Tuesday, January 23, 2007
The Thirteenth Day of Christmas
Father Rick Frechette is a Passionist Catholic priest and physician in Haiti that I have the opportunity to work with on a weekly basis. Father’s article is incredible and describes the Haitian slum, the UN versus the kidnapping gangs, and social injustice that devours the body of a woman.
Pictured above is Estherline in clinic last Wednesday. She is the 19 year old girl who was shot in her left shoulder and chest by the UN helicopter while she slept. Her face says it all as UN tanks patrolled the street just a few feet away in front of the clinic in Cite Soleil.
The Thirteenth Day of Christmas
The number thirteen can cast a shadow of unease. It represents a kind of thin place, through which evil and harm can slip suddenly into ones life and reap havoc. Christmas cannot be exempt, at least on this side of heaven, from the contradictions crafted by the Prince of Darkness. These twelve days of Christmas had some pretty strong contradictions in them, at least in my very small corner of the world. Feel free to delete them and get on with your life. I wish I could.
“Peacekeepers”, who walk around only with drawn guns, seem to be missing the point. “Gang leaders”, who claim to be revolutionaries for a better world via kidnapping and killing, are equally unenlightened (to say the least). But they fire real bullets at each other, heavy weapons at that, and the real bullets shear real flesh.
In fact, in a heavy holiday gunfire exchange in Cite Soleil, between peacekeepers and builders of a better world, a young girl took a bullet into the part of her that was “with child”. An emergency Cesarean delivered a baby that was dead from a gunshot injury, and the mother still is fighting for her own life. Imagine, shot to death in your mothers womb. The young mother still lies before me in my mind, and I witness her life struggle. The Book of Revelations speaks of a dragon, as big as a third of the sky, whose tail sweeps the very stars away in fury, and who waits eagerly at the side of the pregnant one to devour the fruit of her womb. A fairy tale? I doubt it. And our Church knows that it is no fairy tale, too. Our liturgy shows us blood (red vestments) three times during Christmas week: the feasts of St Stephen, the Holy Innocents and Thomas Becket. The contradiction to Christmas lives on.
Up the rusty spiral steps, to four more children who got too close to bullets. While asleep on their simple mats, a “peacekeeper helicopter” fired shots, long before dawn’s light, hoping to hit the builders of a better world in the dark. Blood soaked mats, the tin roof riddled with bullet holes, with one hole the size of a giant fist. The oldest girl is just 19 years old. Her left shoulder has a gaping wound. She cannot speak from terror. She is still in critical condition. The three younger girls have “lesser wounds”: one to the head, one to the arm, one to the leg. They all have major wounds to the soul. Did anyone notice?
The peacekeepers deny they shot from the air. The only other explanation is that the four young sisters fired rounds at each other in their sleep, and then shot holes through the roof, and then their guns vanished in thin air. Nowadays, “truth” is whatever the strongest say happened. Maybe it has always been so. Please pray for them. Especially the oldest, whose name is Estherline.
On the ninth day of Christmas I met Madame Noel, literally, Mrs. Christmas. I didn’t so much meet her as find her on the street, slouched up against a wall, half dead, mouth open and full of flies. We jumped from the truck and picked her up. The stench hit us like a brick wall, and was unmistakable. It was the rotting flesh of cancer. Mrs. Christmas was about 70 years old, and was at the very end of savage, untreated breast cancer. Untreated? Yes. She is a sufferer of cancer in a country with almost non existent access to health care for the poor. In fact, it would be hard for a poor person to find even a daily vitamin.
As we lifted her into the truck, gagging, with the images from Cite Soleil also fresh in my mind, a passerby patted me on the back and said, “Happy New Year, Father.” You have got to be kidding. How happiness could have anything to do with all this was utterly beyond me. But I thanked him, smiled, and wished him the same, not realizing the power of the grace present in the timing of his greeting.
