Fr. Rick Frechette is a medical doctor and Catholic priest who has been working in Haiti for a more than a generation, running hospitals and social programs in Port-au-Prince as well as a Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos orphanage on the outskirts of the capital. He wrote the following epistle to his family and supporters last week.
No matter how beautiful and wondrous nature is around us is, no matter how glad we are to see our family, especially the newest members (the sheer joy of being with the children), no matter how many friends we have gained over the years, with whom we can let down our hair, rant and rave, cry and laugh, no matter how full is our storehouse of good memories, we are never far from tragedy and it’s ability to turn upside down all the good things of our lives.
When we read about Lazarus, called back to life from his tomb, we put the period on the last gospel sentence, and assume the rest is glorious.
Yet we know from the scriptures themselves that Lazarus, survivor of death and burial, was stalked by the curious (and even more by the morbidly so), and there were even plans to kill him, because his resurrected life gave too much credit to the claim that Jesus was Messiah.
I remember reading a book years ago called The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, Lazarus was asked by cynics, “You have known both life and death. Which do you prefer?”
He replied, “it’s six of one, and half dozen of another.”
At 25 years old, i thought that answer was silly.
At 63 years old, I really understand it.
Old glory. Faded glory.
Yes, even glory fades with time, if you survive its moment.
Now in the seventh week of Easter we are still hearing at mass the Acts of the Apostles.
There is not even one testimony of the first disciples (and witnesses to Resurrection glory) that is not encased in hardship and sacrifice.
I remember as a young priest, having the privilege of living with an old Passionist missionary, who was in solitary confinement in communist China for many years. Fr Justin’s crime was that he is Christian. His stories of his work, arrest, endurance, hardships, and faith were phenomenal. His life was a continuation of the Acts of the Apostles, especially in the 1950’s. To me he was enthralling and a hero. One reads daily of similar sufferings of Christians in Yemen and Egypt.
One of the other priests shocked me one day when he said, “I know he stood up to the communists and all that, but the truth is he is a total bore.”
It has never been easy for veterans of the world wars, or the modern wars, or old missionaries, to try to settle back home into ordinary lives, having been scorched by both tragedy and heroism.
Maybe these all seem like dark thoughts to you, but to me they are not.
They are realistic, and can be born with joy.
It depends on the disposition of your spirit.
If you try to stay happy by avoiding all that is difficult and complicated, you will have a frozen smile.
If you learn the art of carrying both pain an joy, your smile will be a light.
This very morning, one of our young doctors approached me at St Damien Hospital after mass. She asked me if I was still burying the destitute dead.
Afraid she was going to give me ten more, I hesitatingly said “yes.”
She started to cry with deep sobs, and handed me plastic bag with a doll in it.
Did she really want me to bury a doll? Was this a dead, abandoned doll?
She was really grieved, but finally managed to tell me all about 7 year old Christy, in the intensive care unit, who has been here multiple times for cystic fibrosis. I know Christy from her visits, and have suffered to see her suffering, and I have laughed to see her joy.
Yesterday Christy asked this young doctor to bring her a doll. The doctor could not wait to get here this morning, to give her the doll. But when she got here this morning, she learned Christy died during the night.
Jeanine is so sorry that Christy never saw that she remembered to get her a doll. She was asking me now, to put this doll in Christy’s coffin, for tomorrow’s mass. The doll is in front of me as I write these words. Of course I will do that.
But I said to Jeanine, that her heart is really beautiful, a heart so loving and vulnerable. Her heart was more a gift to Christy than any doll could ever be.
Will Jeanine keep her good heart? Or will it get dulled by all the tragedy and pain that comes with our profession? Will Jeanine rather learn to surf across life and never get touched by it, or will she keep tumbling into the water of life and getting soaked, suffocated and yet refreshed–baptized by life at every turn?
Maybe she will lose he heart for a while and it will come back. Maybe she will lose it for good. Maybe she will never lose it all.
It depends on her spirit.
Speaking of Spirits, in the Christian liturgy we are now preparing for the feast of the coming of God’s Spirit.
We stand the best chance of our glory not fading, of our spirits not diminishing in their light and strength, kindness and wisdom, if we allow our spirits to be overpowered by God’s.
God’s Spirit is called Advocate, Consoler, Defender, Intercessor, Teacher, Revealer of Truth, Guide.
Pretty great credentials. Do you want to share them? They are yours for the asking.
If you pay attention to the Gospel readings these days leading to Pentecost, you will be astounded to see Jesus praying for you and me, for all who were not yet born as he prayed, that during our long sojourn through a trying world, we might not be diminished of spirit, of faith, of trust, of charity.
He promised to send his Spirit to be with us and strengthen us, to the very last days.
Tragedy, pain, sickness, sorrow.
Let’s carry them with an equal measure of Compassion, hope, peace and joy.
As the Christian High Holy Days come to a close, I thank you for your care and generosity to the many people here in Haiti struggling for a better life.
My prayers that your own spirit stays strong and grateful. And that your families be greatly blessed.
Many blessings and much thanks.