One in the Crowd

We were talking about faith as we drove to the Frassati hike. I remember looking up at the steel grey sky, in which a thick blanket of clouds blocked the sun from shining and warming the April air. I remember thinking it was an apt analogy for my faith in God: I knew that like the sun, God was up there, but I could not see or feel His Presence.

For years I attended Frassati retreats, and watched in particular on Saturday night as people had “wow” experiences of God. I saw their faces light up, their hands raise in enthusiastic praise. I wondered if or when I would ever feel what they felt. If I would ever be able to praise from the depths of my heart, and not just from my mind and will. I felt a numbness, a paralysis in my faith life, that blocked the joy that others seemed to exude. “I am waiting for you, God!” I would pray. “When are you going to come to me?”

In today’s Gospel, a man has been lying paralyzed by a healing pool for more than 38 years. Longer than many of you reading this have been alive, he lay there, waiting. It was believed that at certain times, an angel would stir that pool at Bethesda, the Hebrew word for mercy, and whoever was first into the pool would be miraculously healed. But as the man explained to Jesus, he had nobody to help him in—and so he was never first. So he continued to wait.

I often felt like that man, lying, waiting. It seemed that God’s miracles, that His best graces, that His love—were for others, not for me.

One day, as I was being prayed over, I was told, “God is waiting for you.” What?!? I was shocked and indignant. Surely He had it backwards! I was the one waiting…

I wonder if the man in today’s Gospel felt a similar surprise, when Jesus came up to him and asked, “Do you want to be well?” I wonder if he was tempted to sarcasm, tempted to reply, “Isn’t it obvious?” I wonder if there was a touch of resignation, of hopelessness, or of whining, when he replied “There is no one to help me…” Or did the question of Jesus elicit a new hope? Did it shift something within him?

In the end, it is not the angel-stirred pool that heals the man, but the words of Jesus. Said our parish priest in today’s homily: “Jesus Himself is the healing water.”

One day, Jesus “showed up” in a big way in my life, also on a Frassati retreat, more than eight years after I first started attending. I remember sitting in the chapel, as what seemed to be a waterfall of grace fell into my hands and I felt that joy I had seen others experience.

But this was only the beginning. And in some ways, it wasn’t even that. Because as I began to grow in relationship with Jesus, I began to see He had been healing me all along. I was looking for the miraculous, for “rushing waters”—but so often, growth and healing is the slower process that we see in nature. Sometimes this takes place underground, unseen, or hidden in the womb. Even when it emerges, change and growth is often gentle and slow.

It was only when I committed to a daily prayer time, when I set a designated time for dialog with God each day, that I began to both receive and perceive deeper healing. This was a time for God to ask His questions: “What are you looking for? What do want me to do for you? Do you want to be well? Whom is it that you seek?”

It is in the person of Christ that we find healing. It is Love alone that made us, and that makes us new. It is not something that we earn, or that the angels do for us. It is the gift of a Person.

I recently attended a week-long healing retreat in Florida. I experienced some healing there—but also found God showing me even more areas that still needed to be healed. And it was clear that my impatience with waiting has not improved in the last decade. I was discussing this with a friend on the phone—how I wanted to get on with it already. She knows me and reminded me, “You can’t perform surgery on yourself!” “Ugh,” I replied, “Just hand me the scalpel already!”

Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, who also spoke on our retreat, was familiar with this frustration. “I often come with my long list of things I want God to heal,” she admits. “But then I hear Him say, ‘You are not problem to be fixed. You are a person to be loved.’”

One of the biggest wounds that needed healing in my life was the lie that God’s goodness and love were for others, but not for me. I have come to recognize this as a not uncommon strategy of the Opposition Voice: that for those who do not doubt God’s reality and goodness in general, he tempts them to doubt it in the particular.

The man in the story was one among many at the pool that day. There was a whole crowd of people waiting to be healed. But for Jesus, we are always the one: the one He calls; the one He loves; the one He wants to heal.

In his monthly introduction to the Magnificat, Rev. Sebastian White, O.P. noted another curious thing about the healing of the paralyzed man. Unlike the blind man who leaves his cloak behind, the paralyzed man is told to “Take up his mat and walk.” Why not leave it?

