Sunday, February 25, 2007

Liz's Funeral

Liz and my daugher Aña at St. Joseph's Abbey

A number of people have asked that I post the brief reflection I offered at Liz's funeral. I am happy to do so, for I hope it will remind my friends and the friends of the Cornerstone Forum to keep Liz and her heartbroken husband in your prayers. My mantra-like prayer has been this:

O Holy Trinity, surround Liz with Your love and with mine, and give her peace and joy.

Here are the comments I made at Liz's funeral:
We are here to commend Liz to God’s mercy and care and to thank God for the privilege of having known and loved her, and not to drown these our bitter-sweet Christian responsibilities in a sea of reminiscence. We will have an opportunity to reminisce later today. But if a grieving husband can be allowed a reminiscence or two, I would like to say a few words about Liz.

To keep from rambling, as you can see, I have taken the precaution of organizing my thoughts; I hope you will not think them less heartfelt for that. I hope as well that you will forgive me for not being excessively morose. As a Christian I am enjoined by the apostle Paul not to grieve as the pagans do. I hope what follows will be an example of what Saint Paul calls “godly grief,” that is to say: grief suffused with the light of Easter. Liz would surely have it no other way.

Anyone who knew Liz knows what a unique person she was. No one who knew Liz at all well will ever be heard to say: “Ah, yes, Liz … Liz reminds me of so-and-so.” There are no so-and-sos out there bearing even a remote likeness to Liz, and all of us who knew her realize this. Liz was in a category of one. One of the unique things about Liz, however, was the fact that she neither particularly admired uniqueness nor ever aspired to it. If she aspired to anything, it was social invisibility. To be the object of social attention was one of her greatest fears. No, Liz acquired her uniqueness the hard way: though the experience of sadness and suffering and the intimacy with God that sadness and suffering can make possible.

The first thing that struck me about Liz when we met was that she had a depth that one only finds in those who have been brought to their knees by heavy crosses, so I was not surprised to learn, as we got to know each other, that hers had not been an easy life. Her mother’s long and distressing illness – and its lingering emotional repercussions in Liz’s life – the tragic and untimely death of the younger brother to whom she had tried to be both sister and mother, and an adult life plagued with frequent devastatingly painful migraine headaches … Liz was someone who knew suffering.

Of all the images of the Virgin Mary that Liz treasured, the one she revered most was Mary the Mother of Sorrows. In her last days on this earth, she gazed long at the Mother of Sorrows icon that she asked me to hang at the foot of the bed in which she spent her last weeks.

John of the Cross, the great Carmelite whose religious writings Liz loved, once said: “The deeper the wound the greater the healing,” a mystery that the contemporary poet Leonard Cohen expressed when he wrote:

There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

When I first met Liz at a retreat I was giving in Connecticut, in addition to sensing that she knew suffering, another thing that struck me was her love for the Church. I move in circles where one occasionally bumps into people who love the Church, but Liz’s love for the Church had a special quality about it. It was not so much that she loved the Church – in the perfunctory way we often love old familiar things – rather her love for the Church was spontaneous, unaffected and, most remarkable of all, entirely unproblematic. She loved the Church with the kind of love that has been all but eradicated by the spirit of our age, a spirit which is so antithetical to the Catholic sensibilities which were so alive in Liz.

Sensing how remarkable Liz was, how uncontaminated she was by the spiritual toxins of our time, I found myself wondering: Where has this woman been keeping herself, that her Catholic sensibilities are so fresh and alive?

Where, indeed, had she been keeping herself? As I was soon to learn, Liz’s love for the Church had a local habitation and a name: St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, which had been her spiritual home all her adult life. In the aftermath of an early life altering religious experience, and thanks to a suggestion by her friend Michael Boover, Liz discovered the Abbey in her early 20s and shortly thereafter almost literally shoved her foot in the door long enough to get a few minutes with Fr. Mark Delery. The few minutes turned into a few weeks, then a few months, then a few years, then a few decades. Fr. Mark, the senior concelebrant at today’s Mass was Liz’s spiritual director all her adult life.

