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.
Make a Wish In my childish desire, I thought the Blessed Sacrament was a sweet given to the grownups. As I now remember this incident, how truly right I was. Approximately six years later I walked down the aisle in a pure white gown to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament. Did I feel the sweetness? I wish I could narrate as Saint Therese did in her autobiography “The Story of my Soul” that I was lost in His ocean of love. In faith I believed Jesus came into my heart and that day was so filled with grace, but like the Saints who left behind their memoirs I could not perceive with my senses the sweetness or the ecstasy of receiving Jesus. Years later, while I was in college, there was a small chapel at the center of our campus. We had daily mass and weekly adorations there. As I sat for adoration before the venerated Blessed Sacrament, I wondered if all this were really true. Is Jesus really present in the Blessed Sacrament? I found many real-life stories on the miracles of the Blessed Sacrament turning into the body and blood of jesus. Yet my heart pondered on how I could really believe. I began to wish if only I could experience a small ray of light. A Deep Insight One day while receiving the Holy Communion I had the same indifference and knelt down to pray. When I closed my eyes, I saw a wound that was excruciatingly painful. The skin was pale yellow with a deep, freshly cut wound and I still shudder while remembering this. I knew this was not my thought or even imagination. I later understood how deeply I wounded my dear Jesus with my disbelief and lack of trust. From then on, I walked the tight rope of believing without seeing and never dared to hurt Him. Later, during a retreat, I was part of the intercession team, which gave me ample time to be in His presence before the Blessed Sacrament. Sitting there for more than a few hours, I began to experience great peace and consolation. I felt as if I was already in heaven and the joy that filled my heart could not be experienced by any success or fame that this world offers. It was as if I was floating happily, light as a feather. Without a single word, He understood everything and I knew the love of God is beyond words. He loves us so immensely and all I could do was love Him back by humbly giving myself, completely without reserve. Heartbroken During Holy Communion a few years back I happened to be at the end of the line. Before my turn to receive, the priest hesitated for a while (owing to the lesser number of hosts in his chalice). A few people were behind me. The priest took the host and broke it inside the chalice. Without even thinking I cringed at the sound of the breaking host. my heart was pounding heavily as I prepared to receive. Raising a quarter of the host, the priest chanted those familiar words, “The Body and Blood of Christ.” As I walked back to the pew I could not hold back my tears: jesus was torn into pieces for me. Indeed, Jesus is broken every day for us during the Holy mass—but why? We often resort to praying for our daily needs: a better job, to find the one and get married, a better apartment or home, for children and their good upbringing, paying the bills, healing from various diseases and so on. Is this the reason why Jesus died on the cross? All these blessings were abundantly poured out even before Jesus’ time. In the Old Testament we see God’s blessing of good health, children, family, wealth and prosperity on His chosen people. To give us these gifts God did not have to undergo any pain; He gave joyfully to those who loved Him. There is one gift—the most precious of all His gifts—God really desires to give us. For giving us this gift, Jesus had to go through sufferings in His lifetime. Why? Born in Bethlehem, He was laid in a manger—a feeding trough for the animals. In the bitter cold, why was the new born baby wrapped only in swaddling clothes? While fleeing to Egypt, baby Jesus shivered with the chilling wind of the night even as he clung to His dear mother. Why was a baby put to such a plight? Until the age of 30 years, Jesus lived an ordinary life of a carpenter, depending on the meager wages he got for the work. Why? For three years, why did Jesus go about preaching the Kingdom of God, healing and doing well to all those around? Though gentle and kind to all, He was still called a blasphemer, a crazy, senseless man, friend of sinners and prostitutes. Why? In the garden of Gethsemane, as he knelt bathed in drops of blood, why did Jesus cry out, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but Yours be done.” He was unjustly judged by three judges during the flower of His youth and tormented with insults, spits, blows, lacerations and other unheard of cruelties. Why? Crowned with thorns, and with a reed placed in His hands, He was crushed with blows and overwhelmed by outrages. Why? His sacred hands and legs were nailed to the cross, blow after blow and not finding Jesus in a pitiable enough state to satisfy their rage, they increased His wounds, adding pain after pain. He endured all this but why? With indescribable cruelty His body was stretched on the cross and pulled from all sides, thus dislocating His limbs. Why? From the crown of His head to the soles of His feet there was not one spot on His body that was not tormented and yet, forgetting all His sufferings, why did Jesus cry out, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do?” A sorrowful mother watched her Son persecuted and crucified, dying a torturous