by Margarita Mooney on May 1, 2021
His body ravaged by cancer, John Aroutiounian was barely able to stand for the recitation of the Nicene Creed that Catholics say every Sunday at Mass. When I heard him whisper longingly the last line of the creed, “I believe in life everlasting,” I choked back my tears and begged God to make John’s faith a reality.
John was only 24 when, in January 2018, he was diagnosed with a tumor in between his stomach and his esophagus. For a year, I encouraged him to stay enrolled at Columbia Law School. I assured him God had great plans for his life. This trial would only strengthen his character to go on to even higher accomplishments. I never for a moment thought he would die.
After a year of treatments that were supposed to rid him of cancer, in December 2018, John got the shocking news that the cancer had spread to his liver. His health declined rapidly at the start of 2019. There was no known medical treatment that could save him.
When John asked me to accompany him to Mass on Sunday, March 31, 2019, he hadn’t given up hope that maybe, just maybe, a new treatment would be found that would save his life. But there was no avoiding the near certainty of his imminent death.
How could it be that such a rising star would be taken from this world so young? I had met John when he was a sophomore at Yale studying economics, politics and ethics, and leading numerous student groups, including the prestigious Yale Political Union. I joined the faculty of Yale in 2013, nearly two decades after graduating from Yale with my B.A. John became a liaison between me and students, helping me organize a variety of educational programs that integrated learning with friendship and faith. John excelled at motivating others to seek the truth with their whole hearts. He had boundless energy. Age, race, class or any other kind of social marker meant little to John—his limitless love transcended boundaries.
John wasn’t raised going to church every week. He became interested in Christianity while in high school, and became more serious about his faith while at Yale. During his illness, I knew he had made a pilgrimage to pray for strength and healing.
Now, he was so weak that I had to help him walk the two blocks from his parents’ apartment on 96th and Broadway in Manhattan to his local Catholic parish. When time came for the Eucharist, he insisted on walking up the central aisle of the church to receive the Eucharist on his own. I followed closely behind, afraid he would collapse. Instead of returning to the pew after receiving the body and blood of Jesus, John walked to the back of the church and embraced a giant crucifix. His frail body became one with the wood. He stretched his hands up and rested his head at the bloody feet of Jesus.
I stood nearby and sang a hymn of praise with the congregation. Suddenly John was by my side again, softly signing words of joy.
Back in his parents’ apartment, I told John how I loved liturgy because it reminds us of eschatology—the promise of eternal life, our salvation.
“I know what you mean, Margarita,” John said, smiling. “Liturgy does teach us about eternal life. But there’s nothing more fulfilling to our human nature than to worship our creator.”
John’s words confounded me, maybe because I too easily equate powerful religious experiences with a way to think of the next life and avoid pain in this life. Typical of many converts to Catholicism, John had a deeper appreciation of the faith and liturgy than someone like me, who has long engaged in traditional practices, often without interrogating what they mean.
For example, I like to think that my Catholic faith and practices make me a better person. What I do matters because I am making this world a better place for others. If suffering must be endured so I can get to eternal life, so be it. I’m not perfect. If offering up my sufferings means I can escape the punishment I deserve from my sins due to my self-sabotage, I’ll take that exchange.
But is that the true meaning of Catholic faith?
In Pope Benedict XVI’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, he characterizes Catholicism as a unity of worship, law and ethics. It’s not true that either we have mystical experiences of a transcendent God or we build an ethical society that conforms to God’s laws. It’s both/and.
Because of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, the chasm between heaven and earth has been broken open. We live in an earthly reality, but we are also journeying towards our final fulfilment that has already been inaugurated by the coming of Christ. The liturgy fulfills our desires here and now to experience God while also preparing us for greater communion with God to come. The liturgy is therefore not an escape from reality, but an anticipation of what we were created to become and therefore a participation in a deeper reality. Liturgy becomes a symbol of all of life, which we live as an “already and not yet.”
Just a month after we attended liturgy together for the last time, John took his final breath. In our final conversations, and final prayers, I knew he had accepted his cross with faith. But my heart was still pierced by a sword with sorrow. My stomach was tied in knots for weeks. I begged God to console me but sometimes I just felt angry. Other times, I struggled to find words to express the sense I had that was still with me, especially when I went to Mass.
Now, around two years after he died, I relish the memories of my final conversations with John. Knowing his days on earth were coming to an end, everything we did, everything we talked about, took on an eternal significance.
Liturgy is part of our education as humans precisely because it helps us see every moment of our lives as having eternal significance. Worship not only saves us—what I had in mind when I said to John that worship is about eschatology. Worship draws all of reality into communion with God—which is what John had in mind when he told me that worship fulfills our purpose as humans. The liturgy also connects our present reality to our future destiny—the eschaton, the anticipation of what is to come. As Benedict XVI explains, worship is a kind of work through which God makes his dwelling in the world. Worship anticipates the completion of creation.
