Tenebrae and The Funeral of Jesus

Dear Family and Friends,

I remember when I was a child, I often heard my grandmother say, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

After 39 years of priesthood, and 30 of these years as a priest and physician in Haiti, I am afraid I have seen plenty of people considerably and permanently wrecked by “what didn’t kill them.”

There seems to be a lot about life that contradicts wise proverbs, whether they come from grandmothers or from King Solomon.

The time of my mother’s death was a time I thought would surely kill me.  It’s not that she didn’t have a long and good life. She surely did. And the cancer that took her life was rather merciful to her until the last few weeks of her life. But her last agony coincided with the unbelievable earthquake in Haiti that killed hundreds of thousands of people. She sent me from her deathbed back to Haiti the very same night. It was both my absence from her agony and my presence in a catastrophic agony that acquainted me with a depth of sorrow that I have never known before or since.

I hesitate to write about this, because I don’t mean to write about me. I write about what life is for all of us.  I write about my experiences, because yours make them understandable.

At my mother’s funeral, my brother Steve read a beautiful image of death as a boat sailing out of sight, into the horizon.   Everyone on the shore is sadly looking on, and in mourning, saying “there she goes.”

But on the other shore, at sunrise, a whole other joyful crowd is saying “here she comes!” as the long awaited boat and it’s precious cargo grow closer.

The image of boat is an enlightened image of what life and death are like.

 The boat is also an image of the very real way we make our way toward heaven, through this life. We cross a powerful sea of enormous losses and gains, in a pitifully small vessel.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

For those of us who believe in Jesus, this is profoundly true. But it DID kill him.

This is the point of the Christian message. During any kind of dying, when the right things die, something more powerful is born.

It’s not always the case. At least not immediately.

Some weeks ago, I wrote to you about Sanon. He is a very poor teenager, who saved and saved his money to be able to return to school, and was robbed by bandits and stabbed in the back. Now it seems a cement block was also thrown against his lower back.

Paralyzed from the waist down from the tragedy, he has been thankfully regaining feeling and movement in his legs and feet.

As time has passed, however, much about his language and behavior in our hospital has shown, without a doubt, that his injury does not represent the suffering of the innocent. Nor is his story the full story.

He is a boat whose captain heads for the hurricanes. He courts darkness, attracted to it like a moth to a candle.

Will this wrestling match he had with tragedy teach him to chart a course of light, guided by the north star? By God given values? Will he learn the essential lessons darkness teaches, as did Jacob after wrestling with the angel?

On the other hand, there is the story of Preservil. He is 24.

He did not court his darkness.

It’s the kind of darkness that comes without a warning.

He was brought to us three weeks ago by the Missionaries of Charity in Les Cayes. His whole left face is terrible disfigured by a tumor. For sure, expert medical opinion here is that he is terminal, with no possible hope.

Preservil looked at me patiently as I explained all this to him. He asked me not to send him back to Les Cayes to die.

Could I give him a job, until he dies? Any job?

When he could work, he was supporting his elderly mother, and would so wish to support her until the end.

What in an incredible request. And since I was feeling powerless before his fate, suddenly I had power. This was something I could easily do.

Yes, Preservil, with warm welcome come and work with us - on our farm, light duty, lighter every day as necessary.

You will have a reason to get up every morning, a way to be productive, to help your mom, and to find friends in the community - the support of friendship.

Yes, thank God for these things, but still it’s a rough road.

I had a biopsy of his tumor taken, and sent it for pathology to a friend in Connecticut, where I am from.

I got this message back from my friend,

“Dear Fr. Rick-Not that I didn’t already know you are living right! But this is a benign lesion. A dentinogenic ghost cell tumor. It can be resected without recurrence.“

Though his small boat almost flipped and sunk at 24, Preservil now has his whole life ahead of him. Yet his darkness wasn’t fully dark, even before this good news. 

On Good Friday, Christians are encouraged to look at and meditate on (let It really sink in) the dread darkness and suffering that was an essential experience of Jesus. We are asked to internalize the unthinkable – the suffering and death of God.

The meditation is meant to be instructive. We are asked (in fact, “Maundied” or commanded) not to run away from the darkness, not in ourselves, not in the lives of others.

Just as stars are born in the powerful darkness of empty, bottomless holes in space, the persistent revelation of Good Friday is that darkness and suffering are the womb where souls are born. Where heroism and greatness come from, as do incredible strength and longsuffering, and relentless vision.

Yes, our elders knew what they were talking about. Darkness, met with faith, hope and love, can becomes the furnace that brings the embryonic soul to its golden greatness.

Respectful of the teachings and celebrations of the world’s many religions, let us pause on Good Friday to meditate on the Christian revelation about Tenebrae, the mystery of darkness and suffering in life. Let us pray very intentionally today for people everywhere who are in it’s throws.

Thank you for your ongoing support of our mission, carried out in these depths of conviction and faith.

Happy Easter and many blessings from our gracious God.

Fr Richard Frechette CP DO

Port au Prince, Haiti

March 30, 2018

Gustave Doré,  Jacob Wrestling with the Angel  (1855)

Gustave Doré, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)