When the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops released its preparatory document for the Synod for a Synodal Church in September, one of the items highlighted was a statement that “dialogue between Christians of different confessions, united by one Baptism, has a special place in the synodal journey.” (30 Preparatory Document, Synod For a Synodal Church). When I heard about this last month, I found the timing quite interesting, as I had just begun corresponding with an Anglican theologian, seeking some of his insights about the importance of hope, a topic I had heard him preach about during a particularly difficult time in my life.
In the fall of 2011, I was in a pretty desolate place, both emotionally and spiritually. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. In the summer of 2011, my wife and I were looking forward to the birth of our second child. At the same time, my mom was preparing for a knee replacement surgery that held the potential of greatly improving her mobility after years of having it slip away. In July, our beautiful daughter was born. A week later, my mom went in for her knee surgery. I called the hospital and spoke with her that afternoon after she got out of recovery. It sounded like the surgery had been a success. Then, suddenly, everything went horribly wrong. That evening, I got an urgent call from my dad. “You need to come to the hospital right away”, he said, “your mom just had a massive heart attack.” Her medical team had been able to revive her, but she was on a ventilator and heavily sedated.
So it was, that what should have been one of the happiest moments of my life, instead became one of the most difficult times I have experienced. I desperately wanted to be present for my wife (who was recovering from a c-section, and at the same time caring for our newborn daughter, who cried so much that it seemed she hated the world she had been born into with a passion, and our three-year-old son, who suddenly had to share the attention and affection of his parents with his new sister). At the same time, I was trying to spend as much time as I could with my dad at my mom’s hospital bedside. In August 2011, just two and a half weeks after her surgery and heart attack, my mom lost her fight for survival and passed away. I walked in the door of our apartment and my wife (who had been an absolute saint throughout the whole ordeal, telling me to spend as much time as possible with my dad at the hospital), silently handed my daughter to me. The look on her face said it all. “We need you now. I need my husband, and your children need their father.” Sadly, in that moment, I did not want to be a husband, I didn’t want to be a father. I just wanted to dig myself a big hole and bury myself inside it.
By November 2011, things were not much better. My wife had gone back to work. My son had started pre-school two to three days a week. He hated it. I think all the change of having a new sister, losing his grandmother, and then starting pre-school was a bit much for him, so he began acting out more than normal. My daughter was incredibly crabby (due, we later learned, to an intolerance she had to the formula she was on), and sleeping was definitely not on her list of favorite things to do. I was the stay-at-home parent, I felt stuck, and I was reaching a breaking point. One weekend, my wife offered to go with me to the cemetery to visit my mom’s grave, but then forgot. When Saturday morning arrived, she began to go over her to-do list with me, and the cemetery visit wasn’t on it, I exploded in anger, telling her that I supposed she cared more about shopping than she did about me. It blew up into a big fight, with her, quite justifiably, getting angry with me for assuming the worst of her.
After cooling down and asking my wife’s forgiveness for losing my temper, and for the hurtful things I had said to her, I began to reflect on why I was so angry. I realized that with life moving at the frenzied pace it had been going, I hadn’t had the time or space to even begin to process the sudden loss of my mom and to grieve. I decided that the only way I would be able to do this was to get away from the craziness of my life for a few days. But where to go? Then I remembered that one of the motivations for my mom to have her surgery was that it offered her the possibility of being able to travel again. My mom had been a lifelong Anglophile and had always wanted to go to London, but never had the opportunity. She had been hoping to go there after her post-surgery rehabilitation. So, I talked to my wife and told her I wanted to take the trip my mom didn’t get to do, so I could do it in her memory. To my surprise, she said yes, and four weeks later, I was on a plane from Denver to London for a three day whirlwind trip.
It was a short trip, but full of meaningful moments as I went to various sites that my mom would have wanted to see. One memory particularly stands out for me. After a visit to the Queen’s stables at Buckingham Palace, I decided to stop by the gift shop. I noticed some large scented candles on one of the shelves and remembered how much my mom loved scented candles. I thought that maybe I could bring some home as a way of remembering her. There was just one problem. These candles were too big to fit into the small luggage I had brought on my trip. I asked the sales clerk if they might have any smaller candles. “We do, actually.”, he replied, They’re over here and they’re on sale…” He paused, and then added somewhat hesitantly, “that is… if you don’t mind lavender…” What he couldn’t possibly have known is that my mom had loved lavender, both the scent and the color. She loved lavender so much that we laid her to rest in her favorite lavender gown. In that moment, I distinctly felt the presence of God, as if He was saying, “Even if you fly across an ocean, I can, and will, find you there.”
