Monday, October 19, 2015

Beyond Death

I have lived almost my entire life, with the exception of two years, in the Northeast.  That is a total, in case you are curious, of thirty-four years.  When I travel and people ask me where I am from their first response is generally something between mystical wonder and childhood enthusiasm.   “Wow,” they often say, “you are lucky to live there.  So close to New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, the ocean, the mountains, etc.”   In other words, there is so much to do here, so many people, so many things happening.  Things are alive here!  Actually, if it was up to me I would live somewhere like Montana, Wyoming or Colorado where there is a lot of “nothing.”

One thing I love about the Northeast is the season of fall.  Every year, like clockwork, an impressive mystery occurs.  The leaves begin to sing.  Up until now they have been quiet, simply blending in and clothing the trees in their simple attire.

I am blessed right now to be living in upstate New York.   There are deer, black bears, foxes and many other creatures roaming around in my backyard.  Not only are the animals great and exciting to watch but I am surrounded by trees of all different shapes and sizes.  The leaves on those trees, now in mid October, are singing their final song.  For the next few weeks these woods will become a glorious spectacle of bright red, orange, yellow and brown.  People will be taking pictures, hiking trails will be crowded and artists will be attempting to paint this majestic scene.  And then it will be over.  The song of these leaves will end as these once brilliant leaves fall to their death.
When winter comes life can appear a bit stark.  Those beautiful leaves, once so colorful, have now disappeared.  The ground is frozen, the trees are barren, darkness hovers over the horizon and snowstorms taunt us with an endless array of possibilities.  And then, as almost by a miracle, the earth appears to be reborn.  The ground softens, the darkness descends into the horizon and the leaves return to the trees, leaving the earth youthful and vibrant.

The season of fall provides us with a mirror in which we can contemplate something much deeper than the changing of seasons, namely the mystery of death.  One of the many paradoxes in life is that by living we are also dying, undergoing throughout the years many “deaths.”  These deaths will be as unique as each person.  For some they could come as an illness, a financial problem or the end of a relationship.  It could be the death of a friend or parent, a dream that was shattered, or trying to move through a period of depression or loneliness.  For others it could be traffic jams, a boss who doesn’t recognize my potential or a prayer that God seems to be ignoring.  And then there is the big death, death itself.

Death, at least according to the rhythm of nature, is always a necessary means, not an end, to something greater.  The same is true with God.

When I was young I played baseball on a very competitive team.  Every morning during the summer before the official practice or game that evening I was out in my backyard throwing a ball against the wall practicing my pitches and working on other skills.  Those mornings I actually believed, due to a vivid imagination, that I was pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies and that there were thousands of people in my backyard yelling and cheering me on.  In fact, we even won a few World Series, at least in my imagination!

However, when I was 17 I came to a painful realization; I was never going to make it to the Major Leagues.  The main reason was simply because I was not good enough.  No matter how hard I practiced I lacked a certain level of skill that would enable me to advance to the Major Leagues.    For about three weeks or so I became depressed.  What else was there to live for?  What else was I going to do with my life?  I had spent so long thinking that my life had to be a certain way and when that idol was shattered I experienced a bit of a “death.”

As time went on I found myself immersed in other activities.  Since I was no longer playing baseball and devoting much of my existence to it I had time for things like writing, reading, hiking, mountain biking and becoming reacquainted with the Catholicism that was the very air I breathed as a young boy.  I discovered, much to my surprise, that I really enjoyed writing and I spent a considerable amount of time fostering my relationship with God.  In fact both of them were inseparable.  Writing was drawing me closer to God and my new found relationship with God was stirring me to write.

While I was a freshman in college and it was time to declare a major writing appeared as the obvious choice.  Not only was it the perfect fit but it led me to another discovery; God was calling me to religious life as a Franciscan and to the priesthood.  Looking back now after thirteen years of religious life and five years as a priest I am so grateful I was not “good enough” to make it to the Major Leagues.  But I also realize that none of this would have occurred if I had not experienced that “death” when I was 17.        

In many ways I am reminded not only of this event, but of the many “deaths” I have had to undergo in life each season of fall.  Some of those “deaths” were much easier; some were harder while others appeared as nearly impossible to survive.  Yet after each “death” I experienced in the depths of my soul a resurrection to something more profound than I could have ever imagined.        

These beautiful leaves that surround me right now are in their glory, but they too must die only to be reborn once again with the passing of time.  The words of Jesus seem most appropriate here, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  

Perhaps what scares us most about death in general is that we can’t see beyond it.  What will life look like if I lose my job?  If I have cancer?  If I can’t have the career I want?  The truth is there is no answer.  Nobody, including you, knows.  But as nature, and God himself have revealed, there is something much greater beyond what we can see and understand, if only we can trust in its rhythm and allow it to take us beyond ourselves.

+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR
Monticello, NY
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