Inching our way toward heaven

Rev. Patrick Hannon, C.S.C.Last Sunday afternoon, while I was reading quietly at a crowded Starbucks, apropos to nothing I could readily discern, a little boy, perhaps two years old, began to cry inconsolably. Loud, guttural sobs. Instant tears. His young father scooped him up, carefully, and carried him outside. The boy was to me at that moment the face of suffering. I suppose if someone had placed an ice cream cone in front of him that might have diverted his attention, got him to settle down, but I doubt it. I’ll never know what prompted his outburst. My bet is his father told him he couldn’t have that amazingly delicious devil’s food donut that’s appeared recently in the display case. But it doesn’t really matter. Truth was, the boy’s life, as he knew it at least, at that moment, had fallen apart. Somewhere in his developing prefrontal cortex, alarm bells were going off. Whatever had befallen him made no sense whatsoever, given what he knew about life. He was a bat, or a whale, whose echolocation radar had fizzled out and he was flying (or swimming) now with no sense of direction. He looked and sounded utterly lost. I watched the boy as long as I could; his head nuzzled his father’s neck as he wept and wept. The father walked slowly down the street, caressing the boy’s head, until they disappeared around the corner.

My default reaction to crying babies and childrenon airplanes especiallyis generally impatient. When they let loose, I say to myself with a discernable, heavy sigh, For the love of God, will whoever has custody of that [baby, toddler, bratchoose one] be so kind as to. I usually stop myself at this point and look for another adult with whom I can exchange an exasperated rolling of the eyes. And then I go back to my comfortable, adult world, where no grownup sobs in public spaces. This time, though, I reacted differently. I ached for that boy.

I suppose it’s because suffering’s been on my mind lately. (Full disclosure: I’m mostly of Irish descent, and though I’d like to dismiss the notion that the Irish are happily predisposed to the melancholic heart as a crude stereotype, I can’t. It’s true.) I’m not suffering much myself this week, or at least suffering unduly. Any pain I’m enduring presently, I can trace back to something boneheaded I’ve thought or done or not done. So I’m doing fine as I write this.

But last week was a different story altogether. What was it Paul Tillich said about grace? “Grace,” he said, “strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.” Yep, for some reason (who knows what triggered it? I/We are such complicated creatures!), most of last week I was lost in that familiar dark jungle. And then, inexplicably, I saw a small opening of light one late afternoonwas it a distant, generous laugh, the scent of jasmine, a stranger’s smile, the Dairy Queen Oreo Cookie Blizzard I feasted on? Who knows?and I ran toward it. That’s how grace works, it seems to me. Everything is going to be okay, I said to myself that night. And it sounded like an ancient promise that I was echoing. It felt like a prayer of gratitude to God who goes wherever we go, no matter how dark or dire that place might be.

Perhaps the boy’s wailing touched me because it seems as if half the world is crying inconsolably these days. Throw a dart at a world map and you’ll probably hit a city, town, or village where a lot of people are waking up to all sorts of trouble that make no sense to them, who, with what can only be described as whatever it is that comes when you mix courage and hope together, get up and go back into an often unaccommodating world, where, incomprehensibly, children die of cancer, bombs explode on buses, spouses cheat on each other, planes fall out of the sky, etc., etc., etc. Times like these, I’m reminded of what Kafka once wrote, about being full of endless astonishment when he saw a group of people cheerfully assembled. It seemed to him, given the suffering he saw in the world, and in his own life, we should all be that boy I saw at Starbucks. And yet.

We don’t give up. Or very rarely do we succumb to despair. I find this hopeful. And I suspect this holy impulse to face our own personal suffering or the suffering of others with a stiff-jawed defiance is what drew me to the Congregation of Holy Cross over 25 years ago, this band of men who, as our Constitutions put it “do not grieve as men without hope, for the Lord has risen to die no more.” Perhaps our greatest gift to the world these days, as we seek to witness to the power of the Gospel is this: we don’t invite or welcome suffering, but we do not run from it either. Because at that intersection of our suffering and the suffering of others and of the worldon that cross of sacrifice and hopewe do not encounter more suffering, but rather its healing antidote: compassion and mercy. The wood of the cross, we believe, has power greater than the greatest sin.

I suspect the boy whose world came crashing down last Sunday at Starbucks recovered. I bet soon after he got home, his tears abated because his father comforted him all the way home with the same words said with a soothing voice, “Shhhhh,” he must have heard his father say to him. “Everything’s going to be okay; everything’s going to be okay.” And the boy rejoined the hopeful throng inching its way toward heaven because he believed what his father said was true.

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