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Mercy Moments: Season Two, Episode Three

LISTENER ADVISORY: Before we begin, you should know that this episode mentions suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call or text 988. The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7. 

If you need to skip today’s episode, I have included several of John O’Donohue’s blessings for you at the end of the written transcript (simply scroll to the bottom of this page to see them). Take care and I hope you will tune in again next week.  Out of respect, names have been changed in this episode.

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” 

St. Oscar Romero

“Where’s your passion for social justice come from? Like what motivates you to work for justice?”  A fellow teacher asked Billy*, a high school senior, as we gathered in a booth awaiting our Waffle House breakfast.  The bus filled with students from several Jesuit institutions in Ohio had made an early morning stop on our way to Columbus, Georgia, or more specifically, Fort Benning, home to what had formerly been known as The School of the Americas (or the SOA).

Billy was an active member of the Justice League (our school’s peace and justice club) which meant he had participated in many a protest, social justice conference, immersion trip, and weekly visit with people living on the streets of our city.  His involvement was distinguished among his peers who often seemed to be building their college resumes with every club they joined.  If other students were calculated or perhaps just oblivious, Billy was sincere.  Quirky. Nerdy even. Smart for sure.  Disarming. Funny.  Kind.  But mostly, sincere. 

So we asked him why he did what he did.

“I don’t know.  The gospel.” His quick retort signified the question wasn’t necessary when the answer was obvious.  I smiled.  It was no surprise he had once again joined us on the road to Georgia.

For decades the SOA had trained soldiers and high-ranking military officials from all over Latin America in counterinsurgency tactics.  But instead of spreading democracy throughout the continent, when left to their own devices, the SOA graduates would return to their home countries to carry out some of the most egregious human rights violations, assassinations, and massacres in recent history. 

During the 1980’s, they were responsible for the deaths of Saint Oscar Romero, four U.S. church women in El Salvador, and six Jesuit priests who had taught and worked at the university in San Salvador, their housekeeper, and her daughter.  All of these people had one thing in common –they were guilty of speaking out on behalf of the rights of those who were poor and oppressed.  In 1990, the year after the Jesuits were killed in El Salvador, a Maryknoll priest began a vigil to remember the people who had died at the hands of SOA graduates and to protest the training that had continued on U.S. soil. 

Twenty years later, we brought students to what had become an annual vigil which included a call and response.  Cantors would sing the names and ages of the countless victims and thousands of protesters would respond singing “Presente” as we raised white crosses in the air and processed in front of the military base.  They were present.  The victims remained with us.  Their experiences of injustice and their spirit for justice remained the driving forces behind the protest.

Oscar Romero.  62-years-old. Presente.

Dorothy Kazel.  41-years-old.  Presente.

Unknown child.  3-years-old.  Presente.

The chant would continue for hours.

As the procession approached Fort Benning’s entrance, Billy knelt before the gates, took out a rosary and began to pray all on his own.  Amid the sea of protesters, he knelt and prayed.  There was no announcement.  No pleading for a friend to accompany him.

“Billy, that was quite the photo opportunity.  People wouldn’t stop taking your picture.”  I joked with him later that day.

“I know.  They were exploiting my sincerity!” 

I agreed.  Perhaps they were.  Or perhaps it was an attempt at capturing a glimpse of what Celtic spirituality refers to as a thin place – a space where the veil that separates heaven and earth fades.  Or as the psalmist promises, a space where kindness and truth meet.  Where justice and peace kiss.

A little over a year later, I found myself wishing I had taken a picture of Billy kneeling at the gates.  A friend and fellow teacher called me while I was on retreat with students to let me know Billy had ended his life. 

A Jesuit priest, Jim*, who had known, and therefore, had loved Billy, was on retreat with me.  The next day, he left the retreat center briefly to visit Billy’s family.  Upon his return, he shared with me,  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen grief quite like it – his mother is in such visible pain.”

That Saturday, I went to Billy’s funeral before driving two hours to arrive late to a friend’s bridal shower in my hometown.  Cara’s* celebration was beautiful.  She was embraced by so much joy  – a stark contrast to the devastation that had swallowed the community gathered to grieve just hours earlier. The shower was everything it should be.  We visited.  We laughed.  We ate.  We celebrated.  Afterwards, I went back to my parents’ house to rest before I drove home and I again wept for Billy.  On the same day – the same moment even – there was infinite joy and overwhelming loss.  A thin place.

And God was in it all. 

