Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From Death to Life

[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.)


PaulD said...

This story is well-told, clear and meaningful. You, on the curb telling your story, are exemplary.

Its somewhat trite to say, but it seems right, that the road of life is long with many possible stops and turns. When your done resting on the curb, I suspect you'll have other stories to tell on down the road. Thanks for this one.

Jennifer said...

I find intriguing the idea of forgiveness as an external force, a wind blowing through you that takes away the bitterness and pain. We focus so much on forgiveness being a personal choice, but it seems to be so often entirely unwilled.

Also, that art is absolutely breathtaking. Luminous.

momo said...

dearest fresca, this is one of the posts that stays with me, that I keep mulling over, because it speaks so powerfully.
Forgiveness is elusive. We want to forgive, because if we can't we are haunted, or as you describe it polluted by this vile gunk, the residue of someone else's act. Mary Johnson's description of that bodily feeling welling up, you calling it grace: the idea of being washed clean of the bitterness and hate--we do thirst for it. Sometimes I think we can only try to cultivate the soil of forgiveness in what is often hard and stoney ground. I also think that the stories of others are poweful vehicles of grace, the bearing of witness that it is possible. That's why I sometimes found AlAnon meetings so powerful. I wasn't able yet to forgive, but I could see and hear others around me who were farther in their journey, and it inspired me to keep trying to make room in my heart for something that hadn't arrived yet.Lately I think I may be catching glimpses of it. Your beautiful powerful story moves me to think again of what I need to do to be open to the possibility that I may also feel that grace some day.

fresca said...

Thanks, Paul. Sometimes the trite thing is actually the right thing. Like when I wrote that Mary glowed--that's such a cliche, but, you know, it was just true. There are some people who seem to give off light--I wonder if there's some chemistry at work there...

Jen: Yes, I think a lot of people who experience that deep level of forgiveness do not feel it as self-generated. I mean, it may be, but it doesn't seem to come from the conscious mind, anyway.
Hmmm... maybe it's what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness". : )

Br. McGrath made that particular painting for the Visitation sisters here in town--the original hangs in their living room, near where Mary was talking, and of course its paint literally does glow. I have a poster of it.

MOMO: Thank you, dear. Good words--polluted, haunted... yes.
(I worry a bit sometimes about the wisdom of using words that people associate maybe too much with religious doctrine--by "grace," of course I simply meant "gifted," which is what the word means.)

I very much relate to your image of cultivating the soil--sort of like mine of walking (or sitting) on a road--things that take time and are more about preparation and persistence and patience than the ego efforts we make in other endeavors.

I continue to be awed at the power of simply hearing someone's story. Mary just sitting there talking, not terribly emotionally (she tells her story regularly in her work for peace and healing), was one of the moments of my life. And while I hated reading the death penalty book, I'm glad I did, since it took me back there.

bink said...

I think your image of a stuck drain is very apt. Because I know for me lack-of-forgiveness sticks in my throat and strangles me. All that tension, anger and resentment keeps me from breathing freely.

The times I have experienced grace of forgiveness it too has flooded through me, and unclogged my throat-drain, letting me breath more easily.

Given the way I breath...I guess I still have a long ways to go...

bink said...

P. S. That article you link to on Mary Johnson is very moving. Her story is just so heartbreaking and heart-healing-ly compelling.

fresca said...

BINK: Good point, the breathing thing. I like how Buddhism used the breath as a spiritual focal point. Don't want to clog that up, no... : )

I'm glad you liked the article about Mary Johnson--it was good but pales, you can imagine, compared to hearing her in person. Still, you're right, it's both heart-breaking and heart-healing.