Monday, June 10, 2013

What's In There?

"What's in there?"

Lately, Mary's curiosity has dominated just about every family conversation or activity.  Only a few sentences will go by before Chris and I hear interjected, "What are you talking about?"  Should we begin laughing, Mary chimes in, "What's so funny?"

While it tends to create rather long conversations around the dinner table, I am pleased to see her inquisitive mind at work.  And frankly, I don't blame her one bit for wanting to be part of the joke or discussion.  

However, there are times when her questions take me completely off-guard.  Take today, for example.

Mary and I went to a local nursing home to visit a priest friend whose life is nearing an end.  Before we went to visit him upstairs, we first went to attend the daily Mass held in the nursing home's chapel.

I had a funny feeling it wasn't a regular Mass when, as we crossed the parking lot to enter the nursing home, I spotted a hearse parked outside.  My suspicions were confirmed as we passed the coffin making its way into the chapel.

My first thought was that I hoped it wouldn't be an especially long funeral Mass.  Mary is extremely well-behaved in church, but I didn't want to push her limits.  

But then I reminded myself what a blessing it was, in actuality, to be attending this Mass.  After all, it is a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead.  And I always find it spiritually sobering to reflect on the Last Things (death, judgment, heaven, & hell).  

Funerals have an especially powerful way of reminding you that death is inevitable...but our eternal fate is not and how we love or fail to love in this life will be the criteria for our judgment before the Lord in the next life.

Naturally, Mary was particularly curious as the coffin was brought up the aisle.  Since the chapel was especially full, we had claimed one of the few remaining seats, which happened to be immediately adjacent to the aisle.  So, in other words, the coffin was basically next to us for the course of the Mass.

"What's in there?" Mary whispered, pointing to the coffin.

Oh, boy.  I was absolutely not ready for this discussion.  It would have been helpful to have done some reading for such a conversation. Maybe leaf through a nice, solid book on the topic of "Talking About Death with Your Toddler."

But alas there was no preparing.  Well, in a way.  I suppose the best preparation for such a conversation is to have a good understanding of death and eternal life oneself.  And, thanks be to God, through my faith, I have been given that gift.

Here's, more or less, how our conversation went:

Mary: "What's in there?"

Me: "Well, that's for a man who died."

Pause.  I listen to the first reading.  Mary ponders.

Mary: "I want to see the man."

Me: "We can't see him.  He's not here anymore.  We're praying at Mass that he is with Jesus in heaven."

I begin wondering if I need to explain this a bit further.

Me: "Remember how Jesus died on the Cross?"  <Mary nods>  "After Jesus died, they buried him in the tomb.  But then Jesus didn't stay dead.  He was alive again, on Easter.  Remember how wonderful that is?  And then, after that, Jesus went into heaven.  This man died, too, like Jesus and now we're praying that he is with Jesus in heaven."

Mary: "The man go in the tomb?"

Me: "Yes, they will put him in the tomb after Mass, just like they buried Jesus in the tomb after He died."

Mary: "The man come out of there?" (gesturing to the coffin)

Me: "No, the man isn't here anymore.  He might have been very old or very sick, and that's why he died.  It was time for him to go see Jesus.  It's so good that we can be here to pray for him."

And then there were repetitions and variations on the above dialogue.  Mary was very quiet (aside from the whispered questions) for the whole Mass, except at the end when the family of the deceased man stood up and gathered around the coffin while the priest incensed it.  Then Mary continued exclaiming, "I want to see!  I want to see!" until I finally stood up with the family (hoping they didn't mind that two total strangers were with them).

Then tonight, as I tucked Mary into bed, she asked me once again about "that man."  So I reiterated how wonderful it was we could pray for him and how much I hope he is in heaven.  

"Maybe one day, if we love people very much and love Jesus & try to be very good, we can be in heaven, too.  Wouldn't it be wonderful to see Jesus?  And to see Mother Mary and all the saints and all the angels, too?"

And Mary, a smile on her face, agreed: "Yes."

My heart swelled: what a joy, what a privilege to help her long for her eternal homeland, to help her envision her whole purpose and goal for this prepare for that true life in heaven with God.

It was the first somewhat deep theological conversation I've had with our daughter and it really struck me.  

One of my first thoughts was: how in the world do parents even approach the topic of death, without faith?  

I said I wasn't fully prepared for Mary's questions, but in a way, I absolutely was.  I have heard the answers to her questions over and over and over again in the Church's liturgy, in the Word of God, in my experience of the sacraments.  From death to life.  Life is changed, not ended.  Eye has not seen what God has prepared for those who love Him.

But without that faith...without that hope...without those answers, what do you say to your child?  It makes me so much more cherish the faith we have been given.  

The gift of faith made death so much more understandable, too.  In trying to explain what happened to the man in the coffin, I could make the comparison to Our Lord.  I helped Mary remember Jesus on the cross and His death--and His subsequent Resurrection and Ascension.  As Jesus did, so has this man.

I thought maybe it was too young for Mary to be attending a funeral Mass.  But then I reasoned that she has been seeing death ever since she was an infant, every time she looked upon a crucifix.  Every crucifix seems to cry out to us, to remind us that here is Our Lord, who has loved us to the very point of death.  

I didn't realize it, but death isn't a foreign concept for Mary.  She knows Jesus died.  And she also knows that's not the end of the story.  

The other thought from this whole exchange with Mary was the point of honesty.  There was a split second after Mary asked me what was in the coffin when I considered telling her something other than the truth.  I'm not sure what I would have said...maybe evaded the question...but ultimately I decided the truth was best.

Death is part of our life here on earth.  It's inevitable.  And while it is usually scary, it need not be so through the eyes of faith.  St. Francis referred to "sister death."  While Mary obviously cannot understand everything, I think it's good for her to understanding something about death.  That understanding can help lessen fear.  As a Christian, death is part of our story--even more so, it is part of our salvation.  

