Loss and Hope

Thirty-five years ago, on October 29, 1984, my father died.  That was back in the days when we still had autumn in Sacramento, and even bluster and rain in late October.  Before the fires.  Dad, who was a third generation San Franciscan, born in 1911, was a gentle Irishman to the core, and he managed to let himself go into the arms of God with perfect Irish timing: a rosary on All Saints Day and a funeral on All Souls Day.  I was not a Jesuit then, so my dear friend Michael Buckley, SJ, presided at the funeral and burial.  I shall never forget those days, nor the aftermath.  It took a good long while to adjust to the new reality that Dad was no longer with us.  

What I am describing here is not a unique experience.  We all have to deal with the immensity of the loss of a parent or a sibling, or of a good friend or beloved colleague.  Coping with loss, undergoing grief—this is a huge part of life, nothing to be evaded or shunned.  Gradually—or sometimes suddenly—we come to see that dying is a part of life, and letting go of our beloved is something that we are all called upon to accept.  I learned this first-hand, for following upon Dad’s death were the deaths of a chorus of family friends (over whose funerals I presided—there must have been close to ten), my grandmother, my sister and brother, and only recently, my mother.  And so many personal friends.  All the losses are a part of the reality of life.  And, one discovers that such a chronicle of life and death is not uncommon—most everyone my age can tell a similar story.

There are also losses short of death, as when parents decide to place their physically or intellectually challenged children in skilled care—a heart-wrenching but often necessary decision.  Or when dear friends are suddenly struck by life-altering diseases that draw death closer.  Or when they suffer so much pain that they want to give up.

Or when a marriage breaks down, or a parent is deprived of her children in the course of a divorce proceeding.  Or when people lose everything, in fire, flood, hurricane, or tornado.  Or when poor people are evicted mercilessly by avaricious landlords.  Or when black people are shot and killed in their own homes by trigger-prone police. Or when young people in prison discover the tragic brokenness of life.

And I speak here only of “first world” experiences of loss.  Only with effort one can begin to imagine what it must be like to suffer the complete sense of dislocation of a Syrian refugee, or of a Rohingya outcast, whose lives are limned by death on all sides.

How do we begin to take the measure of such a world of suffering, of loss?  We cannot.  Yet, without denying any of the suffering and pain that accompany all this loss or glossing over it, we can, in faith, nevertheless see all of this within the ambit of a larger reality—the fact that God does not cease to offer God’s love to all God’s beloved creatures, each uniquely and fully.  And, as Paul said (Romans 8), despite all life’s suffering, nothing—not even death itself—can stand between us and love of God.  On what basis does he say this?  That that love was made real, enfleshed, in Jesus, who as a “man of sorrows” knew suffering, loss, and death intimately, but also learned how to live in loving hope.  Because he was able to accept God’s offer of love in the depths of his being, he emerged victorious even through death itself.  Somehow that faith expressed by Paul, when it is inscribed deeply in our own flesh, leads to a sense of ultimate hope, and a desire to love others as one would wish to be loved oneself. To act on their behalf.  It is possible for us, trailing clouds of loss, but also of glory, not to be bowed by loss, but rather to find in it a place where God is in fact reaching into our lives, offering God’s very self to those who suffer. 

Yet, within our limited lives, we want to help; we want to reach out. For those of us privileged enough to reflect on the loving activity of God, we are given as well the invitation, even the requirement, to pray.  So often when I feel that there is nothing I can do for someone, much as I would like to be there at their bedside and to help, for example, I know that I can pray.  And that prayer, that imploring openness to the God who is loving each of us still, is an infinite gift in itself—something of which, with God’s grace, we are capable, something we can do—a way of living the few days we’re given with some semblance of hope.  

One World

Yesterday my good friend Luis and I drove to Santa Cruz just to glimpse the ocean, only a half-hour away, but somehow elusive. Our lives and various events upend the most fervent hopes to get near the roaring and overwhelming phenomenon of nature that is the Pacific.  Whenever I go there I look across the horizon and imagine that I can espy the shoreline of China or Japan.  The Pacific links us rather than separates us.  It makes the world seem smaller, more intimate, but also, given its sheer force and lurking threats, the ocean is a dangerous place.  Especially for those who dare to swim in its waters.  Or those, like the refugees of Lampedusa, who have been forced to swim, and some, to drown.

