Within The Easter Story Lie The Seeds Of All Life’s Experiences
My childhood memories of Holy Week are a kaleidoscope of images and impressions. Like most children, I dyed eggs and watched Peter Cottontail. I craved marshmallow peeps and My Little Pony figures in my Easter basket. I basked in the lengthening days and the way the spring air made the house smell fresh, and the way my body felt active and more alive as the sun warmed the earth. I loved the sparkle and promise of the season. But I was always something of a story-teller, a story-weaver, and the darker undertone soon drew me in as well.
Coming from a practicing Catholic family, I also have early recollections of my first encounters with the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. I had a set of colored plastic eggs, all containing different items pertaining to the Passion: plastic praying hands, a small piece of leather, a small metal crown of thorns, a nail, a small stone, and more. But most memorable of all was the last egg, which was empty inside. The egg set came with a book about a little boy who witnessed Christ’s final week, collecting sorrowful mementos as he went.
Surprisingly, for a sensitive child, I never had difficulty delving into the Passion narratives. But they did haunt me like no other story could. During my homeschooling years, my mother would sometimes allow me to watch something either religious or educational while I ate breakfast. I would almost always pick Fr. Patrick Peyton’s production The Redeemer. It made an indelible impression on me then, and it continues to impress me with all its power and poignancy to the present day. It is a testament to his skill for storytelling and the sheer quality of the story itself.
In truth, looking back, I marvel at how I was able to handle such an intense storyline and raw retelling at such a young age, complete with the scenes involving the stomach-twisting callousness of jeering citizens and cackling soldiers (the sound of the latter which remains burned in my psyche to this day). This is especially a mystery considering how easily I was shaken by other productions. But perhaps being linked to the Passion has always been part of my calling, and I believe the early exposure helped me to see it reflected more often than not in the world around me.
There has always been for me a terribly painful thing about Good Friday, a terribly stark, yet satisfying thing. It is an eerie thing, a strange thing, a feeling as if the veil really has been rent between time and space, and we are standing in the vacuum. As a child, I always felt a mix of dread and yearning. Of course, there was the fasting, the withholding from little pleasures that seem so large when you’re small. But in another way, it was the crux, the pinnacle, the central climax of the story by which all others took their shape, reason, being in my mind. It was a craving to enter into the very heart of the mystery, and yet, through human fragility and the sheer relentless pace of the modern world, always feeling unable to do so completely.
Some years I managed to better than others. In the parish church where I spent so much of my time in my youth, I would wait in the long confession lines, looking up at the crucifix and realizing just how much it must have hurt. Yes, my house was full of crucifixes, for my father was a religious art dealer and restorer. But this one, on a certain Good Friday, hanging above me, seemingly looking down on me through pain-blurred eyes while I said the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, penetrated my heart in a new way, like the bite of a spear through flesh. And I remember having to go to the store afterwards, and standing in the parking lot, looking up at the cloudy sky, felt as if the entire hub of the world had stopped spinning on its axis, and I was all alone with my dying God.
I also remember the gnawing feeling in my stomach during our day-long fast, and finally in the evening, the scent of cooking fish sticks, golden-brown bread-crumbs and tender meat, and being told about the symbol of the fish, bloodless and white, hearkening back to Christ’s own sacrifice of himself, unto the last drop, and the calling of the disciples from their nets on the shores of Galilee. I remember also hearing the stories of persecution from Ancient Rome, and how the sign of the fish was our symbol, our sign, as fishers of men and women. I remember mixing the tartar sauce, the smooth mayonnaise and tangy mustard and sweet relish, and watching some other classic films such as The Robe and Quo Vadis.
I remember my music teacher, stern-faced, single-minded, a mentor I cannot help but look back on fondly, leading Latin schola for Good Friday services, and my knees on the floor that was painted with prisms from the stained-glass windows, turning to each station in the spacious church on the hill, that to me, has often felt like the center of my spiritual psyche. I will always remember the sight of the altar, and the cross, with Mary and John mourning beneath it, and the strange scent of that building, like wood and sesame seeds. I remember the angel statues holding the holy water, outstretched.
