A Letter to all the Moms and Dads, Caregivers, and Listeners

I was reading a great blog post this morning and it infuriated me. (www.patheos.com/blogs/publiccatholic/2015/06/im-triaging-my-life-for-thriving-not-just-surviving/ ). It left me in a tizzy  – the same state that I have been left in after countless conversations in the supermarket and on the sidewalk.

The conversation is almost formulaic and it goes like this: “I am caring for my (insert name of child, parent, loved one here). I feel so bad. I have no time to pray. I only get to Mass once a week. I’m such a bad (mother, father, son, daughter, loved one). I’m such a bad Catholic.”

Every time I hear this formula, I want to launch into a tirade about why this logic is completely, and utterly faulty. But, the grocery store and sidewalk are rarely ever good times to launch into such tirades.

So, here goes. Here is what I want to say to every person who thinks they are a bad person, a bad Catholic because they are busy caring for others.

To the parents – the stay-at-home parents, the working parents, all the parents who devote countless hours to keeping children safe, fed, clean and raise them to make a better world and build the Kingdom:

You are priceless. Your work may be unremunerated but it is no less important than someone who brings home a six-figure salary. In fact, many times it is more important. You are forming future generations. You are building the Kingdom each time you rise to feed your child in the night, with each cup of juice you wipe up and each cheerio you sweep up. You are building the Kingdom with each fight you break up, each time-out that teaches peace. You are building the Kingdom every time you listen patiently to your teen’s tirade and offer love when it’s the least thing you feel like doing. You are living the Works of Mercy.

To all those who care for parents and aging or ill loved ones:

You are priceless. God sees you every time you listen compassionately to the same story for the hundredth time. God sees you when you clean up the messes that happen. God sees you when your eyes cloud with tears because your parent doesn’t know your name. God sees you when you get up bleary-eyed to investigate that thump in the night. You are living the Works of Mercy.

To all those who listen compassionately to those who are caring for loved ones of all ages:

You are priceless. You hold up those who are wading through the muck. You are building the Kingdom here and now. You are the torchbearers to those whose lights are flickering. You are living the Works of Mercy.

And one last note – that thing about if “I could only get to Mass more than once a week…or pray more, I wouldn’t be a bad Catholic.” Your every effort can be a prayer if you offer it all to God. Your every breath, your entire life is your prayer, your song. Offer it to Him.

And, about Mass – the Church says we must go to Mass once a week, not to be a burden, but because it is refreshment for the weary. At each Mass, we are called to the table. It is there that we are offered peace, fellowship, and the sustenance to go on. It is there that we drink from the living waters that sustain us. It is a place to lay all of our burdens down, a place where we can dwell – if only for an hour a week – in peace. The Mass is a gift, not a measure by which to judge our achievement of faithfulness.

When I sit there at Mass, in that sacred hour, remembering all of my friends who give so much, who work so hard to build up the Body of Christ by offering themselves in service to loved ones every single day, who are living the Works of Mercy, I can only imagine what the Jesus I know might say to them:

“You are precious to me.

Every effort you make is a prayer.

I see all of your sacrifices, your tears, your lost sleep.

I hear your worries and frustrations.

Do not be afraid.

I am with you.

I support you.

I hear your song.

You are beautiful to me and I love you.”

 

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The Faith of Abraham

I used to think Abraham was really crazy.  I would read the story of Abraham and Isaac and think, “What a crazy guy! Who would do that?”

I was totally missing the point.

My 12 year-old son was recently diagnosed with a heart problem.  The doctor said that a heart procedure would be required as soon as possible because if the problem was not addressed, he could die from it at any moment of his life.  He explained that the problem with my son’s heart was related to a developmental process that should have happened in utero but didn’t.

On the day of the surgery, the surgical team strapped him to the operating table.  They strapped every part of him down: his legs, his torso, his chest, his arms, his hands.  He was completely bound to this long, thin table.

