Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No One Likes A Funeral

No one likes funerals.  Even funeral directors do not like funerals.  They are a sad fact of life, and even with a profound hope in the resurrection, we still know that earthly parting is a miserable affair.

I have had a run of funerals this summer.  Three occurred during my annual priest retreat.  I have had four more since coming to Spearfish.  I cannot say that I relish funerals, but I think I do them relatively well.  They are not hard in the sense that they are especially demanding in terms of time dedicated to them or emotion spent on them.  After all, in a certain sense, I am called to be a professional when it comes to death, and to deal with death often requires that one adopt a certain professional distance.  This is not to say that I do not invest in the family of the deceased.  I really do make an attempt with each I celebrate to personalize the experience for the family as best as I am able.  I generally avoid the "Insert Name of Deceased Here" sort of homilies, though one can only say, "We hope the deceased is with the Lord," in so many ways.  As a priest, however, one quickly comes to see that deaths happen every day.  The tragedy death visits on any particular family is most often not more than the tragedy it visits on another.  For this reason, I think, I seldom tear up when celebrating a funeral Mass.  All of this aside, there are certain moments that cause the tears to flow.

By and large, modern funeral procedure has anesthetized us to the experience of death.  Funeral Homes prepare the bodies for burial, dress them and lay them in the casket.  Likewise, these same professionals generally close the casket out of the sight of the family while the priest distracts them.  There is a painful finality in seeing the white ruffle that borders the casket folded back into the box, the lid closed, and the lock set.  We generally avoid that experience.  For some reason, the timing was off today.  The casket had not been closed as the family assembled in the back of the church to prepare for the procession.  They stood by as the funeral director made all of the preparations to close the lid.  Then, because they were already there watching the proceedings, he gave the family the opportunity for a final word of farewell before shutting the lid.  Tears stung my eyes as the widow came forward to gently kiss her husband one final time and to caress his hair as she whispered goodbye.

Death happens every day.  And even having adopted a "professional distance," funerals are still hard.  No one likes a funeral.  


Friday, August 10, 2012


"Christ Crucified" Diego Velasquez, 1632
Following my second year in the theologate, Bishop Cupich asked me to take take a pastoral year, which is something like an internship. In the course of my years of formation, he had asked me to do many difficult things, but this was the hardest. I had eight classmates, and we were close. Our brotherhood, our commonness of purpose, and our genuine affection for one another marked a transitional point at the St. Paul Seminary. For many years, it had been something like a dormitory for bachelors who wanted to be priests. Most of the men in residence, until we arrived, were second career seminarians. They had been pilots, pharmacists, realtors, farmers and the like. Few knew what it was to live in a community of other men, to depend upon a community of other men, and to be formed by a community of other men. In some intuitive way, however, my classmates and I did understand these phenomena, and the seminary began to change slowly into more than just a dormitory. And I was being asked to leave. The class behind me had not the closeness of the class I was leaving, and by the time I returned to the seminary, my original class would be deacons. We could still be close, but they would have stepped into a new realm of existence where I would be unable to join them until my own ordination. By that time, they would be priests, and once again, I would be left behind.

With many tears, I obeyed the bishop. I spent an extraordinarily happy and formative year in Spearfish (where I find myself a priest now) and in September, I once again returned to complete my studies in St. Paul. In the midst of classmates who did not much care for one another, left out of a class of men I loved, and classroom experiences that did little to pique my interest, I found myself very alone. I remember with great clarity that I would wander back from class, throw my books on the floor and sit in my chair, heart heavy, and exclaiming, "Lord, I guess it is just you and me for now."


While recently driving with a brother priest who completed his own studies in Rome a couple of years ago, he commented that his first three years in the theologate were the loneliest of his life. He remarked that he had friends, and he loved his studies, but he was in Europe, trying to grasp a new method of learning and a new language, and he found no true intimacy amongst his peers. He too was left to abandon himself life alone with God.


