By Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune reporter
April 8, 2012
In my first confession in the second grade, I nervously proclaimed my sins so loudly that everyone heard me outside the confessional booth.
Let's just say my Catholic experience didn't improve much after that. Most of the rituals seemed boring, obligatory and rote.
But as I grew older and encountered hardships, such as my father's death, I found comfort in another church, this one Protestant. For the first time, my faith felt alive and relevant, and I celebrated Easter and other Christian holidays with real joy.
Then in 2009, my sister, Lynn, was diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of breast cancer. I questioned God daily, harangued him really, but was continually awed by the people who appeared in my life as a result of her sickness.
Alice Brown, newly diagnosed with breast cancer, was among them. We corresponded through email, trained together for a three-day breast cancer walk, and cried when it ended.
Nine months after she was diagnosed, Lynn died in February, just short of her 44th birthday. I barely remember Easter that year, just going through the motions.
The following year, Alice invited me to a special Stations of the Cross service at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Arlington Heights. I knew the service follows the last hours of Jesus, as he is beaten, crucified and buried.
Only this was different. Alice, a writer and actress, wrote a version of the Stations as a performance, focusing on survivors and their cancer journeys. At one station, a man described his helplessness upon learning that his child was sick. At another, a woman recalled how her husband and children shaved their heads so she wouldn't be alone.
At the 12th Station, where Jesus dies on the cross, Alice spoke and I recognized the story: "Lynn was 43 when she died. … Why did her disease progress so rapidly? Was this really God's will?"
I was instantly in tears, as I listened to her voice my own doubts, thoughts and prayers. Emotional, yes. Cathartic, too, as she acknowledged my pain — everyone's pain — out loud. Speaking the words made it real, and brought us back to that place where every second of life holds value and our daily gripes seem trivial.
Alice remembered Lynn's strange craving for Fritos, and how we could get her to laugh with the "Mahna Mahna" song from "The Muppet Show."
This year, I returned to Alice's Stations of the Cross prepared with tissues and a softer heart. Each person's story carried sadness, but also light and hope and prayer for better days ahead. It was soothing in a weird way. Because forging through the difficult stages of life is like that.
Sometimes, a little ritual goes a long way toward transformation, when hurt is refined into wisdom. In this way, I know that Easter is more than chicks, bunnies and the advent of spring.
Easter is a renewal, a commitment to loving God and looking for ways to help others shoulder their own cross.
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