The “Dark Night of the Soul” in the Light of the Easter Season

imagesEaster 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.
Amen.

 

Happy Easter!

Experiencing God’s Mercy

UnknownWe are more than halfway through the season of Lent. The word “Lent”, derived from Old English, means “spring”. This particular week in March we seem to be experiencing an early spring with 70-degree days and sunshine. The Church calendar sets aside these forty days of the Lenten season to have us prepare for the celebration of Easter. In this particular year, Pope Francis has called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy – “an invitation to love, kindness, and unbounded generosity. Pope Francis is offering [us] the opportunity to encounter the incredible mercy of God. Encountering mercy means encountering God. It can transform [our lives], [our] relationships, [our] work, and [our] ability to embrace and experience all of life.” (dynamiccatholic.com)

How do we experience God’s mercy? Merriam-Webster defines mercy to be “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.” In my elementary school religion classes, mercy was further defined by the Church’s outline of the corporate and spiritual acts of mercy. The corporal acts, responding to the physical needs of others, include: feeding the hungry, shelter the homeless, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead. The spiritual acts include: instructing the ignorant, bearing wrongs patiently, counseling the doubtful, forgiving offenses willingly, admonishing the sinner, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. These concrete acts help to shape merciful decisions and actions in our lives.

As I reflect, some of the corporal and spiritual acts can be very much a part of my everyday experience, while some others might be further removed. I might consider feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as works of mercy that I support indirectly through monetary donations to organizations and causes, yet forgiveness, counsel, and bearing wrongs can be conscious daily efforts with family members, coworkers, and students. Moreover, our individual work calls us to integrate other values that sometimes may seem to be in conflict with being merciful. For example, in upholding rules and procedures to be equitable and fair, a person might be perceived as “merciless.” Conversely, sometimes those in positions of power are perceived to be “weak” or “unfair” if they are thought to be administering “kind or forgiving treatment to someone who could be treated harshly,” as Merriam-Webster defines “mercy.” So does mercy have boundaries?

When we talk about God’s mercy, we describe it as “boundless.” The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent was the parable of the Prodigal Son, the very popular story of two brothers who led very different lives, one obedient to his father and the other squandering his inheritance only to come home to his father, who accepted him back with great joy. It is a most interesting story, when we consider the perspectives and interactions of the father and each of his sons. The father showed mercy on his prodigal son to the upset of his obedient son who was angered and felt slighted. He said to his father, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ (Luke 15:11-32). To me, his father’s response gives critical insight into being merciful. He told his obedient son, “You are here with me always and everything I have is yours.” But that statement was not to the exclusion of what the father was feeling: “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” If we think about it, the father gave each son what he needed and deserved: the obedient son would have everything the father has promised him, and the other son received the love and acceptance he had come to appreciate. It is interesting that the father did not say that the son who returned would have his monetary inheritance reinstated; he did say that to his obedient son: “everything I have is yours.” This might suggest that God’s mercy is not about the equability of things in this life; there are consequences to actions. Rather, God’s mercy is about acceptance, love, caring, and concern. A merciful person helps another “get through” the rough times, like the wayward son who will have to rebuild his life.

As I think about the idea of “mercy,” I think about my parents. Many of us may have experienced parents who sacrificed much for the sake of the rest of the family. My father’s family story is particularly difficult, beginning with his father’s untimely death at age 50, leaving his 40-year-old widow with eight children, ages 13 to 2 years old. Both of my grandparents were Italian immigrants, who spoke broken English. At the death of my grandfather, the social service agency wanted to place my father and his siblings in foster care, since my grandmother had no means of support. Instead, my father, the oldest, and his older sisters down to the third grade, left school to work in the mills on the Brandywine River. My grandmother began taking in laundry, and eventually was able to open a corner grocery store in the late 1920s. As a result of the challenges of the family early in life, my father and siblings remained close, with my father serving as the patriarch. My mother had to “share” my father with the extended family when they married in 1938. There were many stressful moments when my father’s attentions were given to the extended family at the expense of my mother and brothers. But through all of the difficult moments, I believe it was mercy that provided the glue that kept the family together and happy. It was a mercy that did not expect perfection or always the right decisions, but rolled with the mistakes and misunderstandings. Like the father in the parable, mercy, love, and forgiveness could always be found in our parents’ home, but, as children, we were always told to accept the consequences of our actions.

