Gemma's eyes


 A young woman gazes upwards. A cross is behind her.

“Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” [John 20.9]

“So, what exactly is the point of the ‘bodily resurrection’?”

I was once asked this question in a pub by a journalist. And, as always, when I find myself talking in a social environment with a journalist, I hear somewhere off in the background the words of the Police caution… “but anything you do say may be taken down and used in evidence…”

But drink had been taken, so I did what Barack Obama has probably trained himself never to do and said the first thing that came into my head. I told him about the occasion when I had the privilege of offering the sacrament of baptism to a young woman in Holloway prison on Easter Sunday. To begin with, when she arrived, she was dressed in so much white that I thought I had misunderstood and was meant to be celebrating a marriage. And maybe even I was. And when, after the ceremony I looked in her eyes, I saw an emotion that, initially, I did not recognize. It is not one I see too often – at least not at that level of intensity. It was HOPE! I am afraid that even putting it in bright red capitals and the largest font the editor will allow, does scant justice to the depth of the HOPE in her eyes. This young woman really had HOPE that what had just happened was going to make the largest possible difference in her life. To her, it simply was the most important thing that in this sacrament she could be reborn; she could be washed white; she could be made one with Christ; she could be in love; she could be united once and for all with the Presence of God in the world.

What her life so far had taught her was that life which did not contain that presence was crucifying her.

At the end, when the water had been poured, the Promises made, the Mass completed and the rest of the prisoners had gone, she asked the question; ‘how can I be good’.
I wondered initially what she meant.
She said “the last time I saw my mother, the last thing she said to me was ‘Be Good!’
Father, I want to be good. Please tell me how to be good!”

And it seemed to me that was so much at the heart of so many things that each of us want to be.
In the world of publishing, nothing sells as much as the ‘self-help’ books that seem to offer a big difference in our lives:

-              how to be thin
-              how to be successful
-              how to be rich
-              how to be better at what you do.
-              how to be better at relationships
-              how to get married
-              hot to get divorced
-              how to get what you want out of life.
-              How to win friends and influence people.

But sometimes that desire to be good drives people into a compulsive obsessionality to find proxy goods

-              A desperate desire to be more clean than it is humane to be.
-              A desperate desire to be more tidy than it is humanly feasible to be.
-              A desperate desire to be more ordered than is compatible with reasonable existence.
-              A desperate desire to be something other and better than who we were created to be.

So I asked her if she loved herself. She said ‘yes’.
I asked her if she liked herself. She hesitated and then said ‘no’.

But it was only after that journalist’s question that I realized what it is that Gemma was hoping for. It is what we mean by the “Resurrection of the Body”- that God will take and beatify not just the ethereal best of us - our minds and souls, but all of us. There is no part of us that is wasted. God loves all that he has made, even the parts that we ourselves find hard to love; even the parts that got Gemma into jail.

And so, having prayed about it, I got up and looked into a mirror to see whether I could find in my own eyes a little of the HOPE that shone in Gemma’s.

And that is why I do think that the doctrine of the resurrection of the body really matters to us. It means that all that we are and all that we have is not made perfect in the way we would like it to be – in the way that self-help books would encourage us to be; in the way that the culture of youth and beauty would have us believe is essential to human existence.


What the Resurrection of the Body means is that God can take me as I am and that with no change to who I have been made, but merely a change in how my life is directed, I also can be good. That is the hope that shone in Gemma’s eyes. And that is a hope that can burn in the hearts of us all.

So let us pray that all of us can learn to be good.

And profess our Faith in the presence of the Risen Christ in our world.

Paul O'Reilly SJ