On The Road

On The Road

“That very day, the first day of the week,
two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred.
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?”
They stopped, looking downcast. . . .”

Luke 24:13-17

Resurrection is not an easy thing.  I should know that by now. 

After all, I’ve faced my share of literal and figurative deaths in the 60 years I’ve spent on this earth.  I’ve grieved the death of my grandmother and father, of friends and mentors.  I’ve had my world turned upside down by the loss of careers and by the no-win decisions I’ve had to make to keep my marriage and family intact.

And each time, in the past, I have found comfort and direction by clinging to my faith that God was with me and would help me through death to new life. 

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

But the past year and a half have been rough.  I’ve dealt with a few too many physical challenges–a fractured sacrum, then a dislocated shoulder, a pulmonary embolism, kidney stones requiring surgery, a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, then recurrent infections, followed by falls that caused knee, back and shoulder problems.  In the midst of all this, we moved twice.  I began to think that I’d never recover completely.

All of the physical challenges wore me down, but the spiritual upheaval took the greatest toll. Although the issue of clergy sexual abuse and the subsequent cover up by Catholic bishops across the world is not new, it became even more real and painful to me starting on the day before Ash Wednesday last year.  That’s when my daughter, only 9 months into her first job as director of music at a Catholic parish in another diocese, called me to tell me that her pastor had just been arrested for third degree criminal sexual conduct. 

As my daughter struggled to deal with the aftermath of this arrest, I tried to support her. But it quickly became obvious that she needed more help than a mother could give, and the diocese was not going to be providing any help at all.  And that fact, coupled with my own past experiences of pain working for the church as well as the ongoing news reports about dioceses and bishops across the country quickly wore me down. 

My own parish held listening sessions in response to all that was in the news, encouraging parishioners to come together and share their feelings about the issue of clergy sexual abuse.  But I could not bring myself to attend. 

Instead, for the first time in my adult life, I seriously began to consider whether I could or should leave the Catholic Church.

It was not a consideration I took lightly.  In the past, when I’ve been challenged by actions of Catholic clergy or even teachings of the institutional church, I was always able to take a broad view to place my own personal challenge in a historical or theological context that gave me hope and breathing space.  I could say, “That priest is human and only one man; he is not The Church” or “The institution is not The Church, and it is made up of human beings who sometimes are slow to listen to the Spirit of God. Just wait. Change takes time. Wait.  All will be well.”

But as Pope Francis called a synod to address the issue on a global scale, and my own parish began to form committees in response to their listening sessions, to propose things that could be done to bring about healthy change, I increasingly lost hope.  In my mind, the only thing that could save the Catholic church would be to entirely transform the priesthood–allowing both married priests and women priests so that a more just and balanced leadership could arise.  And I knew that would never happen. 

So I entered Lent this year with a heavy heart and a feeling that this might be the last Lent I spent as a Catholic.  I’ve been depressed and critical for the past six weeks, reluctantly going to Mass all the while I pondered where I would go next. My daughter left her job at the Catholic parish and took one with a Lutheran church nearby.  She said I could always go with her.  Some other friends suggested I try the Episcopal church where they attend.  I signed up to attend a national conference on preaching with my high school friend who is a Presbyterian minister, figuring that experience might speak to me.

Then the Triduum happened. 

Three days our world was broken
and in an instant healed,
God’s covenant of mercy in mystery revealed.

“Three Days,” by M. D. Ridge

Actually, it wasn’t an instant healing.  I reluctantly went to Mass on Holy Thursday.  I went out of a sense of duty,  in a high degree of physical pain from my most recent back problem, angry at myself for not just staying home.  But as the service progressed, the liturgy tugged at my heart and the music comforted me like a warm blanket on a cold night.  I went home with a lot less anger.

Still, my anger returned on Good Friday.  I had volunteered to sing at the afternoon service, and honestly, I was once again both mad at myself (for volunteering) and at the fact that we had to come a full hour early for practice. But once again, the liturgy spoke to something deep within me, the music nudging me to let go of my resentment.