I couldn’t help but think of Abraham tying his only, beloved son to the altar of sacrifice.  As I looked at my own beloved son, bound to the operating table, I bemoaned the fact that I didn’t have the faith of Abraham.

At that moment, with the clarity of a “Eureka!” moment, I finally understood the story of Abraham and Isaac.  I understood why the figure of Abraham is connected with deep, grace-filled faith.

As we walked out of the operating room, leaving our son in the hands of the doctor and his team, I also realized that there was no option but to trust God.  I had nurtured and protected my son for twelve-years and now I had absolutely no control over the situation.  At this point, everything was completely up to God.

I thought about the fact that the heart problem stemmed from a problem in utero.  This brought to mind the Psalm of David:

You formed my inmost being;

you knit me in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;

wonderful are your works!

My very self you know.

My bones are not hidden from you,

When I was being made in secret,

fashioned in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw me unformed;

in your book all are written down;

my days were shaped, before one came to be (Psalm 139).

As the surgery dragged on, twice as long as was anticipated, I thought about these words while the fear welled up in my throat.  I meditated on the fact that I didn’t know what the outcome of the surgery would be.  In fact, it came to mind, that I really don’t know the outcome of anything at all.  In the end, I really am not in control of anything.  In the beginning, in the end, and every moment in the middle, I do not know what the outcome of anything will be.  I must do my part, but the rest is up to God.

And as I reflected on this, I found great comfort in this psalm.  God knew what was going on when my son was in utero.  He knew about this heart condition before anyone did.   I reflected on the passage, Your eyes saw me unformed; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be.”  God knows how many days my son, and each of us, will have.

That is comforting.   It is comforting because it means that we don’t need to control everything.  We can completely melt down and He is still “on top of the situation.”  We can surrender to God because He has us – all the time – from before we are born, He has us. He’s got us covered.

I silently prayed, “Lord, I don’t know what will happen. But I love you. I praise you. I glorify you. I adore you. I trust you.”

And then, the nurse came out and said that my son was ok. The doctor followed. He said that although the surgery took twice as long as he had expected it would, that he believed he had found the spot and addressed the problem and that it should not be a problem going forward.

If the problem had not been addressed, my son could have died any day at any moment from this condition.  If this specific doctor, who specialized in my son’s specific heart problem, had not been in the emergency room at the time that he came in, this problem would not have been detected.  Moreover, this heart problem could only be detected on EKG during the rare intermittent episodes when the heart was beating in the irregular way.  It happened that it was caught on the EKG while my son was in the ER.  Some children who have this condition undetected, require heart transplants.  My sons condition was detected and addressed before any of this occurred.

You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know.

My thoughts were of Gratitude. Gratitude tested by fire.

A couple of days ago, Jesuit Fr. James Martin wrote, False religion says that if you believe in God, nothing bad will ever happen, so don’t worry. Real religion says that even if you believe in God, something bad might happen, but there’s no need to worry. In fearful times we tend to forget that God is right there with us, no matter what happens—through our friends, our families, even our doctors—and that God gives us all sorts of resources to deal with our problems and move through them, and if we’re lucky, past them. The key is remembering all this when the fear starts and focusing on the trust instead.”

We all have hardships.  Things arise that shock us and scare us and that we can’t plan for – this is life, but every moment is ripe with invitation to trust God more.

Every moment of our lives, every heartbeat, every breath – is a gift.  Only God knows how many breaths and how many heartbeats we will have in our lifetime.  And, he knows them down to the specific count.

Truly, every moment is an opportunity to surrender to the Love that keeps our hearts beating.

“I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!”

 

Because He Lives ( Amen ) – Matt Maher

2013: An Extraordinary Year

As I sit by the tree and review my journal, I realize what an extraordinary year 2013 has been for my family.

I have no lists of accomplishments to present. I’m sure there were some, but that’s not what strikes me about this year.

In April, on the eve of my birthday, my mother called and told me she had cancer. Less than two months later, my father was diagnosed with cancer also.