I also remember the way I cried there, sometimes, because I was lonely, rejected from the cliques of my peers, and felt God perhaps more keenly for that lack of communal comfort, especially that God all alone, outstretched on the tree. I remember the Passion Plays I took part in at various parishes. Much of the time, the events were clouded by my keen sense of being outside the club membership zone, of children snickering and giggling and sharing their secrets all around me, and doing everything in their power to keep me out.
That all the more prominent roles went to others and that I was always cast as one of the weeping women of Jerusalem seemed somehow appropriate. Later on, I would finally play a role with a name (Veronica) and I would step forward to wipe Christ’s face in the crowd. I decided I very much liked that, being the one to step out of the crowd and do something suitably small, suitably powerful, something not-too-grand but containing the heart of what it means to be Christian. Wiping the blood from battered faces is a call that comes to us all, even the least remembered in history, the least requested in popular circles.
I began to realize that my lack of close contacts was enabling me to value each person I encountered as some uniquely special gift from God, all of whom I was equally bound up with on an interior level. This, I would realize later, might be what centuries of mystics have called being a part of the Body of Christ.
As I grew older, I went to other parishes. I became good friends with the choir director in one of them, and his parish soon became closely associated with the feel of Holy Week for me. It was built in the 1890’s, and the feel of the place bespoke awe and solemnity. And sometimes I cried there too, and pinned my pains to the wood of the cross in small, scribbled notes, most likely over a lost friend or dreams lived out by others instead of me, and an ever deepening sense of being alone, adrift. With the turning away of several dear friends, the death of my grandmother, and even my pet rabbit, I was learning that I took loss more keenly than I ever could have wished.
At times, this morphed into dark nights of the soul. I would look up at a roof, and see a nail hanging out, and think if it fell down and I died, would it not be mere meaningless ceasing to exist of one breathing creature among so many? How was God involved in the happenstance of a falling nail at all? And if He was not involved in that falling nail, how was He involved in anything? At times, such worries became so intense, I found myself enveloped by the horror that every impression of my mind was an illusory accident, and that everything was nothing. I wonder, now, if Jesus ever had these fleeting thoughts when the nails were hammered through him. Did He dread abandonment as much as I did, in all his humanity?
I have always been all or nothing, and the prospect of the latter, true nothingness, terrified me. No one could live without some belief in the fundamental meaning of reality without going mad. So I went to mass one day when the darkness seemed impenetrable, and the reading was based upon the message “be not afraid.” The tears filled my eyes, and I determined to keep walking by faith, if not by sight, that there was a love waiting for me, even across the barren desert of abandonment and death. I firmly determined to be nothing in favor of All.
I began a deeper exploration of universal spirituality, researching the mystical traditions of other religious traditions in addition to my own. Through them, I was able to see the wider web of hope that has been so vital to the human spirit since our inception. I knew that many young people were leaving the faith of their upbringing for other alternatives, but while I did broaden, and deepen my interpretation on certain points, I never felt the urge to leave my Catholic faith or cease being a Christian. Perhaps the main reason for this, in addition to so many factors, was Jesus Christ Himself who kept calling me back to the heart of the Universal Church. For wherever I turned, even in the darkest moments, there I encountered Christ, and Him crucified. In Him, and through Him, I found the meaning of redemptive suffering which unites all suffering souls in solidarity with the cross in an ongoing flood of transformative love.
As strong as my memories of Good Friday of my childhood are, so are my memories of Easter. So many little drabbles are collected. I remember the photos taken outside in the garden, ripe with colorful tulips and daffodils. I remember the trips to the shopping mall where I was allowed to pick out a stuffed animal to add to my collection, and I remember the strange reality of a gourmet chocolate shop, which made dark chocolate crosses for sale. This strikes me as rather perverse now, but perhaps not any more so than the term Good Friday, and the dark, thick, rich, bitter-sweet taste of that chocolate seemed to speak volumes through the senses.
