Honoring Pope Benedict’s Legacy, part 4

On one of those bright beautiful cool days that God sometimes gives Southeastern Louisiana in early November, in the year 2004, I played hookey from work at Our Lady of Holy Cross College and went on an adventure day with my 5 year old daughter Margaret and my 3 year old son John.  We left Mommy at our home in Mandeville in bright sunshine and took the Chalmette ferry to Algiers. We visited two buildings catercorner to Our Lady of Holy Cross College.  First we went to the Mary Joseph Residence for the elderly of the Little Sisters of the Poor to visit my maternal grandmother Rita Poché Klein (whose real name is “Maw-Maw”).  Then we went over to the Marianites’ Our Lady of Wisdom Residence for elderly priests and religious to visit my maternal great-uncle (Maw-Maw’s little brother) Msgr. Gerard Poché (whose real name is “Uncle Buddy”). We visited my sister Jen and my mom, then went to the Elmwood Palace Theater and saw the movie The Incredibles, then took the Causeway Bridge home.

As an itinerary it was a very standard day in the life of a young dad.  But it stands second only to my wedding day and the births of my children as the most perfect day in my life.

The ferry ride was magical for the kids, who felt as if they were on a magic steamboat.  They loved on Maw-Maw so much that she couldn’t stop smiling, little John especially sitting still in her lap and hugging her for a good five minutes while they talked.  The same dynamic happened during our visit with Uncle Buddy, who was ailing but with whom my children were gentle, loving, attentive and patient.  Uncle Buddy remained perpetually confused as to why his grandnephew had spent 12 years studying theology but had never become a priest (he once told my Mom “I’m going to put a collar on that boy sooner or later, Melanie!”).  But on this day, freshly loved upon by my kids, he told me he loved me and that he was proud of me.

Leaving his room gave us the surprise of the day.  As we walked an elderly priest passed us on one of those electric scooters that are so commonplace in residences for the elderly.  My son John dropped my hand and went running after him.  The next thing I know the gentle old priest had scooped John up, put him on the back of the scooter and had taken off like a shot out of the front door of the building.  When Margaret and I got outside we could hear John’s squeals of laughter and the priest’s hoots of joy as the two of them zipped around the circular driveway.  John laughed for the entire drive across the Crescent City Connection from which we looked upon the city of my birth.

The Incredibles was icing to all this cake.  Besides being an instant Pixar classic, the story of a family that is different in a way that can help the world, and its struggle to be in the world but not of the world, made perfect sense to Margaret and I.  It gave me a fun yet strong analogy for what it means to be a Catholic family.  As soon as the credits rolled Margaret and I looked at each other and spontaneously said, in unison, “THAT WAS THE BEST MOVIE EVER!”  (Two days later we brought Christine to see it, and to this day it remains our family movie, one we watch at least a few times every year as a family.) I ended the day in the arms of my beautiful wife in the first home we ever owned, a little red Acadian in Mandeville, sharing with her the whole story of a day that was only made perfect when I gave it to her in the re-telling.

The next day, I went back to work.  Three months later, Uncle Buddy was dead.  Eight months later, we made the fateful decision to sell our home in Mandeville and move to a home that would be flooded by Katrina, leaving us homeless for another 11 months.  Nine months later Katrina hit and my Maw-Maw was evacuated to the Little Sisters’ residence in Mobile, never again to return to the city where she had spent all 84 years of her life, where she would die 18 months later.

How to accept all of this death and loss, to move forward in life and to strive to accept EVERY DAY the way I accepted that November day, a day from a story book or a perfect dream, was given to me by Joseph Ratzinger in his book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. There I learned that every day of dying is a step toward life, that the sweetness that passed through me and went away that day is really what we call “eternal life,” and will only be given to me, momentarily in this life and forever in the next, if I live and die with hands open to all God sends.  His explanation of what changed when Jesus descended into death showed me why trying to immortalize perfect days through my own will was actually to alienate myself from them.  In that perfect day eternal life, the only real life, was addressing me, calling me not to try to give it to myself but to offer myself and my suffering to it.  And he quotes a famous atheist to make the point:

Hitherto, life itself had counted as salvation.  Now it is in very truth a death which has become life for us… day-to-day living is for the most part merely a shadow existence, a form of Hades, in which we have only the most occasional inkling of what life truly should be.  ‘All joy wills eternity, wills deep, deep eternity.’ (Nietzsche)  There are some moments that should never pass away.  What is glimpsed in them should never end. That it does end, and even more, that it is only experienced momentarily anyway: this is the real sadness of human existence.

How can we describe that moment in which we experience what life truly is?  It is the moment of love, a moment which is simultaneously the moment of truth when life is discovered for what it is. The desire for immortality does not arise from the fundamentally unsatisfying enclosed existence of the isolated self, but from the experience of love, of communion, of the Thou.

And so it turns out that the confrontation with physical death is actually a confrontation with the basic constitution of human existence.  It places before us a choice: to accept either the pattern of love, or the pattern of power.  The God who personally died in Jesus Christ fulfilled the pattern of love beyond all expectation… The Christian dies into the death of Christ himself.  The uncontrollable Power that everywhere sets limits to life is not a blind law of nature.  IT IS A LOVE WHICH PUTS ITSELF AT OUR DISPOSAL BY DYING FOR US AND WITH US. Man’s enemy, death, that would waylay him to steal his life, is conquered at the point where one meets the thievery of death with the attitude of trusting love, and so transforms the theft into the increase of life.

WELL SAID!  As the series continues, I’ll share more things Benedict XVI has said about love.

By Guest Blogger Dr. Chris Baglow

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