Since there is nothing not to love about St. Joseph’s Abbey, Liz’s love of it was not as extraordinary as her love for that great gargoyled wonder we call Mother Church. Nevertheless, as C. S. Lewis once said: heaven is an acquired taste, and not everyone has the patience and poverty of spirit it takes to be nourished, as Liz was, by the Cistercian life of prayer and worship.

But as Liz and I corresponded after that first meeting, and as I was occasionally on the East Coast and could stop by for a visit, I discovered something even more astounding, namely that Liz actually loved God. I mean, she actually loved God.

Now, like most of you, I had learned from my sainted mother to believe in God, and I had been taught by the Sisters of Mercy to pray to God, and I had heard the first of Jesus’ two great commandments countless times, and I even fancied that I was more or less obeying it. It was not until I met Liz that I realized how extraordinarily rare it is to find someone who actually does what Jesus commands, who actually loves God. Liz loved God. The more I realized this, the more astonishing it was to behold.

As Liz’s friends and family probably know, having a friend or family member who loves God the way Liz did can be confusing and sometimes exasperating. God’s ways are not our ways, and those who passionately love God are often a complete puzzle others. Jesus’ friends and family thought his behavior more than a little strange if you’ll remember.

Befriending someone who loves God is a little like taking a walk in the woods with a hound dog. Every now and then, the dog stops dead in his tracks – his nose to the ground, panting for no apparent reason – or he darts off frantically in a direction perpendicular to the path on which his companion is trudging. Repeated attempts to convince him to give up his foolishness are useless. The dog has found something far more interesting than whatever hum-drum plans for the day his companion might have had. If the dog had one ounce of attention to spare – which of course he wouldn’t – he would probably feel pity for the poor creatures who have to slog through life with noses that are almost entirely useless.

Irreverent as it may be to say so, that’s the way it is with people who love God the way Liz did. The Spirit blows where it will, and long experience teaches them to be prepared to go perpendicular to the flow of things – or vertical to it – on a moment’s notice.

This is one of the reasons why those who love God often do the world the courtesy of going off by themselves – as Liz did – or huddling together in some remote spot, as the monastic lovers of God do. I’m sure my friends the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey who are with us here this morning will forgive me for saying so but monasteries are asylums for the lovers of God. If these extraordinary and exasperating people were allowed to roam the world un-chaperoned , they might frighten the natives. By staying on their reservations these lovers of God can inflict the idiosyncrasies of their vocation on each other, leaving the rest of us to our sundry distractions. Liz, bless her heart, had the soul of a monastic without an explicit monastic vocation. She had to carry her monasticism around with her the way a turtle carries his home on his back.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the 20th century’s towering theological giants, says somewhere: “The only part of earthly love to survive [death] will be the heavenly love that has become incarnate in it.”

If there was a laboratory in which Liz and I transmuted earthly love into heavenly love, it was what we came to call our “port time.” The whole time we were married, unless I was off on one of my travels, at 5 p.m. sharp, we would stop whatever we were doing to pray together and chat quietly for while. It was more prayer time than port time, but it almost always included a glass of port, thus its nickname. Each evening we prayed the Divine Office and a few other prayers. We prayed specifically for those we loved and those we felt were in special need of prayer. We often prayed for those who suffer the worst poverty of all, namely those who have no one to pray for them. We then talked for a while about what we were working on during the day: Liz’s poetry or the memories she was collecting, or some lecture I was preparing or piece of writing I was struggling to get right. Often we read passages to each other from things we had read that day that had left an impression on us.

By beginning our day with Lauds and Mass at St. Joseph’s Abbey and ending it with these unforgettable moments of “port-time,” the earthly love Liz and I had for one another became the vessel in which we distilled – drop by daily drop – a heavenly love of the sort that survives death.

I will continue to begin my day at the Abbey as Liz and I always did and end it, as we did, with “port time,” but especially at port-time I’m sure I will feel, in addition to Liz’s spiritual presence, her physical absence. It is then that I will most miss the truly amazing and utterly unique woman who was for a few short years my dearest friend in all the world. May she rest in Christ’s peace.

And may God bless all of you for being here today and reward you for your many kindnesses to Liz.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace ...

