20 February 2016

30 years ago

In one of the homilies of Narsai (d. ca. 502), known in the Eastern Church as "the Harp of the Spirit," we find these words addressed to a Bishop:
O thou dust-born, who signs the flock with the sign of the Lord, and seals upon it its hidden name by the outward mark. Ah, dust-born, who holds the Spirit on the tip of his tongue, and cuts away the iniquity of the soul and the body with the word of his mouth.
The Creation of Adam
Meister Betram, Grabow Altarpiece
This appellation of dust-born comes, of course, from what we read in the Sacred Scriptures, namely that "the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7).

As a consequence of the original sin, at some point the breath of God will leave each of us who are dust-born and we will die, for, as the LORD God said to our first parents, "you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). This is a reality from which none of us can escape, yet we are not without hope because we who are "but dust and ashes," "if we have been united with [Christ Jesus] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Genesis 18:27; Romans 6:5).

We remembered all of this, of course, just a few days ago on Ash Wednesday, when we asked of the Father "pardon for sins and newness of life after the likeness of your Risen Son" (Blessing of the Ashes).

I stumbled upon those words of Narsai some weeks ago while conducting a bit of research for my thesis and - though they will not be particularly useful in the writing of my thesis - they have not left me. Today, especially, they are close to my heart for it was thirty years ago this morning that my father returned to the dust from which he came (cf. Preface IV, Mass for the Dead).

George William Zehnle

It scarcely seems possible that so many long years could have transpired since that fateful morning. It seems as yesterday in my mind and still can I recall the various details and moments of that day when everything changed in one instant. After all these years, I am not sure the pain has lessened, but it has become easier to carry.

The great J.R.R. Tolkien, who also knew the pain of losing his parents at a young age, put these words in the mouth of Gandalf the White: "I will not say: do not weep, for not all tears are evil" (The Lord of the Rings, 6.IX). These words have often brought comfort to my heart, because, while tears are often an expression of deep sorrow, they are also borne of love. Were I anywhere near home today, I would lay a new lei on his grave, as I have often done in the past:

After Saint Joseph Damien de Veuster left his home and family in Belgium to serve in the missions of the Hawaiian islands, he often wrote to saying, as he did in April of 1877,  "let us all live as good Christians, with the hope of meeting one day in heaven." Many other saints also wrote to their families with similar sentiments. In his last letter to his daughter, written in the Tower of London the day before he was killed, Saint Thomas More expressed his hope "that we may merrily meet in heaven." 

The Church, too, often expresses this same hope, as she does in the Collect of the Prayers for the Priest's Parents in the Masses for the Dead:
O God, who commanded us to honor father and mother,
have mercy in your compassion
on my father and mother,
forgive them their sins,
and bring me to see them one day
in the gladness of eternal glory.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.
May the Lord in his goodness unite us who are dust-born together again in the joy of his kingdom where our tears will be of exceeding happiness!

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