Posted by: mmreflections | December 10, 2009

Learning to Say Goodbye: December, 2009

Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.  He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them (as their God).  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.  (Revelation 21:3-4)

Of the more difficult experiences on my life’s journey, saying “Goodbye” is one that stands out most vividly.  Bringing closure to special moments of life has always been emotional and sad for me, often leaving me somewhat downcast, even fearful at times.  In my youth it seemed as though I was the only person in the world who had to struggle with the emotions surrounding farewells.  As a grown man I can now reflect on the many friends, family, relatives and parishioners who had come to talk with me about their own feelings of pain and grief that bombarded them after times of closure.  These closure moments were most frequently experienced at the death of a loved one:  a parent, a spouse, a child, a brother or sister, a friend or a kind neighbor.  Growing older, I have come to believe this is an aspect of living which we all share and to which we can all relate.

The mistake I made in my early years was to bury all the feelings surrounding any loss or separation or goodbye.  I guess I was programmed early in life to believe that burying emotions and feelings was the right thing for a boy or a man to do in order to give the appearance of strength.  I could not really talk about what I was experiencing each time there occurred any semblance of closure.  An incident which comes quickly to mind exemplifies one of the important moments of growing up.  It was the day I left home to go to college.  My oldest brother, his wife and my mom drove me to the campus where they helped me unload my belongings and take me to my room which was to become my home away from home.  It was the first time I was really leaving home to begin this new phase of life.  My mom maintained her composure, giving me a big hug and kiss before they returned to the car and departed.  I was left alone in my new room.  Bombarded with many fears about an unknown future, I stretched out on the bed holding back any tears.  I was alone until my roommate arrived.  I watched the same scenario unfold with his parents who quickly left, leaving us alone with our feelings.  We both ended the day, laying on our beds, homesick and struggling to repress any feelings we might have had.  We certainly did not talk about what we were experiencing.

This was to repeat itself over and again as my journey took me farther and farther away from home.  Setting off to embark on my teaching career after college was to be another such moment.  I can still recall and vividly remember my mom standing at the door each time I started out on a new venture.  Holding back tears, she would give me that same big hug and kiss, smiling and encouraging me to do my best.  Some moments were more difficult such as my leaving for the army during the Korean Conflict, or when leaving and returning to the base again and again after being home on furlough.  Soon after finishing my time in the military I was on the road again to begin my studies for the priesthood.  The list can go on and on.  There were so many goodbyes:  graduations, weddings, funerals, new assignments, studies taking me to Rome, Italy.  Some of the more difficult moments involved leaving a parish assignment to embark on a new one.  Saying goodbye to parishioners with whom I shared very precious moments was actually painful, knowing many of us would never see each other again.  For the most part, I swallowed hard and appeared to be totally in control of my emotions but deep down there was a lump in my stomach and somehow I knew I was not handling my goodbyes very well.

A major turning point came when I participated in a very special men’s spiritual retreat near Chicago when I was in my early fifties.  We were together for about four or five days, at a time when retreats were moving from a lecture mode (with some noted spiritual leader addressing a group and we took notes and listened) to a more involved group dynamic in which all the participants had opportunities to share their stories, express their needs and discover that most men were dealing with much the same issues.  It seemed we were no longer alone with all our challenges.  When the moment for the retreat to end had arrived, I noticed that the usual joking, laughing and high spirits were replaced with a heaviness and sadness.  The facilitator got up to give us a farewell talk.  He brought up the matter of closure and talked about how difficult it is for men to deal in a healthy way with goodbyes.  He went on to remind us that most of us would never see each other again after these healthy days of fellowship, that these days of retreat would never be enjoyed in the same way again.  It was all over; it was time to return to our homes.  I sat with my head lowered so that no one would see the tears flowing down my cheeks after these wonderful days of celebration with men who shared the same faith and love for God.  When I did look up, I realized I was not alone;  it seemed like all the guys were crying –  some very openly and unashamedly.  That day, after we all said our goodbyes to each other, I was sitting at the Chicago airport waiting for my flight back to Los Angeles.  My heart was filled with joy!  Somehow with these men I had learned the important lesson of rejoicing in the blessings we received together and then letting go while taking with me the gold nuggets I had found during these special days.  There was still much more to learn but this was a start.

When a group of us made a pilgrimage to Israel in the early nineties, we found ourselves delighting in the blessings that each of us was receiving at the different holy places we visited.  It seemed like the Lord was ministering in a special way to each of us according to our need at different places on the journey.  All good things must come to an end and so did our pilgrimage.  On the last morning while  we were offering our morning prayers before embarking on the trip home, I was reading the passage from the Book of Revelations which is quoted at the beginning of this reflection.  I realized this moment was our goodbye to the Holy Land, our pilgrimage and all the special moments we had experienced together.  As I read that God’s dwelling place is with us and realized that no matter where we would be in the future, the ground beneath us would be Holy Ground because God will dwell with us and we will be his people.  He will always be with us no matter where we may go, he will wipe every tear from our eyes, there would be no more death or mourning, no more goodbyes.  In that final moment of our pilgrimage it seemed like it was my turn to experience God’s blessing in a special way. Tears flowed freely as I stood before the group trying to read from  the Scriptures.  It seemed like all the emotions that were buried over a lifetime relating to the death of my father when I was two years old, to all the separations, to all the losses I had experienced, to all the unexpressed personal grief, to this moment, as we were ending our trip, were coming to the surface. 

How well are we dealing with the goodbyes and closures that we must face on our journey?  It seems we must first respect and honor all the mixed feelings which arise in these moments.  These are moments when we mature and move up on the spiritual ladder we considered early on in these reflections.  Every goodbye is something like a mini death preparing us for the ultimate goodbye.  We find our joy,  however, in the promise of the Lord that He will always be with us; with Him there are no goodbyes!

 “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.”  (John 6:40)

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