As Father White says: “…the Lord leaves him with the constant reminder of his former condition. Lugging around his silly mat might have been annoying—a battle even—but I bet that man never forgot he depended on Jesus.” (Magnificat Editorial, April 2019, pp. 4-5)

Sitting in Pairs

Gathered in the theater of the Sheen Center, we watched as survivors of the Rwanda genocide told their stories of living through unspeakable atrocities.  How they hid from former friends and neighbors, who hunted them down in order to exterminate them.  How they watched family members assaulted and killed before their eyes.  How they hid in the bush, in the ceilings; how they begged for food, for simple kindness, for their lives to be spared.  In just a few months, over one million people were murdered in Rwanda by their fellow countrymen.

The survivors sat in pairs as they told their stories.  One man described his parent’s killing.  One woman witnessed her father, and later her brothers, being taken away and executed.  One woman recounted how she was personally attacked, and showed us the scars on her body, including a long scar across her neck, formed by the attack of a machete intended to decapitate her.  The man sitting next to her began to tell his story also.  “I remember her…there were so many that day…but I remember her especially.  Because I thought I killed her.”

There was a collective intake of breath, as the theater sat hushed and still, suddenly aware that we were seeing something different.  That the pairs were not of fellow survivors, but of survivors and perpetrators.  That each person recounting their story of horror, was sitting next to someone responsible for that horror—a living icon of the healing power of forgiveness.

Father Ubald, maker of the film and presider over recent Frassati healing services, lost his parents to the genocide and only narrowly survived himself.  He believed that God spared him, and later used him, to bring the message of forgiveness to a country torn asunder by hate.  For him, the only path to recovery from the trauma, both for the individual and the country as a whole, was in the choice to forgive.  Forgiveness was the key to freedom for both survivors and perpetrators.  It was also the only way to arrest the power of hatred, and to break the cycle of violence.

Father Ubald had the opportunity to put this into practice when he met the man responsible for his mother’s murder.  He chose to forgive.  And because he knew it would be easy to dismiss such forgiveness as merely theoretical, he made it practical and concrete.  As a gesture of love, he committed to paying the schooling of the man’s son, and later his daughter as well.  This year, the daughter of a killer will finish medical school, financed by the mercy of one of his victims.

One cannot help but be inspired by these stories.  And yet, we struggle to put into practice even a fraction of what we witness.  Within ourselves, we hold hostage others guilty of much lesser crimes, refusing to forgive others of even small slights against us.  Those closest to us in particular can have an ability to injure us—and to be injured by us in turn, and by our unwillingness to forgive.

G.K. Chesterton quipped that “the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”  For some of us, the challenge is even closer.  “All of our family was under one roof for the holidays…and nobody was murdered.  That’s the real Christmas miracle!” joked our retreat leader Colleen Kelly-Rayner.

Today’s Gospel tells the story of the unforgiving servant. He is himself released from an unpayable debt at the mercy of his master.  But when he encounters one who owes a much smaller debt, he seizes him and starts to choke him, demanding that the debt be repaid.

Jesus has harsh words for him: “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Furthermore, Jesus tells us to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times”—that is, without limit.  He is inviting us to be like God.

We cannot become like God on our own; we need grace.  In order to forgive, we need God’s help.  The first step of forgiveness is to ask for the grace to forgive.  And sometimes, for the grace to want to forgive.  (Sometimes, to want to want to want to forgive…)

To forgive does not mean to erase what happened, to pretend that the was no real injury, no sin, no harm.   Rather, to forgive completely we must be honest about the evil that we are forgiving.  We are not pretending that evil away, but rather relinquishing revenge, relinquishing our right to exact payment, releasing our choke-hold on the one who owes us.

To forgive does not mean to forget.  According to the Catechism, it is “not within our power not to feel or to forget.”  We may continue to feel the pain of injury for some time.  In fact, notes Simcha Fisher, it may be that the “seventy-seven times” is for the same offense.  Even as our heart or emotions remind us of the injury, we can choose again to surrender our feelings to the Holy Spirit, and to offer forgiveness as an act of our will.

Thus the Lord’s words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end, become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord’s teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.  CCC 2843

How do we surrender our heart to God in the midst of pain?  Father Solanus Benfatti, CFR, composed a Prayer Against Bitterness which I have found particularly helpful.  In it we are invited to come to God with the truth of what was done to us, but the greater truth about who we are and who God is.  We invite God to transform our pain, that it not become a prison for us.