Interestingly, for over a year before my parents’ diagnoses, I had felt God’s constant and close presence. Not just in prayer, it was a constant, and I just knew I wasn’t alone. I wondered many times why I felt His presence so closely.

In retrospect, as I look back over year, I see that this awareness of His presence was an answer to one of my long-time prayers that when my parents’ “time came,” He would give me the strength to get through it. Indeed, I had incredible strength, peace, and presence of mind that was far beyond anything I could have gathered from within myself this year.

My mother’s surgery in June was extremely high risk. The doctors thought it would be a long surgery with many complications – if she made it through.

I prayed with a confidence instilled by this Presence. And, I asked everyone I knew everywhere, and everyone they knew to pray for my parents. I also asked all of my favorite saints to intercede too.

So here’s what happened. My mother made it through the surgery in an hour and fifty minutes instead of the maximum of five hours they had allowed for the operation. She was off the ventilator within two hours instead of two days. The surgeon was able to do the surgery laparoscopically instead of the full open abdominal surgery he was fearing he would have to do. And, she went home the next morning at 11 am instead of going to short term rehab for weeks.

It was so funny when the doctor came out of the OR – he looked so surprised at the outcome. He said “he just couldn’t believe how well it went.”

My mother had just three sessions of radiation to ensure that all of the cancer was gone and has been declared cancer-free.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks later, the doctors gave him weeks to live. It was an aggressive cancer and a huge tumor. The risks were so high that he couldn’t even find a doctor to operate.

Then, a doctor came along visiting his ENT office and said he would go ahead and try the surgery. “What was there to lose?” he said. He scheduled the surgery for the fourth week in August.

The third week in August, a week before my father’s surgery, my son had an appointment with his neurologist. At age 3, he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. At age 6, he had been diagnosed with dyslexia. At this appoinment, we would hear the the results of his yearly EEG (a test of electrical activity in the brain). I expected to hear the same results we had been hearing for the past five years. I expected to receive a couple of prescriptions for anti-seizure medication and I had the “Seizure Action Plan” school paperwork ready for him to sign.

The neurologist sat us down and told us he had the results from the EEG. Without much ado he said, “there is no abnormal electrical activity on his scan.” I was floored. “What?”, I said. “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.” Those were his exact words.

The funny thing was, I had just been saying in prayer the night before, “you know, Lord, I really believe you can heal him. I’ve been praying for five years for this. I know you can, so why haven’t you?” Then I prayed and asked Padre Pio to intercede. “I know that He can do it, can you please ask Him to heal my son?”

And, the next day, the doctor said, without any ado at all really – “He is not epileptic anymore. He has been cured.”

I wanted to cry and do a jig at the same time.

I also wanted to go to adoration and drop flat on my face and say, “Thank you, God!” And that’s exactly what I did that night.

A week later, my father underwent surgery for the huge Sarcoma in his head. My father’s surgery was difficult. He teetered on the edge of death for two weeks in the hospital.

The whole time, I continued to ask everyone I knew to pray. Deep down, I knew he was going to be ok though.

Three weeks later the biopsy came back on his tumor. What had been a huge sarcoma was now classified as “pre-cancerous.” He needed no chemotherapy or radiation therapy at all.

This time around, I wasn’t at all surprised.

The next week, I touched base with my son’s speech and reading therapist who had been helping him with his dyslexia. She recommended that we stop seeing her because she said she saw no need at all for her services anymore. His speech was perfect and he was reading and comprehending above grade level. He scored 98% on reading comprehension of the standardized tests. Today, he is at the top of his class. He just got a big award for reading – only the third in his class of 18 to get this award.

So, as we wrap up the year, here are my conclusions based on my “Year in Review:”

1. There is true power in prayer
2. God is really present and hearing our prayers
3. Miracles can and do happen

1. There is real and true power in prayer

I have been proud. Like many people, I have prayed only when up against the wall. And, in all honesty, I have to tell you, I was a doubter. I generally need to see data or at least a “track record” to believe. I weigh the data and then come to a logical decision.

