In Your Midst

Dying and Rising with Christ

Easter 2011

As we approach Holy Week and Easter, Cathedral parishioners
offer reflections on the Paschal mystery

Three women, perfumed oils in hand, came to a tomb early one morning to anoint a dead body. They came to the tomb with heavy hearts; they left with hearts on fire. They came slowly, cautiously; they left running, casting caution to the winds. They came to the tomb in search of Jesus of Nazareth; they ran from the tomb with news of Christ the Lord. They came convinced that all was over; they left knowing that all was new.

My friends, the message of Easter is just that: all is new. Easter is God’s way of saying that all is new. It is a daring thing to say—preposterous, really.  It flies in the face of all we know to be true, in the face of human experience and common sense.  For common sense and human experience only know the ancient, cynical wisdom that there is “nothing new under the sun.”  But Easter says that everything is new, now that Jesus is new, now that Jesus is risen.  Easter says that God is building new heavens and a new earth and that it all started in the dark despair of a dead and mangled body, mourned by a few brave souls and hastily planted in a borrowed tomb.

In this issue of In Your Midst, some of your fellow parishioners share their own Easter stories: their stories of God’s power to make all things new, to bring light out of darkness, life out of death.  Reading them, I think you’ll agree, is a powerful experience of Christ’s living presence in our midst.

Father Michael G. Ryan

Over the years, Lent has become one of my favorite seasons bringing the risen Christ back to my life.

February is the worst month for me.  The recovery from the frantic activity of the holiday season has turned to lethargy.  My New Year’s Resolutions have melted away.  Most likely I haven’t seen the sun for months and all the shoes in my closet are damp.  But it is more than that.  There always comes a point at that time of year where I realize the “busy-ness” of my life has distracted me from my relationship with God.  The Jesus who arrived so joyfully at Christmas has retreated to someplace far away.  The overall effect is to leave me discouraged.  Depressed. Lonely.  Unworthy. Unlovable.

Then Lent starts and I dutifully begin my regimen of prayer and fasting.  The Psalmist helps me to pray for a renewed steadfast spirit.  I spend quiet moments —sometimes on walks, sometimes in the Cathedral—listening for God; asking him to come back to me.  My fasting reminds me how generous God is to me—gifts of plenty that I often take for granted.  It also makes me realize how susceptible to temptation I am and how much I need God to help me fight it.

At some point I recognize that the transformation has begun.  Duty becomes desire.  The readings are no longer just words on paper.  I can feel them taking hold in my heart encouraging me to draw closer.  God is tenderly calling to me.  Instead of counting my failings  I start counting my blessings and am awestruck at how much God loves me.  A quiet stillness settles over me.  My heart and spirit become lighter.  I am being renewed.  By the time Holy Week arrives I am full of joy.  Through the mysteries of the Sacred Triduum I will recall the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But for me he has already arrived—or rather, I have returned home.  I know He is alive in me and I celebrate that Easter has come again.

Darcey McAllister

In my experience as a Christian, I witness the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ frequently and in many different ways. Rarely is it more vivid than during Holy Week, and in particular on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Several years ago I was in Paris during this time. I was walking home from Good Friday service at Notre Dame when I came across Saint-Louis en l’Ile, a local parish church on Ile Saint-Louis. I stopped in for the beautiful singing which could be heard from the street but stayed for the small, very welcoming, neighborhood feel. When I returned the next night for the Easter Vigil I got an unexpected front row seat to a real life experience of Easter renewal and the power of grace.

The Mass itself was beautiful beyond telling: small, solemn and almost entirely sung in a combination of transporting French chant and choral singing. One minor (and as the Mass continued, not so minor) annoyance was a homeless man in attendance who would burst out frequently, “singing”, talking and carrying on. This went on without stop for nearly the entire four-hour service. He was never bothered or even asked to be quiet. I found it curious that such an obvious disturbance was allowed to continue during this solemn and beautiful worship. I came to find this consistent with this parish’s unmitigated patience and acceptance of outsiders—like myself, for example! But, what happened as the church prepared for the procession through the streets of Ile Saint-Louis turned my annoyance into wonder.

The presiding priest who had been so patient with the homeless man walked up to him as he made his way up the center aisle. He pulled the man close and whispered something to him.  The man was transformed. He quieted down, stood tall and along with the priest and the head of choir led our procession through the streets. Streets that were lit up by our candles and those of the many, many, families who stood on their balconies to greet us with their own “holy fires.” He sang the hymns, which he obviously knew, and led us as our “cornerstone.”  In dramatic fashion, Christ, through the people of this parish, gave me the clearest vision of transforming love. In such a small place, and with a seemingly simple gesture, this parish showed what little power death has compared to the unbounded love and grace of our Savior.

