‘Good Grief’: personal and pastoral lesson of loss

Fr James Lyons.

Fr James Lyons.

February 2016

Reflection

Part four in a series of Fr James Lyons writing about grief.

‘Good Grief’, the title of this chapter, is first the title of a book featuring Charles Schultz’s cartoon character, Charlie Brown. Things rarely went right for Charlie; even when they did there was likely to be some unforeseen consequence that wrecked the moment. With friends, Linus, Schroeder, Lucy and dog, Snoopy, Charlie Brown faced the big questions of life full on, with courage and confidence, despite mistakes, setbacks, confusion and plain stupidity. Their power was in their shared humanity, their determination not to let defeat get the better of them, and an unspoken awareness that each of them had something of value to offer. Charlie and his friends were children but their lives and the situations they met spoke to adult readers. Schultz’s brilliance was his ability to capture the essence of the Gospel message of Jesus that unless we become ‘like little children’ we will not find the answers we seek and our lives will remain unfulfilled. I believe it was in that context that I was eventually able to see the goodness in grief.

The Stations of the Cross have a special place in Catholic prayer life during the season of Lent, the season in which the Church grieves for herself, for her lost innocence and for the cost of redemption through the self-offering of Jesus. The ‘Stations’ speak well to minds wrestling with the question of suffering and the anger and doubt, that often accompany the question.

Some years ago, during Lent, I was with a Sister of the Good Shepherd, Josephine Sampey, as she lay dying in the Silverstream Home of Compassion and I found myself thinking of the 6th Station – Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. This is probably the most unexpected of all the 14 Stations because it has no apparent basis in scripture. There is no account of anyone pushing through the crowd on that first Good Friday to comfort Jesus as he was cursed and whipped through the streets of Jerusalem.
Yet there is something compellingly attractive about the scene. We would like to think that there was someone there for Jesus, someone with the courage to break through the apathy, fear and insensitivity in the crowd to let him know he wasn’t alone. A touch that would say, I care about what is happening to you.

I used this image in speaking at the Requiem for Sister Josephine. She was of a Religious Order that served the grieving in society. As Good Shepherds they were committed to the lost and broken. Josephine, following the call of the Shepherd, gave herself especially to troubled and abused women and to the grief of those coping with pregnancy out of marriage and the abandonment and forced adoptions that often followed. As an industrial chaplain she often found herself shepherding the fears of those facing redundancy, the anxiety of those in jobs that ‘seemed to be going nowhere’ and she was a confidant to many with domestic issues of violence, sickness and death.

She was Veronica, holding the towel to the bleeding, spit-stained face of Jesus as she brought hope and dignity to those who had all but given up.

‘The Stations of the Cross have a special place in Catholic prayer life during the season of Lent, the season in which the Church grieves for herself, for her lost innocence and for the cost of redemption through the self-offering of Jesus.’

The story beyond the 6th Station tells us that an outline of the face of Jesus was left on Veronica’s towel. Pope St Leo the Great wrote that ‘Where (the Lord) finds merciful concern he recognises the reflection of his own kindness’. For me, Sister Josephine exemplifies all those whose ‘merciful concern’ reaches out to alleviate suffering in whatever form it is found. I have met many over the years, their Christian motivation leading them to heroic heights as they touch the face of pain and anguish with the gift of themselves. Their own lives carry an imprint of the countenance of love.