The events of the pandemic year cascaded upon us, bearing symbolic as well as literal weight: Plague, racial reckoning, wildfires licking at our doorsteps, political unrest and insurrection, ice storms toppling trees and knocking out power.
Each event seemed to carry double impact: both literal hardship and a deeper metaphorical meaning: Isn't racism a contagion? Isn't Creation itself crying out to us for mercy, in fire and ice? Now, as we approach Holy Week, do we have the remaining strength to stay awake long enough in Gethsemane to witness an Easter Rising?
It is the Ides of March as I write—a historic day at JHigh. March 15 kicked off our first-ever Social Justice Week, and our first Encounter in over a year. As the women of the March Women's Encounter (MWE) turned east on Rt 126 from Eugene to McKenzie Bridge, they came face-to-face with the ravages of last fall's wildfires. The charred trees and burnt-out vehicles lining the banks of the wild and scenic McKenzie River brought stunned silence and a knot to the throat.
As we rolled toward St. Benedict's retreat center, the once-familiar towns seemed from another planet: Gone are hundreds of homes and businesses, with an occasional brick chimney standing. We spy a sign at the ghost of an RV park: "Beauty will rise from ashes."
In the middle of Lent, in this year of ashes and ice, of stolen dances and canceled seasons and postponed Encounters, I say a silent prayer of gratitude for the bereft local residents who still believe in beauty. St. Benedict's survived the conflagration by a whisper—another occasion for gratitude.
So much metaphor, so much reality. My son is a wildland firefighter and my daughter a nurse, so I envision the brave souls fighting to save lives and homes and the medical professionals caring for the sick and the injured. Real people, all of them. Some of those who lost their homes scrambled at 2 am to take refuge at St. Benedict's. They wept and prayed and clung to each other. So very real.
As we arrive at St. Benedict's, we are greeted by ten of the most resilient people on the planet: the MWE leaders. These lovely young souls have sacrificed so much of their high school experience to COVID-19. Yet, here they are, waving and smiling and so excited to give their senior sisters a taste of the joy they encountered at this very place just over a year ago, before the plague shut everything down.
A year later, amidst a still-smoldering pandemic, it was finally time to point a bus 2 ½ hours from Jesuit toward this sacred ground. At St. Benny's, the girls keep the windows and doors and their hearts open. It's cold and the hills are scarred but still spectacular as they rise from the banks of the mighty McKenzie. After three small group sharing sessions, a boxed lunch and much hand sanitizer, we head out on St. Benedict's expansive deck, going down to the river to pray.
The girls sit rapt in silence and gaze at the living water, its ancient and mysterious source somewhere beneath the Central Oregon Cascades. The McKenzie flows headlong to the sea, pulled by forces divine and infinite and so clearly the work of the Creator.
Retreat Coordinator Christina Barry reminds the girls that the cacophonous music of the river arises as it encounters obstacles in its path, large and small. Another metaphor.
English teacher Michele Gray has been down to this river before, and has come to know that there is a Light that will overcome the darkness, and no darkness that can overcome the Light. Michele gazes for many minutes at the wide, chattering river.
Then turns to me and says: "You know, I was thinking about the past year—pandemic and racial unrest and the election and the fires and the ice storm. It all seemed so overwhelming. Still, the river just keeps flowing on."
And so shall we. We encounter the obstacles, we feel the loss, we smell the fire and taste the ashes. But down by the river, we remember that we are a Resurrection People, inspired by the faith and hope of these magnificent young people and the promise of the Gospel. We roll on, toward a promised spring of new life arising from the ashes.
Paul J. Hogan