Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 20, 2003
Act in haste, repent - forever
Death's course cannot be changed
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
I was 14 at the time and I had a younger brother who was about 11. The small rural community where we lived was a relatively peaceful hamlet with a population of fewer than 300 people. We had relatively few wars but being human, we did have our occasional conflict.
Once I found out that Robert, a boy a year or two younger than me, had roughed up my younger brother who was a year or so younger than Robert. I felt it was my duty as a big brother to even the score, so on the first occasion I had I slapped Robert around a bit and warned him to stay away from my brother or else he'd receive much worse the next time.
Punched revengeRobert did not have a bigger brother to even the score with me but he had a father who was part-time custodian at the sisters' convent and he was a good and decent man. I was delivering a couple of quarts of milk to the sisters when suddenly I found myself face to face with Robert's dad who grabbed me and punched me a couple of good ones, all the while warning me that if I touched his son again I'd be getting much worse the next time.
After I got away a safe distance I started to whistle away as if nothing had happened to mar my day. This had the desired effect: a few invectives and threats that at the first occasion he'd put that whistle of mine out of commission for a long time. In response I only whistled the louder.
A few months later Robert and a friend were playing, whiling away their time with a defective .22 rifle, defective in the sense that it lacked the wooden handle. They were taking turns firing at targets, old cans, bottles or whatever. One time Robert handed the rifle to the friend who, as he grabbed it, unwittingly touched the trigger and shot Robert in the heart, tragically killing his friend.
It was a shock to our community and we felt deeply the tragedy that brought grief to the whole village. I attended the funeral as did many parishioners. I never felt so sad, especially at the graveyard as Robert's mother and father could not contain their grief at the terrible loss of their young son.
Rachel weepsThinking back on the scene a Bible text comes to mind: "A voice is heard in Rama, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children: she refuses to be comforted for her children because they are no more" (Jeremiah 31:15).
My father had dug the grave as he would when requested - and always refused to be paid. He felt that to bury the dead was a work of mercy which one could not refuse to do. As I stood by the open grave with many parishioners I experienced the mercilessness of death: there is no changing its course once it's been taken.
Also, with shame I remembered roughing up that boy and mocking his father who had attempted to protect his son.
The human familyAnd as I fought to contain the tears that wanted to burst out of me, I realized how cruel, vain, useless and counter-productive any kind of violence can be. I realized also how close we are to each other and in grieving the tragic loss of a young neighbour I understood that ultimately we are members of the human family, a family that knows no boundaries.
Whether we are white or Indian, Palestinian or Jew, or the neighbours across the street grieving their tragic loss, that loss touches all of us. Death has a way of putting things in the right perspective for us: It can kick-start our hearts to compassion, remorse and forgiveness. It reminds us that we belong to each other and what an extraordinary privilege it is to be alive and meaningfully connected with people.
It's regrettable that sometimes we require a tragedy to remind us of these facts.
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