Still, I hurt, physically and emotionally.  And I decided that I could and should skip the evening Tenebrae service, a service that had always been my favorite.  My husband went alone, and my daughter went to the Lutheran church.  I skipped the Easter Vigil, something I hadn’t done in decades.  And I told myself that I didn’t miss them, that I didn’t care.

Then Easter morning came, too early.  My husband and I had agreed to join the combined choirs for both the 9 and 11 o’clock Masses.  I grumbled all the way to Church.  I needed more sleep and a stronger pain killer.  This was a very bad idea, I said repeatedly.

A view from the choir space a little before Mass began. Photo courtesy of Will Pitts.

And I was wrong.  Sure, I was very tired.  And standing to sing through two services was very hard on my aching back.  But as the church filled to overflowing and the familiar hymns rang out, I began to feel such a comforting sense of being where I needed to be.  And during our pastor’s homily, the healing began.

Fr. Rodger spoke about the need for community and the need to understand the past in order to fully appreciate where we’ve come to–the resurrection. He tied that into the Road to Emmaus story, to how the disciples on the road needed to have Jesus explain things to them.

 At first, I wasn’t really following his comments because he made one small, offhand statement that I fiercely disagreed with.  He mentioned that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, perhaps because he looked different.

“Nope,” I thought.  “You’re wrong. You should have listened to my sermon on this story.” 

Years earlier, as part of a parent-child preparation for First Eucharist, I had thought long and hard about this story and prepared a talk for the children on just that topic.  My talk began this way: 

Have you ever lost something, but you know that it is in your room somewhere?  Or maybe you are trying to help your mom or dad get ready for dinner, and they tell you to look in the refrigerator or the pantry for something—maybe it is ketchup or salt—and you just can’t find it even though your mother or dad insists that it is right there, in front of your face?

          Of course, when you can’t find what you are looking for, how many times does someone else come in and find it right away?  Do you have any ideas why this happens?  My son likes to say that I just know how to look better than he does, but I don’t think that’s the reason.  I don’t think it has to do with what we see.  Instead, I think it has to do with what we are expecting to find.  And lots of times, when we can’t find something we are looking for, we really don’t think we will find it, so we don’t.

After starting to tell the Emmaus story, I mentioned that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus and continued on:

Maybe Jesus looked differently, but we learn later that other disciples recognize his resurrected body, so Jesus must have looked at least a little familiar.  But Cleopas and his wife didn’t recognize Jesus– they certainly weren’t expecting to find him on the road, so they just didn’t look carefully enough. 

As I remembered this, my instant of healing began because I realized that I had been the blind one. All the pain and disappointment of the past few years had turned me into the person who didn’t expect to find any hope, any presence of Jesus in my church.  And so, I hadn’t been seeing any.  But hope and Jesus had been there beside me all along the way.

Finishing that service and the following one wasn’t easy. I had to sit more than stand due to the pain in my back, but I began to see things differently and that was a resurrection I had not expected. Despite all that was and is wrong with the Catholic Church as an institution, God was present as we gathered.  Jesus Christ was risen, still and always, and the joy of our gathering proclaimed a hope that I could lean on.  The pain, the brokenness did not disappear and yet, they were somehow more manageable in community, even in a broken and pained community. 

There will be more to this story.  Resurrection is not an easy thing.  I know that, and I will need regular reminders. After all, Easter is not one day but a season of days, and every year we must go through it all over again:  Lent, Holy Week and Easter. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Though still Christ’s body suffers,
pierced daily by the sword,
yet death has no dominion:
 the risen Christ is Lord!

“Three Days,” by M. D. Ridge

4 thoughts on “On The Road

  1. Nancylee, that was so beautifully written. Thank you…. maybe there is still hope for me through the miracle of the resurrection. It was exactly what I needed to hear today.

  2. Despite the fact that I am not a Christian, I really enjoyed reading this. The writing is delightfully clear, and the spiritual location is very familiar. Thank you, Nancylee, for sharing this.

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