only after going to the doctor, where I received the news that my illness was not the flu but some other virus (which incidentally leaves open the possibility of getting the flu in the future).

Suffering through this rather marginal illness was an invitation to reflect upon the frailty of human nature in the early days of the season of Lent. An academic, fall and spring semesters are (in my own imagination) meant to function devoid of any interruption to my well-laid plans. Courses must be taught. Emails must be sent. Meetings must be had. Writing must be done.  Any interruption to my very rigid and important schedule must be avoided at all costs.

Yet, this virus was not particularly interested in assisting me with Virusstaying on schedule. The idol of routine was interrupted by the sickness, forcing me to recognize (once again) that despite my ambition to master human existence, I cannot do so. That I am not a disembodied will, capable of carrying out whatever I hope to achieve. Rather, as an embodied creature, existing in time and space, I am subject to atrophy. It is not just my schedule or routine that is falling apart. With the passing of each day, I move closer to the reality of my own final act of dying.

Modern life has (thankfully to a certain extent) isolated us from the fact of our own death. Most illness is generally treatable. Fever and joint pain can be lowered and alleviated through the taking of  Advil. Congestion can be cleared through cold medicine. We experience such illness as a momentary interruption to our schedule, rather than the shadow of death. Suffering can be eased.

Yet, there is something about such illness (even when marginal) that serves as a salutary sign of that final illness of which there will be no healing. That sickness in which pain and suffering will pass not through the instruments of medicine but only because we have taken our final breath. Sickness, in such moments, forces us to examine the purpose of our existence. Is my life full of meaning? Have I loved well? Have I conformed myself to the Eucharistic gift of love revealed in Christ? Have I given all away in love?

Of course, there is a further foretaste of death that often takes place in such illness. The communion with one another that we practice on a daily basis (conversation with co-workers, intimacy with family members) is at least momentarily snuffed out. After two days of being at home, my son finally realized that I was in fact in our house, hiding from him. He broke into my room of convalescence, seeking a hug. Denied this hug, he left the room, aware that for some reason I was avoiding physical contact with him. Indeed, is this cutting off of communion, of contact, not that which is most terrifying in sickness and death alike? As Joseph Ratzinger writes:

Sickness is described within the epithets that belong to death. It pushes man [and woman] into a realm of noncommunication, apparently destroying the relationships that make life what it is. For the sick person, the social fabric falls apart just as much as the inner structure of the body. The invalid is excluded from the circle of his [her] friends, and from the community of those who worship God. He [she] labors in the clutches of death, cut off from the land of the living. So sickness belongs in death’s sphere; or better, death is conceived as a sphere whose circumference is dereliction, isolation, loneliness, and thus abandonment to nothingness (Eschatology, 81).

Sickness and death are so terrifying, not simply because we are Aloneafraid to deal with physical suffering. Rather, sickness and death alike function as temptations to perceive in the world nothing but meaningless. To see all love as nothing but a fading light, the sunset of meaning itself.

In coming face-to-face with the frailty of the human condition in the midst of sickness, we are not like those who gaze into the darkness devoid of hope. Rather, the isolation that we experience while immersed in the totalizing worldview of sickness and death is an invitation to thrust ourselves upon the mercy of God, who binds every wound and heals the malaise of meaninglessness. As the celebration of Easter itself will demonstrate, we do not worship a God, who spurned sickness and death but offered himself in love. Jesus Christ, who did not let the meaninglessness of death win out but instead loved even into the creeping darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday alike.

Being sick in the midst of Lent is therefore, in some small way, a gift. It invites the believer to acknowledge the poverty of his or her own existence. And to thrust oneself, if we dare, upon the prodigal love of the God-person, Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead. Whose conquering of sickness and death did not erase illness from the human condition. But, through the resurrected light of the cross, has made it possible for all illness to be understood anew in light of the resurrection.

