By KAREN MUENSTERMAN
CONNECTING FAITH AND LIFE
In the gospel for the weekend Masses of Sept. 18-19, we heard Jesus tell His disciples that He would be handed over to men who would kill him; but that three days later, He would rise. The disciples did not understand this, and who can blame them? Jesus was a powerful teacher and healer, and even a miracle worker. How could one so powerful possibly be “handed over to men?” And once killed, how could a dead man possibly rise?
Very recently, I read a book called, “The Water is Wide” by Pat Conroy. The book is a memoir of Conroy’s time serving as an idealistic young teacher on an isolated barrier Island off the coast of South Carolina. The island is now a wealthy resort; but back then, it was home to a population of impoverished African American subsistence farmers. The only white people on the island operated the store, the library, the post office, served on the school board and ran the ferry to the mainland.
In the book, when the young Conroy arrives to teach in the school, he finds he has stumbled into a nightmare. The principal of the school beats and verbally humiliates the students in an attempt to teach them “manners,” but not much else. The students in the upper grades cannot read or write. They don’t know the name of the country they live in or the name of the ocean that surrounds their island.
Struggling against the principal, the school superintendent and the local white people, Conroy begins to educate the students by showing them maps and films, reading them stories and connecting them to the world around them. He even arranges a field trip to the mainland, which is most of the children’s very first time off the island.
The children begin to flourish under Conroy’s care, gaining ground academically, socially and personally. Seeing the children blossom and grow, Conroy feels that he has found his purpose in life and resolves to remain on the island, educating, enlightening and empowering all the children who come into his tiny classroom.
Unfortunately, the people in power at the time did not want educated and enlightened children. They wanted compliant children who would grow up to be compliant adults, content to maintain the island’s status quo. The school board terminated Conroy’s contract after his first year of teaching. Devasted, he left the island in defeat; but he went on to write many shocking, eye-opening books including “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline,” “The Prince of Tides” and, of course, “The Water is Wide.”
Had Conroy stayed on that small island, I have no doubt that he could have educated and enlightened dozens of impoverished children through the years. But instead, he was handed over to the authorities; his contract was terminated; and he ended up writing a book that has enlightened and empowered people all over the world beyond the boundaries of his own lifetime – a book that I myself did not read until years after Conroy died.
In our Gospel last weekend, we found Jesus’ disciples arguing about which of them is the greatest. They all wanted to be the most important; the most successful; the most accomplished; the winner. But disconcertingly, Jesus tells them that anyone who wants to be first has to be last!
Sometimes, we have to lose so that we can win. That is the power of resurrection, and Jesus was aware of that power before He died. He wanted his disciples to be aware of that power, and he wants us to be aware of it, too.
So, if last weekend’s gospel finds you on a losing streak at the end of a career or a relationship, or the bottom of a depression, or the in the depths of any other kind of personal failure, defeat or tragedy, please remember that there is no low, dark place that you cannot rise from, brighter and more powerful than ever. Your personal resurrection from this defeat has the power to reveal the unconditional love and mercy of God – a love that has a long history of being passed on through the weak, the vulnerable, the failures and the losers.