The Circle of Life
It was a Thursday morning. I was sitting at my mother’s bedside, finishing the “Our Father,” when her breathing stopped. The other members of my family were in the hospital or nearby, so everyone reached her room within minutes. They say when the breathing stops there is still a little time before the actual moment of death. It was a moment when life came full circle for my mother. Each of us, her children, had entered the world through her. Now, together with her husband, son-in-law and grandchildren, we were at her side as she left it.
God spoke to me in several ways through her life and her death. The first thing God said through my mother’s life is that He is real and He really matters. Certain extraordinary moments stand out from the five weeks my mother was in the hospital, battling severe cancer, especially the Vigil Masses we celebrated in her hospital room and our evening ritual of praying the rosary together with her—the astonishing strength of her faith as she joined in to the extent she was able, even when she could no longer speak her lips moved in rhythm with our words. When it came to faith, my mother did not just go through the motions; God mattered to her and mattered greatly. It is no accident that she was named Mary.
A Daring Beauty
My mother was on a drip for most of her stay in hospital but this debilitating experience did not make a drip of her. At times and despite the best intentions, hospitals can make drips of their patients, by slowing them down to an institutional and docile rhythm —“No dear, you cannot have a cup of tea now; tea will be served in half an hour.” Mary was not a drip, she was a strong surge of water, a cascading current, a rushing river. She fought death and decline with ferocious courage. She had no intention of subsiding into some kind of inert passivity. I would love to see the moment when her flowing energy rushed into the unimaginably vast ocean of God’s love. Her courage and resilience helped me see that God is not a weak wimp but a massive tower of strength, not an ineffectual drip, but pure unlimited energy.
I also saw God’s compassion in my mother. She was a steadfast friend to many sick people. One woman recalled that my mother often came to visit her while she was convalescing in a nursing home. Although nearly 80 years old at the time, my mother made a long walk there and back for every visit. Every so often she would arrive drenched to the skin. When asked if she was okay, she simply said “Fine.” She was not into self-pity. She did not tell us about her many visits to the sick. Another woman spent 113 days in hospital; my mother visited her 112 of those days, which involved a total of nearly four hours on the bus there and back. Instead of speaking a thousand words about those in need, she did something for them. As Saint Ignatius of Loyola says, “Love is shown in deeds rather than in words.”
Her name, Mary, brings to mind her wonderful patron saint, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the astonishing way the Blessed Virgin Mary is described by the French novelist Georges Bernanos. He writes: “The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child-eyes that have ever been raised … they are eyes of gentle compassion … and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something that makes her younger than sin.” My mother was not without sin. She was a sinner like the rest of us and she would not want me to canonize her. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his book “A Grief Observed” when reflecting upon the death of his wife, she “was a splendid thing, a soul straight, bright and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint.” Despite all that, there was something of the innocence of the Virgin Mary about her, something of Our Lady’s sense of childlike wonder.
Adorned in Virtue
A few days before she died, when she could barely speak in a whisper, a dear, lifelong friend came and spoke to my mother about her wedding day and the splendid dress she had worn. Soon afterward, I reminded my mother of this image from her wedding day, and invited her to “borrow” the nuptial dress of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I invited her to “dress” herself in Our Lady’s virtues—humility, purity and especially her longing for God—and to prepare herself with this borrowed dress for the moment she would leave this life for the next, where she would be welcomed with open arms at the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb. She could not talk at the time but this touched her deeply. She rubbed my hand vigorously and tapped the palm of my hand several times. It was that dress of radiant colors, a dress Our Lady was only too glad to give her, which brought alive her childhood innocence once again.
Our Lady was with her as she made one of the most momentous journeys of her life. It was a journey that unfolded within the narrow limits of her hospital room, a journey from anxiety to trust. My mother had asked for a small miracle—the miracle of physical healing—but she received something much greater instead: the miracle of spiritual healing. It did not come instantaneously, but gradually. It moved at a slow pace, at the same rhythm as her long days of struggle with sickness. It was the miracle of trusting that death ultimately could not capture her because God was calling her to something much bigger and better. Although a miracle, it was not some sort of magic. That is why her faith did not erase her anxiety and it certainly did not cure her cancer. It meant her anxiety and the cancer stopped dominating everything. There was a bigger picture.