Stephen Cavit

Beth was at the living room window on this bright sunny day admiring the front yard of her and her husband Jeff’s home.  They had raised their children here, sent them to grade and prep schools, and watched and helped them through different universities.  Jim, their oldest, had enlisted in the Marines and was serving his country overseas.  He had kept in regular and frequent touch with  the family to assure them that he was okay and not to worry about him.  It had been a couple of weeks since they had heard from him.  Beth said another quiet prayer. 

As she gazed out the window, she noticed a car, a different car, drive up and slowly move to the house next door, then slowly back up and stop in front of their home.  She could make out the shape of two occupants in the front seat.  Beth called to Jeff about what she was seeing.  As Jeff looked out, the doors of the  car opened and two Marine Officers stepped out.  Beth screamed and fell into Jeff’s arms. 

An awful truth, as you might guess, was unfolding.  The officers were arriving with condolences from their Commander, that every military family fears:  “We are sorry to inform you that your son  has been killed in action.”

“No, no, no,” Beth cried. “God, where were you?  I placed my trust in you.  Did you not hear my prayers?”

This same scene could be, and is, repeated by many parents of children from  infancy through teenage years; tragic events occur that cause them to clamor:  “My God, my God, where were you?  This should not have happened.”

No less painful is the experience of children, gathered around a parent’s bedside at an end of life event.  A life fully lived, now waiting to move on.  This is the more painful when children find themselves faced with decisions to be made about sustaining life by extraordinary means.  We are all aware that to be born is to die, and yet...

During this time of our yearly pilgrimage through the Lenten Season, leading to Resurrection, we should pause to spend some time with God thinking about our mortality.  Our belief, recited in the Creed that “we believe in the Resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting” calls for serious thought and prayer.

Jack A. Harvey

Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a harvest…”  (Jn. 12: 24).  This time of Lent is a perfect time to observe what John’s Gospel  has to say: the miracle and mystery of new life coming from the death of winter… crocuses blooming, shoots of green appearing on bare branches, birds heralding the arrival of spring.  And this passage from death to new life is true of our own Christian lives as well.  Immersed into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in our Baptism, every step of our journey involves many “dyings and risings,” some tiny and imperceptible, others major and life-changing.

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I began to experience prolonged periods of depression. My mind was foggy and I couldn’t concentrate, I felt paralyzed with anxiety about the simplest things and I could hardly face getting up in the morning. It was as if all life was drained from me, and with it, any hope that this would ever pass.  As I sought help from doctors, a name was given to the symptoms I was experiencing: “cyclical clinical depression of the monopolar type.” ( Having learned what “bipolar” meant, I knew that the “up side” was clearly missing!)

Gradually, experimenting with different medications, I finally came upon one that seemed to work in an amazing way.  In fact, I rejoiced that “now I was cured!”  Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple.  With years of counseling and different medications, I finally got to the place where I could “live with this,” a condition not of my choosing, but one that kept me very grounded in my humanity, vulnerability and limitations!

One day I came to the awareness that this was a “spiritual issue” as well, like the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” that Paul talked about.  He begged God to take it from him, but God told him that “in your weakness, my power is made perfect in you” (2 Cor.12:9).

At this  time in my life I began serving as a Chaplain with elders, daily walking with them through their dyings and risings.  I found an inner empathy that drew me, soul to soul, to many people.  Somehow, because of my experience, I could relate to their suffering and losses.  Henri Nouwen called it being “a wounded healer.”  The very weakness I had tried to ignore or treat harshly in myself was becoming a channel of grace, of God’s compassion.
Now in my 70’s, I see every day as a call to follow Jesus in his “self-emptying surrender to God” (Phil. 2), making more and more space for God’s life and love. Such is the call of Lent, and really of every day of the year—on our way to the eternal Easter!

Sr. Judy Ryan snjm

In the fall of 1999 our family took a short tour of the religious education program for children at St. James. We knew we wanted JJ to have his first communion here and he needed instruction. We had grown to love Father Ryan and the St. James community.  This parish had welcomed our family in our first tentative moments of inquiry about baptism for JJ. Would we be accepted? Could we call this magnificent place home? As we walked the halls with Marianne Coté we were convinced that JJ should enroll immediately. The program had approximately 60 students from kindergarten age through Senior High. The classes were small, some grades even combined to make the best used of limited teaching staff—but there was a lot of love. The following year when I suggested that JJ’s teacher use more hands-on activities to enhance their lessons, Marianne replied, “If you think you can do better you should become a catechist yourself.”  The following year I became a catechist.