Madame Noel never spoke except to say her name. To any question we asked, she would whisper, “Madame Edeline Noel.” She seemed to be in a shock similar to that of Estherline, wondering if she was really there, if this was really happening to her. I was completely upside down and feeling lost for the two days that we cared for her. In such situations you feel compassion for what you also abhor. You want to embrace, and you want to run. And your body puts its own brakes on: if you go to near, you wretch unceasingly. And it is not lost on Mrs. Christmas that she is the cause of your wretching.
I can understand now the scene in the life of St Francis where, terrified, he kissed the leper. It was the absolutely courageous and merciful act to bridge the huge gap of such moments, so full of contradiction, I will spare you a detailed description of the wound which spanned her entire chest, and totally destroyed it. When finally and mercifully she died, I prayed over her lifeless body. “May the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs rush to welcome you on your way….” As I prayed, I was thankfully given the grace of feeling tremendous satisfaction, and felt myself turning right side up again, and reoriented. There she lay, and that was how she died: in a clean bed, with clean sheets, with clean dressing on her terrible wound, a strong perfume against the stench, IV fluids to keep her from dehydrating, morphine to lessen her agony, and a poinsettia that one of the boys from the orphanage had put on a table next to her bed. Also, she had us as friends: comforting words, daily prayers and the last sacrament. This beat by far the death she faced on a shabby street in a filthy slum. The passerby was right. Grace will break eagerly into the new year, even if only to give a somewhat happier ending to a disaster, and will wander the earth seeking those willing to give her a chance to do so.
Now we are in our third day trying to release Jayelle from her kidnappers. She is three years old. Her mother is sick with worry and unable to eat or sleep. We spent the feast of the Three Kings trying to release her from criminals who see her only as a cheap trinket that might bring big money, and who promise to give us her head on a platter if we do not comply with their impossible demands. We live in a world where heads have been delivered on platters, with no metaphors involved.
On the feast of the Kings, rather then receiving the gifts that would show her dignity, Jayelle was instead stolen from her bed, in the presence of tied and gagged parents, and has become a dispensable object to be bartered for. On the feast of the Kings, also called Epiphany (which means “before your face”, or “right there in front of you”) we are supposed to be witnessing God’s glory made present, and not hell’s cynical fury. These kidnappings are harder and harder to manage, they are completely out of control, and now involve children- some of whom have been killed. The family already gave their life savings and did not get the child in return. Then they called us to help. So far, we are failing to secure her release, and today is our last chance. But I think we will succeed. Even if we do, the poor family can hardly relocate to another and safer country, but will have to continue living in this same insecure world. And if we don’t succeed……..I shudder to think.
Do you remember “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens? Do you remember that Scrooge stood before the ghost of Christmas Present, who opened its cloak and showed two wretched and trembling children? Do you remember their names? They made Scrooge tremble, and they broke his hard heart- so that the real spirit of Christmas could burst into it through the cracks and possess it.
The story I am telling you now is very much Christmas Present. My pen opens the cloak, to me as well as to you. We are not ghosts. It cannot be too late so save humanity, which Christmas reveals to us as also divine.
It is not only Dickens who reaffirms the gospel message. The most striking Christmas card I got this year quotes a Mozarabic text from 9th century Spain. It says that at Christmas we should not pray for Christ to be born again somewhere else, but rather that the Godhead be grafted into our hearts, here and now. Christ can be conceived in our hearts if we have unquestioning faith, and can abide in us if we keep our spirit free from corruption. Then we will live “overshadowed by the Most High”, and be quickened by this power all our days. It’s about having the right heart.
Thomas Merton helps us see with more clarity still. He says that when life and death have the same value, which usually means they are both cheap and worth nothing, it is death that spreads like wildfire and dominates over life. This is the contradiction to Christmas.
When life is precious, and death is abhorred- except when it comes at its proper time and represents the fulfillment of life- that is when life spreads like wildfire and dominates over death. This is the conversion of heart that Christmas should represent. Let’s pray that it does.
The twelve days of Christmas are over now. The tree lights are off, and the wreaths taken down. Ignorance and Want still huddle under the mantle of the spirit of the present age. Will you and I dare to be father and mother to them, on the thirteen day of Christmas?
“Happy New Year, Father.”
Yes, I believe it can be. If………….
Fr Richard Frechette
January 7, 2007