Prayer Against Bitterness

Oh God, Heavenly Father. Thank you for my life. Thank you for wanting me. And for making me in the image and likeness of your Most Beloved Son in whom you are well-pleased. And for consecrating me into his Passion, Death, and glorious Resurrection at my baptism.

Father, right now, I feel hurt (sorrowful / angry /other), because _______. As a creature made wonderfully by you, and saved by the blood of the Lamb, and meant to be with you forever, I don’t deserve ______. And in the name of Jesus I reject and renounce the lie _________.

But I also do not want my natural anger and hurt to plant bitter roots in me and turn in to hatred and resentment. I renounce that and ask you, Father, in your merciful love, to send your Holy Spirit to block that from happening, even while I try to process properly the emotions I have and work to make reasonable and loving decisions to forgive, out of love for you, and following your example.

Also, I beg you to uproot bitterness and resentment that has taken residence in me in the course of my life. Give me memory of what I need to proceed humanly and forgive divinely. Send the Mother of your Son, Mary, to guide me, hand-in-hand all along the way.

I pray to you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

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Image Credit: scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

White Pebbles

When we children were not behaving, and my father was beginning to lose his patience but not yet his sense of humor, he would glance at the woods behind our house and say, “It’s time to start gathering white pebbles!”

We knew well the story of Hansel and Gretel, and how the father, pressured by the wicked stepmother, brought his two children into the deep woods, intending to leave them there.  However, Hansel had overheard the plans, and filled his pockets with white pebbles.  As they walked further into the woods, he dropped the pebbles along the way.  When the two children awoke to find themselves abandoned and alone, Hansel reassured Gretel, and told her to wait for the moonrise.  Sure enough, when the moon rose, it illuminated a path of the white pebbles, leading them safely home to their rejoicing father.

A few years ago, I was in a Bible Study with Brother John Mary CFR in which he invited us to pray about our story, and write a five-minute testimony.  As I prayed, the image that kept coming to my mind was this story and the path of white pebbles.

I realize that in many ways my life is like that path of pebbles, illuminated as I look back, like a reverse treasure hunt.  So many moments that seemed random, insignificant, or even tragic and opposed to my good, looking back highlight instead a path leading to God the Father.  Small conversations, big obstacles, struggles that seemed senseless, set the way Home.  My life was a path of gifts and graces that I only recognized in hindsight.

However, as I sat with the story and the image, I realized something was “off.”  The father in that story was not a true image of God the Father.  While he was not as ill-intentioned as his wife, he bowed to her pressure to abandon his children, not once, but twice.

The Brothers Grimm tell us that the father was a poor woodcutter “who could no longer procure even daily bread.”  He fears for the family, anticipating that they will all die of starvation.  His wife’s solution is to get rid of the children. The father balks, but in the end succumbs to her pressure and his fear.

The father is happy when the children return home the first time, but when the wicked step-mother applies pressure again, he capitulates and leads them into the deep woods a second time.  This time, Hansel did not have the opportunity to gather pebbles, and so scatters instead a trail of breadcrumbs.  But birds eat these, and the moon rises only to show the children that they are truly lost and alone, and this time there is no path home.  (It was then that they found the fabled candy cottage, and the witch that forms the heart of that story).

At first, as I considered the weak woodcutter, I thought that I must have misunderstood what I had received in prayer.  But as I stayed with it, I realized that the metaphor for my life only deepened.  For my story is not just about a path to God, but about coming to know what kind of Father God really is.

For much of my life, I saw myself not unlike Hansel, left to figure things out for himself.  I imagined that God would be happy enough if I made it home to heaven—but that it was all up to me to do what it took to get there.  While I did not doubt God’s goodness or love in the abstract, I did not recognize it for myself personally and practically.  God’s goodness did not seem “enough” to really help me, to overcome my sin, to overcome the difficulties of the world and my life.   He would be waiting for me at the end, if I made it, if I became the Girl I Ought to Be, but in the meantime, I was on my own.

If I wanted to come Home to my Father, it was up to me to find the way.  It was up to me to figure out how to save myself.  It was up to me to be clever enough to outwit evil, to prove my worthiness.  The result was a life of spiritual striving, which only left me feeling further lost and unloved.

