“Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday” ~ Fulton J. Sheen
Fans of the popular TV Series The Twilight Zone will surely recall an episode entitled “A Nice Place To Visit.” First airing during the show’s maiden season in 1960 and borrowing its name from the expression “It’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there,” this fast moving tale is centered on a surly, hardscrabble fellow named Rocky Valentine. Rocky is a small time hoodlum, gambler, lone shark, and petty thief who, in the dramatic opening scene, finds himself staring down the wrong end of a gun, soon to be fatally shot on the tail-end of an armed robbery gone awry. He shoots and kills an elderly night watchman just prior to meeting his own bullet-riddled demise.
He awakens to find himself seemingly unharmed by the multiple gunshot wounds and in the company of a rather effervescent and congenial fellow in a white suit named "Pip" who informs Rocky that he is, for lack of a better term, his “guide.“ As such, he has been instructed to grant Mr. Valentine whatever his heart desires.
Suspicious, bitter, and relentlessly paranoid by nature, Rocky is convinced that Pip is trying to con him, to hustle the hustler so to speak. But as Pip continues to slowly win over his confidence, showing him the luxury apartment that is now his while offering him a wad of $100 bills that would choke a brontosaurus, some “walking around money” as a friend of mine might call it, Rocky comes to the conclusion that he has died and in fact gone to Heaven. Pip, he swiftly deduces, is obviously therefore his Guardian Angel.
Rocky is suddenly elbows deep in a champagne and caviar world where the women are long-legged and ravishing, the dice never pass, the scotch forever single malt, and gut-shot straights are as commonplace as bedpans in Bellevue. Anything and everything he wants is at his disposal whenever he wants it.
And it’s driving him crazy.
Bored out of his criminal mind, Rocky finally exclaims to Pip "If I gotta stay here another day, I'm gonna go nuts! I don't belong in Heaven, see? I want to go to the other place!” Pip retorts, "Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea that you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!!"
Pip’s sinister and relentless laugh fills the air as Rocky comes to the realization that he is in Hell and there is no escape from his endless "paradise.” Rod Serling’s poignant closing epitaph takes us home:
"A scared, angry little man who never got a break. Now he has everything he's ever wanted, and he's going to have to live with it . . . for eternity - in the Twilight Zone."
This ironic saga affords us the opportunity to reflect upon the idea of suffering in a larger sense. There is virtue to be gained through defeat and hardship, but suffering too. If not at its most elementary level, we must ask ourselves how can the amazing be fully enjoyed and appreciated unless it can be compared and contrasted to the awful? If everything is pristine and perfect in our lives, as it was in Mr. Valentine’s new eternal dwelling place, than nothing is.
But the virtue to be gained by way of hard times and suffering is even more profound. Through Jesus we learn that perseverance through suffering is more than merely a noble gesture. As we revisit the suffering that he endured on this the darkest day of the year, we encounter a man whose suffering changed the course of eternity. It was Jesus who opened the very gates of Heaven, conquering sin and death.
Our suffering, in whatever form it may take ~ immense, moderate or even relatively minuscule ~ draws us closer to Jesus, who taught us the value of suffering, all the while helping us to grow in that most cherished gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of fortitude.
Many of you offer up your suffering for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, an amazing act of selfless love, the type of Agape Love that Jesus displayed on the cross and throughout his entire ministry. No suffering is ever endured in vain, just as nothing done for God or one of his children ever goes to waste.
Suffering is of course in many respects a mystery. Throughout Scripture, we see Jesus healing lepers, the blind, the crippled, the possessed. All who sought healing from the Master Physician were cured, but Jesus did not take flesh and become man to eradicate leprosy, blindness or even demonic possession. He came to set us free. Jesus doesn’t always take away our suffering, but he promises to walk with us through our suffering. This is the promise of a man who kept the seemingly impossible promise; that a dead man would return to his friends in three days.
And finally, we know that suffering doesn’t last forever. The startling suicide rates that plague not only our country but the entire world indicate that many have forgotten this reality. The faithful know that life on this Earth is not the final act. it is instead but a blink of the proverbial eye against the backdrop and promise of eternal life.
As we pause today to reflect upon Jesus’ Seven Last Words, we know that even he too uttered the words “It is finished” before he breathed his last and handed over his spirit to the Father. On the day when Jesus comes again in his glory, we too will say the same of our Earthly suffering:
It is finished.
To borrow yet another quote from Fulton J. Sheen, the man who stands on the very threshold of Sainthood and whose words kicked off today’s reflection, “Evil has its hour, God has His day.”
Never in vain, never alone, and never forever does our suffering endure. Unless of course you answer to the name of Mister Rocky Valentine and you reside in a shadowy region of . . . The Twilight Zone.
We adore you O Christ and we praise you. For by you holy cross you have redeemed tbe world.