No one tears a piece from a new cloak to put it on an old cloak;
if you do, not only will you have torn the new one,
but the piece taken from the new will not match the old.
There is a cemetery in Milan Italy that I have visited on several occasions. Each visit has become a bit of a retreat-time for me, a stepping back from all that is superficial and fleeting in my little earthly life, and an engagement with what is real and lasting.
When I pass through the entrance gates of Monumentale I’m always a bit nervous wondering how this visit will change me, what priorities will shift for me, and what that I possess as I walk into this remarkable graveyard will, in the hour that I spend wandering between the graves, be revealed as an unnecessary obstacle to real living.
Once I’m at the gates I am drawn inside and the life-changing pilgrimage begins again.
Visiting this cemetery is a very in-your-face experience. The great city of Milan is an international centre of fashion in every form, but a stroll through this cemetery reveals that too often our earthly life is reduced to a tiring and fickle programme of maintaining appearances and avoiding realities.
It’s inevitable that we understand life as an earthly pilgrimage from birth to the grave. In this world-view, after a couple of decades at the peak of our powers we begin to lose our speed and agility and other signs of decline shake us about a bit.
While we might joke about forgetting something when we are 30, the same forgetting when we are 70 is not as funny. A routine surgery in our 30’s might slow us down for a few weeks, but the 80-year-old knows the road to recovery from the same operation will be longer and more demanding.
Many of the tombs in Monumentale carry life-size works of art depicting some aspect of the earthly experience of the one who is buried beneath. A farmer might be ploughing his field, the businessman at his desk and the young father playing with his children. I often think of these images during the eulogies at a funeral when the details of a life are shared. Most funerals only look back focussing on the life of the person before their death.
While this sharing of the earthly memories is good and necessary, if this is the only focus the implication is that this life of the one we love is now ended. However a funeral that gives hope will also look forward and many of the powerful Monumentale sculptures do this, portraying not only the tangible human reality of the one who has died, but also presenting some indication that the earthly life of the one who has died has now entered a new realm, a greater dimension, a life that is abundant and complete.
Yes, many of the Monumentale monuments depict grieving family and friends, but in the eternal abundant reign of God “every tear will be wiped away”.
These powerful works of art remind us that the death we experience at the end of our earthly life is the same kind of transition as the baby’s departure from the womb, a move from a confinement to a more abundant life.
Perhaps a lot of our earthly difficulty comes when we see suffering and death as a problem instead of as inevitable realities that are transformed by Christ whose suffering and cruel death became (by the power of God) the pathway to the fulness of life.
Our sufferings and illnesses on earth are are a wake-up call enabling us to see that the life we seek on earth is not to be lived in escape from earthly difficulties and fears, but a life to be embraced in every moment, even in serious sickness, insecurity and vulnerability, as a reminder that we are made for much more.
With this perspective we appreciate that even as we experience human frailty and vulnerability, we are (as we reflected last week) experiencing the growing pains of one who is growing not away from abundant life but into life.
In this eternal perspective we find an abundance of earthly health and happiness and freedom, even as we experience the sufferings that would otherwise overwhelm us.
These are the growing pains of one who is growing young.
- What part of the above reflection spoke to you most deeply? Why? Perhaps this thought might be a helpful mantra or touch-stone for you today.
- The video below offers a one-hour visit to Monumentale cemetery.
- Speaking of old and new things, there is an old prayer (below) that I found recently. You might find it helpful.
- As many of us continue these days as a retreat-in-daily-life, this simple morning and evening reflection might be helpful. Try it on waking in the morning before getting out of bed, or last thing at night after turning out the light.
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your initials to join those taking these few days as a simple retreat-in-daily-life, and to invite others to keep you in prayer. Click the image to enlarge.