Elizabeth Bailie
January 4, 1954 - February 18, 2007

Wednesday, February 21
(Ash Wednesday)
5:00 to 8:00 p.m.
(Rosary at 5:00 followed by wake)
O’Connor Brothers Funeral Home
592 Park Avenue
Worcester, MA 01603

Funeral Mass:
Thursday, February 22
10:00 a.m.
Immaculate Conception Parish
353 Grove Street
Worcester, MA 01605

Immediately following the funeral Mass
Notre Dame Cemetery
162 Webster Street
Worcester, MA 01603

Throughout her adult life,
St. Joseph's Cistercian Abbey was Liz's spiritual home.

Contributions in lieu of flowers can be made to:

St. Joseph's Abbey
167 North Spencer Road
Spencer, MA 01562-1233

Liz circa 1962

May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Storm is Howling ...

For the last few weeks, as Liz has lost physical function, we have been “camping out” in our living room, where Liz can be in front of the fireplace and see the birds on the bird-feeder from her bed. She sleeps in a motorized hospital bed, and I sleep in a twin-bed next to her, half awake to any changes in her breathing that may need my attention.

I was awakened this morning just before 4 a.m. by the sound of a blizzard swirling around our house. We live on a hill, and storms buffet our house with greater force than they do the houses in more sheltered areas. As I lay in bed unable to sleep, worrying about Liz and worrying as well about losing power in our house. The first lines of Yeats’ poem “A Prayer for My Daughter” came unbidden into my mind. As Liz has become completely dependent on me physically, and as her mental horizon has narrowed and become endearingly childlike, our relationship has evolved into something like that between a father and an infant daughter. So the poem had resonance with my present situation.

I have long loved the Yeats poem. I committed it to memory many years ago, thanks to which its opening lines gave my pre-dawn anxieties a local habitation and a name.

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

And then a second poetic guest arrived, perhaps because of the father-daughter theme of the first. For as I turned over in my mind what I might do if the storm isolates us or causes the loss of power to our home, again unbidden, Lear’s words to Cordelia came into my head:

Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,--
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;--
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Paris Graffiti

Before we were married, Liz and I were in Paris visiting René and Martha Girard and taking in the sites. (The Girard's -- who know Paris intimately -- gave us an unbelievable walking tour, dinner at a quintessentially Parisian restaurant included.)

In a variation on Jesus' admonition to his disciples to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, like many genuine and unaffectedly holy people, Liz is a bewildering combination of ageless, ancient, world-weary wisdom, on one hand, and giddy teen-age spontaneity, on the other. While we were in Paris, I came down one morning (Liz and I had separate hotel rooms, scandalizing our Parisian innkeepers), I found Liz, chalk dust on her hands, standing triumphantly over this sidewalk masterpiece:

Sitting next to Liz the other morning as she slept, her physical and mental condition declining steadily, I picked up a book at random. As it happened it was one of Hans Urs von Balthasar's Theo-Drama volumes. I began reading where the bookmark was. The first words I read where these:
Eros contains a promise (described not only by pagans such as Shelley and Keats, but also by Christians such as Claudel) which is always pointing beyond the sentiment that sighs "Abide a while, thou art so beautiful!" and which, therefore, if it is not transposed onto the Christian level, must condemn itself to eternal melancholy and self-consumption. This total structure of beauty can be redeemed only if the risen Lover is again met at the other side of death -- the risen Lover who does not disappoint with his blessed Noli me tangere [Do not cling to me] and with his withdrawal at the Ascension, the Lover who leaves no shadow of sorrow behind him, but who snatches up the loving and adoring heart and carries it away with him: where your treasure, where your darling is, there also is your heart.
"Eros contains a promise" which points beyond itself, and which Liz astutely and intuitively acknowledged in the "in Christ" footnote on her lovely little piece of graffiti.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Memento Mori

