18 June 2006

"I saw a saint at sunset"

Peggy Noonan's meditative and evocative remembrance of an audience at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II:

John Paul was rolled slowly onto the stage. He was seated in a brown wooden chair that rested within a kind of wooden rig on little wheels. It was like a wheel-throne; it was like the kind of big wooden roller they use to get something off the top shelf at Home Depot. It looked both practical and absurd.

Everyone applauded, and as I clapped, I looked around me and saw faces set in a determinedly pleasant look, as if they were thinking, I am so happy to see you, but the sight of you is breaking my heart.

He was dressed all in white, bent forward in his chair. White surplice, white zucchetto -- the skullcap popes wear -- white gold-fringed sash. As the wheel-throne reached the center of the stage the pope was surrounded by a scrum of aides and cardinals. They helped him to his feet, helped transfer him to a white upholstered high-backed chair. Then they turned it toward us.

He looked out at us. We looked back at him. His face was -- oh, his face!

* * *

And yet as I watched him, I realized I did not see him as ill and frail. I saw him as encased -- trapped in there, in an outer immobility. Outside he is old and frail, but inside he is John Paul, the one who had walked out on the Vatican balcony and dazzled the crowd twenty-four years before. And for the first time I thought: He is a victim soul. His suffering has meaning, it is telling us something. He is giving us something, a parting gift.

He sang to us a little at the end, like an old man sitting in the sun. Most of us couldn’t tell the words or the tune, but he was doing it for us, and there was something so beautiful and moving in it. I turned to a friend. “We are hearing a saint singing,” I said. I wanted to put my hands over my ears so I could hold the sound in my head forever.

* * *

When I returned from Rome, I talked to the writer Michael Novak about the meaning of the suffering of the pope. He spoke of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who believed her suffering could be given by her, could be almost lifted out of her, to help others. She would take her moments of pain or sadness and offer them to God, believing they could in this way become united with His great love, united, that is, with an infinitely powerful force. She would ask that her suffering be used to help the missionaries of the world, that her pain be used to make their day sweeter, their efforts more fruitful. She knew, Michael said, what Dostoyevsky knew: There’s a kind of web around the world, an electric web in which we’re all united, all connected in suffering and in love. When you add to it what you have, you add to the circuitry of love.

Thérèse was a Carmelite, and Michael spoke of the papal biographer George Weigel’s observation that John Paul II had a Carmelite soul, a soul at home with the tradition of everyday mysticism. That tradition is informed by a conviction that all is connected, all is part of a wholeness.

The pope’s suffering tells us, Michael said, that it is important in an age like ours to look beyond the surficial. We honor and adore surface things -- beauty, youth, grace, vigor. And it’s understandable: They’re beautiful. But the pope reminds us it is crucial to see the beauty in the old, the infirm, the imperfect. They have a place in life, a purpose, a deep legitimacy and due. John Paul not only said this, of course, he also lived it. He showed us this truth by presenting himself to the world each day as he was.

Found at Women for Faith and Family in the online edition of Voices Vol. XXI, No. 1. Read the whole thing).

When I was young, I was terrified of being around human death. After my mother's long illness, and watching her die, I understood. Death is fearsome only to those who don't know that life is more than what makes our hearts beat and the thoughts tumble inside our busy minds.

Death cannot be put off. It cannot be appeased, asked for a reprieve, negotiated with, or explained away. It is inexorable, and it is required. It is the greatest tool we have in the arsenal provided us to beat back evil.

When the father of lies threatens your peace with sinister suggestions of want and woe, pain and loss, starvation, humiliation, or abandonment, show him the cross. Lift up before him the sign and cause of our faith: the Suffering Servant stretched on his gibbet, head hanging, body limp, blood dried except where it leaks from his wounded heart. Fill your eyes and heart and mind and thought with the enormity of that gift and let gratitude and a healthy, holy shame wash over you that you ever doubted he would leave you alone and friendless, after all he did for you.

In your absorption, you will not notice that the cowardly liar has slunk away. He cannot give you anything you do not already have. He cannot love you. He can only pretend at love, offering stinking, empty shells where there were once pearls.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his own dear son to be the sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

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