 

Beauty in the Darkness

Scott, AshleyAshley Scott

University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015

Notre Dame Vision, Mentor-In-Faith 2013

Making time for prayer has always seemed to be something with which I struggle. Maybe it’s because I think I never have time, maybe it’s laziness, maybe forgetfulness, or maybe a want to control my life and not leave it in the hands of God. Notre Dame Vision was a place where my life revolved around prayer; whether it was in large group sessions, small group discussions, adoration, or confession, prayer was central to everything we did and everything I did. I saw how I viewed life differently when that was the case and I thought I was finally back on track. There was a visible change in how I regarded everything around me; it all became so much more beautiful.

But when I left Vision to come home, I stumbled again. I left Notre Dame when Vision was over and returned to my amazing family but also to the struggles that came with that summer: a French exchange student with a severe lack of manners and a stressed Prayerfamily coping with the fact that Honey, my favorite grandmother, was rapidly declining after a rough fall, dying in a nursing home. I felt guilty for having been at Vision for a month and a half when I could have been home, spending Honey’s last months with her, even though this was an event entirely out of my control. This certainly wasn’t a situation that I thought could ever look beautiful. For weeks I kept thinking to myself, “I must have missed something. God meant for me to get something else out of my Vision experience and I wasn’t paying attention.” But I couldn’t put my finger on it. Instead, it seemed that even after a prayerful summer, everything was going wrong and spiraling out of control. Focus on the stresses continued to consume my time and energy and prayer slipped to the backburner, even when it seems I needed it the most.

I visited Honey many times during the month before I went back to school, but one visit remains the most poignant of them all. I drove to the nursing facility alone the night before I left for Notre Dame, knowing this would be the last time I would ever see her. She had not been responding much to us when we visited so I knew what to expect, but as I talked, telling her how much I loved her, the lack of response drove me to tears. Breaking down crying, I did not know what to do besides pray. So I bowed my head and began the Our Father in thanksgiving for my grandmother; not moments later, she opened her eyes, looking confused by the tears streaming down my face. I smiled and gave her a hug, continuing to tell her how amazing she was and how blessed I was to be her granddaughter. There came a point when I had no words left; we sat in silence and finally, I simply said, “Honey, I love you.” As she closed her eyes she said softly, “I love you, too.” That is the last thing she ever said to me. It was so small but that striking moment of grace was one of the most incredible I have ever experienced and truly solidified the beauty and incomparable power of prayer for me.

OurFather

 

I cannot say my prayer life has drastically improved since this moment. I still struggle with a tight schedule and myriad of activities that I allow to dominate my time and I do still forget to pray. But moments of grace are touching reminders of the many blessings for which I must thank God on a daily basis. Because I know He hears me. The answers to my prayers, whether they seem big or small, have been ones of great love from Him. He is a constant presence in my life, which I need only turn towards to see the beauty in my life and feel His tremendous love for me.

Three Things We’re Reading: Pope Francis, Death, and Intimacy

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) In light of yesterday’s revelations about the extent of United States torture, the events in Ferguson, MO and New York City…a cry for peace, a cry against the “globalization of difference” is needed. Here is a selection from Pope Francis’ message on the World Day of Peace 2015 (January 1). He addresses slavery and trafficking this year:

In her “proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society”, the Church constantly engages in charitable activities inspired by the truth of the human person. She is charged with showing to all the path to conversion, which enables us to change the way we see our neighbours, to recognize in every other person a brother or sister in our human family, and to acknowledge his or her intrinsic dignity in truth and freedom. This can be clearly seen from the story of Josephine Bakhita, the saint originally from the Darfur region in Sudan who was kidnapped by slave-traffickers and sold to brutal masters when she was nine years old. Subsequently – as a result of painful experiences – she became a “free daughter of God” thanks to her faith, lived in religious consecration and in service to others, especially the most lowly and helpless. This saint, who lived at the turn of the twentieth century, is even today an exemplary witness of hope for the many victims of slavery; she can support the efforts of all those committed to fighting against this “open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ”.