On my last full day in London, I attended a service at Westminster Abbey. Professor Vernon White, an Anglican priest and theologian, delivered the sermon. He began by quoting from Jude the Obscure, a novel by the late 19th century English author Thomas Hardy:
“‘In an English country lane a young man who found life more difficult than he had expected lay down miserably on a dead tree trunk. He wished he’d never been born. Somebody might have come to ask him about his trouble and help him. But nobody did come because nobody does….and so he continued to wish himself dead.’”
Professor White explained that Jude, the young man in the novel, “stands for Advent doubt, rather than Advent faith; he stands for the person who is buffeted by life, tired of false dawns, losing hope.” He continued:
“What is it which gives some people hope, even in exile, where others only have doubt? Hope, after all, matters so much. Individuals and nations live by hope, and die without it. ‘Dum spiro spero’: the very breath of my soul is hope. If hope dies it can literally take our very life and soul away, as Jude found, but with hope our life and soul returns and we flourish. No wonder it is one of the three great gifts of the Spirit: faith, hope, and love. So – I ask again – what is it that gives some, like Isaiah and John the Baptist, such hope which others, like these 19th & 20th century English writers, could not find?
“[What] I want to suggest here is a spiritual answer, not psychological, which can perhaps be learned from people of different times and circumstance. What those prophets had, which we too might have, is a desert experience. Throughout scripture from Exodus to Jesus’ own ministry, the desert was the place where God did come, to meet people, a place to find hope. This can be for us too. I don’t mean of course that we all need the physical location of a real desert. But we may need what it represents… [What] I mean by desert is just this; a state where we’re not constantly pushed and pulled by the babble of competing pressures and ideas and events, but re-orientated to something deeper which lies behind them, joins them up, makes sense of them.”
“How might we find such a desert?” he asked. “There’s a negative move and a positive one.” The negative move, he said, is “a drawing apart from things, at least temporarily.” As an example, he offered some practical advice, asking how much sway we should allow the 24-hour news cycle to have over us. The positive move, he said, ties in with St. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians to “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess 5:21), arguing that we need to seek out the good with as much effort as the media devotes to seeking out the bad. “Above all,” he said, “it will be by seeking out and living in that pivotal good news story of God… the story of Christ who did come, does come, and will come again, to give sense and hope through everything that life can throw at us.”
I’m not sure if it was because I had never really heard a homily dedicated to the topic of hope before, or that Professor White’s sermon had particular relevance to me at the time, but it left a powerful and lasting impression on me. As I walked around the city that afternoon, I began to wonder if God was using my trip as an opportunity for me to have my own “desert experience,” so that He could reignite hope in my heart. I began to reflect on all of the ways God had been with me and my family in my mom’s final days, how, even in the darkest of moments, His presence was there. I thought about how she had been blessed with the chance to see and hold her granddaughter before going in for her surgery. I thought about how blessed I was that my parents lived nearby and that I was able to spend so much time with them. I thought about a night I had spent at my mom’s bedside a few days before she passed away, and how I had the chance to hold her hand and tell her that night how grateful I was to her, an opportunity that so many others don’t get. I thought about how our pastor had been with us in my mom’s hospital room at the moment she died. I realized that the emptiness, numbness and anger I had felt in the wake of my mom’s death had blinded me to God’s presence in my life and had robbed me of my hope. Tears began to well up in my eyes, and for the first time since the day my mom died, I allowed myself to cry.
When I arrived back in Colorado, my dad picked me up at the airport and we went to my mom’s grave, I placed a candle, that I had lit briefly at both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, on her gravestone. I felt a peace that I hadn’t felt in months. Once I got home, I walked in the door and again, my wife handed my precious daughter to me. This time felt different. I was ready to be a husband and a father. It was not always an easy road in the days and months after that, but I knew that God had reignited my hope. He had used the desert experience of a weekend in London to light the spark and the wisdom of an Anglican theologian to help me recognize it.
I share this with the hope that as we engage in the consultative phase of the Synod, that we will be open to the voice of the Holy Spirit and remember that our fellow Christians have valuable wisdom to share with us as we journey together, and that, in the words of Pope Francis, we may “encourage one another to become ever more faithful disciples of Jesus, always more liberated from our respective prejudices from the past and ever more desirous to pray for and with others.” (February 26, 2017, Meeting with the Anglican Community).
Image: Quire of Westminster Abbey. © Dean and Chapter of Westminster.
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Joseph Snearline is a Catholic writer, travel consultant, and advocate for people with disabilities. He lives in Colorado’s Front Range with his wife Grace and their two kids.