By Kevin Beck
On the evening of April 26, 2020, I discovered my beloved 18-year-old son Quentin dead in his bedroom. A few weeks later, I started experiencing flashbacks. These traumatic episodes transported me back to the room where I re-lived the entire event as if immersed in virtual reality. Nearly anything can trigger a flashback. Songs with evocative lyrics. Driving past his high school. Dinner at the IHOP where Quentin and his friends ate after concerts, plays and games.
I described these symptoms to my healthcare practitioners, and they began treating me for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My doctor prescribed medication to alleviate physical symptoms, and my therapist began teaching me techniques to navigate my way through the flashbacks. As helpful as these tools have been, I have also needed spiritual healing, so I turned to the practice of imaginative prayer.
One form of imaginative prayer, Ignatian contemplation, involves reading a biblical text, imagining yourself in the scene and picturing the events using thick description. You might even take on the persona of one of the characters and imagine what they might be experiencing so that you might discover what God is saying to you.
Since Quentin’s passing, I have been drawn to praying imaginatively with the Gospel narrative in which a desperate father experiences the death of his child. It is usually called “The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter.” I typically open my prayer by asking for faith and the grace of healing to live beyond heartbreak. Then I carefully read Matthew 9:18-26 and immediately encounter a staggering announcement. “An official came forward, knelt down before him, and said, ‘My daughter has just died.’”
I slip into the persona of Jairus and reflect on the evangelist’s dispassionate and detached description of “came, knelt and said.” In my imagination this distraught father sprints toward Jesus and crashes to the Galilean dust. He sobs and his chest heaves. A brine of tears and phlegm coats his face and drips into his mouth. He can barely utter the dreadful announcement, “My daughter has just died.” With those five words, I have “become” Jairus and collapse onto the hallway carpet outside Quentin’s room where my wife and I and howled as we lamented the death of our only son.
I breathe deeply, gather myself and continue reading. The word “just” grabs my attention. The girl’s death occurred moments ago. With that “just,” Quentin breathes his last, and I find him again as I did that harrowing night. At this point, I experience an intimate communion with Jairus and all parents who have mourned their children’s deaths.
If Jairus had said nothing more, Jesus might have knelt alongside him and wept as he did at Lazarus’ tomb. But Jairus expects more than compassion. He insists on resurrection. “Come, lay your hand on her, and she will live.”
Speaking of resurrection at Mass before had been easy for me. “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” My mechanical recitation of the Creed seemed to postpone resurrection indefinitely. I look forward to it sometime, somewhere, when no one knows the day or the hour. With imaginative prayer, though, Jairus and I plead with the one who is the resurrection and the life to replace the void where our hearts had once been. Praying with Jairus has transformed resurrection from a theological concept into living hope.
With Ignatian imagination, my polite faith has turned into an eager expectation. As Jairus, I can present my earnest desire with the utmost assurance that Jesus will respond. Resurrection is no longer theoretical; it has become personal.
My prayer continues with the text. “Jesus rose and followed him, and so did his disciples.” He needs to know the location of Jairus’ family home, but it seems backwards for Jesus to trail behind a bereaved father. Shouldn’t people follow Jesus, instead of him following them? Something more must be going on.
Sitting in prayer, I contemplate Jesus following me to the site of my son’s death.
But we run into a roadblock along the way. An unnamed woman who has suffered hemorrhages tugs on Jesus’ garment and halts the procession. As Jairus, I sense irritation. He has never asked for much, and his request requires immediate action. Why must someone else want Jesus’ attention when I need it? Jesus heals the woman, and I imagine Jairus feeling a complicated mixture of guilt, amazement and assurance. But there’s no time to linger. Jairus and I grab Jesus’ hand and rush home.
We arrive, the Gospel says, to a crowd of mourners and musicians “making a commotion.” Because Quentin died in the early days of Covid, we were unable to receive people into our home. Friends held vigil in our driveway. They lit candles, played music and prayed. Their sympathy and solidarity upheld us when we literally struggled to stand. Now, though, I am praying as the person of Jairus, so I insist my friends must move. I imagine him clearing a path through the gathering, “Thank you for being here, but I have a wonder-worker with me.”
Turning back to the text, I find Jesus dispersing the mourners. “Go away.” He insists, “The girl is not dead but sleeping.” I suppose some of these people had witnessed Jesus’ miracles, so their response startles me. “They ridiculed him.” They are simply being reasonable, but my exasperation churns. “I thought you were my friends, here to support me. Yet you mock the only one who can save my child. Are you just making a show?” With my outburst, the crying and music stop. The crowd averts their gaze as we enter the house. Jairus and I are so close to bringing Jesus to my dead child.
St. Matthew provides few details as to what happens next. “He came and took her by the hand, and the little girl arose.” With these words, my heart thrums. Jesus clasps her hand. He clasps Quentin’s hand. She rises. He rises. I weep tears of faith, hope and consolation.
Praying with Jairus has taught me that death cannot separate me from my son because we are united in God’s love. I have come to trust God’s vivifying presence accompanies me to the scene I had formerly found desolate.
Whether in the compassion of supportive friends or the experience of new life in Christ, I have learned to look for God’s loving presence in the mundane and the miraculous through imaginative prayer. Although I still have flashbacks, I have found slow and regular practice of imaginative prayer has structured a framework to aid in healing my trauma. Thanks to partnering with Jairus, I have come to believe beyond the finality of death and trust in the reality of resurrection.
Kevin Beck is an educator who currently tutors students in underserved communities. Since being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder, he has written about the intersection of faith and disability. Kevin lives in Colorado Springs with his family and their cats.