Breaking the Cycle

I am going to begin this story, in a sense, where it ended, and where it will never end. It has been determined that Daniel Pitcher, the man who confessed to and was convicted of murdering Ursuline Sister Joanne Marie Mascha, will not go to the electric chair.

I knew Sister Joanne, and her life has ended. But her peacemaking continues, even after her death.

I met Joanne at the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, Maryland, where the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation's Group Leaders Class of 1995 assembled for our eight-day residencies. Joanne was one of my 29 classmates. In May 1994 and February 1995, our class stayed at the Marriottsville center together, praying, listening, sharing, walking, laughing, and at times playing.

Joanne was without a doubt the most gentle of all of us. She was slight of build and fair-skinned, and appeared younger than her 58 years. Joanne talked in glowing terms of her convent home with the Ursulines in Ohio; about her love of birdwatching, which she did at home, walking on the grounds of her convent. She loved centering prayer as much as she loved one of her ministries to children whose parents were in jail. At Christmas Joanne would buy presents for them, from their parents. I'll never forget how joyfully, almost gleefully, Joanne described the amazement and joy the kids expressed when they opened gifts from their parents that had been purchased by the sisters.

All of Sister Joanne's life she had worked for peace. She worked to ban nuclear weapons, belonged to Amnesty International and the War Resisters League. At Thanksgiving 1994 she wrote a letter to her local Ohio newspaper urging people to write Congress to make hunger a political priority. And yet she died a violent death, during Lent, March 28, 1995, strangled and sexually assaulted, as she walked her convent grounds, birdwatching.

The Shalem Institute notified our class of her death. More than one member of the class, including me, has shared that when the news came all we could think as we doubled over in pain was, "Oh, God, no, not that one, not Joanne, no...."

Our gentle Joanne. Only silence could hold our aching hearts.

FOR CHRISTIANS, the story does not end with her death, but continues in her resurrection. And with the fact that the cycle of violence was broken, and in mysterious fashion. The judge who heard the case says that the jury actually made a procedural error that resulted in Daniel Pitcher's life being spared despite his proven and admitted guilt. The judge said to the Ursulines, "You must have prayed this man out of the electric chair."

It is true that the Ursuline Sisters made it publicly known that they remained opposed to capital punishment. And that they prayed hard, as readers can imagine, over this tragedy. And somehow through this tragedy, in that corner of the world, the cycle of violence was broken, despite a court system that was not even designed to make such a thing possible.

In our culture, in our violent times, this is not a time for Christians to sit back and wash our hands of the suffering of our human family while we make saccharine speeches about the glory of Easter. To stop violence, we must be part of breaking the cycle of violence. That means feeling our pain together, and letting God in to the worst of it. Precisely when the people of God need to turn to God is often when the people of God turn to violence. Deeply wounded people crying for the death penalty is a clear example.

Mature Christians inevitably become aware that to enter fully into life with God is undeniably to become victims and, in the same full measure, survivors of a great holocaust: the holocaust of death. In union with Jesus, we are not called to avoid this holocaust, but indeed, to walk through death with him. For us to live in peace as fully spiritual beings, our world must come to grips with the full meaning of death. Our world uses violence in the same way that an addict uses a substance or a process to avoid feeling pain, and to shun the nurturing power of the Spirit. Now is the time for Christians to intervene in the cycle of violence, to break the cycle by modeling trust, and by calling upon the name of God.

Do we teach our children that God accompanies us fully through the death process, that we are never adandoned? If our culture began to see death for what Jesus has revealed it to be-a doorway, a transforming process, not a final end-would we have any further justification for violence? Would our culture seek the temporary gratification and illusion of ultimate power that murder and capital punishment provide?

Knowing Sister Joanne Marie Mascha has helped reveal God's nature to me, not only in her life, but in the passage of her death. I know that God let Joanne and her sisters get the last word. Or perhaps Joanne and her sisters let God so live in them that they let God get the last word: No more violence.

MONICA KENNEDY is a rehabilitation specialist who works with disabled adults and gives workshops and retreats on spirituality and social justice. She lives in Towson, Maryland.

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