Breaking Open by Savanna McHenry
“Yes, our hearts are breaking, but the great grace of how God is with us in our pain is that the breaking need not be a breaking apart. It can be a breaking open: open to the poor whom Mev’s photographs allows us to see, open to the reality of injustice that creates and sustains such poverty, open to responding in relationship with those who are suffering […] We will honor Mev best by taking her life seriously and allowing her passion for justice and her commitment to the God who struggles with us to become our own” (357).
The first day of Senior Seminar, I remember being told that reading The Book of Mev would break my heart. This has proven to be true. Each page of the book brimmed with poignant truths: raw honesty, the beauty of life, and the overwhelming pain of poverty and suffering. I did not expect to be broken open anew to the poor, to injustices, to responding in relationship to such a strong degree. The journals, poems, interviews, photos, and accounts truly did break me open, and will continue to do so. It is an understatement to say that reading this book is an incredibly powerful journey for me. Even more powerful was the opportunity to read it in the community of the senior seminar class, where we could be insightful, honest, supportive, and even confused together.
Journeying through this book, I felt an overwhelming sense of accompaniment: with Mev, Mark, Ilza, Ann, Maria Goreth, with the entire communion of saints. I immediately felt that Mev could be my sister, confidant, mentor, even a best friend! I was both refreshed and relieved reading her thoughts on the Church and her prayers to God, thinking “someone else has felt this way too!” Nothing means as much to me as her honesty about her struggles with her society, family, church, and purpose in life. The questions she asks are ones that I can relate to in my life right now. I feel as if Mev has met me exactly where I am at, bringing the entire communion of saints to encourage me forward.
In particular, I identified deeply with her Prayer from Autumn 1989, especially: “And it doesn’t steal me away from the poor, it doesn’t compromise my alternative lifestyle, it doesn’t dilute my intimacy with you. Rather, it energizes my commitment to the poor, it challenges me to be more true to and discerning of the lifestyle I feel called to, enhances my intimacy with you—opening chambers of my heart I never knew existed! So, while I’m in the tomb and I don’t know who Jesus is and […] what the hell is going on with my faith—I am also in the womb and something new is being forged and revealed. It is as awesome and dumbfounding as new birth” (100).
I have read this prayer probably twenty times, recording it in my own journal as a rock to cling to in this season of my life. She wrote this prayer at a time where her faith was growing and changing in many ways. Her description of feeling “raw” and fragile after returning from Brazil and Mark’s realization that he could not fix her but only listen and accompany her on this “faith-crisis” spoke deeply to my heart. Mark writes that Mev eventually “came to describe this time of her life as a ‘faith-crisis’, by which she meant that she could no longer believe in the same God or have the same spirited, easy, even chatty relationship with Jesus that she had heretofore enjoyed. Her previously strong faith was dispirited in Brazil, even as she realized that she was not so well put together as she had thought” (74, 75). I am sure that re-reading this book several times in the future will lead me to several new points in her life that strike different chords, but right now these parts of her journey are continuously on my mind and heart.
These accounts from Mark brought me to silence, appreciation, and wonder that what I feel is my own faith-crisis is really a breaking open. Seeing the way Mev’s life unfolded was so beautiful. Reading of her relationship with Mark was encouraging dose of the reality and beautiful mystery of agapic love. From seeing the way her and Mark’s relationship developed, to her journeys to interview and be in solidarity, to her helplessness and humanness in living the deep mystery that was the suffering of cancer, I saw Christ in each page. Truly, even as Mark prays the Song of Songs to Mev on the day she died, their frustration, anguish, vulnerability, and pain gave me a deep glimpse into the mystery of suffering.
Truly, “In her last months Mev led us more and more deeply into poverty. It was, as Saint Francis de Sales called it, a destitution of love. She had wanted to give the poor a face, a voice. She always wanted to be identified with them. And so it came to pass[…] She became the poor she loved ” (326). Mev’s struggle and connectedness in her conviction that “the struggle is one” gave such a deep dimension to everything she did in her life. Her questioning was not “why me?” but “why not me?” shows that although she did not choose her sickness, she was willing to enter into the suffering of the poor, the suffering of Christ. The lessons this has taught to countless people who have been touched by Mev’s witness are a bold echo in the legacy of the communion of saints and a prophetic voice that speaks of the coming of the kingdom of God.
Journeying through The Book of Mev truly did break me open, and I thank God that I can be continually broken open, yet strengthened by the hope in building the kingdom of God, the inspiration of the communion of saints, and trust that agapic love endures. It is a consolation to know that although I have felt my own breaking apart, it really is a breaking open to something new. The witness I have learned through The Book of Mev connects me more deeply to the communion of saints. To her I would say, Mev, you are among the mirrors you spoke of, “and it sometimes chills me and embarrasses me to look at myself in your light. I feel disgrace, a need for mercy, a need for your strength to pull forth to me […]Help me. Move me. Be with me. We are one. Yes, the struggle is one” (374).
–Savanna is a student at Creighton University. This reflection was for a Justice and Peace seminar.