Jesus comes to tell a different story.  The Father is “Our Father”—a Father we have in common with Jesus.  He is Son by nature; we are children by adoption, by a gratuitous love.  And because our image of Father has been so distorted, Jesus comes to reveal the face of the Father by His life.  It is a face of mercy, of healing, of truth, and a love which goes out to “seek and to save the lost.”

Not only is God generous, providing for our daily bread and physical life; He Himself becomes our Bread.  He Himself is the path; He walks with us and provides the grace and means to get to heaven.  Unlike the woodcutter who chose self-preservation out of fear, Jesus walks the path to the Cross, and shows in Himself the self-giving, self-emptying love that would literally rather die than live without us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to pray.  As we pray the Our Father, we are invited to praise and affirm belief in the goodness of God’s Fatherhood, and to pray for the coming of His kingdom—that earth may reflect fully the goodness of heaven.  We then remember His promise to take care of us as we then entrust our needs to Him—”Give us this day our daily bread…deliver us from evil.”  He is not a Father who abandons us, but rather Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

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Image Credit:

Michel Matton [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Hiding in Paradise

A two-year-old niece makes many things more fun, but Hide-And-Go-Seek is not one of them.  Zippy thinks that if she closes her eyes and can’t see me, then I can’t see her either.   Sometimes, to make it more challenging, she puts something over her face as if for a prolonged game of Peak-A-Boo.  Or, once I’ve really hidden—behind the refrigerator, or the door, or under the bed—she will hide there herself.  Again, and again, and again.  Each time, I am supposed to play surprised.

When Adam and Eve hide in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit, God asks “’Where are you?” Surely the omnipotent God already knows.  So why does God ask?  And why does He follow Adam’s answer with still another question: “Who told you that you were naked?”  God wants them to see them as they are, naked and hiding from Him.

In my last reflection I wrote about the strategies of the Opposition Voice, whose goal it is to separate the Father from His children.  He does this first by getting them to reject God.  His next strategy is to get them to believe that God will reject them.

In tempting them with the forbidden fruit, the Opposition had begun to sow doubt in God’s goodness, and thereby to instill a fear of dependence on God.  Adam and Eve are initially tempted to choose self-sufficiency—achieving God-like status on their own, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Once they have eaten the fruit, the voice continues to promote self-sufficiency versus dependence on God.  They seek to cover their nakedness and dependence, and to hide from God rather than trust in His goodness.

As they lose sight of the God in whose image they are, they lose sight of His image in themselves.  “Guilt says you made a mistake; shame says you are a mistake” notes Gregory Cleveland, OMV.  And so to cover the mistake that they think they have become, Adam and Eve dress themselves in fig leaves.

It is an obvious strategy of the Opposition to make sin appear good, or perhaps necessary, or at the very least, not a big deal.  In a more subtle strategy, after our sin, the Opposition seeks to make our sin bigger than God.

After Genesis 3, we don’t get a visual on the serpent again until the Book of Revelation, when the seven-headed ten-horned dragon is at war with the Woman and Her Offspring.  But the Opposition Voice echoes through the books in between, spoken sometimes from without, and sometimes from within.  The first sin is for man to try to become like God on their own.  The second (and all subsequent) sins is to try to become like God on our own.

This is the mistake of the Pharisees, whom Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel.  “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” He tells His disciples.   The disciples are confused, thinking He has rebuked their forgetfulness (once again, they don’t have enough bread).  He recalls to them to the multiplication of the loaves, and asks “Do you still not understand?”

He is bringing them back not just to a previous lack, but to God’s providence in that lack.  It is God who provides everything.  He provides the grace to avoid sin, but also the grace to repent and to return once we have sinned.  He is the source of good, and the source of mercy when we are not good.

The Pharisees wish to adhere to a system of goodness based in the Law and traditions; to systematize a way to heaven with ritual and righteousness.  They cover themselves with the fig leaves of outer conformity to the Law, but like small children with their eyes closed, they presume that God cannot see the truth within them.

It is not the good deeds of the Pharisees that upsets Jesus; it is their reliance on them, versus reliance on God.  At its heart, it is still denial of God’s Fatherhood.