Well, I’ve got my data, I’ve got my “track record,” and I believe. I wish I wasn’t a “doubting Thomas” but I am so glad He “met where I was at.”

So many times I have said, “I’ll pray for you,” when I didn’t actually have time to do anything for someone. Praying seemed too easy. I felt like physical labor must be required to actually help someone. Don’t get me wrong – offers of physical labor can be extremely helpful – cooking a meal, offering childcare, running errands, etc. Now though, I realize that praying is actually really helpful too. It’s not a matter of – “well, all we can do now is pray.” It is the first and last thing we should be doing and it’s way more helpful than any help I could offer because it calls down the God of all creation to help out the person who needs help. What could be more helpful?

The saints knew this. All of them spoke about the power of prayer. St. John of the Cross said, “In all our necessities, trials, and difficulties, no better or safer aid exists for us than prayer and hope that God will provide for us by the means He desires.”

The twentieth century Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, succinctly sums up the power of prayer. “By leaving everything in God’s hands, the love that bears all things carries us further, it achieves more in the extreme suffering of not “being able to go on any further” than in potent, self-assured action.”

2. God is really present and hearing our prayers

Who, at times, hasn’t asked in prayer, “God are you really there? Can you hear me?”

Throughout the bible, we hear people wondering if God is there and if he is hearing their prayers. In Psalm 22, David says, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Even Jesus, on the cross, says the very same thing (Matt 27:46).

After this year, I can’t doubt that God has heard my prayers and the prayers of everyone I asked to pray during these ordeals. God isn’t a figment of the imagination or a literary figure of the past. God is real and present and hears my prayers.

It wasn’t just my prayers though. There were people praying all over the world for my parents. Dozens of priests were praying and offering prayers and masses – in at least 8 states, in London, and at Lourdes. I’ve heard also that people from all over the US were praying as well as people from France, England, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Brazil, The Philippines, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Burundi.

My friend Marcia, said her mother from Brazil was on a pilgrimage and was praying in a small church in Italy and thought of my mother so she started praying for her. She called Marcia and asked when the surgery would be. It turned out that she thought of my mother and was praying at the exact time that my mother was in surgery.

Over the past few months, my co-workers, who are from all corners of the globe, have asked many times how my parents were doing. They have said that they even had their families “back home” praying for my parensts. As I recount to them how well my parents are doing, almost every person I’ve told has said “praised be to God” in their own language…Arabic, Kurundi, Amharic, Tigrinya, etc. My colleagues also come from many different faith traditions. It struck me that Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and followers of even more religions around the world were all praying for an intention together and praising God. Isn’t that beautiful?

3. Miracles can and do happen

I can’t deny that what happened in my family this year was miraculous. My mother’s doctors, my father’s doctors, and my son’s doctor were all surprised. The outcomes were not at all what they expected. They can’t scientifically explain why things turned out the way they did.

I have great confidence that, if it’s God’s will, he will perform miracles if asked. I do not think miracles are meant to be extraordinary occurences because Jesus said, “whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matt 21:22).

St. Augustine said, “God is not a deceiver that he should offer to support us and then, when we lean upon him, should slip away.”

Our hopes and prayers our limited by our own finite nature but God is infinite and omnipotent. We would do well to expand our expectations of God beyond the box of our limited minds. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had very little formal education but was granted the grace of great knowledge of God said, “We can never have too much confidence in God; as we hope in him so shall we receive.

St. Patrick too, a victim of human trafficking and a man who knew a lot about suffering and miracles, said, “Turn trustingly to the Lord. Put your faith in him with your whole heart, because nothing is impossible to him.

In fact, every saint seems to know this secret that we are apt to forget – God offers all of us infinite love every moment of our lives and, included in this love, is the well-being of all we hold dear. For our part, we need to trust him – drop all defenses and completely trust him. When we “drop our defenses,” it enables us to see God’s love in action outside and above the finite projections we had for the outcomes of each situation. God’s love is always there for the taking. It is we who reject it, or limit it, or just can’t recognize it. Just think – we could be living in this love every single moment if we so choose.