In the light of all this, I invite everyone, in accordance with his or her specific role and responsibilities, to practice acts of fraternity towards those kept in a state of enslavement. Let us ask ourselves, as individuals and as communities, whether we feel challenged when, in our daily lives, we meet or deal with persons who could be victims of human trafficking, or when we are tempted to select items which may well have been produced by exploiting others. Some of us, out of indifference, or financial reasons, or because we are caught up in our daily concerns, close our eyes to this. Others, however, decide to do something about it, to join civic associations or to practice small, everyday gestures – which have so much merit! – such as offering a kind word, a greeting or a smile. These cost us nothing but they can offer hope, open doors, and change the life of another person who lives clandestinely; they can also change our own lives with respect to this reality.

We ought to recognize that we are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself. For this reason I urgently appeal to all men and women of good will, and all those near or far, including the highest levels of civil institutions, who witness the scourge of contemporary slavery, not to become accomplices to this evil, not to turn away from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, who are deprived of their freedom and dignity. Instead, may we have the courage to touch the suffering flesh of Christ, revealed in the faces of those countless persons whom he calls “the least of these my brethren” (Mt 25:40, 45).

We know that God will ask each of us: What did you do for your brother? (cf. Gen 4:9-10). The globalization of indifference, which today burdens the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters, requires all of us to forge a new worldwide solidarity and fraternity capable of giving them new hope and helping them to advance with courage amid the problems of our time and the new horizons which they disclose and which God places in our hands.

2) A beautiful reflection on the death of a friend by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble at Patheos:

The only thing that I can do as I wrestle with this evil is to gaze upon the Cross. When I do, I begin to understand in the whispered midst of obscurity. God did do something when murderers pointed a gun at my friend. He stood between them, his arms outstretched, in a moment 2,000 years ago that continues to break into the present world. God came to earth and subjected himself to the violence of sin, the horror of a tragic and senseless death, the despair of dying alone. My friend was murdered and so was Jesus. God did not spare himself from the violence of our sin. And even though gazing upon Jesus, an innocent God-man, dying on the cross does not give me all the answers, it is the only thing that gives any semblance of meaning to the violent, vicious killing of a humble, gentle man.

3) An essay on the uncomfortable nature of physical touching at On Being by  Joseph Paille:

Our culture may encourage oversharing, but it also pressures people to meticulously curate their public lives. Listening to the requests for prayers often feels like reading clippings from the cutting room floor of our life together. The quiet hurts and fears, all given voice, become part of our story again.

When I first placed my hands on people’s heads, I wondered what it is about being touched that brought them comfort. Perhaps it is because our culture does not encourage such intimate contact. Perhaps it is because it reminds them of their baptism. Perhaps there is a neurological explanation. But I now look not so much with curiosity at their desire but with admiration at their courage. The courage to ask for prayer. The courage to trust a stranger with the hidden parts of their lives. The courage to be touched. Perhaps these holy moments are not meant to be explained so much as experienced.

The Powerlessness and the Glory

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Vision

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Editorial Note: This post was first delivered as a homily for Vespers on Tuesday, November 4, 2014. We are grateful for the author’s permission to repost it here.

This I declare, brothers [and sisters]:
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,
nor does corruption inherit incorruption.
Behold, I tell you a mystery.
We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,
in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound,
the dead will be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
For that which is corruptible
must clothe itself with incorruptibility,
and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality.
And when this which is corruptible
clothes itself with incorruptibility
and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:50–57)

At first blush, it seems that those who would be suspicious of the body—of bodiliness— have found a friend in Saint Paul. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, and so the gift of salvation, it seems, must happen without these human bodies, outside the body, ‘after’ the body.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons knew this argument well. He knew that many declared the body insignificant and claimed St. Paul as their authority. So Irenaeus sought to read Paul more patiently than his adversaries and pinned their distrust of the body on a failure to see. What they fail to see is that, far from disappearing, the body appears in glory.