“Where are you?… Who told you that you were naked?”  Because man is now afraid and unable to approach and depend on God, God comes to earth as a naked baby, completely dependent on us.  And He shows us what dependence on humanity alone will lead to, when He is once again naked, stretched out on the Cross.

 

 

 

 

Other Paradise Trees

 

 

 

“Daughter!”

Two-year-old Zippy has recently discovered FaceTime.  She loves to talk to Nonna and “A’Reece” (Aunt Grace), but is sometimes a bit confused as to how the technology works.  She will giggle with delight when we answer and our faces appear on the screen, as though we have come to visit her.  “Hi Zippy! Hi Honey!” we say.  “Hi Zippy, Hi Honey!” she says in happy reply.  

She is dismayed however if we don’t share our snacks; she is always generous with hers, trying to put them through the phone (her mother’s turn to be dismayed).  She waves the phone around to show us her dinner or her dolls, and we try not to get dizzy.  Sometimes she will sit and “talk” for awhile—sometimes not saying anything, sometimes chattering away, while we get a steady view of her eyebrows and the top of her head.

During the recent government shutdown, her father came up to visit us and help out for a bit while he was out of work.  When we called to FaceTime, Zippy was ecstatic to suddenly see Daddy on the phone as well.

Shortly after he had returned home to Maryland, the whole family called on FaceTime.  My brother passed the phone to Zippy, who was excited to talk to us, but unhappy that we wouldn’t show her Daddy.  “Zippy see Daddy!” she implored. “I am right here!” my brother laughed behind her.  But Zippy was not placated until Daddy moved around so that she could see his face in the small screen she was holding.  “Daddy! Dere you are!”  she laughed delightedly.

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel a woman is seeking Jesus.  She has had a flow of blood for twelve years; doctors have only made things worse.  And this flow of blood has in turn made her “unclean”—a spiritual outcast, barred from the temple and the touch of other people.

She has heard great things about Jesus and thinks that if she could but touch the hem of His garment, she would be cured.  She moves quietly through the crowd, comes behind Him, and touches His clothing.  Immediately, she realizes she is healed.

Jesus, however, recognizes a deeper desire for connection.  He knows that healing power has gone out of Him, and asks the confused crowd “Who touched me?” 

The woman must then confess; she comes forward, revealing herself and tells what has happened.

“Daughter,” Jesus replies, “Your faith has made you well.”

She had sought merely the restoration of her health. Jesus restores her identity, her relationship with her Father.  “Daughter…”

This deep desire—was it only on the part of the woman? 

It is a central mystery of Christianity that our love, desire, and faith actually begin as God’s initiative toward us.  It is He who first loves us; He who calls us to prayer, who plants the desire in our hearts, who is the source of both our longing and its fulfillment.

 

 

Adam

Photo Credit: Michelangelo, Public Domain

Last Minute–Why?

Growing up, I did not know that Don Bosco was a saint; I thought he was a family friend.  I would hear things like “Don Bosco got Daddy a job” or “Don Bosco helped us pay that bill.”  Friends’ parents shared similar names: Ron, John and my father, Don, gathered together regularly for coffee.  When I heard “Don Bosco” I just added him to the mix.

Saint John Bosco (known popularly as Don Bosco) first came to our attention before my parents were particularly religious.  They were having financial troubles, and his intercession was sought as a “patron saint of unpaid bills.”  I was just a child at the time and so the precise details were hazy, but there was a medical bill that my parents were unable to pay.  As it went to collection with no resources in sight, my grandmother proposed a novena to Saint John Bosco.  Figuring “What can it hurt?” my parents prayed to Don Bosco for nine days.  But on the last day of the novena, an envelope arrived from a mail order contest for the exact amount of the bill!

Answers like this appeared throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood.  Time after time, Saint John Bosco came through, often at the very last minute.  This followed the pattern of his own lifetime, of last-minute miracles.  He started an Oratory for troubled boys in Turin, but there was not often an excess of funds.  More than once, he sat the boys down for dinner with nothing to feed them with.  Then, suddenly, there would be a knock on the door with a last-minute donation of food.