Our students have access to so many virtual communities through social media outlets today. They can find on-line communities that can validate a variety of values and perspectives, to the point that relativism becomes a way to rationalize behavior that is counter to Catholic Christian perspective – a perspective that celebrates the suffering servant, the merciful father, and the dignity of the marginalized and the outcast. I am so impressed and encouraged by our students, many whom I believe perform the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy each day – the way they interact with one another and their teachers; their concern for the marginalized and disadvantaged through the many outreach and community service efforts, and the intellectual sophistication that they posses to be sensitive to and internalize empathetic feelings for another.

Easter patterns the rites of spring – new birth – the fulfillment of God’s promise to humanity of eternal life through His Son. It is this ultimate sacrifice of God’s Son, that is an expression of God’s mercy and love for us. I pray that all of the members of our Archmere Academy community may know that liberation of God’s mercy, and that, whatever religions or pathways to the Creator individuals’ may choose, they may know that they always have a place in the “household,” just as in the story of the Prodigal Son, just as in the story of my family, just as in the community that is Archmere.

God’s Blessings on You and Your Family this Lent and Easter,

Michael A. Marinelli, ’76 Ed.D.

Headmaster

Traditions Change But The Story Stays The Same

Three_Crosses_on_Kreuzberg_Mountain_Bavaria_Germany_1152x864

Last evening, I met with our Pastor to review the plans for the liturgies of Holy Week in our parish. This marks my 21st year planning Holy Week services at my current parish, and my 41st year participating as a liturgical musician. I reflected on that stretch of more than 40 years and though about what things had changed and what had remained the same.

For the most part, the order of the services has remained the same. While there have been adjustments to the language of the prayers and responses, as well as interpretation of some of the rituals that alter the environment slightly, for the most part, the services of Holy Week continue to tell the fantastic story of Jesus’ triumphal arrival in Jerusalem, His Last Supper with His closest followers and friends (the apostles), His betrayal, passion, death, and finally resurrection. The drama of these events captured so beautifully in recited prayers and music remains as profound and richly meaningful as ever. In fact, perhaps with age (my age!) the story becomes even more meaningful.

What has changed is the number of people attending these services from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. I have noticed in the 21 years that I have been at my parish that the number of people who attend Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services is getting smaller and smaller. It seems that other obligations are crowding out Holy Week. Many institutions, for example, do no close for Good Friday, as once was the custom for most. And spring vacation plans seem to be on the rise for many families, who use time off from school or work to travel as a family – a very important time to be together and take a break from the fast-paced daily routines that often do not give family members a lot of time together.

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If you were raised in a household with strong ethnic traditions, as I was, Lent, Holy Week and Easter seasons were punctuated with signature foods and dishes that had special meaning – from the fish served on the Fridays of Lent and the special delicacies made for Saint Joseph’s Day, which often falls during Lent, to the Easter breads, pies, and dishes of fresh greens and meats to celebrate the holiday. Food preparation rituals during Holy Week had a specific timetable, so that dishes could be prepared in various stages in between Holy Thursday Mass, Good Friday services, and the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. I can remember my mother baking the last loaves of Easter bread in the oven in silence from noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday before leaving for Church.

For me, growing up in this Church and home environment during these holy seasons was special. It seemed as though time slowed down. The daily routines were interrupted and replaced with sensory rituals that engaged your emotions.

Will these experiences be lost to more and more people over the years? And if so, will they be replaced with anything as meaningful and powerful?

Or am I too presumptuous to think that everyone finds the Church’s celebrations and, in particular, my family traditions to be so meaningful?

I recognize that people of different faiths and personal beliefs have various ways to be in touch with the spiritual and the divine. And I am sure that Holy Week is not the only time one can be hyper-focused on his or her faith and beliefs. It just happens to be a very special time of year for me. So perhaps I should be less concerned about the size of the congregation at religious services, and more focused on the words found in the Gospel of Matthew:

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
(Matt. 18:20)

Wishing you and your families a Blessed and Happy Easter!