When I was a youthful 24, long before I became a Jesuit, I received a call from Catholic Social Services in Sacramento.  It was an interlude year; I’d just received my master’s degree in religion from a university back East, and had returned to California, not knowing what might lie ahead in life.  At the last minute I’d taken a teaching job at a local Catholic high school at a salary of $5,600—in those days, enough to rent a flat downtown and to buy an old VW jalopy.  Social Services asked whether I was able to take in a young Vietnamese refugee who had been airlifted from Vietnam in the chaos following the defeat of the US in 1975.  

Ho arrived with a bundle of clothes and a rice cooker.  He could speak virtually no English, and so we communicated in an English-French patois of our own making.  It was not easy.  He was going through a massive life transition that was unimaginable to me—I, who had spent the previous six years in the protected enclaves of high-end universities.  Suddenly, my small and relatively ordered world was invaded by the chaos of a refugee, down to the unfamiliar odor of the seaweed he would steam in his rice cooker.  Ho, who came from a professional background back in Vietnam and who was highly educated, would board a bus each morning to the nearby town of Woodland where he worked in a packing plant (I think it was), working on a widget-like production line that required a mechanical movement of his right arm, back and forth, all day, five days a week.  He would return to the flat exasperated, frustrated, and nearly in tears.  I felt helpless to do anything to change his plight.  I was frustrated, too, indeed overwhelmed by the reality of his suffering. 

Ho introduced me to Buddhism. His father had died back in Vietnam and, with local help, he arranged for a Buddhist memorial service at temple in Sacramento. I shall never forget the beauty and reverence of the occasion, or how it opened my eyes to a horizon of piety that was new to me, although, as a Catholic, it was also somewhat familiar in its ritualistic depth. For the first time, I saw Ho in a state of peace.

Natural Bridges State Beach

One day a Vietnamese family arrived at the door.  They had arranged with Catholic Social Services to give Ho a home to help him get restarted.  And so began the second leg of his journey here in the US.  I never saw him again, but can only hope that he finally adjusted to his new world.  I will never know.  But Ho was among the first to open my eyes to the fact that the earth is teeming with displaced people—far more now than in 1975.  He also brought the realities of Vietnam home to me—quite literally. Later I was to learn much more about the plight of refugees as my life again accidentally intersected with that of a Salvadoran man, José, who was forced to flee for his life from that country in 1988.  I met him through the Jesuit Refugee Service when I visited El Salvador as a Jesuit novice. (That is another story about which I have written elsewhere [The Sanctuary Experience: Voices of the Community, 2004]). 

Today is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.  CNN estimates that some 71 million people today have been forced from their homes and that 25 million are refugees, with plights even more dire than that of Ho or José, if that is possible.  And I would add to this teeming mass of humanity the millions of unsheltered people across the planet, not least in our own country.  The harsh realities of their lives are affecting all of us, and our politics, in ways that could not have been anticipated back in 1975 or even 1988.  Fear of what is happening across the globe has generated populist, nationalist, and openly xenophobic political movements and new forms of hatred and violence. Trump, Brexit, the Northern League, the Alternative for Germany, and other parties and movements are but the most obvious manifestations of this refusal to accept that the planet is undergoing massive change, that peoples are being uprooted by social, economic, political, military, and climatic shifts, and that we need to find ways of addressing all this in a realistic spirit. But something in the human psyche—call it the original sin of our selfishness writ large—presents an obstacle to embracing the migrant or the refugee as our sister, our brother, or allowing ourselves to be changed by them.  We prefer to live as if these human beings did not exist.  Or worse, to round them up, cage their children, separate families, and deport them.

Yesterday’s visit to the ocean took place during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration.  On the beach was a Jewish family, gathered in a circle of prayer.  At one point they moved toward the water, each carrying a stone.  And, standing there in silence, each tossed their stone into the churning foam.  I was witnessing the ritual of Taslich, in which the devout toss a stone representing their sins into the water, where they are submerged and drowned by the force of the sea.  On that same beach we met an Indian family scouting out a picnic area for a large family gathering.  And, strolling along the strand near the beach were Russian Orthodox clergy in their long black robes—incongruous, but there they were.  Yes, the ocean does remind us, quite literally, that the world is a small place, that we are one in our humanity.  This is a good day to reflect on that reality.

A Blue Box

When I was a boy my father had a bout of cancer, a tumor on the lower lip.  To treat it, they simply cut out the tumor and stitched it all up.  I don’t recall that he underwent any chemo, although there might have been some radiation to the site (it is a blur to me now).  At the time it seemed like quite the scare, and he had a handsome lump on his lower lip for the rest of his life to show for it.  Rather than quit smoking, the likely cause, he started using a stylish cigarette holder (not the FDR type, but a shorter version).  This was the very early 1960s.  (He had quit smoking by the early 70s.)

