Monday, June 18, 2012

Dispatches from Renewal Leave - Witness, Part II

Throughout my life I've been witness to many sacred things.

I've stood watch with the dying as they breathed their last.
I've been with new moms and dads as they welcome their children into the world, sometimes against all odds.
I've presided the promises made by two people in marriage covenants.
I've placed baptismal waters on the heads of infants, adults and even the aged.
I've looked into the eyes of disciples who've come forward with hearts opened wide and hands outstretched to receive the body of Christ, broken for them.

What constitutes the sacred? My sense is that it's when what is true is known and claimed in the midst of life, in whatever context, then that which is sacred rises. The preamble to "A Modern Affirmation" says it clearly..."Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true Church..." Or, maybe St. Paul says it better, that "nothing in life, in death, in life beyond death can separate us from the love of God."

The dailyness of life makes that truth no less real. However, dailyness without spiritual discipline dulls awareness of what is always true. And that's where most of us live most of the time.

There's always a sense of wonder, awe and mystery in presence of the sacred. And it is in these moments that the inner voice whispers, "Remember what you've seen here, and bear witness to it."

I didn't know what to expect as Kristy and I travelled out of the New York by bus toward New Jersey. I was eager to see my friend, Leslie, again. Having dined with she and her family only days before, I was eager and curious about what the night would hold. And even though I was convinced that the desire of Victor and Leslie was for us to be there, and even though I wanted to be there to spend more time with them, I couldn't help but feel in some small way that we were intruding.

That feeling abated quickly however, upon arriving. It was a party! Victor, remembering what Kristy was drinking at our dinner a few days earlier, had played bar tender and had a spirited beverage ready for her as soon as she walked in. It was a lovely April evening in New Jersey and the back patio was the place to be. The food? A Polish feast. Poland is the land of Victor's family and those roots run deep. The cuisine wasn't that familiar to me, and although I didn't eat too much of it, what I had was good.

There was mixing and mingling - the Ohio part of the family was curious about their Swedish cousins they didn't know they had, and vice versa. The lore of family was told for fresh ears to hear (and retold for others who'd heard the tales many times before). We weren't the only folks there we were not family. Neighbors were there, too. For a time, it looked just like any "get together."

Part of my time there was spent searching though photo albums of long ago. Leslie documented much of our journey at Vanderbilt. Based on the number of photo albums she has, she is keen on documenting life, photographically. So we spent time looking at who we were back then. We were in a sunroom/library. It sparked memories of people I've not seen and for some of them even thought about since 1990. I found myself more than once asking "Who's that?" I remembered faces readily. Names had faded, as had some of their stories. But the benefit of any witness is to remind you of what you once knew. Leslie's capacity to stoke my recall was remarkable.

We were in a library/sunroom - a place where living occurred. After all had eaten and while Leslie and I were looking at photos, Victor came in. With DVD in hand he turned on the tv and cued up its contents. It was then that I became aware of Victor in a different way. There was a burden...well, not really a burden, but there was a weighty responsibility that he was carrying. Within every family system, we each have roles to play. Among the many that had fallen to him over the years, it was this one...the carrier of the story of family estranged by evil only to be reunited was his to convey. He was the bridge. I sensed he felt the fullness of his responsibility and this opportunity to change the trajectory of a family's story hereon.

The gathered party was summoned to the room where Leslie and I had been reminiscing. And after a few words of introduction, Victor told their story. It's the story of the impact of evil on a people across the generations.

There is a lingering pall that falls on the family of one victimized so terribly. And that was the case for Victor's family. Being the children of a Holocaust survivor is never not in the room when the family gathers. It's the pain of the father that is visited on the children. There is so much loaded in the nature of the victimization. The very recollection of it revealed that the pain is always within's just right there.

Polish Catholics were also victims of interment and encampment during World War II. And this family was among those impacted. While the details of the story are theirs to tell, the gist of it is this. Forced separation. In post-war, one sibling ends up in Sweden where she grows. The other goes to America. Living in the belief that the other sibling is either dead or never again to be found, connections are made and identities confirmed 60 years later.

So a few years ago Victor undertook a pilgrimage to Sweden to meet his aunt and her family. Her name?  Wiktoria (Victoria).

It was then that he hit "play" on the DVD and the room witnessed this reunion/introduction. His aunt, who has since died, was in a elderly care facility. Her granddaughters, Camilla and Martina (the young ladies I'd dined with and toured the 9/11 Memorial together only days before), videotaped the introduction and served as translators.

All of us in the room were glued to the television. It was sweet, powerful, exciting, with some sadness added in, too. They communicated with each other through their smiles, the countenance, their teary eyes. The girls guided conversation as they could, but there was so much unspoken that didn't need to be spoken. It was being communicated loudly and clearly. After this long, the grace found in being there with someone else was what mattered most.

And then there was this moment of greatest import. Victor brought a present. It was his grandmother's (bubci), her mother's  rosary. Her recognition of what she held was almost instantaneous. She spoke the name "matka" as her frail hands clutched her mother's prayer beads with a combination of reverence and passion. It was these beads that Victor's grandmother, Victoria's mother, had given to him.  It was the first thing she had touched of her mother's in 66 years.

Not a dry eye in the room. It was sacred.

Once the video ended, Victor shared the sense of opportunity that lay ahead for their family. The relationships they forge honor the ones who were forced apart long ago. And to that end, even though the family from Ohio and Sweden are as different as can be, what they hold in common is priceless.

In a note I sent to Victor shortly after we had returned to Memphis, I shared with him a sense of what I thought the night meant from what I had witnessed.

It is no small thing to be invited into the telling of a family's story of deepest pain. A pain that traverses multiple generations. It is a pain that speaks to the capacity humanity has to do violence to one another, and the ripples across time that such violence is felt. For many, too many, stories of this sort cripple the ability to love, to feel, to embrace. And like too many survivors and their progeny, they may no longer be in the camp physically, but make no mistake...part of them never left.
But your family has sought liberation. It is a work of grace, to be sure. It takes awareness of what was, the willingness to deal with it openly, and the dogged determination to declare that in the end, Love wins, always. The scriptures speak of being "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses," who cheer us on as we "run with perseverance the race that is set before us." Victor, my new friend, the cloud of witnesses- the ones who've gone before, the giants upon whose shoulders you all stand, are celebrating with you all and through you all.

I was honored to be witness the be there as a family tells its truth...a new truth that changes the trajectory of what will be. That's a God thing if ever there was one.

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