I just returned home from a good friend’s funeral. She died a horrible death, the result of a sudden and catastrophic illness which struck her down just after the new year arrived. The funeral was in cold and snowy Minnesota, and family and friends are still in shock as to how quickly and seemingly randomly this tragedy happened. She leaves behind a wonderful husband, five young children, and a terrific extended family.
Everything about the trip was a double-edged sword. The joy of being with good friends I had not seen in many years, the reverence and worship of fellow members of a deeply held faith, a healing conversation with an old friend with whom I had a falling-out a decade ago. The sadness and horror of facing life without a shining example of motherhood. The faces of her beautiful children as they attempt to begin processing their loss. The quiet of standing at a casket and imagining the days to come. The brilliance of discovered writings. The powerful homily delivered by her pastor the day after her death. The homily delivered at her funeral. The packed church, filled to standing-room only. The crisp air as we stood at the burial site, no one wanting to walk away after the official ceremony was ended.
It has been a strange Christmas and new year for me. I worked the Christmas and Christmas Eve holidays, which were their own version of fun as we brought food for potlucks and brought stockings for the patients. My newborn patient’s parents had decided not to celebrate the holiday until their baby gets discharged home. The day after Christmas, as I recovered in my house, I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness at being alone during the season again.
We had a polar vortex arrive just before Christmas, bringing memories of two years ago, when Texas lost power and water for days to weeks, depending on where one lived. I ran the faucets in my kitchen and bathroom, grateful for heat that did not fail, and was reminded again as to a major reason I moved from the north (Michigan) to the south, with its milder winters and early springs.
I trudge through December, January, and February in the hopes that they pass very quickly. I keep my head down as I walk the dogs through the high winds and unpredictable temperature changes. I dread the arrival of Lent, my least favorite season of the year, with its meditations on our sinfulness and the betrayal and death we deserved without the life and saving grace of Jesus.
Winter is a reminder of my struggles with depression, the blanket of snow, ice, and slush when the sun disappears for what feels like millennia, the gray and brown of it all, the crisp winds that permeate our clothes. It is a dry season, when skin cracks, the battle of how many layers rages on, and the heating pads are in full running mode.
My friend was the epitome of intelligence. She owned more books than anyone I had met, and surrounded herself with shelves and shelves of them. She was studious, deep-thinking, sly, and dedicated to her faith. She entered the church as a young woman, and in pursuit of further religious study, went to Rome and attended the Angelicum. She loved debating any topic and was a gracious debater. Anyone who attempted to discuss with her already knew they were out-smarted, but the conversations were still entertaining and life-giving.
She met her husband in Rome, and became a stay-at-home mom to her growing family. She home-schooled her children, studying and referencing the saints in their curriculum. She was in the midst of creating a work of fiction to introduce children to Catholic spirituality. She wrote notes on her vocation, and remarkably, wrote in detail about suffering as she studied John Paul II’s encyclical. How mysteriously God works: These were the last words she wrote before her own journey unto death.
How do we remain joyful in the darkness of winter? How do we comprehend the loss of life while still choosing to believe in the love of God? One friend of mine, during a conversation we had with the pastor of the church, quoted a professor that she and my other friend had shared during their studies. She mentioned that the course on the Trinity was an incredibly difficult course, and that the professor, advising students on how to study, told them that they must not insert the words “because,” “and,” or “therefore” when trying to grasp truth. Two things can exist at the same time. “There is immense beauty.” “There is immense suffering.” These two things can both be true. Attempting to join them can take us into heresy. For example, “There is beauty because there is suffering.” “There is suffering, therefore there is intense beauty.” This is where we can get into trouble: trying to think too much and relate these truths. It is part of the mystery of our faith: accepting the coexistence of these seemingly contradicting truths.
“God is Love.” “We are dust and to dust we shall return.” “Though my flesh shall waste away, with my eyes I will see God.” There are countless examples we have read, and have likely seen during the course of our lives. Coming to grips with our own mortality, the temporariness of this world, the pain and suffering we endure this side of eternity, and yet the closeness and sacredness of death to life.
Winter sees the bareness of the trees, the browning of the grass, the disappearance of the birds and the flowers. Winter is like a vigil, as we await the arrival of warmth, the renewal of life and the return of green, verdant landscaping. Hope feels feasible again, belief is renewed, and joy comes. The anticipation of these things keeps us moving forward through the dryness and darkness.
Our suffering is not in vain. Suffering, not joined to God, is just that: suffering. But every moment of the winter we feel, whether in the true season or in a season within ourselves, has meaning. The purpose may never be known to us during the course of our lives. For my friend, she very likely died not knowing the purpose for her suffering. But we have already witnessed in the short days after her death the incredible power of her story and, as her sister put it, “the missionary she was during the last days of her life.”