Strength in Broken Places: What Can An Old Man Do?

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

–Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

It’s been a while since news of Syria has made an appearance above the fold of the national newspapers that litter our coffee tables. Last week the smoldering evil of that ongoing massacre forced its way into our newsfeeds and inboxes yet again. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions more have fled as refugees, and last week Fr. Frans van der Lugt, S.J., was forced from his residence, severely beaten, and shot twice in the head.

One of our brothers was murdered.

The news passed through our usual channels of communication as handwritten notes or hastily printed emails and articles appeared on our community bulletin boards around the world. Some of us knew him. All of us mourn him. It’s a terrible thing to see someone murdered for doing what you’d like to do yourself. It’s a terrible thing to see someone murdered for remaining in love. It’s a terrible thing to hear that one of Ours was killed again for little more than his faithful presence among a persecuted people and his humble prayers for a real peace.

Hearing this news last week was terrible, but as I reflect on it now my sense of it has changed. There is sadness still and indignation at the foolishness of this violence, but this death is different somehow, its effect on me is mysterious and somehow sacred. This senseless death is made meaningful in my prayer, in the mystery of martyrdom, in its witness to love in a place of death. This death is different in that he freely chose to stay and his choice, a choice to be with the other in suffering, makes love real in an otherwise God-forsaken circumstance.

This week is different too. This is Holy Week.

This is Holy Week.

This week is different too. This is Holy Week.

This week we celebrate the Passion. This week we remember the Christ who is killed for remaining in love. This week is holy because we remember the promise of God. This week is holy because we remain in his love so that his love can remain in us. This week is holy because we witness again the crucifixion of the innocent, the cruelty of the fearful, the sorrow of the persecuted, and the consequence of our complicity. This week is holy because we witness again the promises of love, the rites of a community growing, of new life rising. This week is holy because we witness again the fidelity of a God in love, a God who remains with us in suffering. This week is holy because we witness again the resurrection. This week is holy because in this week we celebrate a love that is stronger than death.

As I prayed during this last week of Lent I found myself imagining Frans, a man I’ve never known, and wondered what his life was like. Why did he stay in Syria? In the face of war and conflict, violence and siege what can an old man do? As I prayed about this I came to realize that I’ve known a lot of old men in places all over the world who were probably a lot like Fr. Frans. After reading various articles and eulogies of this dead Jesuit, I took all of these images to prayer, and I began to fill in the blanks…

What can an old man do?

He can be dragged out into the garden, beaten and shot twice in the head. He can be killed.

He can pray. He can learn the language. He can wear without irony a black leather jacket with thick zippers. He can shake hands and lean on shoulders. He can organize a gathering or simply show up at one already organized – never hurried and never delayed.

He can listen and laugh. He can read the morning paper. When they stop delivering the paper he can listen to the radio. He can make a phone call or a Youtube video. He can drink tea with the worried and the restless. He can leave. He can remain. He can submit to suffering. He can stay. He can be killed.

He can live in a place for a very long time. He can know the problem of Christians and Muslims – hunger, that’s the problem. He can love life. He can leave his shoes tied at night. He can wear a sweater for days littered with crumbs and soup stains. He can turn the lights on and off. He can take long walks. He can fall behind. He can remain in love.

He can be ignored. He can do nothing at all. He can know futility. He can be obsolete. He can be really good at being useless. He can waste time. He can get in the way. He can complain. He can wait. He can be strong in the broken places. He can quote old poems from memory. He can forget. He can forgive. He can forget again.

He can read the prayers. He can bless the meal. He can break the bread. He can pour the wine. He can form a family. He can build an ark. He can found a community for adults with disabilities. He can walk for days. He can invite friends. He can sleep. He can balance a baby on his chest and he can nap. He can cry. He can sit. He can listen. He can hope foolishly. He can live eternally. He can love courageously. He can be killed. He can be remembered. He can inspire our faith hope and love. He can be resurrected. He can remain in love.

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Cover photo by Diego Torres Silvestre via Flickr.

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