22 May 2014

'Because I live, you also will live.' Sunday Reflections, 6th Sunday of Easter Year A

The Last Supper, Tintoretto, 1579-81
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)                                  

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

 Jesus said to his disciples:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail), Vermeer, 1657
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden [Web Gallery of Art]

In the summer of 1982 when I worked for a month or so in an American parish after a year's study in Toronto I went to visit a friend who had turned 29 earlier that year. I first met 'Gina', as I'll call my Italian-American friend, when she was a mixed-up 16-year-old with a generous and honest heart. Over the years I was a mentor in the faith to her, mostly by correspondence, as we met only every few years. Gina was a wonderful letter-writer, hence the painting by Vermeer above, though I used to gently tease her on occasion about misspellings - she was a teacher.

I had seen Gina grow strong in the faith over the years and when she graduated she chose to teach in a Catholic school, with a lower salary, than in the public school system, because of her commitment. She also took time out at one stage to spend a year working with a charismatic group.

When we met in 1982, shortly after she had spent some time in the ICU, Gina told me that she felt she didn't have long to live. It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me and I had the grace to take her at her word. I knew that she didn't enjoy robust health and I was also aware of two attempts to take her own life.

The first was when she was around 17. She slit her wrist. Fortunately, her parents found her and took her straight to hospital. During her recovery, which was a kind of 'resurrection' experience for her, she saw clearly that her parents loved her, despite the infidelity of her father that she had been aware of since she was about six, knowledge she had tried to protect her younger brother from.

But in the summer of 1981, before I went to Toronto, I spent a month in the parish where I found myself again the following year. Not long after going there I did something that I rarely did - make a phone call late at night. I normally don't phone someone unless there's some business to discuss and I don't call people when they might already be in bed. I was shocked when Gina answered. She sounded drunk. I discovered that she had taken an overdose of a high-risk medicine that the doctor had prescribed for her multiple sclerosis (MS). I told her I would come over immediately. She said that she would't let me in. She lived in an apartment on her own, not far from her parents' house. I asked another priest to come with me. And when we arrived she didn't carry out her threat not to let me in.

After a couple of hours we were satisfied that Gina hadn't taken enough to kill herself and that she wouldn't do anything drastic during the night. I promised to return in the morning and I was to spend most of the next two days with her. 

I knew that at that particular time I was the only person whom Gina could trust and open her heart to. The breakthrough came on the second morning. What had triggered off her attempted suicide was something her mother had said indicating that Gina wasn't living up to her expectations. Gina, who felt deep shame at the state she was in in my presence, asked me, What are your expectations of me? I answered, I don't have any, only hopes.

That was when Gina made a clear decision to live. St Peter tells us in today's Second Reading: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15-16).

When I went back to the parish later I had no worries. A few days later Gina came to Mass there, as serene and happy as could be. For the second time in her life she had truly experienced a 'resurrection' but this time understanding it clearly from the vantage of her deep faith. 

And a day or two later I received a letter from Gina that I still treasure that was an expression of her Catholic Christian faith and of her reverence for the grace that the priesthood is for God's people and specifically for her. And she got her 'revenge' on me for my teasing about her occasional misspellings by deliberately misspelling almost every word in the opening paragraph and promising to say a Hail Mary for each misspelled word I might find in the rest of the letter - and binding me to say a certain number of Hail Marys for her if I didn't find any. (I found one - years later on one of the many occasions I have re-read Gina's letter!)

Supper at Emmaus, Hendrick Terbrugghen, c.1621
Scloss Sanssouci, Berlin [Web Gallery of Art]

One thing I learned from the experience in 1982 was that a person may have a deep and strong faith and yet be very fragile. I also learned, as I've learned from many other situation down the years, that you don't have to have experienced the specific pain of the person you are listening to in order to understand or for that person to know that he or she is truly heard and understood.

When Gina then told me the following summer that she thought she didn't have long to live I took her seriously and knew that she was probably right. When I had heard after arriving in her area that  she was in the ICU I didn't want to face the possible consequences of that.

We spoke to each other for maybe two hours about what her death would mean to her and to me. There was nothing morbid about this. Gina truly believed in the reality of the Resurrection. And she had discovered that God is a loving and merciful God, particularly the previous summer.

During these Sundays and weekdays the Gospel is from the Last Supper Discourse in St John's Gospel (John 14-17). Jesus knows he is to suffer an ignominious and utterly painful death. Yet there is nothing morbid about his words. He is calling his closest companions into the intimacy of the Holy Trinity. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. And telling them of the Holy Spirit whom he will send Jesus says, You know him, because he will abide with you, and he will be in you. Gina and I at that moment shared in the intimacy of the Holy Trinity through the presence of Jesus the Risen Lord, the kind of intimacy captured by Terbrugghen in his painting above, Supper at Emmaus.

After talking through all of this Gina and I went to a restaurant for lunch where we were joking and laughing, deep in our hearts something of what Jesus promised the Twelve - and us - at the Last Supper: So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you (John 16:22).

I never saw Gina again. She died a few months later, very peacefully. And I know that her parish priest celebrated Mass in her apartment, with her family and some friends present, a day or two before her death.

Because I live, you also will live.

If ye love me, Thomas Tallis

Antiphona ad Communionem  Communion Antiphon John 14:15-16

Si diligitis me, mandata mea servate, dicit Dominus.
If you love me, keep my commandments, says the Lord,
Et ego rogabo Patrem et alium Paraclitmum dabit vobis,
and I will ask the Father and he will send you another Paraclete,
ut maneat vobiscum in aeternum, alleluia.
to abide with you for ever, alleluia.

Translation used by Tallis

If  ye love me, keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may 'bide with you forever, e'en the spirit of truth. 

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