But I write not about cigarettes or smoking.  The real development from that ordeal was a private devotion on my Dad’s part to a humble Peruvian saint, Martin de Porres.  A family friend had just visited Rome, where Martin had been canonized by Pope John XXIII the year before. She brought back to my father beautiful reliquary of the saint, who was the patron saint of hairdressers, among other designees.. (My father owned and operated a group of hair salons back in the 50s and early 60s).  Martin was of very humble origin, his mother either a slave or indigenous.  His father, who it seems abandoned him, was Spanish.  Due to his mother’s lineage, he lived on the margins even of the church. (His attribute, or symbol, is a lowly broom). Rather than grow embittered by the racism he encountered, Martin chose to be compassionate, helping people who had nothing, tending to the sick and dying.  Among Martin’s many qualities also was a love for animals, and it was said that he communicate with them, much as St. Francis had with the birds.

After Dad died I found the reliquary in his upper bureau drawer. It is a small box, about 2½  inches by 3½ inches, covered in blue silk with a small clasp on the front.  Unlatching the clasp, the box opens to reveal a small gold monstrance, inside the center glass of which sits the tiny relic—probably from something that belonged to Martin in his lifetime—although he was very poor and owned virtually nothing.  Folded up with  the relic is an official paper from the Vatican printed on heavy paper, attesting to the relic’s authenticity—all written in Latin.  Later, going through Dad’s wallet (only very recently, after my mother died), I discovered that, along with some Irish Sweepstakes tickets, Dad had been carrying all those years a pocket-sized card with Martin’s image and another relic.  

Martin de Porres reliquary box, Pedro Arrupe, Michael Buckley

My father was neither an overtly pious man nor one who would go out of his way to feign a disregard for God, either.  It was all woven into him somehow.  I recall once looking over at him in church a year or so before his death, his head bowed in silent prayer, an image that stays with me.  A gentle man of spiritual depth, he rarely spoke of his faith beyond referring to “the good Lord” who would take care of all and everything in the end; we had merely to trust in his ways.  Dad’s faith was not adorned with theology, but with a pre-theological sense of God.  He was even just a little bit superstitious.  I think he and Martin would have hit it off. Much of his faith was expressed through beauty—a talented gardener, musician, good eye—and, of course, his incredible love for each of us, his three children.  He also had great a gift for friendship and a wonderful sense of humor.

Now that I am dealing with cancer, I have that reliquary on top of my dresser.  It connects me not only with my father, but also with Martin. I have grown to love this saint and have been trying to read up on him.  Among the marvelous “medieval” stories about him were that he could walk through walls in order to get to people who needed help.  There is something about walking through walls that is very appealing to me. There is also something about the physical—the touch, the connection with a real saint who lived over four hundred years ago walking through the walls of historical distance and reaching into the present moment—that is a source of real consolation.  I don’t expect Martin to be able to pull off a miracle, beyond the miracle that is already happening each time I touch that blue box.  I’ve added to it an image of Pedro Arrupe, the saintly Jesuit superior general; and of Michael Buckley, my Jesuit friend and mentor who died a couple of weeks ago. These three intercessors become in some way present when I simply see that blue box, and, I like to think, are gently easing the way along the pathway to God.  

The First Day of Summer

Those bossy crows were jostling over which of them would be first to the birdbath this morning, while a chatty squirrel taunted them from the safe harbor of a redwood tree. Gentle green & brown sparrows nesting nearby took a shower in the birdbath as well.  Bees are buzzing.  And a tiny spider walked across my bathroom floor–long day ahead for that little one.  Meanwhile, lo and behold, Mr. Cactus Head (aka Mr. Echinocerous Rigidissiumus) decided to wait for this day to show off his gaudy summer crown.  Summer has arrived.



The following is from today’s homily, given at Santa Clara Mission

…when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door,
and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.  (Matt 6)

This Gospel is something we usually hear on Ash Wednesday, but now it comes to us as an everyday admonition from Jesus.  Do not parade your piety.

There is also something else being said here, something deeper:  and that is that the life of faith itself is in many ways hidden, not to be flaunted. Faith is a multi-layered and often mysterious experience of God, hidden not only from the world, but in some ways, even from ourselves.  We can have a familiarity with God, a kind of tacit relationship, without always giving it words or gestures, much less ritual enactment.  For we can delude ourselves into thinking that certain words or phrases or liturgies or doctrines or beliefs constitute the stuff of faith. These things may be necessary and helpful to a certain degree, but they do not exhaust the reality of faith, and do not pay due heed to faith’s essential hiddenness, and at times, its elusiveness.

