"With Great Joy, I Saw Your People"
Melissa discovers unexpected gladness in the face of great tragedy.
Populum Tuum vidi, cum ingenti gaudio, Tibi offerre donare.
"With great joy, I saw your People, acknowledging existence as an offering to You."
--Prayer of the Ambrosian Liturgy (quoted in Generating Traces, xi)
Recently, our parish priest committed suicide. He was thirty-four years old, not known to be depressed or in despair, and he left no note. Our family was devastated by the news, especially our five children, ages eleven to two.
Although we served and grieved with our Latin Mass community, we found ourselves understood and accompanied by the Movement and our School of Community to such a deep degree that we were stunned twice—first by the tragedy itself and second by the deep Christian fellowship we experienced.
In fact, it was the work we had been doing on the text for School of Community that allowed us to really begin the mourning process. We were able to begin, not through the lens of suicide, but rather by approaching our entire encounter with Father "with simplicity... [by] what it communicates to the heart, without bringing in external factors to evaluate it, for they have nothing to do with it" (Generating Traces, 21). Without reducing the tragedy of his suicide, which wounded us to the core, we had to look at our experience of Father before his death and make a judgment.
And so, we acknowledged that Father had been the face of Christ for us, and not only the face, but also the hands of Christ, particularly in the life-changing way he celebrated the Eucharist with such intense reverence. We remembered how he had been gentle, how he had asked us to meditate on Heaven, to pray for the dead, and how he had reminded us that the Lord was patient with our failings.
In this way, our fidelity to the encounter, despite the fragility and "precariousness of the human form" (a phrase which had caught our attention in a past School of Community), gave us a pattern to follow in the confusion we experienced in the first days after the tragedy. Father had been gentle with us, so we were gentle with each other. He had asked us to meditate on Heaven and to pray for the dead, so we meditated on Heaven and prayed for his soul. He had urged us in confession to know that our Lord was patient with our failings, and so we felt a maternal and paternal affection for him in his.
In everything, the totality with which our Communion and Liberation friends accompanied us was a grace that stunned us over and over. While we grieved and served our friends in the Latin Mass community, our Movement friends took care of our children, left phone messages, brought brownies, and listened. They accompanied us to the funeral, the burial, and the first Latin Mass at our parish without him.
In fact, it was our friends in CL who knew the whole story from the very beginning—why we had gone to the traditional Latin Mass, why we had stayed, how I had struggled, how I was changed (in no small part due to Father). They knew how another parishioner, Mr. Evans, and I had fought the week before Father's death, how we had reconciled, how I had come to know myself as just as loved and wretched as Mr. Evans, "plunging into the humiliation of one's sinful nothingness, and, paradoxically,. . . perceiving the beginning of freedom, which becomes an entreaty to the One who is present and has created the request" (Generating Traces, 26). They knew how Mr. Evans had been the first to call and tell me about Father's suicide, and how, in telling me, he loved me without reserve.
A few weeks later, during an Assembly together, I was again helped to clarify all that had occurred in our lives since Father's death. It emerged that Father was struggling with terrible stomach pain and taking serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which caused him to have panic attacks and anxieties over things that had never bothered him before. One of the side effects of these drugs can be suicidal thoughts.
While knowing this seemed to help us in piecing together the puzzle of his death, I felt the Movement challenging me to ask what I truly desired from this experience. Would understanding the exact psychological or chemical reactions of his mind in the moment of his death truly be an answer to my longing?
In fact, my longing was already being fulfilled in the fellowship of our Latin Mass and CL friends, and indeed, through our wider Catholic community. Following the suicide, grace mounted upon grace as we saw "a people taking shape, in the name of Christ. Everything in me became truly more religious, with my awareness striving to discover that 'God is all in all'. . . . In this people gladness was becoming 'ingenti gaudio,' that is to say the decisive factor of one's own history as ultimate positivity and therefore as joy" (Generating Traces, xi). Instead of groping about in darkness, I found myself asking with Job, "Why is light given to the miserable, life to the bitter in soul?" (Job 3:20).
In the recent Assembly, I spoke about the fact that every single desire I had had in the circumstances of the tragedy—to be loved, to love, to experience His grace—had been fulfilled, except for the resurrection of the dead, the longing to see Father again. And yet, as Brother Angelus corrected me, every desire ultimately points to this desire for resurrection. "In everything," he said, "I am looking for a Presence that is stronger than death. . . all I need to be is loyal to my heart. To admit my need for life and follow the signs that correspond to this need in everything."
Since the suicide, our children have suddenly began dedicating their nightly Rosary decades to "Mommy having another baby." And I've realized that these sudden prayers and my desire are the same—for new life, for the dead to rise, for His life to move in us together. It is a prayer we make in the face of this great tragedy, yet to our great surprise, we make it together, “ingenti gaudio.”
Melissa, Atchison, Kansas