‘Amoris Laetitia,’ the Resurrection and life’s unfinished loves

Young Sullivan Ballou had already been elected a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, when he married Sarah Hart Shumway on Oct. 15, 1855. She had borne him two sons before this young Republican, and ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln, answered the call of his new president. After the attack on Fort Sumter, in April of 1861, President Lincoln needed 75,000 volunteers to preserve the Union.

Commissioned a major in the Second Rhode Island Infantry, Sullivan Ballou died from injuries, inflicted in the first Battle of Bull Run. On horseback, directing his troops, he was struck by a six-pound Confederate canon ball.

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Sullivan Ballou didn’t expect to die at the Battle of Bull Run, but he knew that it was a possibility, one which would create unfinished business. A letter was found in his trunk after his death. The 32-year-old husband had written to Sarah, his 24-year-old wife and the mother of his two sons, Edgar and William.

July the 14th, 1861
Washington D.C.
 
My very dear Sarah:
 
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more…
 
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
 
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us…. [W]hen my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
 
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
 
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
 
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again…
 
Sullivan

 

Major Sullivan Ballou was as ready as any man to accept death, but the prospect filled him with regret for the relationships, earth’s unfinished loves, which he would leave behind. He wanted his written words to remain with his wife, to be a bond that would unite them, even heal them, in death.

As Christians, all that we know of the life to come we learn from the resurrection of Christ. Indeed, that’s why we are convinced that there is a life to come. In the encounter of Peter with his risen Lord, we learn that relationships are not erased by eternity. To the contrary, resurrected life redeems, restores and renews, our earthly relationships.

In his new apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis writes:

Here hope comes most fully into its own, for it embraces the certainty of life after death. Each person, with all his or her failings, is called to the fullness of life in heaven. There, fully transformed by Christ’s resurrection, every weakness, darkness and infirmity will pass away. There the person’s true being will shine forth in all its goodness and beauty. This realization helps us, amid the aggravations of this present life, to see each person from a supernatural perspective, in the light of hope, and await the fullness that he or she will receive in the heavenly kingdom, even if it is not yet visible (No. 117).

 

In the Fourth Gospel, the Resurrected Lord takes up earth’s unfinished love. Like so many of us, death had robbed Peter of the chance to redeem his denial. You cannot apologize to the dead. You cannot undo what life has ended. But the resurrection of Christ reveals an eternal life that finishes earth’s loves. Heaven doesn’t cancel earth. Paradise is not a winnowing away from the loves of this life. In Christ, what was wrong can be righted. What sin ruptures, grace can heal.

This is the deepest meaning of purgatory, which should be understood as the compassion of the Risen Christ. It is not a place of minimum security. It is an ante-chamber of heaven, if you will, a process of mercy, whereby the Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, heals the wound of time.

In the Eucharist, heaven’s meal, the Lamb redeems us and, with us, all of human history.

I, John, looked and heard the voices of many angels
who surrounded the throne
and the living creatures and the elders.
They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,
honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5: 11-12).

 

“Do you love me?” is the great do-over of the disciple. It reveals the depth of redemption. Resurrection is Peter’s solace and our security, because resurrection completes earth’s unfinished loves. Major Ballou insisted that “If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night.”

Today Christ reveals that the darkest of human nights yields to the dawn of resurrection. In “Amoris Laetitia” Pope Francis quotes his predecessor Pope Saint John Paul II,

Moreover, moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection. Married couples shape with different daily gestures a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord” (No. 317).

 

Human relationships aren’t lost in death. To the contrary, it’s there that the Lord of life makes them whole again.

Acts 5: 27-32, 40b-41  Revelation 5: 11-14  John 21: 1-19

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