The heart of faith is the assurance of God’s love for us. God loves each of us uniquely, as if each of us were the only beings he had created.  God’s love is not generic, like stardust, but very specific, intentional, and penetrating. The experience of this God cannot be reduced to what can be paraded about, our public expressions of faith or pious gestures.  For, as Paul says elsewhere, our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).

Let me grow a bit more personal. As I witnessed my mother grow into very advanced old age, finally dying two years ago as she approached her 100th birthday, I beheld an ever-deepening quietude, a wonderment and even hesitation, to be sure, but also a surrender to God—all in the hiddenness of her soul.  Her faith was an increasingly shrouded one, marked by questions and doubts, without pious fanfare or overt religious relish.  She was acquainted with suffering and grief, but also with a lust for life.  Christ was for her the ultimate reality. She knew Christ in the joy of the everyday, in waking up singing, in long periods of silence, in light and dark.  Hers was not a paraded faith, not one that depended on the visible props of religion to make it real.  She was too smart for that.  Yet in its hidden depths, it was unsurpassably real, and, as she put it, “beautiful.”

Jesus here simply asks that we be our actual selves, that we do not feign a form of faith that does not fit:  that worship of the one, true God be rooted in our hidden depths, our interiority.  What Jesus desired for his friends was an authentic faith.  That is the blessed invitation we’ve been given, a ticket to freedom from hypocrisy and self-delusion, and freedom for a life of profound hope and joy.

The Gift

I have not chosen until now not to write directly of my cancer.  But, after almost two years into it, I can attest to many gifts, and that the disease itself is a kind of gift.

First and foremost is the gift of being loved, of knowing that love coming from so many people, often accompanied by your prayers.  For these expressions of affection, I cannot express enough my thanks. My cup has always been full to overflowing (Ps 23), and I wish I could share all this love with so many who do not know it or have it—the lonely, the depressed, the destitute, the hopeless.  There is a sense in which it is unfair that any one person should know so much of it. But this has been the case my entire life, from my childhood.  What I can do is pray for others, as I have been trying to do, out of the depths of my own experience.  And, like you, dear reader, we can find many touchpoints of suffering from which to draw and with which to find compassionate solidarity with others in their suffering. My basic prayer is that each person for whom I pray receive the grace to be aware of God’s love meeting them in each and every moment of their lives.

One form of God’s love I’ve received has been through the extraordinary care I’ve been receiving at Stanford.  The entire team there is not only medically and scientifically advanced, but extraordinarily kind and compassionate.  Again, I do not have words enough to express my gratitude to them for helping me along the way, particularly at tricky decision points.  The people who can succeed at doing this with such grace surely have a special vocation—from the check-in techs to the radiation specialists, the infusion nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, receptionists, and pharmacists—and my terrific oncologist, Joel Neal.  I don’t know how these people do it.  Add to all this a  freedom from anxiety because of Medicare and good supplemental insurance, and I could not be more blest.  (On that latter score, I think everyone should have the peace of mind which comes from the Medicare + supplemental that I and many others my age can enjoy.  This level of fundamental healthcare should be a fundamental right for everyone residing in such a wealthy country).

Another of the gifts of this period has been an increasing (though radically imperfect) detachment from some of the things that can become too important in our lives, although I confess to a passion still for the work of theology and an ordinate fixation on politics. Yet there is a little more room now for an even deeper appreciation of beauty, of friendship, of the miracle of finding oneself a living being on this planet within an unimaginably vast universe (or is it universes?).  And the birds that sing outside my window each morning.  The flowers and growing things.  The mystery of it all.  Here one must turn to the poets and musicians and artists of every kind, to begin to look into and find expression of it.  One of my favorite poems, one that captures the spirit of freedom and of being met by God in the beauty of the world, is Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Avowal,” which I share with you here:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

No effort indeed.

p.s.  With such gifts as these, the word “journey” to describe the current experience is somehow inadequate.  It is not a journey—it is a present experience, one given with each and every breath.  Each life is a journey, I suppose, in that it has a beginning and end, with many meanderings in between.  But this cancer is smaller than a journey in its own right; it is simply a part of life as life unfolds on its own.