A Mighty Spirit
Our Lady’s prayer of praise, the Magnificat, says God casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly. As my mother lay there on her hospital bed, God was quietly at work, casting out her mighty fears, dispelling her anxieties and calming her agitated spirit. She began to see that salvation was not so much about what she did or what she achieved, but instead it was about total reliance upon God’s goodness, grace and mercy. As she lay on that hospital bed for more than five weeks, this formerly highly active woman, full of drive and energy, had to face the painful reality that she could not get up and do things any more. A few times she was so determined to go home that she actually tried to drag her feeble body out of the hospital bed, despite the various tubes connected to her body. I had to explain calmly to her that she could not do this.
She had always been a champion for the lowly and the underdog. In those final weeks she became one of the lowly herself. That is when she began to glimpse the truth of Our Lady’s prayer: “He raises the lowly.” The more physically weak she became, the stronger God made her spirit.
Dawn of Love
When all medical hope was gone, God was raising up something beautiful within her, ravaged as she was with cancer. I believe that in those last days and hours she finally allowed the reality of God’s love to sink in. There is only a distance of about 14 inches between the head and the heart but it can take a lifetime to get from one to the other. Sometimes it is only in the closing moments of life that we come to trust in the immensity of God’s love, a love without limits. If that miracle occurs, love will have definitively cast out fear. No longer afraid, we can now surrender ourselves totally to love. In that moment it dawns on us that trust is the only choice worth making. We realize our lack of trust would only wound God’s heart. He asks for our complete confidence, a confidence to which he responds by doing within us much more than we can ask or even imagine. That is what happened for my mother. In the words of the hymn we sang at her funeral mass: “Do not be afraid, I am with you, I have called you each by name. Come and follow Me, I will bring you home. I love you and you are Mine.”
Father Thomas Casey, SJ
Father Thomas Casey, SJ is an Irish Jesuit priest and Dean of Philosophy at the Pontifical University in Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland.
Stephen Hawking was a great theoretical physicist and cosmologist, perhaps the most important since Einstein. It is only right that his remains have been interred alongside those of Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. Furthermore, he was a person of tremendous courage and perseverance, accomplishing groundbreaking work despite a decades-long struggle with the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease. By all accounts, he was man of good humor with a rare gift for friendship. It is practically impossible not to admire him. But boy was he annoying when he talked about religion! In the last year of his life, Hawking was putting the finishing touches on a book that is something of a follow up to his mega-bestselling “A Brief History of Time.” “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” is a series of short essays on subjects including time travel, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the physics that obtains within a black hole and the colonization of space. Chapter one is entitled simply “Is There a God?” To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention to Hawking’s musings on the subject the last several years, his answer is no. To anyone involved in the apologetics or evangelization game this is, of course,depressing since many people, especially the young, will say, “Well, there you have it: the smartest man in the world says that God does not exist.” The problem is that one can be exceptionally intelligent in one arena of thought and actually quite naïve in another. This, I am afraid, is the case with Stephen Hawking who, though uniquely well versed in his chosen field, makes a number of blunders when he wanders into the domains of philosophy and religion. Things get off to a very bad start in the opening line of the chapter: “Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.” Though certain primitive forms of religion might be construed as attempts to answer what we would consider properly scientific questions, religion, in the developed sense of the term, is not asking and answering scientific questions poorly; rather, it is asking and answering qualitatively different kinds of questions. Hawking’s glib one-liner beautifully expresses the scientistic attitude, by which I mean the arrogant tendency to reduce all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge. Following their method of empirical observation, hypothesis formation and experimentation, the sciences can indeed tell us a great deal about a certain dimension of reality. They cannot, for example, tell us a thing about what makes a work of art beautiful, what makes a free act good or evil, what constitutes a just political arrangement, what the features of a being qua being are and, indeed, why there is a universe of finite existence at all. These are all philosophical and/or religious matters, and when a pure scientist—employing the method proper to the sciences—enters into them, he does so awkwardly, half handedly. Let me demonstrate this by drawing attention to Hawking’s treatment of the last issue I mentioned— namely, why there should be a universe at all. Hawking opines that theoretical physics can confidently answer this question in such a way that the existence of God is rendered superfluous. Just as, at the quantum level, elementary particles regularly pop into and out of existence without a cause, so the singularity that produced the big bang simply came to be out of nothing, without a cause and without an explanation. The result, Hawking concludes, is that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch.” The first mistake—and armies of Hawking’s followers make it—is to equivocate on the meaning of the word “nothing.” In the strict philosophical (or indeed religious) sense, “nothing” designates absolute nonbeing; but what Hawking and his disciples mean by the term is in fact a fecund field of energy from which realities come and to which they return. The moment one speaks of “coming from” or “returning to,” one is not speaking of nothing! I actually laughed out loud at this part of Hawking’s analysis, which fairly gives away the game: “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” Whatever you want to say about the laws of science, they are not nothing! Indeed, when the quantum theorists talk about particles spontaneously popping into being, they regularly invoke quantum constants and dynamics according to which such emergences occur. Again, say what you want about these law-like arrangements, they are not absolute nonbeing. We are compelled to ask the question why should contingent states of affairs—matter, energy, the big bang, the laws of science themselves—exist at all? The classical response of religious philosophy is that no contingency can be explained satisfactorily by appealing endlessly to other contingencies. Therefore, some finally noncontingent reality, which grounds and actualizes the finite universe, must exist. This uncaused cause, this reality whose very nature is to be, is what serious religious people call “God.” None of Hawking’s speculations—least of all his musings about the putative “nothing” from which the universe arises—tells against this conviction. I actually rather liked Hawking’s last book. When he stayed within the confines of his areas of expertise, he was readable, funny, informative and creative. Yet, I encourage readers to take him with a substantial grain of salt when he speaks of the things of God.
