The writer of the Book of Lamentations cries out, “My soul is deprived of peace, and I have forgotten what happiness is,” and today, more than any other day I can remember, I understand his cry.
A great chasm of grief, fearful and looming, has opened up before me. One misstep, one too many tears, and I will be caught forever in its unrelenting grasp. I am frightened by this feeling, and I am frightened by Tommy’s death. I don’t understand it. Perhaps more details will emerge in time, to give form and substance to our frail knowledge – to help us to know his death like we know his life. Perhaps not.
Even better understood diseases, like cancer, are mysterious to me – but I do know this much. One sees the signs. One treats the symptoms. And sometimes the person gets better. And sometimes it becomes a disease that can be managed, albeit with difficulty, throughout a person’s life. And sometimes, despite the best efforts of the most professional doctors, nurses, and caregivers – sometimes despite the chemotherapies and radiations and surgeries – sometimes despite all of the love and support which family and friends and community can give – cancer wins, and takes the life of the person whom it attacks.
And sometimes depression does the same thing.
I don’t know much about what happened to Tommy – I can’t understand or know what he was feeling – but I do know one thing. During the last couple of days I’ve listened to a thousand stories. I’ve looked at ten thousand pictures. And, most importantly and most revealingly, I’ve read stuff written by his own hand, in stark and even cold honesty – and I know this – I am sure of this.
Whatever darkness had enshrouded him, he knew that he was loved. His mother and father and brother, family, friends, schoolmates, neighbors, schoolteachers, his music teacher – they loved Tommy intensely, and Tommy knew it. If love had been enough to keep Tommy Fuss alive, he would be alive today.
So here’s what confuses me. When Fr. Tom called me and told me that this had happened, an image of Tommy immediately formed in my mind’s eye – a little kid with a crewcut and an amazing sparkle in his eye. I know he wasn’t little any more, and he certainly didn’t have a crewcut anymore, but what about the sparkle? Was it gone too?
Sometimes depression, or even just growing up, kills the sparkle, but the more stories I heard, the more pictures I saw, the more the image of the young man who had outgrown his crewcut formed for me, it became clear that the sparkle wasn’t gone at all. The macaroni and cheese – those amazing hamburgers – cooking and bowling and hanging out with a fine set of friends – the little rituals of daily life – “rocking out” with his drums – his stubborn and fierce rejection of boy band music – it was all still there. These signs and countless others pointed to that sparkle.
And the darkness was there too.
It’s tempting to say that this was an accident – that in one moment of weakness he made a bad decision – but the facts simply do not support that, and we will not cower from naming this for what it was – we will not hide behind half truths or comfortable euphemism. Tommy was a young man who was, at one and the same time, filled with the sweetness of life and filled with a terrifying anguish. Neither was an act – both were real.
This is hard to accept. But look at Jesus on the Cross – crying out, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” and, with his next breath, speaking gentle words of love to Saint John and to his holy Mother, and words of forgiveness toward his persecutors, and words of hope to the thief. This is the heart of the Christian paradox. This is the heart of the paradox of the human condition. Anguish and joy and gentle love, coexisting, flowing in and out of one another – this is the human condition, and sometimes anguish gets the upper hand.
And so where do we go with this from here? Is it simply over? Must we simply shoulder this burden of sorrow, and hang our heads and go away, defeated once again by the dark realities of human life?
No. Because there is a power at work here which is stronger than human love – a power of which human love is the best reflection, but a reflection nonetheless. With all of the signs and symbols and sacraments on which we can draw – the water of baptism, the Eucharist which Tommy was so eager to receive, the white garment, the Easter candle, sacred words and sacred hymns – we commend Tommy to the gentle and merciful and powerful love of God.
Although doing so might make us feel a little better, we don’t do it because it makes us feel better, like applying some salve or ointment to cover for a few minutes the rawness of our grief. We do this because we believe in the love of God, expressed to the world in Jesus Christ. And nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – not anguish, not distress, not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, not peril, not the sword – not grief, not depression, not suicide, not death. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
We commend the one we love into the hands of the One who, if it’s possible to say this, loves him even more.
The love of Christ and the love of his family and friends – our tears falling like a gentle rain around his grave and the angels of God all the more gently guiding him into the Divine Presence – Tommy knew this. In his dying moments he had two things in his pockets – letters to some of his loved ones, thanking them for their love, and a rosary.
And what our love alone could not accomplish, could not heal, could not mend, the love of Christ and the power of the Father has already accomplished. The anguish is gone.
Tommy is at peace. There is no more sorrow, no more pain, no more emptiness, no more tears. He loves God, he loves you, he loves himself. He stands up strong and tall – fully alive, fully human, and takes his place in the great company of Saints. Free at last from the burden, he laughs and weeps with joy. This is his Easter day. And in the time of God, to whom a thousand years are but a moment, we will be standing with him before the first tear of joy hits the floor – before the first jubilant hosanna has finished echoing through the celestial halls – we will be together.
Tommy, may flights of angels lead you to paradise, may the martyrs come to welcome you, and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem. And may the power of Christ, which makes you whole, turn upon us and love us too, that we may, in human time and in human measure, know some of its consolation, some of its peace.
Mass of the Resurrection for Thomas R. Fuss St. John the Evangelist Church
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Homily delivered by Father Paul Soper