Michael Jackson died today. Farah Fawcett Majors passed, too. Just the other day, Washington, DC Metro driver's train collided with the stationary train in front of it, killing nine people, including the driver. Yesterday, I attended a memorial Mass for Jonathan Harding, a 41-year old colleague from Loyola College in Maryland, who died in his sleep on Friday, June 19, 2009.
A superstar, a 62-year old starlet who endured even after the TV series, an unknown woman known through the public tragedy that claimed her life, a private citizen who'd planned to join a friend on a local bike ride. Four people who have passed in just a few days. I knew personally only one of them, but I have come to know of them all. What does God want us to understand through these deaths, through the deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, the death of the young martyred woman in Iran's unrest? What is God showing us? What am I to take away from all of this?
I remember when my mother died on November 28, 1989. She'd struggled mightily with cancer - the big "C," she'd called it when she telephoned her friends to inform them of her diagnosis - for more than 5 years. Surgeries, treatments, pills, fatigue, weakness, and chemo-singed skin and blackened palms and plantar surfaces on her hands and feet became the physical signatures of the cancer. Finally, it just overwhelmed her. She passed with integrity, though, having squared up with everyone she'd ever had a difference with, and purchasing little Christmas gifts for us because she knew she'd be gone before we'd get the tree up and decorated.
The one lesson I recognized that I was to learn from her death is brought back to me as I reflect on the deaths of these four people. Though I have not integrated the lesson into my deepest consciousness - and have therefore not truly learned it - I believe the lesson is that we must love without attachment and unconditionally. Here's what I mean.
Jesus said we are to love our neighbors. It is easy, he warned us, to love those who love us. Our greater challenge is to love those who do not love us, those we may hate, our enemies. In fact, we are to demonstrate our love for Him by serving selflessly the poor, the imprisoned, the shelterless, the hungry. When we do these good works for the least of them, we do them for Him. We are our brother's keeper, even when we do not know, or would rather not know, our brother.
Though we are to love expecting nothing in return, as humans, we love on condition. We love as if loving required a receipt and had a return policy if we are not happy with the outcome of our acts of kindness. It is the nature of our humanness, our humanity, unfortunately, that we love with conditions, and with deep and abiding attachment. It seems all the World's great religions, and even the lesser known ones, teach that love with attachment is not love at all, but a selfish desire for self-gratification. Love, though, in a divine sense - and we can love in the likeness of that agape love - is not about self-gratification. Love is about the "Third Chair", as we say in spiritual direction circles. Love is about the relationship between you and God and is manifest in your relationship with God's creation.
I believe - and I guess I am trying to work all of this out to understand my own belief, or to watch my belief develop - that God loves creation, and loves each of us uniquely, but does so without the sort of investment that would wrest our freewill from us. God loves us respecting our freewill, wanting the best for us always, and knowing that we might choose to forgo His best and highest desires for us.
My challenge, then, is to love and let go. Love like Jesus taught me - without judgment, without condition, knowing that a promise of at-one-ment is an eternal promise of connection to the Divine.
I know my mother rests in the new life God has for her. I know these four people, ordinary and extraordinary, have new lives awaiting them. They will learn how to be where they are after this life. Perhaps that’s what we should celebrate when we celebrate their lives. Perhaps we should not celebrate the life we have seen them lead thus far, but we should celebrate the life each of them will lead beyond our human limitation. Jesus has promised us that life would be a glorious one!