Approximately 20 years ago I knew the immense love of God. Having had a close relationship with Him and after experiencing many healings, I turned my back and denied Him. From then on, for many years I fell into committing mortal sins. A soon as I realized my pitiful state, I cried out to Him: “JESUS I NEED YOU, JESUS I CAN’T STAY AWAY FROM SIN ... PLEASE HELP ME!” I really longed to put an end to those sins in my life but I kept falling back into sin, over and over again. In May of 2016 my sister sent me an email with the Shalom Retreat invitation. Going through it I thought, this is what I had been in need of for such a long time and I will surely go; it was at the end of the invitation I noticed that the registration was $200! I immediately called her and said, “I am not going because you know that I am not working and I don’t have any money!” (I did have the money but I just did not want to pay for it.) She pleaded, “Oli, no, please wait. Before you make a decision please call Shalom Media and maybe they can help you and if they don’t I will and you will go for that retreat.” I called Shalom Media, playing the victim game, and the lady who answered my call said she would call me back. Soon she did and she asked, “Do you know that the retreat is outside of San Antonio?” I said yes. Then she asked, “Can you stay in the retreat center?” I said yes. She said, “The retreat is paid in full.” Jesus knew how greatly I needed Him. Later I found out that the lady who answered the call had paid my retreat fees out of her pocket. During the retreat I met Father George Antony O.P, who became instrumental in taking me back to Jesus. When I first heard Father George speaking, I could not put aside the thought that I was really listening to a saint. From the moment I entered that retreat, I could not stop crying. The Holy Spirit was guiding Father George to make me understand that no matter what others did to me, I needed to forgive them. Words fail to describe what I felt in my heart as I sat looking at Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and Him looking at me. I could feel the compassion, the mercy and how Jesus was accepting me with His immense love even after I had turned my back on Him. That was the most beautiful and, yet, most painful moment of my life: I was feeling the pain of having been separated from my Lord. I was experiencing the sorrows He suffered for my sin; Jesus was accepting me despite everything I had done. He was telling me how He was thirsting for me all those years and that we were together again, never to be separated. The Shalom Retreat changed my life. I was afraid to go back home because I did not know where to begin. All Father George told me was to “trust the Lord.” This was a true challenge. The first three days after the retreat, I felt as if the devil was trying to make me go crazy. My entire family was praying for me; on the fourth day I went to the Blessed Sacrament and I said, “Jesus, you know I want to come back to You, and You also know the devil is making me crazy. Jesus I need You to stop this, I can’t do it on my own.” That same day my house was blessed and since then I have not seen the works of the devil in my home. Praise the Lord! I began attending daily mass but my daughters were truly upset about the big change in me. I started praying for them, asking Jesus for mercy upon all of us. Throughout the year I invited family and friends to go to all of the Shalom events. I gave flyers to others, wherever I went. Several months before the 2017 Shalom Retreat I invited my niece to join me. She accepted and after the retreat she called me to thank me for inviting her. She also experienced the immense love of the Lord in her life—how greatly her life changed! One day I was sitting before the Blessed Sacrament and had one flyer left for the 2017 retreat. A lady came in so I approached her and told her I had an invitation for her. I did not know her situation but I said, “Jesus is the one who is inviting you to this retreat.” She began crying and said, “I won’t be able to go because I’m not working.” I told her that Jesus wanted her to go and I would pay for her registration. I gave her my phone number and asked her to call when she was leaving. She did go to the retreat and she became deeply involved with Shalom Media USA. Praise the Lord!! I was not planning to attend the 2017 Shalom Retreat but I wanted that retreat for my girls. I asked them to come with me as a Mother’s Day gift. I thought that way they would. My two older girls did not accept my invitation, only one of my girls came with me. This really saddened my heart, but our awesome God exceeded my expectations. In that retreat He was calling me into deeper conversion. He healed my mind, body and soul— up until then I could never sleep without taking sleeping pills. Since that retreat I have not taken a sleeping pill and I sleep peacefully throughout the night. During the adoration on the last day, my daughter experienced the love of God; my joy knows no bounds. Praise the Lord! I continue to pray for the conversion of my girls, and I still give out as many Shalom Retreat flyers as I possibly can. I am involved in the Shalom Revival program in San Antonio. I am also part of the organizing team for the spiritual sharing session, all for the glory and praise of the Lord!