“Vain are those who allege that [Christ] appeared in mere seeming” (Against the Heresies, Bk. V, Ch. 1), declares St. Irenaeus, for what appears on Easter morning is the definitive revelation of what the Word of God assumed. jesusresurrection_2Did he appear in soul only, as pure spirit? No. He appears bodily, in glory; not in mere seeming, but with lance and nail marks, clinging to the flesh he assumed.

“Behold the Crucified One, Now Risen in Glory.” Behold the last thing those suspicious of the body would want to find:
the human body, in glory.

But what dies? Irenaeus asks.
The whole man.
And what decomposes?
The body.

And herein lies the great mystery to which Paul testifies, that “that which is corruptible is raised incorruptible.” It is a point of incomparable importance—not just for Paul or Irenaeus, but for us, today, and for our beloved dead.

“For what is more ignoble than dead flesh?” Irenaeus asks, “Or, on the other hand, what is more glorious than the same when it arises and partakes of incorruption?” (Against the Heresies, Bk. V, Ch. 7). In an instant, in the blink of an eye, that which is most ignoble: dead flesh, becomes the most glorious of things: the same flesh, incorruptible.

Why is this of incomparable importance? Well, first we must ask, “What is my body?” To put this all rather briefly, your body is your contact with the world. It is the space of interaction, of relationship. It is with this body that you feel pain, that you know joy, that you are delighted and disappointed and wounded and healed. This is the body that your mother held, that friends have embraced; through this body you have learned all the things you know. It’s this body that you and others have cared for; this body that you and others have mistreated. What is your body but your history, the symbol of your history, the memory of your history, your very presence in and participation in the world with others?

And so what happens when your body dies?
All of that dies with it?

We resist this thought, and for good reason. Surely, all of that can’t die. Even when I am not here, what about those who will remember me? All of that will live with them, and some mark I have made upon the world will endure. We resist this thought, and for good reason, because we remember those we have loved, those who have loved us. They live on in our memories of them, in the impressions they have made upon our bodies, our histories, our hearts and minds.

But if they live on by the power of our memories, then they themselves become subject to our memories’ endurance. And we know our memories fail.

Angel of Death (tomb of Pope Alexander VII, St. Peter's Basilica)
Angel of Death (tomb of Pope Alexander VII, St. Peter’s Basilica)

We struggle to sustain them, but eventually our memories, too, which we want to keep alive and active shall become inert in our own deaths, so that even those great figures of history, whom everyone knows and remembers, will disappear into obscurity when no one remembers them. Our memories fail and our bodies decompose.

What greater ignobility than this? So says Irenaeus. Death, in this sense, is absolutely humiliating. All that energy we expend, the drama and tragedies of our lives, our cares and our loves and our fears and our sufferings, become meaningless in the dead flesh.

Alas, the body is unstable, corruptible, or, in a word, insignificant.

ResurrectionSo why is nothing more glorious than the risen body?

Because. . . God returns significance to the body. God re-members: He preserves all that we would lose and he puts back together all that is pulled apart. God gives us a power of memory that does not depend on our own power: the God who remembers gives us a share in the unfathomable power of one who meets the meaninglessness of dead flesh and rescues meaning.

How do we know? Because Jesus was raised bodily. His body is the promise that we, too, can be raised bodily; His body is the sacrament that this life, now, has permanent significance, because God remembers the body. . . all of it and all it means.

Oh, that sting of death, it’s the looming threat of meaninglessness. That victory of death is significance swallowed up. But where is that sting, where is that victory, if God remembers the body? If God’s “knowing us” is not limited by death, then what have we to fear?

Resurrection-of-the-Dead-290x290So we find ourselves both haunted and comforted by this restlessness of memory, to believe we shall be remembered, even as we know our own powerlessness. In the one who appears—Christ Crucified, Christ Risen—we discover what we always wanted and never expected: from our powerlessness we are raised in glory.

It is this mystery we contemplate this month above all; we practice remembering our dead, in faith; we entrust ourselves to their prayers, in hope; and we dare to imagine our communion with them, in Christ, in love.