I also remember the Easter Vigil masses, and how dead the church felt upon entering, for the tabernacle was empty and the holy water fonts emptied out. It felt like the funeral of the world. And then the candles would be brought out, lit one by one, and I would be afraid of the burning wax falling on my fingers, but loved to watch it drip down almost majestically onto the paper holder all the same, and feel the heat of the candle on my face. I loved the singing of the powerfully poetic Exsultet, and observing the ceremonies welcoming new members into the Church and renewing Baptismal vows. I basked in the singing of Handel’s Hallelujah, and standing for it as King George II of Great Britain had once done in honor of the King of Kings.
I also remember the Easter Sunday masses, especially at my home parish, and how it seemed the light shined all the brighter from the stained glass windows, and how bright white the lilies looked, so very alive in comparison to the white flesh of fish that marked our Lent, and how white the hosts looked, now returned to the tabernacle, and how as I grew older, I chose to receive it kneeling on such resplendent days as this. I also remember my family and I going out afterwards to celebrate the great renewal of life at an Italian restaurant, with chicken fettuccini and olive salad and lemon crème cake, tapping down into the roots of our heritage, not just ethnically, but also spiritually. For that is the heart of the Appian Way, which St. Peter walked and encountered Christ with his cross, asking “Quo vadis, Domini?” And should we not all ask where the Lord is going, and how we might follow?
And so, over the course of my life, if there is any single story that has shaped the way I measure all others, it is the Easter story. It is a story that is real with fresh-cut emotion and a truly multi-faceted, truly human cast of characters who you cannot merely observe with disinterest, but also are compelled to enter into, for they are already in us and we are in them, for good or ill. It is a story meant to live again in each retelling, and to remind us of things our soul knows, though we might too easily forget. It is meant to unsettle as much as to heal. This is the test of a truly worthwhile story.
Perhaps the popular genres of romance and horror have some root search for a deeper stream running beneath, but rarely strike water. They mean little to nothing if they do not stir us to empathy, compassion, and a movement towards self-giving love, which is at the heart of the entire Christian philosophy of life. They mean little if they do not offer us hope. That is why this story, of this Son of Man, is both the Great Romance and the Great Horror, and in it we are riveted in all our humanity, for it contains the seeds of all our experiences, from the most sublime to the most surreal, and reconciles them at the root of all things.
As a writer, I have dealt in these things often in the stories I craft. Oftentimes, I deal with death, the greatest of mortal fears, and the height of the mystery of self-emptying. For it is always outpouring, down to the last drops of ourselves, until we are but mist. And we, as rain, must trust that we will flow into the sea from whence we came. Too often, dealing with this frightful unknown has led to a macabre relishing in the darkness without any deeper understanding being added. The Passion is not like that, and yet within it every death is contained and crystallized and revealed for what it is. I try to do the same in my stories.
I have been called, in jest by friends, “The Queen of Death Scenes”. But the very kindest compliment one could pay me is that, in some glimpse or glimmer, they see Christ’s very death come through these sub-creations in the most unexpected of ways, that some tragic beauty has pierced through to them and called their mind to the cruciform reality within their own souls that unites them to all others. Some might think it strange to wish Christ to be seen in all characters, the good and the bad alike, but for a Christian, to know Christ is to love Him and to love Him is to see Him in everyone, in everything, and to love all things accordingly, for He is the one through whom all things hold together, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and who is closer to us than our own consciousness.
So when I wish you all the blessings of Easter, all through the year, whether you consider yourself religious or not, it is that I would extend to you the blessings of self-emptying Love and scandalously free grace, for that, I believe, is at the heart of all things unfolding and towards which all things will ultimately flow. The tomb is empty and the light has penetrated even the darkest corners of mortal existence, unto death itself, and turned it in on itself. And we need never succumb to fear again.
May 16, 2018