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Crossing the Divide of Death

At this year's New York Encounter, John grapples with the ultimate divide.

Etty Hillesum (Public Domain:

Dear Organizers of the NY Encounter,

I came to the Encounter expecting to hear about crossing ideological boundaries and finding our common humanity from various walks of life. In the exhibits and talks I attended, what I found was people confronting death. The Holocaust, abortion, cancer, the Rwandan genocide---in the abstract it all sounded depressing, like a sober reminder to work for peace. Instead, it was profoundly positive, because again and again in these situations a person or a group (the Burundi seminarians or the families of those martyred by ISIL) found their truest humanity by living an amazing and undeniable love, claiming God as its source. Many of them bridged a divide even greater than I had imagined: that between murderers and the loved ones of their victims. To hear the testimony of the Jesuit priest who embraced his siblings’ killer was profound and striking, but to hear it echoed in the ISIL-martyrs' families, in the story of Jeanne Bishop, in the Sister of Life who embraced a woman who had sought her help but ran off to have an abortion anyway--it was almost overwhelming.

To call these “beautiful witnesses," or to take from them a moral lesson to be forgiving, doesn’t capture what challenged and struck me most in this weekend. The person who led the tour of the Etty Hillesum exhibit said, “Don’t just say this is beautiful, how beautiful--ask yourself, is it true?” Etty’s strange path to embracing God-within, which led her to embrace her fellow Jewish victims and life itself unconditionally, could be a “nice story” amid the horrors of the Holocaust, a story of "infinite desire" that fits so nicely in the playbook of Father Giussani and Communion and Liberation. But in the end, Etty and her family and all her fellow camp inmates were all dead. What then?

Reflecting on my experience of the weekend, I realized I was facing an even-greater divide, the divide between the living and the dead. How can these stories pass from merely beautiful and good to also true--how can they be more than a comforting illusion? Only if there is truly One at the source of our humanity, a Giver who is even greater than even the grace of forgiveness, One who can unite us with the dead both now and when we ourselves die. At the end of Rita Simmonds’ talk, she offered an unsettling affirmation: that Frank, her dead husband, wants to be friends with us. That is, with me. At first I thought this might be too much, too strange. Yet, it seemed to me as though Etty and Frank and the martyrs were indeed reaching out to me--through the words of those who loved them, whether they knew them in life (like Rita) or only learned about them later (like the leader of my tour). We were crossing the immense divide of living and dead.

I could not have known this, I think, without also taking time away from everyone, in silent prayer before the Eucharist in one of New York's many Catholic churches--because after the Etty exhibit I was simply numb, wondering if I really had the energy to answer the question I was being asked: "Is it true?" In other words, to cross the greatest divide of all--from man to God. But it wasn't necessary for me to cross that divide myself, for He has already done this, and once I began to listen and look with an attentive heart at these witnesses, He did it again for me.

So, yes, it is true. Even though I didn’t face down death over the weekend, even though I didn’t have to forgive anyone much of anything, in a mysterious way I could say that I “touched” this reality, or was touched by it. This Truth was tangible, not just a nice idea. A human being is a remarkable thing, because each of us has what Frank and Etty and the others found within themselves--our infinite value that comes from God. I encountered many people in New York, old friends and a few new faces. But above all, I encountered Christ again. I don’t know if when you planned the Encounter weekend and the theme you had in mind these deeper meanings of "Crossing the Divide"—life and death, God and man. But I thank God I found them. I share this experience in case it helps anyone else to find them. But mostly, so as not to forget myself!

Thank you.

John, Hyattsville, Maryland


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