I also resist the hackneyed metaphor of “battle” and never, ever use it of what I am experiencing (and I hope that others will not as well.  Susan Sontag wrote powerfully about this).  This particular experience within the larger “journey” of life is a gift, which I am hardly battling as a gift.  While I would hope for a lot more time, the amount of time we have makes no difference, as I learned from the early deaths of my sister and brother; it is the gift that makes life miraculous.  And to know the gift in so many ways is, beyond measure, something for which no expression of gratitude will ever quite be adequate.

Sunday Morning

Scene:  Just after a downpour.  The clouds have withdrawn, the sun is shining, bells are ringing, and birds are chirping here in Santa Clara.  How long this will last, I do not know (probably fifteen minutes), but duration makes no difference.  It has happened, here in this one little spot on tiny planet Earth, incongruously self-important, some 27,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way.

I was talking to a Jesuit friend in Chicago yesterday, who reminded me of the 1,000 billion (= 1 trillion) galaxies out there, almost all of them getting swallowed up by black holes.  Whenever I try to grasp these things (which is impossible), Psalm 8 comes to mind:

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and stars that you set in place—

Who are we  that you are mindful of us…?

Yet you have made us little less than gods,

crowned us with glory and honor.

Those last two lines might be up for debate, at least in terms of what we’ve done with all that glory and honor.  But the Psalm does get to the heart of the mystery of being human, that there exists this creature (radically imperfect) that can nonetheless contemplate lofty things, and that stands as the “intersection,” as it were, between matter and spirit.

Then, last night, I was watching “Chernobyl” on PBS.  As I was drawn into the story, it struck me that the Chernobyl disaster stands today as a metaphor for the times in which we are living, the unimaginable mess that we’ve made of things in society and politics,  in some aspects of the church as well–and, of course, of Mother Earth.  (I don’t need to go into the details here…) It’s a lesson on hubris, self-sabotage, and denial of truth.  We live in an age of nightmares become reality.

So what redeems us?  Beauty, for one.  The chirping of the birds each morning comes as reassuring music from the gods, and the drama of a flower (soon Mr. Cactus Head will show forth his glory) is itself a miracle.  And music (for me, mostly classical, but also some jazz).  And art.  More deeply still, enduring friendship.  I am also fond of one of the readings from today’s Mass, from the Book of Revelation:

…The old order has passed away.

Behold, I make all things new.

Those, for me, are words of joyous freedom and unbridled hope.  For redemption does not all depend on us, even though we stand in a privileged position in the created order.   I am reminded of all this when I look up to the blue sky, or, on a dark night behold a new moon.

Not Knowing

This week’s gospel readings from John (in the Catholic lectionary) spotlight two good people who knew Jesus personally, but whose understanding of him was limited.  In Nicodemus, the pious Pharisee, we find a man who doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus asks him, “You are a teacher of Israel, and you do not know these things?”  But he truly is left scratching his head.  And today we encounter Philip, who asks Jesus to show him the Father.  Jesus responds, “You have been with me all this time, Philip, and you do not know me?”  One feels for these guys.

Both represent human beings who have a burning desire for God, a yearning to know more, yet who, as human beings, are limited in their capacity to comprehend.  And they are not alone.  We are all in the same place.  It takes a lifetime to gain any wisdom in these things at all, and even then it is at best paltry.  As Karl Rahner reminds us, any knowledge gained now is only asymptotic, and that means that there remains an infinite gap between what we say we know, and the incomprehensible reality of God.  That is a gap that will only be closed beyond death—closed not in comprehension, but in love. We cannot close it now, even with the most sublime theology or art.

In addition, we have many distractions that divert us from a deeper understanding of the things of God. So much of life is frittered away in what my late friend John Carmody once described as “botched time.”  As a result, God remains to some degree distant: inaccessible, ineffable, enigmatic, and even foreign to our sensibilities. God doesn’t always fall within our radar, and if we think that’s happening on a regular basis, it is not unlikely that we are deluding ourselves.  God does reach across the infinite gap in the grace of his self-communication, in so many ways, and that contact is real.  (Just as the person of Jesus was real to Nicodemus and Philip). Still, the “cloud of unknowing” surrounds us.

Yet,  the desire to know God is also real.  And it increases, especially as death becomes a more certain reality, not a distant possibility.  The looming of that horizon, which grows ever nearer as the gateway to God, leads to a gradual winnowing, a separating of the wheat from the chaff, an increasing focus on what finally matters.  God is already communicating from that horizon, and moving toward us.  In the end, it doesn’t matter that we do not fully comprehend, for we never could; and, if God be God, we never will.  It is enough that we move toward God, and that God moves toward us.  In that motion of love, hearts are burning.