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Friday, November 15, 2013

Only the young die good

On occasion, we've all had one of those funerals, like that of a high school student who dies tragically and suddenly. At one such service a while back, our church, which seats about 1300 people, was about 90% full. Big family, lots and lots of friends from the two high schools the young man had attended. When everyone is in such an emotional tailspin from the impact of such a loss, I tend to brace for all the worst in funeral practices, but none of that happened. Well, maybe the (almost) understandable reaction that, if the ministers and rememberers just say enough words, or the right words, which always seem to elude us, the dead will come back to us, or the tragedy will be imbued with meaning and light. So words get multiplied, really, at a time when silence before the profound mystery of death and resurrection, really, the paschal mystery, the mystery of God, would be the wiser, more pastoral choice. We can’t help it I guess. We like the world we have, we’re comfortable with it, and a body blow like this takes our breath away, then leaves us chattering away searching for some meaning.

No need to go into details about the boy’s death. There is so much we don’t know that to say anything would be conjecture. He was angry, there may have been drugs involved somehow, and in an instant he was dead at 16, all that promise, laughter, and hope snuffed out in the blink of an eye. And the story is repeated all too often. I'm sure you're already relating it to one in your own circle.

All I wanted to say about this is that, when you stop to think about your own life, and I stop to think about mine, why are we here, and this child is gone? Ever get so blindingly angry so that you went out and acted in ways you regretted later, but lived to tell about it? Ever experiment with drugs, and then leave them in the past, without leaving a wake of devastation behind you? Ever drink too much and drive home, too far, and somehow make it into your bed without damaging life or property, your own or someone else’s? Ever broken the law to take a stupid risk that could have ruined lives, but someone came out on the other side unscathed? Being in the church biz, I’ve seen stuff like this happen way too often, kids dying doing some of the very things that people I know, and I myself, have done, but here we are, and they did not survive the day. What are we to make of this?

Excess is one of the things youth is made of. The wild chemistry of hormones, the illusion of immortality, the brinksmanship of anarchy while parental and societal limits are tested and come to terms with, the elation of love and the debilitating darkness of despair, and the covenant bonds of friendships forged in experiencing those realities with other persons, these years are a rollercoaster ride whose lessons are the momentum carries us into adulthood. Most of us, while dancing on the edge of the chasm, find our way together back to the village. Is it caution, or cowardice, or a benevolent God, or just luck that enables the survival of the many?

If it is a benevolent God who keeps us safe, it is also a benevolent God who catches those who fall into the chasm, and that’s where the difficulty lies for me. But I can’t see beyond the edge of that void. I just know that, over and over, I don’t deserve to be here any more than this child or any of the dozens of other kids I’ve known who were taken too soon, leaving gaping wounds of grief in the lives of parents, siblings, and friends.

When something like this happens, I’m inevitably taken back to the autumn after I graduated from high school. I was on novitiate on a mountaintop in Santa Barbara. About a hundred guys my age from four different “minor” seminaries, seminary high schools, came together for a year of prayer and discernment before continuing on to college seminary. Our home was on a mountaintop at the end of the winding Las Canoas road. One or two days a week we split up to do different kinds of work in the surrounding area, to teach religion (CCD) to children, help out at nursing homes and hospitals, and work in a thrift store. One September afternoon, on the way back from the thrift store, a van carrying four of us lost control and hit a tree, and two of the guys in the van were killed. Two out of a hundred. One was Jerry Volak, a Van Nuys kid with whom I’d gone to high school (again, the total enrollment being about a hundred guys) for four years. The other was Tom Cormack, whom I’d just met a month or so before, from the seminary in Lemont, Illinois. Tom was a good looking kid who had an older brother, Jim, in the major seminary, and Jim went on to be Vincentian priest. I wouldn’t have known Tom well except that everything in the seminary went in vocational order, that is, by years in the seminary and then alphabetically. Since we were all the same in seniority just out of high school, we lived in alphabetical order, and “Cooney” and “Cormack” were back to back, so we sat next to each other in chapel, at table, and in everything else that defaulted to that order. Now, there was just an empty place there. Guys I had known for years pretty much cried for a week. I’d never experienced anything like this wholesale grief, the place adrift in loss. After all these years, almost forty, I still dream about Jerry and Tom once in a while, and they still are just as I remember them.

All of that is just to say that I feel a connection with these kids, and as hard as it was for me, who had spent my life to that point steeped in the rituals of a faith that ardently defended a loving God and life after death, it must be exponentially more difficult for kids today, surrounded by a much more nihilistic culture, to make peace with a tragedy of these dimensions. I’m glad to be a part of a faith tradition that can weep and yet approach the grave with one who has both called forth from it and been called forth from it. I think that we who believe in a God whose eternal and creative life is self-emptying, or, as far as we know it, death, have a strength in which we can stand, however silently, with others, before this great mystery.

A couple of hundred years BCE, when Israel’s sages and poets were trying to make sense out of the loss of life among the best and brightest of Israel when the Seleucid empire was ruthlessly devastating the nation, the words of the Book of Wisdom were written that were read at this young man's funeral. It struck me, to twist the aphorism that Billy Joel made unforgettable in his song, that it has been ever so, that “only the young die good”:
But the just man, though he die early, shall be at rest. 

For the age that is honorable comes 

not with the passing of time, 

nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, 

understanding is the hoary crown for men, 

and an unsullied life, the attainment of old age. 

He who pleased God was loved; 

he who lived among sinners was transported--snatched away, 

lest wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul; 

for the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right 

and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind. 

Having become perfect in a short while, 

he reached the fullness of a long career; 

for his soul was pleasing to the LORD, 

therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.

But the people saw and did not understand, 

nor did they take this into account.