Saturday, February 23, 2008

Father Lawrence Martin Jenco

The recent shootings in DeKalb, Illinois have stirred up all sorts of memories of the time I spent there. One of the most vivid was the time that Father Jenco came to speak at the Newman Center in the early 1990's. Seeing the photos of the stained glass windows there at "N.I.U. Mourns" brought it back to me.

For those not old enough to remember, Father Lawrence Martin (Marty) Jenco was one of the American hostages held in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980's. He suffered unspeakable torture, along with other hostages, such as Terry Anderson, while he was held at various locations for 564 days, before he was finally released. Father Jenco celebrated mass whenever he could, even if all he had was a pile of dust to consecrate, and he prayed with a rosary he wove out of threads from a sack. After his release, he wrote a book called Bound to Forgive about his experiences as a hostage and how and why he came to forgive those who captured, guarded, and tortured him.

I cannot even begin to describe what it was like to hear him speak. You can get something of a sense of his quiet voice and demeanor from the video (although unfortunately the interviewer cut him off in places he should not have). Also, this excerpt from the epilogue of his book gives some sense of his perspective:
Some people advise me to forgive and forget. They do not realize that this is almost impossible. Jesus, the wounded healer, asks us to forgive, but he does not ask us to forget. That would be amnesia. He does demand we heal our memories.
I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I forgive, but I remember. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember it to inflict guilt or some future retribution. Having forgiven, I am liberated. I need no longer be determined by the past. I move into the future free to imagine new possibilities.
and this other part quoted from his book:

"It may be because one guard would kneel on my pancreas with his full weight that I went through acute pancreatitis recently. And I have a 20% hearing loss [due to my treatment in captivity]. There are all kinds of pain we enter into in our lives. But I don't want to lug my pain on so that it becomes the focal point of my history." . . . .
"My history," as he put it, "is much more than 564 days in Lebanon."

(from this sermon on Atonement by Steve Edington).

What was remarkable about listening to Father Jenco in person was how extraordinarily difficult it was for him to recount both what happened and how he came to reach forgiveness. He told us that he was not going to be making many more appearances -- it took so much out of him -- yet he spoke at great length, with no notes. There was nothing sugar-coated or preachy or pretense to somehow have risen above and put aside all that had happened -- it was raw and painful and so deeply full of Christ that it was almost unbearable (as awful as that sounds) to listen to what he said to say.

Some days when I think that there is nothing left of Christianity but bickering over words and concepts, it will be good to remember Father Jenco, who brought Jesus in the flesh to us all that night in DeKalb. It is one of many memories I have deeply embedded in that place.

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