The liturgy, as Benedict XVI writes, represents the drama of our departure to return, what he calls “a kind of turning around of exitus and reditus.” For Christians, history and cosmos are united. The cosmos moves from its one beginning to its one end in a circular movement that has two essential directions, exitus and reditus, departure and return. As Benedict XVI writes, “creation exists to be a place for the covenant that God wants to make with man…creation, history and worship are in a relationship of reciprocity”.
John’s willingness to embrace his cross transformed his innocent suffering from a passive state of decay into a powerful act of love. As Benedict says, for Christians, true sacrifice is not destruction, it’s surrender to God’s sovereignty. Benedict XVI describes how Jesus accepted his own painful death as an act of obedience to the father. The sacrifice of Jesus “draws the passion of human existence into the action of love.” Surrender, the essence of sacrifice and worship, opens us up to a “world of freedom and love.” In losing ourselves, we find ourselves.
We live in a world where innocent suffering easily leads people to reject God. But no faith, and no science, can completely deliver us from illness or save us from mortality. John’s illness and death involved many spiritual and physical struggles. During his illness, John never stopped turning around, turning back to God. The final drama of our lives we all face is whether we refuse to be dependent and want to make ourselves into gods.
That’s why Benedict XVI emphasizes that the movement of exitus and reditus is not essentially about falling into sin but about a turning back that is like a sudden awareness of where we have come from. Each and every life is one circle that is “inscribed within the one great circle of history as it moves from exitus and reditus. The small circles carry within themselves the great rhythm of the whole, and so provide it with the force of its movement.”
The healing that we all need is from our distorted desire for autonomy that rejects the freedom that comes with the love of the father. Worship breaks the alienation from ourselves that comes when we reject the father’s love. In turning to another who can save us, we are fulfilled. Creation finds its true identity in that relationship of love.
Every moment of the final liturgy I celebrated with John—the hymns, the readings from the Bible, the homily about the Prodigal Son, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Creed—put John’s life and my life into that great rhythm of the whole. John’s heroic embrace of the crucifix turned my attention back to the redemptive nature of suffering. But the redemptive nature of suffering should not be understood as a consolation prize for enduring pain, but a creature turning its attention to its final destiny. John’s witness of embracing the cross in love set an example I’m called to follow in my own way.
Many times since I witnessed John embrace that giant crucifix, I have often found it hard to keep my attention on our redemption. I felt weighed down by the memories of his physical pain and my own inability to help him more. But at the same time, I’m more aware than I ever have been that heaven bursts into earth at each liturgy.
A few times, I’ve been very certain of John’s presence right next to me at Mass. One day, while praying at home, I felt a sudden awareness that John loves us all much more now than he ever could have on earth.
Six months after his death, in November 2019, I went to Belgrade, Serbia to attend a friend’s wedding. At a Catholic Church in Belgrade at Sunday Mass, I took out a picture of John and looked down, with tears in my eyes. But then my reditus began when I was blown away by a mosaic of the Pantokrator, Christ the King and Lord of all, behind the altar. I realized that John does not want me to be sad. Nor does he want his image to attract my attention during Mass. So I held the picture in my hand but stared at Christ the King, worshiping alongside John.
In his homily, the priest said that when we rejoice with a baby, we throw the baby up in the air and catch him or her. After Mass, I stood in front of Christ the King and lifted John’s picture up three times, kissing his image and smiling, using my body to express that I had to let go of my grief and praise God for taking John home to his final destiny. In that particular Mass, through those prayers and gestures, I felt my pain healed.
I still cry sometimes. But I have the certainty that John has reached his fulfillment. He’s telling me that I, too, am already there, but also not yet there.
Because I was raised Catholic and never left the faith, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt the universe was devoid of meaning. I’ve never questioned whether God loves me any more than I’ve questioned whether my parents love me. But walking alongside John, first as he grew in his faith while aspiring to worldly plans, and then as he laid down his life as a sacrifice of love, taught me something I already knew but could not express in words. Every event in my life is a part of a cosmological reality of creation, journeying, turning away, and turning back and finally reaching my destiny.
At times this life feels like a valley of tears. But with faith, those tears are not a sign of hopelessness or emptiness. With faith, even our tears anticipate a promise of reunion with our loved ones.
But to really love in this world, to love in an unlimited way that transcends boundaries, we have to first accept our dependence on God. As John and I discussed many times, the modern world is premised on finding happiness through every greater autonomy. But the Christian faith actually teaches that we must be willing to lay down our lives and give up our autonomy. If we believe in eternal life, then failure, suffering and death aren’t our real enemies. Our real enemy is turning away from God’s love, which is the root of our sinfulness.
In our very final conversation, John told me, “Margarita, you and I are a lot alike. We like to be in control. But you will never be happy until you give up your need for control.”
I once believed my faith was tool to achieve to this-worldly perfection. With every passing year, that dream seems sillier. My real struggle is accepting that God loves me in spite of the fact that, in this life, I will never fully overcome my weaknesses. But I can live in hope of an eternal love that pulls me, along with those I love in this world and with the faithful departed, ever nearer to our final destiny.