Other times Don Bosco seems to have been granted miracles of multiplication.  One such story is recounted by Francis Dalmazzo, who had decided after just a few days to leave the Oratory, and had even sent for his mother to come and get him.  But that morning, he witnessed a few rolls become enough to feed the four hundred boys.  As each boy received his roll, there was another in its place for the next boy, until all had eaten—and in the basket Francis saw the original few rolls still there.  He told his mother that he had decided to stay after all. 1

Last-minute miracles took many forms.  There were death-bed conversions, including that of the man who had spent his life in opposition to Don Bosco’s work.  There was the time when St. John Bosco seemed too late—a boy in the Oratory had died without making a good Confession.  Don Bosco raised him from the dead, and the boy received the sacraments.  There was the time he wanted to build a basilica to Mary Help of Christians—to whom he had entrusted all his needs and work.  He gave the astonished architect a down payment of eight cents, promising that “Mary would build her own basilica.”2  We visited that Basilica on a Frassati pilgrimage in 2010.

It is easy to admire a saint for such radical trust in God.  Real-time waiting and last-minute rescues, however, do not make for an anxiety-free life.  I often wished that as an intercessor, Don Bosco would not wait until that last minute.  And sometimes it seemed that his idea of last-minute went well beyond mine.  Other times he didn’t seem to answer my prayers at all.

I am not going to lie—there have been times when I was tempted to move Saint John Bosco to my other listSaint.Joseph for one, is a lot more prompt… And then I wonder just why John Bosco is in my life to begin with.  What does this saint have to teach me, in particular about last-minute answers?  About trusting in Providence?  About waiting?

In the Gospels Jesus tells the strange story of a persistent widow, who hounds a judge until he gives her justice.  Jesus tells us to imitate her tenacity when asking favors of God.  He also tells the story of a man who wakes up his friend in the middle of the night to ask for bread for a visitor.  The friend responds, not out of friendship, but because he wants the knocking to stop.

These are not appealing images.  Most of us go out of our way NOT to be a nuisance, not to impose on others.  Yet Jesus tells us to keep asking past the point of feeling comfortable about continuing.

The vision of God that this parable proposes does not seem at first to be any more appealing.  Why would He insist that we ask, repeatedly, when as Jesus tells us, He already knows what we need?  Does He really demand that our petitions reach critical mass before deigning to reply?  Is it only when we’ve worn ourselves (and Him) out like the judge that He is reluctantly persuaded to give us what we ask? 

We know theologically that God is good.  We know from Scripture that “it is your Father’s desire to give you the kingdom.”  But from the first sin in the Garden, our lived faith in His goodness is shaky.  But Jesus wants us to call on and trust the Father.

Don Bosco was a father to the boys in Turin, and later to the Salesian order.   He first attracted the boys by performing magic tricks to get their attention, but ultimately they stayed because they experienced his personal love and care for each of them.  They learned first to trust in him, and in his fatherly love for them.  His fatherly care and provision of their earthly needs pointed always and ultimately to the heavenly Father.

 

Saint John Bosco
Feast Day January 31st

 

Notes:

1 http://www.salesians.org.za/index.php/bi-centenary/25-don-bosco-miracles-in-his-life

2 http://www.donboscowest.org/saints/donbosco

Image credit: Unspecified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Holding Heaven

“I’m holding heaven in my arms tonight!” the lyrics of an old country song came unbidden, as I gazed down at the little one cradled softly in my arms. The afternoon sun highlighted the perfect features of a tiny face, illuminating like a halo the downy hair peaking from beneath a newborn cap.  The baby girl’s name was Caeli, from the Latin word for heavens.

*            *            *

Her mother Regina and I were born just eleven days apart, and were best friends from the age of seven, when I convinced her to walk home with me from school one day.  I had her wait outside while I asked my mother if she could come over to play.  “Who is Regina?” my mother asked.  “The girl standing in our driveway…!”  She wouldn’t have to ask again, as Regina quickly became a permanent fixture in my life.

Three decades later, we were still the best of friends, but no longer shared a school or a zip code.  I was single, with my New York City work and shoebox apartment.  Regina and her husband had a house in the country, shared with eight young children.  I visited when I could, to entertain them with stories and give them sugar highs.

As I had every other time, I shared Regina’s enthusiasm when she announced that she was expecting again, due in the summer of 2014.  But then I shared her devastation, when, as the pregnancy progressed, there came sobering news.

Tests showed signs of anomalies, and more tests were suggested, followed by more doctor visits and somber consultations.  Eventually the fears were given a name: it was believed that the baby, to be named Caeli, had both Trisomy 18 and spina bifida. 

