[Right: "Windsock Visitation," by Michael O'Neil McGrath, OSFS.
Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, greet each other. Text reads "This is the place of our delight and rest," Saint Jane de Chantal.]
That indexing project on the death penalty was hard.
I have a peculiar slant on the subject of violent death, because my mother was shot to death, and I relate to some of the stuff murder victims' families say. Except of course, when the person who pulled the trigger and the person who died is the same person, the feelings twist back on themselves.
Still, this indexing job was good too: it got me remembering Mary Johnson, one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met.
A couple years ago, for a while I attended monthly spiritual discussions at the house-monastery of the Visitation Sisters, a group of women religious of the order founded by Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jane de Chantal.
For one of their evenings, they invited Mary Johnson to come speak. Ms. Johnson is a local woman whose only child, her son, was murdered in 1993, by a sixteen year old with a gun, in a random act of violence at a party.
As a Christian, Mary felt she should follow Jesus' teaching to forgive, but, not surprisingly, instead she was filled with hate and the wish that her son's murderer should suffer.
Still, she kept searching for consolation, and, after nine years, she began Two Mothers: From Death to Life Healing Group. The two mothers she had in mind were the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas Iscariot.
Suffering is suffering, she said, doesn't much matter what caused it.
After a few more years, she met with her son's murderer in prison, with dread. But they had both prepared (with the help of a restorative justice program, I believe), and their meeting went well. When she was leaving, he asked if he could hug her, and she agreed.
Afterward she felt a wave of forgiveness coming up through the soles of her feet--she said she didn't generate it, it came through her--and the bitterness and hate left her.
Hearing her say that, I knew, "I want that."
Of course, my feelings toward my mother shooting herself aren't the same as they'd be toward some stranger who murdered her, but it came clear to me that I wanted, needed, the grace to forgive her.
Forgiveness is a hard concept because it can sound so preachy--like some superior type person is telling you you should make yourself give something up. But the way Mary talked about it is the way I've experienced it---as release of a terrible burden. It's horrible to feel as if death is clogging your life up, like some vile ball of gunk stuck in the drain. Forgiveness is when clear water can finally run freely through again.
You can't make yourself do it anymore than you can make yourself love someone. But seeing Mary, I know it's possible. Even if it takes years and years.
Some family members of murdered people in the death penalty book reported that they felt released when they witnessed the execution of the person who'd murdered their loved one. So I guess that can work. Who am I to say?
But I want to keep trying, trying, trying the path of mercy. As I said, I know suicide is not the same as murder, but I want to be like Mary Johnson. It wasn't just what she said, she kind of glowed. Do you know what I mean? It's hard to describe, but we know grace when we see it, I believe.
All through her talk to us, about twenty-some people in a big living room, Mary and I kept making eye contact. I went up to her afterward and she said she thought she knew me. Now, I'm pretty sure I'd remember if I'd ever met her--she is a distinctive African American woman. I don't think we'd ever met, I said, but maybe we shared some suffering that we recognized in each other. She nodded.
I didn't even tell her my story. I didn't need to. I just said thank you.
So, this is a long road and quite a lot of the time I feel like I'm sitting on the curb, but I pretty much trust I'm heading in the right direction. Inshallah.
(You can read more about Mary Johnson's story in this article in The Catholic Spirit. When I heard her talk, Mary had also said she'd like to broaden the Death to Life group to include victims of all violent deaths, including suicide. And of course it's open to everybody--men too--not just mothers.)