Very early one morning, I was in pain. I collected Marija my translator in Mostar and one look told her that I had been awake all night and was still suffering from the aftermath of a high-speed rear ending the previous year. I felt burdened and cranky about the work overload scheduled for the day—the meeting with the obstinate builder who loved to take shortcuts with the construction work and, therefore, every detail had to be painstakingly scrutinized. His loud voice overshadowed Marija’s in the swanky office and I struggled to hear her translation as to why he was looking for another 25,000 pounds for the one million current projects. Bosnia-Herzegovina had brought out a toughness in me which I thought I was incapable of. As I sat at the table I was furiously defending Rebuild for Bosnia donors’ money, more stubborn than the builder, telling him the amount was not specified in the contract and he had to take responsibility for his mistake. He continued to argue and pushed me as far as he could. I refused to give in, telling him the cost of his mistake was one house less for the homeless and that he could consider his mistake a contribution toward helping his fellow displaced Catholic people. Cool-off Time It was an exhausting start to the day and the heated exchange drained me of resources even further. I took a walk around the block, drew a deep breath and focused my thoughts on our next appointment in city hall. It was almost mid-day and after the morning in the city, I was ready to leave and have lunch somewhere more relaxing. “Why don’t we call to see Mara?” Marija asked. She knew if anything were to cheer me up that day it would be a visit to our dear old friend, Mara, whose eyes would light upon seeing her unannounced visitors at the door. We stopped at the local store and picked up some ham, cheese, eggs and cakes. Mara had been dispossessed of her two-story home, set in the idyllic alpine mountains on the outskirts of Konijc, cleansed of 10,000 of its 11,500 Catholic population during the 1992–1995 conflict. She was now living in her new home, once that Rebuild for Bosnia had built for her, and was happy in her peaceful surroundings. The door opened and she saw Marija and me standing there. A radiant light filled her soft brown eyes as she raised them to heaven, praising God for our visit. She sat down beside me, pushed her weary body as close as she could and slipped her arm through mine. “I wasn’t expecting you,” she said. “I told you I’d be back on my next visit,” I replied. Magnificient Gift A month earlier I had paid her a visit and tried to see her as often as possible since she had been diagnosed with bowel cancer and had a colostomy. That day I sensed a bad odour coming from her colostomy bag. After a little gentle probing, she explained that the hard plastic rim on the bag, which sits next to her skin, irritated her so much that she could not use the bag and she was substituting it with pieces of cloth. I was shocked to discover her predicament and promised I would be back with a supply of bags. Soon after, I called my friend Delores and she donated 200 of the finest and best colostomy bags on the market. I brought them with me on the next visit. “I’ve got something for you, Mara,” I said, reaching for a large bag at my side. Opening a box, I took one bag out and placed it in the palm of her hand. “What do you think of that?” I asked. She ran her hand over the velvety exterior finish and replied “Luxurious.” Resting both hands in her lap, she raised her head and turned her gaze to the Lord. Her lips moved in prayer thanking God for the magnificent gift. I looked at Marija and could see tears in her eyes. It was a deeply humbling moment. “I’m sorry, Lord, for all my grumblings today. Here is a beautiful soul who thanks you for colostomy bags while most other people would be angry with you because of their sickness and would be unable to see the gift.” An Eye Opener I apologised to God for my lack of gratitude and recognized the times I had failed to see the gift because an expectation of more had blinded me. An excess of material commodities in life and a surplus lifestyle had blurred my vision and muted the words “Thank you, Jesus, for all you have provided for me in this life.” I felt ashamed when I contemplated how miserable I had been in my thanksgiving to Jesus. I had hurt him so many times by my lack of heartfelt gratitude. “Do you have a right to more?” I asked myself. I realized I had entertained the spirit of disappointment far too many times and that changes to my thinking were needed. I made a promise to the Lord that no matter what I prayed for, from then on, and regardless of what I received, I would never be