A young man I have known for a number of years, but with whom I have communicated often and deeply only of late has recently experienced a profound conversion. With a criminal record a yard long and all the sins of youth combined into the short four years of high school, God has suddenly and dramatically moved in his heart. He talks of his pre-conversion experiences of friendship. They were shallow, greedy, and utilitarian. He once told me that even in that dark time he was aware that though there were people all around him and though he was wildly popular, he was desperately lonely. Now, several months into his quest for a new life, that loneliness has returned, albeit in a different way. Having had none but the worst kind of friend prior to his conversion, he now finds it almost impossible to find the kind of people he really wants to know and emulate. He knows that to return to the old friends can only lead to any variety of moral failings, but that lonely part of him persists in suggesting that perhaps to sin is better than to be alone. Sometimes the lonely part wins.


While a senior in high school, I began applying to be a seminarian for the Diocese of Rapid City. The application was long, and it took me months before I had completed it to my own satisfaction. I do not remember most of the information I was supposed to provide anymore, but I do distinctly recall a question asking me to articulate how my family felt about my entering the seminary. I had never given any consideration to the question. From the time I can remember, my parents had insisted that my brothers and I could do whatever we wanted provided we would find happiness in doing so. I took them at their word, so in order to answer the question, I was required to ask my parents and brothers what they thought of the matter. From that conversation I recall only one point; My mother worried that I would be lonely. Even as she expressed this concern, however, she reminded herself that she had been married more than twenty years and there were still times when she was lonely.


Loneliness is a bitter ugly thing. Each of us is susceptible to it, and it can strike so suddenly: a holiday meal during which I am reminded that I have no family of my own with whom to create traditions. The end of a successful youth formation event or a series of profound confessions during which I have given my heart to someone and they have taken it and left to go home for the night. The sudden recognition that I am not welcome in some situation. The passing of a significant anniversary unnoticed and unmentioned by parishioners. A soft rainy night when the house is quiet and empty and no book seems to provide enjoyment. A touch, a look, an expression of pride between father and son that I will never give. Loneliness is a lurking demon, and his temptations are nearly infinite. Loneliness is linked to obesity - One eats because one is alone. Loneliness leads to addiction - One smokes just to be with someone else or because one has nothing else to do. One drinks just to have a reason to be among others. One does drugs to avoid the risk of losing the person who at the very least seems to fill the void. Loneliness is linked to lust - One wants to be connected to someone and to possess them so as not to be alone. Loneliness leads to sexual sin - One will look to pornography, to masturbation, to sex, because even if only briefly, one can dispel the loneliness. We watch movies, we take pills, we get on facebook, we crank our ipods, we surf ebay, and yet, in each of these things, relief is only temporary. Loneliness has but one cure - solitude.

Solitude is not simply the experience of being alone. It is certainly not loneliness itself. Solitude, rather, is the experience of entering into oneself and going directly to the place where no one else can go, to which one can no longer give clear expression in words, and which no other person can understand or possess. It means embracing the loneliness, savoring its pain, clinging to the sense of absence. Solitude is like a bruise on our flesh that, though painful to the touch, we touch anyway because we somehow like the pain. Solitude means probing the isolation, the longing for another, the longing for connection, finding no one there, and staying there anyway. We do this because in a mysterious way, God is present precisely in our acknowledgement that He is absent. We are not with Him, but somehow, the realization that we are not with Him is also the realization that He is deeply present, because to be utterly alone is to be alone with God. In a certain way, this what it is to be a believer; that except for God, I am alone in this world. Thus, even in the best of relationships, there must be a place of solitude. In the person I love the most, there exists a place where even I may not enter; to love most deeply is to permit that we might be alone with God together.

To my mind, this mysterious solitude was captured in an exceptional way by the Spanish artist, Diego Velasquez. Notice the depth of the black background upon which his crucifix is painted. No light comes from behind. There is only the Cross and Our Lord's mutilated body upon it. He is utterly alone. None is there to see Him bleed. None is there to see His pain. None is there to understand His grief. None is there to console Him as He cries, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me." None is there to tell Him He is not alone. There are none but He and the Father who is present only in the experience of his absence.

It is here, having faced the loneliness and having embraced its ugly bitter thorns that we arrive at solitude. It is here that we find God.