by Kathy McVady.
“Take up My Cross, their cross, and follow Me. Going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.” This is the line of the Madonna House Little Mandate that our mission house was most called to live last year.
This line is about the mystery of identification with the people we are called to serve and with Christ present in them.
There are, of course, many ways in which such identification can take place. We live in a little house among many in one area of Winslow, a house indistinguishable from the others except for a sign out front which gives our name.
But the identification that the Lord wanted us to learn this year was on a different level, and it had to do with learning more deeply about the mystery of the cross in other people’s lives and in our own.
As I looked back over the year, I became aware that it was divided into two distinct periods each of which called forth this kind of identification most intensely.
The first period was the summer of 2004 when there were a number of violent deaths in Winslow: young people in a car accident, a young man killed by a laser “stun gun”, and a baby who died of injuries.
The second period was towards the end of Lent and into the post-Easter season of 2005. Those who died then were, for the most part, people who had struggled for a long time with cancer or who had succumbed to the diseases of old age.
It seemed to me as if these two periods of time were like the two arms of Our Lady in the Pieta embracing our year.
And during these times, we learned more deeply what God asks us to do in the face of these painful situations.
The first thing that he was teaching us to do was to simply stand with people, to “take up My Cross, their cross…being one with them, one with Me.”
When you visit a young mother and the great-grandparents of a baby who has just met a violent end, you know that any words you could say are inadequate.
You know that, too, when you visit the people who have just learned that their teenage children were killed in a car accident during a fun ride during the high school lunch break. But you also know that your presence is important.
You come to realize that as they are working through their pain and grief, you are standing with Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.
At those times, this is not a theory or a nice idea. It becomes a living reality. You are standing at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady who has just lost her Child.
Also, when you listen to someone talk about how the directors at the funeral home let them hold their baby in their arms, it is a very holy time. For you are with Our Lady as Our Lord’s body is placed in her arms after the crucifixion.
I had learned something very valuable a number of years ago. I was visiting the mother of a young man who had died unexpectedly during a routine surgery. All the way to her house, I was praying for the “right” words.
When the mother greeted me, her face seemed steeled for something. All I could say was, “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
At that, her facial expression melted. She fell into my arms and we wept together.
Months later she told me, “I was so afraid you were going to say, ‘He’s in a better place,’ or something like that. Even though it’s true, I could not have heard it then. What I needed was your tears.”
In the second period of that year, as I said before, the deaths that occurred were not so sudden or violent. There was, of course, still the inevitable pain, loss, and grieving. But very often it was the dying themselves who became the teachers.
They had already walked the road of faith-in-darkness with their families for quite a while. Now it was often they who encouraged and comforted those who would be left behind. And in their presence, we found peace.
This was the first level of what the Lord was teaching us about “Take up My Cross, their cross, follow Me.”
Then he took us to another level, a more immediate one.
On Labor Day Weekend, the eldest member of our house, Theresa Marsey, suffered a heart attack. I flew down to Phoenix with her for what turned out to be an emergency double by-pass surgery, and I stayed with her for the twelve days that she was in the hospital.
During that time, standing by the hospital bed with my sister, knowing that I could do nothing for her except pray and be present, I experienced my own poverty even more deeply than I had with the other deaths.
I couldn’t make her comfortable; I couldn’t remove her pain. Once again I was standing at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady, but this time it was my friend and mentor who was on the cross.
But I realized that I was not alone. Our Lady was with me, and so were the many people who, though not physically present, were with us in prayer.
Then very shortly after we returned home, while Theresa still needed care, Sofia Segal, another member of our house, received word that her brother had been killed in a freak car accident.
God was now inviting us to still another level of “Take up My Cross, their cross, follow Me.”
Once again I had a sense of Our Lord and our Lady present with us in the midst of our pain. Even though this sense of their presence didn’t answer all the questions that rose up in our hearts, it brought hope.
For when one touches death in this way, one touches the mystery of God, and at some point one re-discovers the power of Christ’s Resurrection.
This was further revealed to us, as so often happens, through the eyes of a child.
One Sunday during Lent, our parish priest was preaching about the story of Lazarus, and was talking about how we are all going to be dust some day. Suddenly the homily was interrupted by a four-year old. “Grandma,” he said, distressed. “I don’t want to be dust!”
She reassured him in some way and peace was restored. But the story was not over. A couple of weeks later in the Atrium class, a class that is part of the catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the presentation was about the women at the tomb.
Afterwards, this same little boy was working with the materials used in connection with the presentation.
The little tomb was empty. The cloth was lying there. But Jesus wasn’t in the tomb. Suddenly the little boy turned around and said, “That can happen to us too!”
That’s it! That’s where we live: between “I don’t want to be dust!” and the truth that the resurrection can happen to us, too!
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