And that is not to put a positive spin on a tragedy.  I’m not going to share the lessons learned from such devastation.  If there were any, that’s certainly not my place.  But God isn’t only present in the perfectly curated moments we share on social media. God is present with us in the excruciatingly unbearable moments too. 

God remains. 

When Jim commented on the visible anguish of Billy’s mother, he recognized the face of God in her. 

What would happen if we prayed with that icon – the image of God as a mother weeping?   What if this prayer could lead us to recognize God in all those who are suffering in our world?  We often pray for God to be with those who are suffering or in need.  But what if we prayed recognizing that God is already and always will be with those who are suffering?  How might this change our understanding of the world?  Our understanding of God?  How might this invite us into proximity with those who are suffering? 

God’s already there. 

Are we the ones who need to journey to be present with those who are poor, oppressed, grieving, or suffering?

Remembering that the face of God is not only reflected in the beauty of creation and the joy of the resurrection, during Lent, as we meditate on Christ’s passion and death, we especially remember that God knows suffering and that God relates to us in our own suffering. 

God is in it all.  Billy knew that.  That’s how he was able to find a moment of serenity – a thin place – in front of the gates of Fort Benning, flanked by armed guards and barbed wire.  That’s also why I know he has found endless moments of peace with the God who has welcomed him (and all victims of violence) home and who continues to weep with his mother (and all mothers).

Billy.  19-years-old.  Presente.

We’re glad you’re here.

Thanks for joining us for another episode of Mercy Moments. Whether you were able to listen to this week’s episode, or not, we hope you find the blessings below to bring peace to you and strengthen you on your Lenten journey, and any journey of suffering you have walked throughout your life.

“On the Death of the Beloved”

By John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Doubleday, 2008).

Though we need to weep your loss,

You dwell in that safe place in our hearts

Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.

Your love was like the dawn

Brightening over our lives,

Awakening beneath the dark

A further adventure of color.

The sound of your voice

Found for us

A new music

That brightened everything.

Whatever you enfolded in your gaze

Quickened in the joy of its being;

You placed smiles like flowers

On the alter of the heart,

Your mind always sparkled

With the wonder at things.

Though your days here were brief,

Your spirit was alive, awake, complete.

We look toward each other no longer

From the old distance of our names;

Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,

As close to us as we are to ourselves.

Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,

We know our souls gaze is upon your face,

Smiling back at us from within everything

To which we bring our best refinement.

Let us not look for you only in memory,

Where we would grow lonely without you.

You would want us to find you in presence,

Besides us when beauty brightens,

When kindness glows

And music echoes eternal tones.

When orchids brighten the earth,

Darkest winter has turned to spring;

May this dark grief flower with hope

In every heart that loves you.

May you continue to inspire us:

To enter each day with a generous heart.

To serve the call of courage and love

Until we see your beautiful face again

In that land where there is no more separation,

Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,

And where we will never lose you again.

“For a Parent on the Death of a Child”

By John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Doubleday, 2008).

No one knows the wonder

Your child awoke in you,

Your heart a perfect cradle

To hold its presence.

Inside and outside became one

As new waves of love

Kept surprising your soul.

Now you sit bereft

Inside a nightmare,

Your eyes numbed

By the sight of a grave

No parent should ever see.

You will wear this absence

Like a secret locket,

Always wondering why

Such a new soul

Was taken home so soon.

Let the silent tears flow

And when your eyes clear

Perhaps you will glimpse

How your eternal child

Has become the unseen angel

Who parents your heart

And persuades the moon

To send new gifts ashore.

“For Greif”

By John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Doubleday, 2008).

When you lose someone you love,

Your life becomes strange,

The ground beneath you gets fragile,

Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;

And some dead echo drags your voice down

Where words have no confidence.

Your heart has grown heavy with loss;

And though this loss has wounded others too,

No one knows what has been taken from you

When the silence of absence deepens.

Flickers of guilt kindle regret

For all that was left unsaid or undone.

There are days when you wake up happy;

Again inside the fullness of life,

Until the moment breaks

And you are thrown back

Onto the black tide of loss.

Days when you have your heart back,

You are able to function well

Until in the middle of work or encounter,

Suddenly with no warning,

You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.

All you can depend on now is that

Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.

More than you, it knows its way

And will find the right time

To pull and pull the rope of grief

Until that coiled hill of tears

Has reduced to its last drop.

Gradually, you will learn acquaintance

With the invisible form of your departed;

And, when the work of grief is done,

The wound of loss will heal

And you will have learned

To wean your eyes

From that gap in the air

And be able to enter the hearth

In your soul where your loved one

Has awaited your return

All the time.