disappointed. I thank God for that precious moment with Mara when my eyes were opened to my gloom toward the Lord. My life was filled with an abundance of good things and I lacked nothing. Thank you Lord Working with the poor, displaced and disabled people of Bosnia-Herzegovina greatly enriched my spiritual life and brought me closer to allowing God my father to provide for my needs. In moments of pain, sorrow, anxiety, humiliation and the many negative emotions I experience at times, I make a point of praising Jesus. When I wake at night and I feel anxious, I pray the rosary and praise and thank the Lord. It is a peaceful way to live, bringing joy and contentment, and I enjoy the beautiful peace in my heart to which Our Lady constantly refers. May the Lord bless you as you read this article and allow you to see the greatness of God through His goodness to you. May your heart sing a song of thanksgiving all day long. My dear Jesus, I am truly sorry for hurting you with my ungratefulness for the countless graces and blessings you have bestowed throughout my life. I deeply regret the times I failed to express my heartfelt gratitude. You are my Lord and I love you. In you and through you, I have my life. Praise be Jesus.
I do not know exactly, what has been happening in my life lately, except this: spiritual darkness has been lifted from my heart and mind, and I am able to rebuke the enemy when I start feeling discouraged or anxious. I have learned so much these past several months about spiritual warfare and deliverance. But I think the most beautiful aspect of God’s mercy is that Our Lady has been so instrumental in my healing. What I learned pertained specifically to the way I had been living for decades: in fear, shackled by some invisible force I never could identify. Because this had been oppressing me for so long, I accepted it as part of my own personality. It had become so familiar to me. Then I began praying daily to Our Lady of Sorrows. I asked her to help me see what my primary defect was and how to root it out in my life. Then I asked her to help me see truth and live in it, dispelling the lies and darkness from my life. Shortly thereafter, she answered my prayer. I saw who I was—a beloved daughter of God— and noticed the lies creeping in my psyche were coming from the enemy. I began praying the ‘Prayer against Oppression’ and ‘Prayer against Generational Spirits’ every day. About three weeks after I incorporated this into my daily devotions, I literally felt something lift. It was as if this burden I had been carrying, this heaviness, was just gone. It broke, and it was palpable. I looked at patterns in my life, and I noticed for the first time that I had always lived under this black cloud of fear. Fear had been the guiding force in my life. It dictated to me from a young age what I would not do, could not do, and was unworthy of doing. It held me back from experiencing true inner freedom and peace in the Lord. Not only that, but nearly all of my relationships, both personal and professional, had been severely affected by misunderstanding, betrayal, slander, and lies. I began writing down every person in my life, from childhood to the present day, on a sheet of paper and prayed to forgive each one of them by name. Once again, it was as if the floodgates of God’s mercy opened up, and I saw more and more areas of my life that needed healing. Much of this was what prompted me to study the virtue of fortitude. In order to combat our primary defect (and mine is fear), we have to also foster its opposite virtue (in my case, fortitude). There is so much deep work involved in this, but it is worth every intense moment. I say this as a woman who is able to tackle the ordinary obstacles of family life, as well as the truly troubling times, with greater hope and strength. In the past, I would always buckle under fear. I would succumb to discouragement and fall into a dark depressive state for a brief period of time. Now, the discouragement is not as intense, and I know how to do battle with it in the mind. As a result, I am better equipped to cooperate with God’s grace in getting through the struggles and trials with greater hope and trust in Him. I share this with you, because I want you to know that you are not alone. Your particular struggles can be fought with the spiritual weapons available: Holy Mass, the Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, Confession, and— yet—deliverance prayers. Do not be afraid to begin your journey of spiritual healing of wounds by way of praying specific prayers approved by the Church for the laity. There is so much more that God wants to give you.
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