24 March 2009

Letter to the Students

This is the letter I sent to the sixteen high school students that spent their spring break serving the people struck by the Greensburg Tornado last year.


Well, it’s Sunday afternoon and I saw a few of you at Mass this morning, and so I’ve decided to sit down and write you all a little something. My hope is to give it to each of you Monday afternoon, but perhaps some of you won’t be there, so this might have found its way into your hands some other way.

What an emptiness I have felt since coming back from our trip! There is no way we could have sustained the pace of what we were doing for much longer, but isn’t it strange how I wish it hadn’t ended? Our bodies are too weak and fragile to do what we want them to, but still the desire for more is always there. Knowing what a difficult day Saturday would have been, I think I might have worked until I fell down in my tracks to hold off that day as long as I could.

Perhaps you have experienced the polite smiles and nods of those who couldn’t possibly understand the beauty of that week, no matter how many stories you tell or how enthusiastically you tell them. No doubt you’ve already asked yourself if it’s worth it to even try …. and it is, even if what we say cannot communicate the fullness and the breadth of that experience. As we struggle and fail to articulate our thoughts and feelings, however, we may come across someone else who has done what we thought impossible. This is the great pleasure of literature, and since our return, I’ve come back again and again to a book I read my first year in seminary entitled The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is one of the classics of literature and I hope that you will all get the chance to read it one day—slowly, for pleasure and edification, rather than racing through it for some lit class that you need to graduate. Dostoyevsky put into words what I could not, and I wanted to pass along the words that captured so well for me the spirit of our time together.

The story ends with the death of a young boy named Ilyusha who was once the outcast of his group of friends on account of his poor, weak, foolish father. Through the slow process of dying, the other boys (probably right around Noah and Naomi’s age) begin to recognize what a noble and generous soul their schoolmate was, who felt his father’s humiliation keenly and responded with fury to the taunts the boys of the town would make at his father. Their grief over the loss of their friend was intensified by his passing so soon after they came to love him. After his death, one of the Karamazov brothers, by the name of Alyosha, a young man preparing to leave and enter the monastery, speaks to them near a stone outside their village (and so this speech has been named “the speech at the stone”). It is addressed to the young boys who befriended Ilyusha, but it could just as well be addressed to each of you, young women and men alike, who spent their break in service to a pair of Ilyushas and their parents:

Gentlemen, we shall be parting soon … I shall leave this town, perhaps for a very long time. And so we shall part, gentlemen. Let us agree here, by Ilyusha’s stone, that we will never forget—first, Ilyusha, and second, one another. And whatever may happen to us later in life, even if we do not meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy, whom we once threw stones at—remember, there by the little bridge?—and whom afterwards we all came to love so much. He was a nice boy, a kind and brave boy, he felt honor and his father’s bitter offense made him rise up. And so, first of all, let us remember him, gentlemen, all our lives. And even though we may be involved with the most important affairs, achieve distinction or fall into some great misfortune—all the same, let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings as made us, too, for the time that we loved the poor boy, perhaps better than we actually are … My dear children, perhaps you will not understand what I am going to say to you, because I often speak very incomprehensibly, but still you will remember and some day agree with my words. You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation. Perhaps we will even become wicked later on, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, I want to suffer for all people’—perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people. And yet, no matter how wicked we may be—and God preserve us from it—as soon as we remember how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days, and how we’ve been talking just now, so much as friends, so together, by this stone, the most cruel and jeering man among us, if we should become so, will still not dare laugh within himself at how kind and good he was at this present moment!

Again and again the word that rises up in the peaceful moments of recollection is “dignity”. This is what you all came to understand better than you ever have before—the dignity of the needy persists despite their own inability or unwillingness to act in accordance with it. It is a dignity that demands to be acknowledged. Yet there was another discovery—a dignity that you can now call your own. The great John Paul II said that we only discover ourselves in the authentic gift of ourselves. Think back on the consolations you experienced once you “pressed through” your initial frustration and disgust and got down to the dirty work of actually doing something to help. That was a taste of the joy that comes with an authentic gift of self, and that is something that we can experience each and every moment of our lives. That is Christ’s promise to us. Take him up on it.

Last April, I went to New York to visit the Pope when he came to America, and he had some stirring words for the youth. He referred to the prayer for the light to overcome the world’s darkness—a prayer that echoes the opening words of John’s Gospel, and that is prayed each Easter vigil (which is coming up for us in a few short weeks!). He asked,

What might that darkness be? What happens when people, especially the most vulnerable, encounter a clenched fist of repression or manipulation rather than a hand of hope? It pertains to the heart. Here, the dreams and longings that young people pursue can so easily be shattered or destroyed. I am thinking of those affected by drug and substance abuse, homelessness and poverty, racism, violence, and degradation—especially of girls and women. While the causes of these problems are complex, all have in common a poisoned attitude of mind which results in people being treated as mere objects—a callousness of heart takes hold which first ignores, then ridicules, the God-given dignity of every human being. Such tragedies also point to what might have been, and what could be, if other hands—your hands—reached out. I encourage you to invite others, especially the vulnerable and the innocent, to join you along the way of goodness and hope.

I think that now we all have a better idea of what it means to make that invitation.

Finally, there is no one right way to react to the sights and sounds of those two houses in Bucklin. Some process their reactions by putting them in plain view, holding nothing back; others need to retreat into the “inner chamber” and work through things in solitude in the days and weeks that follow. Sometimes we can be put off or disappointed by the sort of response we see in others to what did or did not move us individually. Let it unfold as it will, and don’t force yourself to conform to expectations. Be attentive to your own graces so that you can more readily recognize them in others.

So, let’s not forget that family, and let’s not forget one another! Thanks for the week that made me, for the time I was with you, better than I am.

In Christ our Brother,

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