Many people I know have lost a loved one – a family member or friend who is painfully missed. A “Pastoral Note” in the official Order of Prayer for the Liturgy of the Hours dedicates the entire month of November, and especially All Souls Day, to pray for our departed brothers and sisters. In “And Death’s Dark Shadow Put to Flight,” an Advent post a few years ago, I wrote of the sting of death, and the story of how one particular friend’s tragic death stung very deeply.
But there is far more to the death of loved ones than its sting. Last year at this time I wrote a post that helped some readers explore a dimension of death they had not considered. It focused not only on the sense of loss that accompanies the deaths of those we love, but also on the link we still share with them. It gave meaning to that “Holy Longing” that extends beyond death – for them and for us – and suggested a way to live in a continuity of relationship with those who have died. The All Souls Day Commemoration in the Roman Missal also describes this relationship:
That waiting, and our sometimes excruciatingly painful experience of loss, is “The Holy Longing.” The people we have loved and lost are not really lost. They are still our family, our friends, and our fellow travelers, and we shouldn’t travel with them in silence. The month of November is a time to restore this “link with our fellow travelers.” If you know others who have suffered the deaths of family and friends, please share with them a link to “The Holy Longing: An All Souls Day Spark for Broken Hearts.”
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
I’ve written many times about the saints who inspire us on this arduous path behind These Stone Walls. The posts that come most immediately to mind are “The Paradox of Suffering: An Invitation from Saint Maximilian Kolbe,” and more recently, “ ‘I Am a Mystery to Myself ‘: The Last Days of Padre Pio.” Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Padre Pio inspire me not because I have so much in common with them, but because I have so little. I am not at all like them, but I came to know them because I was drawn to the ways they faced and coped with adversity in their lives on Earth.
Patron saints really are advocates in Heaven, but the story is bigger than that. To have patron saints means something deeper than just hoping to share in the graces for which they suffered. It means to be in a relationship with them as fellow travelers. They can advocate not only for us, but for the souls of those we entrust to their intercession. In the Presence of God, they are more like a lens for us, and not dispensers of grace in their own right. The Protestant critique that Catholics “pray to saints” has it all wrong.
To be in a relationship with patron saints means much more than just waiting for their help in times of need. I have learned a few humbling things this year about the dynamics of a relationship with Saints Maximilian Kolbe and Padre Pio. I have tried to consciously cope with painful things the way they did, and over time they opened my eyes about what it means to have their advocacy. It’s an advocacy I would not need if I were even remotely like them. It’s an advocacy I need very much, and can no longer live without.
I don’t think we choose the saints who will be our patrons and advocates in Heaven. I think they choose us. In ways both subtle and profound, they interject their presence in our lives. I came into this prison over 18 years ago knowing little to nothing of Saints Maximilian Kolbe and Padre Pio. But in multiple posts on These Stone Walls I’ve written of how they made their presence here known. And in that process, I’ve learned a lot about why they’re now in my life. It is not because they look upon me and see their own paths. It’s because they look upon me and see how much and how easily I stray from their paths.
One day earlier this month, I discovered something about the intervention of these saints that is at the same time humbling and deeply consoling. It’s consoling because it affirms for me that these modern saints have made themselves a part of what I must bear each day. It’s humbling because that fact requires shedding all my notions that their intercession means a rescue from the crosses I’d just as soon not carry.
For the last year or so in prison, I’ve had to live with something that’s very painful – physically very painful – and sometimes so intensely so that I can focus on little else. In prison, there are not many ways to escape from pain. I can purchase some over-the-counter ibuprophen in the prison commissary, but that’s sort of like fighting a raging forest fire with bottled water. It’s not very effective.
Over several days last month, my relentless pain flared up and got the better of me, and I became depressed. There aren’t many ways to escape depression in prison either. The combination of nagging pain and depression began to interfere with everything I was doing, and others started to notice. The daily barrage of foul language and constantly loud prison noise that I’ve heard non-stop for over 18 years suddenly had the effect of a rough rasp being dragged across the surface of my brain. If you’ve ever suffered from acute migraines, you know exactly what I mean.
So one night, I asked Saint Padre Pio to intercede that I might be delivered from this awful nagging pain. I fell off to sleep actually feeling a little hopeful, but it was not to be. The next morning I awoke to discover my cross of pain even heavier than the night before.