As Mel Gibson's Mary wiped the blood of Jesus' scourging from the stone pavement, similarly powerless to do much else, I post an occasional weblog, not to violate the intimacy of what Liz and I are now experiencing, but to honor the communio which sustains it. For, as St. Paul insisted:
None of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. (Romans 14:7-8)
So this from Hans Urs von Balthasar:
There are many ways in which even that death which is appointed for the body, although it is a physical event, can be assimilated in advance to that spiritual event that it is meant to be (and shall be, whether or not one wishes it to be), namely, the handing over of corporality to the Giver who fashioned the dust of the earth into a human instrument (Gen. 2:7). The Christian's attitude to the body will be governed by this final sacrifice, which he is to perform as a conscious act; even in health and active life he will make the coming final surrender of corporality the inner meaning of all his action.
The word "instrument" is quintessential von Balthasar: Everyone is called to a specific mission, and every mission is inherently christological in nature and cruciform in structure. Christian faith leads not to the happiness we experience when we get our way, but to the joy that we experience when we realize that we were not meant to.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Mary's Passion

My response to Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ was that it should have been called Mel Gibson's Pieta. Among the film's most heartrending and memorable scenes depicts Mary, her heart exploding with grief, wiping Jesus' blood from the stone pavement of the torture chamber where he had been scourged. The scene captures perfectly something what those who accompany their loved ones at the end of life experience to some degree, namely: the need to do something even when there is nothing one can do. What I am doing is writing this to you.

Suffering, writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, "is not entry into alienation, but an exit from it. On a deeper level, suffering is a participation in the suffering of the one who leads us out of alienation.”

Please keep Liz in your prayers.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Unfinished Creature

As I have often said from the podium, it helps to clear away the "spirit of the age" clutter to ask: Why are we here? Or: What are humans for?

Now that I've violated the one grammatical principle that I still try to uphold -- against ending a sentence with a preposition -- let me repeat the offense: One way of putting our predicament is this: The challenge and the quintessential human task is to discover -- existentially at least, and cognitively as far as possible -- what human existence is all about. It remains, after all, an open question. We are, par excellence, the only unfinished creatures. But that does not mean that we are free to fashion ourselves according to our whims. Our existence would then simply been absurd, which is to say incapable of being assessed. A "well-lived life" would be an unintelligible phrase, purely subjective. There must be a pattern, a form, a purpose, and logic, in a "word," a Logos.

More that merely a synonym for the English "word," the Logos of John's Gospel means the reason, the pattern, the (Trinitarian) reality toward which creatures made in the image and likeness of God are inherently ordained. Everyone whose life has any moral or conceptual or existential coherence has a logos at work in the background of his or her existence, that is to say: an operational notion, however vaguely conceptualized, of the meaning and purpose of human existence.

The question is: how true is the logos on which one's life is based? A Christian, like everyone else, ought to routine ask: What are humans for? In other words: what is the true pattern, the true nature of human existence? To what are we called by the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of (the Trinitarian) God? The answer is Christ, simply: Christ: the Logos in the flesh, that is to say, the Reason (for human life) embodied in human form.

It would be technically true to say that "what we Christians believe is that Christ is the answer," but, in the squishy world of multicultural diffidence, that way of expressing it inevitably relativizes it. Imagine a person getting up at an international meeting of scientists and saying: "what we Western scientists believe is that the earth is spherical." There are people who don't believe that, but those who do believe it are right and those who don't are wrong. When is the last time you heard a Muslim say: "What we Muslims believe is that there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is is prophet"? Don't hold your breath waiting to hear it. Our Islamic brothers and sisters may be religiously mistaken (they are), but at least they believe what they claim to believe.

To make the truth claim unabashedly will seem, again in the present atmosphere, to be an act of pride. In fact it is an act of humility, inasmuch as the one who makes such a statement is precisely not stating his or her personal opinion. One is simply assenting to the truth that has been mediated by centuries of credible Christian witnesses ("Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe") and, provisionally at least, corroborated by one's own experience of prayer and the sacraments.

Accounting for one's creedal affirmation surely requires the summoning of apologetic, theological, and (especially in the case of Christianity) anthropological corroboration, but none of these things will avail if the original affirmation is too diffident, too equivocating, too relativized to be taken seriously.

To say, as Christians always have, that Christ is "Lord," is to say that He is the true Logos, the unsurpassable pattern of self-sacrificing love to which all humans are called by God. To say that Christ is the "Lord of history," is to say that history is the drama of Christ's gentle appeal to his mortal brothers and sisters to come their senses and claim their ontological inheritance by participating, here and now, in the joy of Trinitarian self-donation.