March 9, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Recognizing the suffering Christ in others during Lent

And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children’ ” (Lk 23:27-28).

Pausing at the eighth station on the Way of the Cross led the spiritual leader Catherine de Hueck Dougherty to compose a poetic reflection: “Their tears were bitter, full of salt. They wept for the bleeding, wretched Man who staggered under the weight of a rough, unfinished cross. They did not know quite why.

“When he came nigh, he straightened up. The cross shrank, and he became immense, touching the sky, or so it seemed to them.

“He bade them not to shed their tears for him but for themselves—that they might see, and seeing, believe that incarnated Love was standing there on its way to die for them” (Stations of the Cross, In the Footsteps of the Passion with Catherine Doherty, Madonna House Publications, 2004, p. 27).

The women of Jerusalem instinctively wept in empathy for the staggering Jesus who was passing by, burdened with the criminal’s cross. They wept but could not know for sure for whom they were sorrowing. “They did not know quite why.” This is not an uncommon experience for us because suffering on the road of life is not uncommon.

When I prepared this reflection, I thought of a funeral liturgy I celebrated a couple of weeks ago. Father John O’Brien was a classmate of mine beginning in the minor seminary at Saint Meinrad in September 1952.

As I arrived for the Mass at St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville, I headed for the church to pay my last respects before the closing of the coffin.

I filed into church behind two elderly gentlemen who could barely make their way because of the ravages of aging.

Once inside, I couldn’t help but notice what I considered an extraordinary number of good people making their way to the coffin with the aid of walkers and canes.

I was struck because more than an ordinary number of ailing elderly people came out in the bitter cold to say farewell to Father O’Brien. It occurred to me that they had come to pay their respects for one with whom they could identify.

From the early days of his youth, Father O’Brien had a difficult life. He had lost his parents. For a time before coming to Saint Meinrad, he had been at St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Vincennes, Ind.

By common standards of the world, there were awkward features to John’s personality. The studies of priestly formation did not come easily for him. Yet he worked hard; as best he could, he persevered in his studies and at developing skills to interact with others as best he could. Those who lived with him and knew him well could see that John suffered interiorly because of his limitations.

He was ordained a priest of God, and he genuinely gave his best in ministry even as his awkwardness continued to bother him. Not always comprehending why he met resistance from some folks, he carried on.

Father O’Brien brought the Lord to the people he served; he gave them the nourishment of the sacraments of the Church. Many who attended his funeral came to bear witness to their appreciation.

Because of his own challenges from childhood on, because he suffered physically along the way, Father John had a great empathy for those who found that life is sometimes unfair.

I believe the physically impaired people who came to say farewell in prayer in the bitter cold may have been the grateful recipients of a simple priest’s compassionate albeit sometimes awkward ministrations. Father John recognized the suffering Christ in others. Perhaps not quite sure why, they recognized the same in him.

In Lenten prayer, we do well to pause and acknowledge the suffering folks among us whom we may be inclined to take for granted.

Whether in a neighbor or family member, in a stranger or acquaintance, Jesus continues to move among us, often awkwardly, often masked in suffering. By faith, we can sense this, although sometimes we are not quite sure why.

We may not always be able to reverse the unfairness of life for our companions along the way—or for ourselves for that matter—but we can empathize with them. We may be limited by our own awkwardness, but we can walk with them with genuine charity and prayer.

To paraphrase the words of Catherine Doherty: We await the day that we might see, and seeing, believe that incarnated Love was standing there on his way to die for us.

May such be the grace of these 40 days.

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