Telling the truth regarding death is the realization that, while we hope the man who died is in heaven, we don't know for sure.  It's not our job to canonize someone and it's certainly in the deceased individual's best interest that we don't do so and, instead, pray for his or her salvation & for God's mercy.  So I tried to be very careful in my explanations to say that we hope and pray that the man is in heaven--and not just reassure Mary that he is indeed there, when his eternal fate is actually unknown to us.  

Maybe I could have explained things a little better or maybe I left something important out of my response.  But I hope that the Holy Spirit helped me say what was needed at the time.  In either case, I'm sure there will be many other opportunities to answer Mary's questions on this topic--maybe even as early as tomorrow morning! 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Lessons from The Brothers

Finally, finally, finally I have finished Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov!

After several months and special permission to renew the book for a sixth or seventh time from the local library--it is finished!  Hooray!

Contrary to this initial impression, I actually did enjoy the book.  It's just that it wasn't the kind of book I am accustomed to reading.  It is a narrative, this is true, but it's also a tremendous work of philosophy.  If it wasn't for my consulting with spark notes, I'm sure I wouldn't have understood the nuanced layers of meaning behind the characters' dialogue and actions.

This classical work of literature is whopping in its size and its themes.  All the big questions of life seem to be in there.  Is there a God?  If so, why is there suffering?  Why are we free...and is freedom even good for us?  Is there life after death?  And if this life is all that there is, then isn't anything morally permissible?  Who truly acquits or condemns a person: a jury or one's conscience?  

Understandably, given the vast scope of philosophical questions addressed within the book, it's difficult for me to pick just one particular theme I would like to highlight.  But here goes nothing... 

The theme that touched me the most through this book is the concept that we are all responsible for all.  

This idea originates in the elder monk, Zosima, who functions as the mentor and spiritual guide for Alyosha, the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers.  Here is what Zosima says:

"There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan's pride and murmuring against God."

At first, this idea of being responsible for all--including sharing the guilt of another's wrongdoing--seems unjust.  How can I be guilty if another person commits a murder, if I am not even present for the act or help perpetrate it?

As the novel unfolds, however, you begin to see that a crime does not have only one criminal.

The oldest Karamazov brother, Dimitri, is a passionate, intemperate man driven by his desire for a proud woman named Grushenka.  Unfortunately for him, his father also lusts after this same woman.  When his father is found murdered one night, all evidence points to Dimitri as the murderer.

While one of the major questions of the book is whether Dimitri has actually committed this act (a question I will not answer!), it is evident that--if he is the criminal--he has not acted alone.

Take, for instance, the father himself.  Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a brute of a man.  He is entirely selfish, unabashedly unchaste, and regularly intoxicated.  He more or less abandoned his three sons when they were children.  Dimitri's little interaction with him as an adult was to try to secure his proper inheritance, which he was certain his father had swindled him of.  With a deceased mother and this character of a father, what kind of upbringing and direction could Dimitri have received?

Then there is the woman of interest.  Grushenka consciously plays the father and son against each other, aware of their passions and fiery tempers.  She does so merely for the attention and for her own amusement, never considering the feelings of those involved and the deadly consequences her game may produce.

Ivan Karamazov is the middle brother and, while it seems at first glance that he is entirely removed from the murder case, it develops that it might be he who is most culpable.  While Ivan did not brandish any weapon, his religious skepticism and rejection of God provided the mental reasoning the murderer needed to rationalize his dark deed.  

Ivan, in his very intellectual manner, looks at the suffering in the world (specifically, the suffering of innocent children) and deduces that, either there must be no God at all or, if there is a God, He must be terribly cruel.  If God does not exist, then there is no immortality and, thus, in this life "everything is permissible"--even patricide.

It is the youngest Karamazov brother, Aloysha, who takes Zosima's message to heart.  Throughout the novel, there is example after example of Aloysha being "of all and for all."  

While Ivan coldly isolates himself from others and stonily rejects the idea of a God who permits children to suffer, Aloysha--moved by his faith--reaches out to help the child directly before him in need of love.  And in this way, Aloysha becomes the hands and face of Christ present in the world.  Ivan's response to suffering is isolation; Aloysha's response is to love.  

It is this offering of love, as well as the gift of forgiveness, that demonstrates that this "of all and for all" works in both directions.  I play my part in the sinfulness of others, but I can also cooperate in helping others to do what is right and just.

I suppose you could say that the damnation of one soul is the result of many hands, as is the salvation of one soul.  

It calls to my mind the scene in Matthew 25 when, at the Last Judgment, Christ questions: when I was hungry, did you feed me?  When I was thirsty, did you give me drink?  In other words, how did you love and serve the people immediately around you?  How were you the face and hands of Christ to them?

And who is more immediately around us than our own family members?  Perhaps this is why Dostoevsky used a family unit for his central characters.  It is very easy to judge others, and how much more so when the subject involved is a relative.  

We look at our siblings, parents, grandparents, in-laws, children, cousins, aunts & uncles and think: "Can you believe he or she did that?"  "Did you hear what's going on with him or her?"  "How can he or she support that?"  "What was he or she thinking?"

She's getting a divorce...he's moving in with his girlfriend...she stopped speaking to her parents...he's got himself into drugs...she dropped out of school...

But then we have to stop to ask ourselves: what did I do to help this family member of mine?  Did I try to offer some advice?  Was I fully present, to listen and to love?  Did I show love by refusing to condone a wrongful action?  Was I willing to forgive?  What kind of example have I provided?

In other words, what is my responsibility in this sin or wrongdoing that is happening?  Because--to the extent we didn't love--we are indeed responsible.