Back when I was studying theology before ordination, I had a Dutch Jesuit as my spiritual director for two years. Frits van der Ven was a “free spirit,” and very full of life for a man nearing seventy. He laughed easily and often. He loved good food and good wine. He reveled in theCaliforniasunshine (we lived together in community inBerkeley). And he generally approached life with enthusiasm and gusto.
You didn’t have to know Frits for very long before he would confide the “secret” of his “élan vital.” He would explain that as a younger man/Jesuit/priest, he was a pretty serious guy. He was super responsible and prone to fret, and he set very high standards for himself and others. And whether or not stress was the culprit, in his early 60s, Frits had suffered a massive heart attack.
The doctors would later tell him that he “died” on the table while they were struggling to resuscitate him. This was not news to Frits, who remembered after waking up having had the “classic” near death experience. He could recall hovering near the ceiling and looking down on his body below while the medical team fought to revive him. He was aware of peace and freedom from pain throughout; and he felt that it would have been fine for him to “move on,” but he soon came to understand that in God’s plan, it was not yet his time.
Frits liked to describe his entire life after he recovered as “pure gift.” He would sometimes grin and say that every day was pure “icing on the cake” – the life that should never really have been. And precisely for that reason, he treasured each moment as a free gift, a God-given opportunity, a near occasion of grace… He valued and savored life in every detail. And while Frits never said as much, I had a pretty good hunch that folks who had only known him before the heart attack would hardly have recognized his new self – a man who all but pulsated with joy and fullness of life.
I am grateful to have known the “risen” Frits. Apart from his wise counsel, his very presence in my life became an ongoing source of invitation and challenge. After all, while I had suffered no heart attack – thanks be to God! – it was also true for me that each moment of my life was a free gift, a God-given opportunity, a near occasion of grace. And I was at that time less than half of Frits’ age, with a whole life and vocation ahead of me. Who was I to trap myself needlessly in a tomb of my own making – a tomb made up of inner unfreedoms, unrealistic expectations, and futile attempts to control what was beyond me? As I lived, worked, prayed, and consulted with Frits, I found his “risen life” contagious. I was attracted by his energy, uplifted by his humor, and inspired by his freedom and his grateful stance toward life – his own and that all around him.
I have to assume that it was something like that – only more so! – for the followers of the newly risen Christ during the forty days which they spent with him between Easter and the Ascension. Think about those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, for instance. When we “meet” them in Luke 24, they are downcast, depressed, and at loose ends. For my money, one of the saddest lines in the New Testament has to be: “We were hoping that he would be the one to redeemIsrael.” But as Jesus walks along with them and explains the scriptures about the promised Messiah, their hearts begin to “burn” within them – with renewed hope and courage. And when at last they recognize him “in the breaking of the bread,” they become fearless – venturing out alone after dark to return toJerusalemand share the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection with their sister and brother disciples.
Or consider Peter in the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel. I always imagine him as an energetic man, a “can-do” type. Even though he has encountered the risen Christ more than once before this incident at theSea of Galilee, he remains bored and fidgety while waiting for his next set of “marching orders” from Jesus. As a result, he proposes to some of his fellow apostles that they go fishing. Alas, they catch nothing (perhaps because they are now “fishers of people”?), which surely must leave Peter cranky. But then young John spies a man grilling fish on the beach and declares “It is the Lord.” Now Peter is transformed. With boyish exuberance, he puts ON his outside clothing, jumps overboard and swims ashore, and embraces Jesus with a big, soggy, St. Bernard hug!
The invitation of the Gospel resurrection stories is clear, sisters and brothers. In the days and weeks ahead, we should be on the lookout for the risen Christ in our daily lives, particularly “in the breaking of the bread.” We should expect his presence in our own lives to transform us – to cause our own hearts to “burn within us.” We should claim his promise: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” And like Peter, we should look for opportunities to fish for souls and to feed Christ’s sheep.
St. Ignatius suggests that we pray for “the grace of being able to enter into the joy and consolation of Jesus as he savors the victory of his risen life.” Amen to that. He is risen indeed! Alleluia! And a blessed Eastertide to all of you.
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.