'Today, you will be with me in Paradise'

  • April 1, 2010

One of my great teachers was Helen. 

She was a tiny, elderly woman with a limp from a bad hip and swollen feet, with yellow curly hair and no teeth. She loved to greet strangers, bake muffins for people, help out at the breakfast club and the mission. She smiled and laughed easily. She was a chatterer, but her chattering was generally random and disconnected, hard to follow and easily dismissed.

She herself was among the easiest of people to dismiss: an old, poor, solitary woman, living on social assistance in a squalid apartment. Though a wife and mother of many, she was quite alone in the world; long separated from an abusive husband and from her children, taken away one-by-one by the Children’s Aid Society. When I met her, Helen had largely left the world of sanity — with good reason, as refuge from the world which, for her, was a crazy and dangerous place.

When Helen had a stroke and was taken to hospital, she must have seemed an insignificant patient. Mostly incomprehensible at the best of times, she was now completely so, unable to communicate, powerless. Soon, the health care system decided she, her suffering, her life, were unnecessary. When I visited her, she had no feeding tube and was being given nothing orally. Helen died in a large Catholic hospital in urban Canada.

Though abandoned by the powerful, she didn’t die alone. Other insignificant women — women who’d met her at the mission where she served by folding laundry — kept vigil at her bedside those last few days of her life. Perhaps they knew what it meant to be alone. Perhaps they were the kind of women who went before dawn to the tomb of an outcast, a rejected man who died a criminal’s death. Women who had the courage to face not only death, but also rejection, cruelty, despair. When those women went to the tomb the first Easter morning, facing death, they found something more unbearable: emptiness. Loss upon loss. Not even a body to anoint.

The final failure. And they found a vision, “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning,” and a voice that filled them with fear: “He is not here, He has risen.” No wonder they were bewildered and afraid. And were disbelieved; the Eleven did not believe the women’s story, despite the price they paid to receive it.

Emptiness, fear, pain, confusion. The places we tend to run away from. The places where the Easter proclamation rings out for the first time in history: “He is risen.” It’s not the strong and powerful who were first entrusted with this word; it’s the weak and insignificant. Nor was it received at first with gladness, but with doubt and disbelief.

The Word our aching world longs to hear — death is overcome; life is the victor; love has claimed us, eternally — can be the hardest word for us to accept. This may be why it’s in our emptiness that the word is most clearly given. The Resurrection is best glimpsed through tears, as Mary Magdalene saw it. 

Nor is it hard to find; indeed, it’s hard to avoid. Problem is that place of emptiness and poverty it comes out of. Resurrection comes, but only by way of the cross and death. That’s the secret everybody now has access to: Good Friday and Easter Sunday are one day. We don’t escape death; we don’t escape suffering; we can’t run away from the cross, any more than the disciples could. What’s stunning is that love meets us here, on our own cross, and offers us life.

Those of us who make Christianity a hiding place from suffering and sin will have trouble ever meeting the living Christ, for that’s how He comes to find us. There were two other crosses on Calvary, showing that though we all must be on the cross of suffering and sin, there are two ways to be there. One of those ways brings life eternal; and that life begins now. It radiates among and around us, everywhere.

Death confronted me when I visited Helen for the last time, and heard her last breath. By our world, which had already crucified her, she was judged and found unworthy of life. My failure to alter that verdict has never left me. 

Yet when I speak Helen’s name, the word that comes with it is glory. The glory of her heart in which love triumphed daily. Of the communion with the women at her bedside. Of those who wept for her death and saw her beauty, undeceived by the uncomeliness of her form. Of her welcome into the Kingdom, by the One who claimed His own with the words, spoken through His pain: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

He is risen. For us.