My mother’s death happened so quickly and was so unexpected that I had difficulty coming to terms with it at the time. Everything seemed so unreal. I just didn’t feel anything. Jobs had to be done and I had to do them. Someone had died and I had to make all the practical arrangements. My relatives and friends were there but they didn’t support me, I organised them. I heard them say all the things you expect them to say, and I said all the things I was expected to say. It was as if I was acting a part, and I was conscious of it – but what else could I do?
When I got back home and returned to work I carried on as if nothing had happened. The workload had built up during my absence and it took me months to catch up. The sudden cancellation of a major conference gave me two weeks off. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it gave me the space and time I needed to come to terms with my mother’s death. It took me a week to slow down. In the second week I read and re-read a pile of letters that my mother had sent me over the preceding years. The past came flooding back – all she’d done for me, been to me, all the sacrifices she made for me. Suddenly something that had been hard within me softened and the feelings and emotions that had been securely locked away welled up and overwhelmed me. Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I not only came to terms with her death but I celebrated her life, and her continuing life and love that I knew would always be with me.
On the following Good Friday when I was dutifully listening to the reading of the passion, something inside me said: “you’ve come to terms with your mother’s death, but have you come to terms with Christ’s death?” In a flash I saw how cerebral my faith had become. Here I was, reacting to Christ’s death as coldly as I had reacted to my mother’s death the year before. Once again there was the same feeling off unreality, as if I was play-acting, as if I was detached from something or from Someone with whom I should be deeply involved.
Some truths are just too big, too awful or to awesome for the mind and the emotions to cope with; they just don’t react to them. That’s one of the reasons why so many people never get beyond first beginnings with their prayer life. They can manage with the prayers they were taught as children, they can even make up their own, especially when they want something from God, but they can’t get any further. They might believe every article in the creed, but it doesn’t really touch them deeply. God is far away in his heaven and the gospel two thousand years away.
Two things are necessary for prayer to grow beyond the stage of set formulas and petitions, to the stage when it becomes a personal encounter with the most lovable man ever to walk on this earth. The first thing is to find some space and time in which to stop being ‘busy about many things’ so that there can be time to come to terms with Christ’s death, and to celebrate his life and love, and his continuing life and love.
The second thing needed is to read and re-read every word that has been written about him in the Gospel’s and to read everything that he said, because what he said is addressed to us personally, just as every word in my mother’s letters was addressed to me personally. These sacred words are precious, so they should be read slowly and carefully, as you would pore over poetry to penetrate its meaning and experience its impact. Gradually in time and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the faith that once seemed solely cerebral will deepen, as hearts and minds that were like stone before, soften and become porous to receive and experience the love of Christ ever more deeply.
When this happens, the feelings and the emotions react as the whole personality begins to respond in a perfectly human way to the most perfect human being of all. Prayer begins to grow, to develop and deepen, as in any other loving relationship. It expresses itself in the language of love as it responds to the One who now seems to rise out of the sacred texts, out of history, and to enter into the heart and mind of the person who has persevered in prayer beyond first beginnings. As love grows and deepens into union, words finally fade away as they give way to a profound and pregnant silence. Meditation gives way to contemplation – the still, silent and loving gaze upon the one whose life we now experience within us, because we have finally come to terms not only with his death, but with his Resurrection.
If those who love us remain with us through their enduring love, even after their death, how much more does Christ’s love remain with us? He not only lived and died for us but rose from the dead precisely to be with us and enter into us with a love more potent and more powerful than the combined love of all humanity concentrated into a single act. In this supreme act, human and divine love is as one. Only we can keep resisting this sublime love. For although all other forms of energy can prove irresistible, love no matter how powerful can always be resisted, by a human heart that refuses to receive it.