Twelve years later, early this Spring, I found myself in the hallway of Cathedral Place on a Sunday morning.  I remembered my first visit there, and I walked along, looking in each classroom almost as if I were an outsider. Every class was full of engaged, eager students participating in faith-filled learning and craft activities.  Each grade had a minimum of two, sometimes three, amazing catechists. I could hear the melodic sounds of children in choir practicing for Youth First Sunday. Their angelic voices filled the building with joyful sounds.  It was fantastic. The hallways were jammed with parents both helping out and socializing.  Lita, Marianne, Theresa and TerryAnn were all running about making sure that all was well in their respective programs. I was amazed to truly understand and see what this program has become. There are close to 170 students today.

Later to experience the First Sunday Youth component to the Mass and to see all the children participating was wonderful. The procession, the banners, the music. I enjoyed seeing the knot of families near Father Ryan’s chair with their children in the pews, in strollers and even on the floor (as kids often are). It has been wonderful to see the rebirth of such a vital program. I am so proud to be a parishioner here, where the ministry to our children is valued and supported. These children will be well-prepared to carry the faith into the 21st century and beyond.

Mark Contratto

I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live… (John 11:25)

As someone who coordinates the funerals of the Cathedral and its grief ministries too, I think it’s fair to say I am well acquainted with death and dying. Over the last several years and in a career in ministry prior to that I have been exposed to a wide range of experiences.

I can still remember as though it were yesterday my first visit with someone who lost a loved one. I was 27 years old, sitting in the dark and tiny kitchen of an old two-story home in upstate New York listening to a woman well into her 80’s. We sat around a little table, probably just as she had been seated with her husband at breakfast for half a century. She told me about Thomas, who died suddenly at 88. Through her tears she said, “He was so young, why did God take him from me?”  I couldn’t help but think of Martha’s question to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Like Thomas, many of our deceased parishioners have lived long, full, and fruitful lives. But there are others too: the man in his 30’s who left a widow and a young son, parents who bury their children, the front row at the funeral filled with sobbing grandchildren, family members tearfully hugging the casket at the cemetery unable to let it go.

Someone recently asked me if all of this wears on me. Well, some experiences are more painful than others, I replied. And some stick with me. But mostly the sadness is temporary, softened by our hope in Christ. It makes a palpable difference; not just for me, but for all Christians who mourn.
This was never more evident than at a senior community’s “celebration of life” the other day. Held roughly once a quarter, the staff invites family and friends of residents who have recently died—some of them our friends here at St. James. The group tells stories of their departed loved ones. They laugh, they cry, they pray, and they sing of their faith. It’s a sacred thing.

We all realize there is no escaping the reality of death. It is all around us. But the hope of resurrection is an even more potent reality. In that light it seemed fitting that the little gathering concluded their celebration singing these well known words:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

John Simpson

I have the amazing privilege to work at Jubilee Women’s Center, a two-year program for homeless women. We serve 34 women who reside in one of our two beautiful homes. Every woman who comes to Jubilee brings with her, in many ways, a broken spirit. She has experienced loss and abandonment.  She has known the fear of wondering where she will sleep and if she will eat, and most of all, if she will have a future. As we begin to explore all the reasons for her homelessness and to look for ways for her to begin a new life, it becomes clear to me over and over again that I am encountering Jesus’ presence, a kind of dying and resurrection.

Martha: The mother of four grown children, two of whom are being deployed to Afghanistan. She came to us very ill. During her stay at Jubilee she suffered through three surgeries, all while studying for her Divinity degree.  She recovered, graduated from her program, is now living in her own apartment, and has gone back to school at the University of Phoenix to obtain her degree in Business. She recently has been asked by a well-known non-profit agency to be interviewed on film because of her remarkable journey into health and independence.

June: Fleeing a very abusive husband, she came to us frightened and depressed. But during her two years at Jubilee she received her bachelor’s degree in early childhood schooling, found a rewarding job teaching pre-school children, and as she is leaving us she has been accepted at the University of Washington graduate school in Education. One of the mothers of her young students has asked her to come and live with her while she is in school, rent-free, to help care for her child.

