Easter arrived early this year. As I write this, forecasts of lower temperatures in the next few days remind us that spring may be delayed a little, even though we are counting the days of April. During this festive season in the Church, we still celebrate Easter for 50 days.
Students and teachers have returned from, what I hope has been, a relaxing and enjoyable Easter vacation. Some of our students traveled to Spain over the break, and we are hosting students and their teachers from France who arrived on April 2.
My wife and I traveled to Ireland as part of a musical pilgrimage in our parish of Saint Joseph on the Brandywine, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year (1841-2016). The parish was founded principally by the Irish Powdermen and their families who worked and lived along the Brandywine River in Wilmington, working for the DuPont Company, which, at that time, was producing gunpowder and explosives at Hagley Mills, just a short distance from the Church. The families of the parish used to pay “pew rents” each month and funds were deducted from the pay of the DuPont employees to underwrite the construction and maintenance of the Church.
The trip to Ireland was very special, in that we learned much about Irish heritage and history in this centennial year of the Easter Rising of 1916 that resulted in 1921 with the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. The resiliency of the Irish people is remarkable, similar to many other cultures that been under foreign rule and, with great faith, have maintained their traditions and beliefs that were often in opposition to the ruling powers.
It was this story of Ireland and of the determination and faith of Irish people juxtaposed against the Resurrection story of the Easter season that offered me reflection. In the midst of celebration, we recall those times that were not so celebratory, that make the celebratory moments even more special. I often wonder if the children of our current generation know of the depth of hardship of former generations. I would suggest that they do not know the same hardships, but I would argue that they are dealing with different, and perhaps, equally difficult challenges.
Packing for a trip can be an anxious chore. My wife and I were determined to be “efficient” and only pack what we thought we would truly need. When it came to reading material for the plane and “down time”, one of the books I pulled off my shelf was The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A. Kempis. It is one of those books for me that I like to reference or re-read every so often, because I can always take away a different message each time I read it.
I focused on one passage in which he wrote, “I have never come upon anyone, however religious and devout, who has not sometimes experienced a withdraw of grace, felt a cooling-off of his fervor.” Saint John of the Cross references this noche escura, or “dark night” of the soul experience as necessary for us to move forward on our life’s journey to knowing God fully revealed. In other words, suffering, separation, disappointment, and failure are all a part of life’s journey that helps us become stronger in our faith.
Nothing could be more exemplary of this journey than many of the lives of the Irish families who lived in the Emerald Isle over the centuries. They persevered invasions, famines, and other challenges to their faith. Many arrived in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries to find a better life. Those who left Ireland did so with strong determination and conviction, and those who remained did so with the same fortitude.
Over the Easter holiday break, many of our seniors received college decisions on April 1. Teachers were calculating third quarter grades for our students. Spring sports practices and game schedules were rolling along, as well. So while we were vacationing, tensions about academic decisions were, perhaps, mounting, and there may have been disappointments and surprises for our students. And while, thankfully, they may not have to deal with famine or religious freedom as did the Irish families of years past, our students do have to manage the mental pressures of academic performance. All of our students are concerned about their grades and GPA’s, along with other athletic, social, and emotional pressures they have to manage in this fast-paced, highly technology-connected society. When disappointments arise, the best we can offer our students is to put the disappointment in context, relative to the tremendous blessings our students have been given. This mental exercise, I believe, is the only way that the saints of the past and all others who faced hardships and overcame them managed through the “dark night.”
When the dark night comes to each of us, we need to have enough reserve in us to keep the faith. And if we do not have that reserve, I pray that each of us has someone who can carry us through the rough moments. I hope that Archmere can always be considered a place where people can come to be supported through these moments in their lives. It is precisely at these moments that our mission is truly lived, and we as a community become a brighter “light in the darkness.” We fulfill the Easter promise, imaged in the new fire and the lighted Paschal Candle of the Easter Vigil, as the final verses of The Exsultet, The Proclamation of Easter, is sung:
Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.