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It was June 1977, the former concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. Chilly gusts nipped my cheeks, ballooned my coat, and whipped my bell-bottom jeans as we stood in front of the Catholic memorial, Church of the Mortal Agony of Christ; its towering presence evoked even more shudders. Above it, hung a massive crown of thorns glinting in the sunlight. Within the arms of the jagged stone circle sat an oil-press atop a bronze altar. That got my attention.

The enshrinement of the oil-press suggests the depths of the religious imagination of the memorial’s architect: the juxtaposition of the oil-press used to crush olives with Jesus’s enemies raining down intense physical and mental torture. It was to such a grove, Gethsemane, where Jesus sought prayer with his Father that night. It was to such that he said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Parallels to this anguish are also found in the prophet Isaiah’s four Suffering Servant Songs.

So what does this say about affliction? How make sense of our own tearing, heaving, and crushing? And for what purpose? Even our response to Covid-19?

Some questions are best lived with, rather than responded to.

Yet, the gospels also portray an afflicted Jesus, prostrate on the ground in that olive grove, dialoging with his Father for clarity. “Anything but that …”—my response, as well, when under siege.

Suffering does have its way with us. Always has …

 

 

Christ was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names…

These verses are taken from the Christological hymn that Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians (56 C.E.) and serve as the leitmotif for Holy Week. Each day’s events underscore the humility of Jesus, beginning with His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at Passover seated upon the back of a donkey.

Sensing his earthly mission coming to a close, and in the wake of that, conflict, he orchestrated this bit of drama. He knew his few followers would misinterpret his action in their craving for a political Messiah to rout the hated Romans. Psalm 118’s “Blessings on the King who comes…,” fueled their frenzy and drew the Pharisees’ censure watching this spectacle unfold through streets thronged with pilgrims. Jesus’s intent was to image the peaceful Messiah, only later grasped by his followers after his resurrection.

Years of meditation on this curious story, recorded in the four gospels, have deepened my sense of Jesus Christ, totally other than first perceived. Like his first followers, I still get trapped in expectations of what I want, when I want it, how I want it. My terminal illness, however, casts urgency upon learning to listen, anew, to his Father for direction, to practice humility and obedience, one day at a time.

The future holds my final days before transitioning from them. There’s no preparing for them. They will unfold, as they will.

 

 

 

“This is your captain speaking. We’ve had more contact with air traffic control in New York. All planes are to land at the nearest airport and wait for additional instruction—We’ll be coming down at Indianapolis International Airport in ten minutes.”

It was the morning of 9/11, aboard Southwest Airlines for our flight to Boston and the directed retreat at Gloucester. A story larger than life was beginning to spew like torn film from a projector. From the rental car’s radio, news analysts blurted surreal facts as proportions of the disaster mounted. Stops at gas stations evoked spirited conversations: no one was a stranger. In the lobby of the Best Western at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, television sets plied ghoulish scenes to the ongoing narrative.

The following seven days at the retreat center afforded a safe place to grieve and pray. Evil had burnt the psyche of our nation: it would never be the same. From the heart of that conflagration stories still flow.

And yet another huge story encircles Planet Earth like a knife-sharp, ill-fitting corset, its ties in knots. Again, I’m at a remove from its raw grief. Yet I feel the global spirit, weighted with peril as it seeks to contain the Coronavirus from further infection. As with 9/11 we’re dealing with the specter of death.

Like grains of incense glowing atop coals in a thurifer, such stories continue yielding their fragrance, continue honing the disparate experiences into meaningful wholes, with consequent psychic growth for spirited warriors. The pandemic has yet to be resolved.

The war between Good and Evil continues …

 

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