Leslie:  Grew up experiencing abuse, married young only to continue to be abused and finally abandoned by her husband.  During her stay at Jubilee she works full-time as an aide to developmentally delayed and autistic adults, and goes to school full-time to obtain a degree in Sign Language.  She has received scholarships for her schooling, maintains a 4.0 average, and is on the dean’s list. “Are you tired?” I ask her.  “Of course I’m tired, but it’s worth it.”

Anne: As a young girl she witnessed a horrific event in her family.  Haunted by this terrible experience, she has been through years of depression, years of therapy. But she has a talent for art. She attended art classes, used this talent to heal from her past, moved on to her own apartment and now returns to Jubilee to teach residents how to make their own beautiful hand-painted greeting cards.

Could I tell more success stories?  Oh, yes. But in the eyes of the world there are many residents who look as though they have not succeeded in achieving their dreams like the women I’ve introduced here. They--like their housemates--work very hard to change. They struggle, but they also care for one another. They, too, show me the presence of Jesus. They are perfect models of the dying and rising Christ. I am fortunate indeed to know these courageous, beautiful people and to learn from them.

Kathy Lewis

Mr. Khosa was going into the central market to buy supplies for Mother Teresa’s Hospice in Lusaka, and I was to go with him.  We piled into a tiny van, tearing down the dusty streets towards town.  Mr. Khosa asked why I’d come to Zambia.  I described how the company I worked for in London had collapsed, and how I’d come to Africa to do something different. 

“How did you come to work at Mother Teresa’s, Mr. Khosa?” 

He had worked in the physical plant at the University of Zambia, supporting a wife, two of his own children and two foster children on his limited salary.  “I took a sabbatical for six months,” he said, “so that I could come and help the sisters.”

Four children and you walk away from a good job if even for half a year, I thought?  In a land of 25 percent unemployment?  This sisters couldn’t pay him.  “Why did you want to do that, Mr. Khosa?”

He wheeled around in his seat in the front of the bus to face me.  “Brother David!  Jesus asked us to take up our cross and follow him!  How can we call ourselves Christians if we do not suffer!?”  Everything was an exclamation.

The hospice was home only to the sickest of the sick.  Those suffering from HIV/Aids, polio, malaria, cancer, and profound malnutrition were the only ones welcome there.  The hospice’s function was to give people a place to die.  It seemed absurd to me that Khosa had walked away from the security he brought to his family to help the sisters to care for those who—by definition—had no chance at life beyond a few, painful months.  But just as the spring rains began in November, bringing new life to the land after a gritty, hot winter, Mr. Khosa brought comfort and hope to the baffling need that surrounded him.  He brought a message of life to an American wandering in southern Africa.

David RJ Unger

When I gather around the font with my Schola sisters at Sunday evening Mass, I often reflect on the special moment at Easter Vigil 2003 when I was baptized at St. James.  The RCIA process filled in the blanks of the faith that I, unknowingly, had been searching for all my life.  My faith continues to grow in the midst of the wonderful friends made at St. James, who share their love at all levels; the church’s beauty and wonderful scents that enhance God’s presence; and worshiping God when I sing with my beautiful sisters in the St. James Women’s Schola.  I never tire of watching the love in Father Ryan’s face as he greets his flock before Mass.  (My husband, Jeff, once fondly remarked that Father Ryan worked the crowd better than anyone.)

My faith has given me strength to deal with life’s hardships.  In October 2009, my husband Jeff was diagnosed with a very an aggressive brain tumor and passed away peacefully six days later after two brain surgeries and a massive stroke.  My children have remarked several times how strong I was during those six days, when every day and every hour I watched my best friend journey to his new life. Of course, I know it was God’s grace that gave me strength and that was never as clear as the moment I sat at Jeff’s bedside stroking his arm.  I told my daughter that I was trying to memorize the touch and feel of his strong arms.  Maybe God whispered in my ear, but I suddenly realized that this wouldn’t be the last time I would see and touch the wonderful person that I love so deeply.  I felt the peace of Jesus’ promise to resurrect our bodies to join our spirit when He returns.  I am reminded of that promise at every Mass.

Even with my faith and support of my family and friends, this has still been the toughest challenge in my life; grieving for my husband and adjusting to life without him.  I have learned to allow the grief and know that God is there beside me.  After watching the Elect at their first scrutiny, I looked back at my reflection sheet for Holy Saturday morning during RCIA before my baptism.  I wrote, “I am letting go of control of my life and putting it in the hands of God.”  I am so grateful that God is in my life.   My prayer is to use my life to help just one person find peace in God’s love.

Pat Evans

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