Then suddenly, as has been known to happen of late, light finally dawned once again upon Marblehead. I suddenly became aware that I had just asked Padre Pio – a soul who in life bore the penetrating pain of the wounds of Christ without relief for fifty years – to nudge the Lord to free me from my pain. What was I thinking?! That awareness was a more painful moment than the pain of any migraine I’ve ever had to bear.
So for now, at least, I’ll have to live with this pain, but I’m no longer depressed about it. Situational depression, I have learned, comes when you expect an outcome other than the one you have. I no longer expect Padre Pio to rescue me from my pain, so I’m no longer depressed. I now see that my relationship with him isn’t going to be based upon being pain free. It’s going to be what it was initially, and what I had allowed to lapse. It’s the example of how he coped with suffering by turning himself over to grace, and by making an offering of what he suffered.
A rescue would sure be nice, but his example is, in the long run, a lot more effective. I know myself. If I awake tomorrow and this pain is gone forever, I will thank Saint Padre Pio. Then just as soon as my next cross comes my way – as I once described in “A Shower of Roses” – I will begin to doubt that Saint Padre Pio had anything to do with my release.
His example, on the other hand, is something I can learn from, and emulate. The truth is that few, if any, of the saints we revere were themselves rescued from what they suffered and endured in this life. We do not seek their intercession because they were rescued. We seek their intercession because they bore all for Christ. They bore their own suffering as though it were a shield of honor.
FOR GREATER GLORY
This was one of Pornchai’s “upside down” questions one night last week. I call them “upside down” questions because as I lay in my bunk reading late at night, his head pops down from the upper bunk so he is upside down as he asks the question. “When people pray to saints,” Pornchai asked last week, “do they really expect a miracle?” I asked for an example, and he said, “Should you or I ask Saint Maximilian Kolbe for a happy ending when he didn’t have one himself?”
I wonder if Pornchai knows how incredibly irritating it is when he stumbles spontaneously upon a spiritual truth that I just spent months working out in my own soul. Pornchai’s insight is true, but it’s an inconvenient truth – inconvenient by Earthly hopes, anyway. The truth about Auschwitz was that all hope for rescue was the first hope to die among any of its occupants. As Maximilian Kolbe lay in that Auschwitz bunker chained to, but outliving, his fellow prisoners being slowly starved to death, did he expect to be rescued?
All available evidence says otherwise. Father Maximilian Kolbe led his fellow sufferers into and through a death that robbed their Nazi persecutors of the power and meaning they intended of that obscene gesture. How ironic would it be for me to now place my hope for rescue from an unjust and uncomfortable imprisonment at the feet of Saint Maximilian Kolbe? Just having such an expectation is more humiliating than prison itself. Devotion to Saint Maximilian Kolbe helps us face prison bravely. It doesn’t deliver us from prison walls, but rather from their power to stifle our souls.
“For Greater Glory” is one of the most stunning and compelling films of this decade. You must not miss it. It’s the historically accurate story of the Cristero War in Mexico in 1926. Academy Award nominee Andy Garcia portrays General Enrique Gorostieta Delarde in a riveting performance as the leader of Mexico’s citizen rebellion against the efforts of a socialist regime to diminish and then eradicate religious liberty and public expressions of Christianity, especially Catholic faith.
“For Greater Glory” is an entirely true account, and portrays well the slippery slope from a government that tramples upon religious freedom to the actual persecution and public executions of priests and devout Catholics. If you think it couldn’t happen here, think again. It couldn’t happen in Mexico either, but it did!
The real star of this film – and I warn you, it will break your heart – is the heroic soul of young Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, a teen whose commitment to Christ and his faith results in horrible torment and torture. If this film were solely the creation of Hollywood, there would have been a happy ending. Jose would have been rescued to live happily ever after. It isn’t Hollywood, however; it’s real. Jose’s final tortured scream of “Viva Cristo Rey!” is something I will remember forever.
I cried, finally, at the end as I read in the film’s postscript that Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Jose’s final “Viva Cristo Rey!” echoes across the century, across all of North America, across the globe, to empower a quest for freedom that can be found only where young Jose found it.
“Viva Cristo Rey!”