So, as I look back at this extraordinary year, my “takeaway” is that, going forward, I’m not going to worry. I’m going to bring it to God in trust and actually trust him. I know, deep in my bones, that He’ll take care of it and it will all work out the way it should. I’m going to heed Padre Pio’s words – “Pray, hope, and don’t worry!”

The Scarecrow and The Body of Christ

Going back to school after time off is difficult, even when it’s just been a three day weekend. No matter how hard we try to plan the night before, it’s always a mad scramble to get out the door in the morning. There’s the litany of questions: “Did you feed the bird?”; “Do you have your clarinet?”; “Did you pack a snack?”; “Do you need us to sign anything else?”; “Do you have your potato peeler?  Remember, bring it right to your teacher.  You shouldn’t be walking in the hall with a potato peeler.” (Yes, potato peeler – don’t ask)!

“Oh my gosh!” I thought to myself. “I feel like a scarecrow! A scarecrow with wildly flapping arms – signing papers, tossing snacks, packing bags – and going nowhere fast.”

“We’re late, you’ve gotta get to school and I’ve gotta get to work!” I said.

Then it dawned on me…the Body of Christ!  “Thanks, St. Teresa!”

Unusual connection. I know. Let me explain.

Last night, in preparation for St. Teresa of Avila’s feast day today, I had been reading her poem,“Christ Has No Body.”

Christ Has No Body
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet,
with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands,
with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

So, while I was contemplating her poem, I asked St. Teresa to teach me more about how this “Body of Christ” thing works.

There are the obvious interpretations of her poem – the Corporal Works of Mercy and social justice interpretations.  I knew there was even more though, I just hadn’t quite been able to wrap my head around it.

As I stood there this morning, feeling like a scarecrow, I had another thought. “Stop. Breathe. Breathe in the Holy Spirit.”

Then it came together.

The Holy Spirit animates the Body of Christ. It oxygenates each cell.

We cannot move anywhere without breath.  When we breathe in the Holy Spirit, we shed our dull lifeless husks, our ragged exterior, and we come to life.  We take on a new life – a more vibrant life.  We begin to see in a new way; we see with the eyes of Christ and love with the heart of Christ.  St. Teresa said, “I hold that love, where present cannot possibly be content with remaining always the same.”  It is the Holy Spirit that instills love in our hearts and the Holy Spirit that will move us forward.

Once we accept the Spirit, we begin to move forward not just as one, but as one body.  Without recognizing that we are part of this whole, just like my little family this morning, we can get stuck.  This is why it is not enough for one to simply be a good person and do one’s own thing. Thomas Merton reminded us that “no man is an island.” Why?  As the Body of Christ, we are so interdependent, we can’t exist without the other. If one part feels pain, the rest feels pain.  If one part is hungry, the rest feels the hunger. If one part is afraid, the rest is afraid.  A cell cannot go off alone – it is dependent on the body to live.

So St. Teresa’s words are not only a call to serve, they are actually a statement of a fact –  the fact that we are part of one body already and, as such, we cannot live but as completely interdependent parts.  Attempts to separate from the body will be fultile. We must live in community with all of the other parts, in constant communication with them, and in constant concern for all the other parts.  At the most fundamental level, this poem is her revelation to us that we just won’t be able to manage life alone.

Blessed Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  As parts of the Body of Christ, we are in more than just a symbiotic relationship. We must, at the nuclear level, hear and respond to the needs of the other parts.  At this fundamental level, the response is automatic and intuitive.  Living in this way presents a special challenge in the modern world since, in most developed countries, independence and individualism are highly prized. While we often hear the term “global community,” it is completely counter-cultural to live as a part of the Body of Christ.

It is our choice. We can choose to remain a lifeless scarecrow, stuck in the mud, or we can choose to breathe in the Holy Spirit and live a life animated by love as a part of The Body of Christ. Which will it be?

St. Teresa of Avila