While spina bifida brought challenges that could be reduced or corrected by surgery, Trisomy 18 was more serious and life threatening.  An extra chromosome 18 brought with it high risk factors—only half of these babies live to be born, and only ten percent of those live past the first year.  Those who survived often had heart defects and/or damage to other organs, and ongoing health risks.  In fact, the specialist to which Regina and her husband Erik went for help refused to treat them, saying that there was no point. 

We began to pray a 54-day rosary novena for a miracle.  The miracle was Doctor Elvira Parravicini.    Dr. Parravicini was a Catholic neonatologist working at Columbia Hospital, who had begun a program especially for families in such situations.  She had come to New York at the suggestion of Monsignor Guissani, founder of Communion and Liberation

For her, to follow Christ in such a situation was to “follow” the child: that is, to respond to the needs of the child, including not only medical needs but also the need to be welcomed and loved, even if for a painfully short while.  In Caeli’s case, Dr. Parravicini met with the parents to provide good prenatal care, and to be prepared for surgery (necessary within 72 hours) should the baby require it.  She also arranged for the other children, Caeli’s siblings, to be at the hospital the day of delivery, so that they could meet and welcome her. 

Early on the morning of June 18th, Regina began procedures to induce labor, with Erik at her side.  Her brother, a priest, brought her mother and the other children awhile later, and staff provided activities for them while they awaited Caeli’s arrival. 

Across the city I waited anxiously, begging God for a miracle, that Caeli be healed and be allowed to live.  I don’t know that I have ever prayed harder for a miracle, as if I could move heaven with intensity alone.

Regina had gone into labor early that morning, but hours later I had heard nothing.  I tried to work, but was too distracted.  Finally, I sought refuge in the Church of St. Monica nearby.  I prayed to every saint I could think of.  And then out of desperation, I prayed to the future St. Caeli.  I knew that God is outside of time, and that Caeli was likely be a saint soon and always, and so I implored her help, too.

Just then, kneeling there in the front of the church, I was surprised by a peal of girlish laughter.  I felt this laughter rather than heard it—it is hard to explain what I even mean by that.  It was too real to deny, and yet beyond the realm of the normal.  But I was simultaneously sure of two things: that is was Caeli’s laughter, and that it was a laugh of perfect joy.  At once my anxieties fled and I knew that all was well; I couldn’t contain my own joy.

Later I would wonder at the timing.  It was shortly thereafter that I received the waited-for text, and I crossed town to Columbia as fast as city traffic would allow. 

But the little girl that they placed in my arms was too still.  There was no movement of breath; no tiny heartbeat as I held her close.  I saw Regina’s face etched with pain, as she lay in her hospital bed. 

Little Caeli had lived for just under half an hour.  She had been baptized by Dr. Parravicini, and then confirmed by her uncle, and all her siblings were gathered around singing the Regina Caeli as she moved from our world to the next.

If I was surprised by my earlier joy, I was more surprised by the magnitude of my grief.  Why?  I knew that even though it wasn’t the answer I wanted, that Caeli was in heaven, in perfect joy.  So why such pain?   As I prayed once again, I realized that my grief too was a gift.

I stood with Jesus at the side of the tomb where Lazarus was buried.  He too, knew the ending—better than I.  But He wept.  Not because of the power of death—which He would defeat; but rather, because of the power of life, which He gave and so loved.

And I found myself back further, at the dawn of time, when God looked over creation and said, “It is good.”  Then when He created humanity, He said: “It is very good.”  This pronouncement came before any human activity or achievements; before love could be earned or reciprocated.  It was God’s delight and love for human life itself.

“You can’t explain beauty, but your heart recognizes it, intercepts it…” said Dr. Parravicini.1  For a few minutes we were invited to heaven.  Invited to see with the eyes of a Father, to love with a Father’s heart, the matchless beauty of a human person.

Caeli was loved into existence.  The love which she received and mirrored was already perfect.  God had nothing more to ask of her, no further mission to accomplish than to witness to heaven. 

St. Caeli, pray for us.

Caeli Philomena June 18, 2014

 

Notes:

1From a 2012 blog post by Rev. Robert O’Connor on Dr. Parravicini.  The formatting has since become compromised but I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety—it may well be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.