death, but she never complained. Why? In His last agony why did Jesus suffer beyond human imagination, His body torn and heartbroken: He cried out, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit!” A soldier pierced His side with a lance: blood and water gushed forth till there was not a single drop left in His body. Why was He lifted like a bundle of myrrh to the top of the cross, His delicate flesh destroyed, the very substance of His body withered and the marrow of His bones dried up? The Greatest Gift Jesus himself gave the answer for all His sufferings, from conception to the top of the cross. On the night, before He was given up to death jesus washed the feet of His disciples. During the Last Supper, “He took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then He took the Cup saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20). Today He offers you His most precious gift—His body and blood in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. every celebration of the Holy Mass is a call to receive this precious gift that God our Father gives us—His dear beloved Son. Like the mother pelican bird in the face of starvation, who wounds herself by striking her breast to feed the young with her blood, so does Jesus feed us with His body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus suffered greatly; He was broken to heal our brokenness and to give us new life. Today Jesus waits for you. Like a divine prisoner, He longs to be received into your heart. “O taste and see, for Jesus is sweeter than honey in the comb.” Will, you not receive this precious gift from God with all your heart? Divine Savior, we come to Your sacred table to nourish ourselves, not with bread but with Yourself, true Bread of eternal life. Help us daily to make a good and perfect meal of this divine food. Let us be continually refreshed by the perfume of Your kindness and goodness. May the Holy Spirit fill us with His Love. Meanwhile, let us prepare a place for this holy food by emptying our hearts. Amen. —Prayer before Communion by Saint Francis De Sales
We live in a hectic world, one that glorifies busyness. Hardly a moment goes by when we are not overcome with noise and stimulation of some sort. Cell phones, TVs, radios, movies, billboards, social media, video games, emails, busy work schedules, busy social lives, busy family lives and busy everything in between. noise has bombarded our lives to the extent that we cannot even sit in the church pew to prepare for mass in silence because people are always chatting. We are overcome by noise in nearly every facet of our lives, yet our souls are starving for silence. We crave the encounter with Christ that silence affords us. If our hearts yearn for the silence, then why is it something that we avoid? I believe the answer is two-fold. We certainly avoid it because of our busyness, but I think we also avoid it because we are afraid. In fact, I once overheard a friend say she has to have noise in the background at all times—be it music or TV—because she cannot stand her own thoughts when it is quiet. She admittedly is afraid of the silence. I think most of us have gotten pretty good at keeping the silence at bay. Indeed, we have become a society of people rarely seeking it, to the point we have become afraid of it or, rather, afraid of what our interior tells us in the silence. A non-Catholic friend of mine was traveling to Minnesota a few years ago and, out of curiosity, wandered into the Cathedral of Saint Paul. I happened to text her while she was there, unbeknownst to me. Her response was brief, but poignant: “I’m sitting in St. Paul Cathedral right now ...Quiet sure makes you face your inside.Dang ...” It has been years since she sent me that text; her words still linger in my mind. It is so true. That is exactly why God calls us into the silence—to face our insides ... with Him. We encounter our maker in the silence of our hearts and in turn must face our own reality. It is not that God cannot or does not speak to us in other moments, but we are most attuned to hear Him in the silence of our own hearts. We need space to listen to God and really thrash out what our inner stirrings are trying to tell us. The New Testament is laced with Scripture depicting that even Jesus Himself sought the silence. Time and again He went to the desert to pray: When jesus heard of it, He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by Himself. (Matthew 14:13) Rising very early before dawn, He left and went off to a deserted place, where He prayed. (Mark 1:35)But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. (Matthew 6:6) After doing so, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When it was evening He was there alone. (Matthew 14:23) ... But He would withdraw to deserted places to pray. (Luke 5:16) Yes, we are called into the silence; it is where we see our situation and ourselves more clearly, it is where we face our own insides, but most importantly it is where we encounter God. Seek the silence.
As a child, I loved going to the circus. my favorite act was the trapeze. It appeared that these artists were flying through the air. The performers soared so high, with such grace and dignity. I used to hold my breath as they catapulted into thin air without a string attached for safety—such a dangerous stunt. my heart used to thump until they were caught by the steady hands of their partners. Even now, I am touched by the courage of these circus artists. Their life is at stake during each performance. Yet they have the courage to face the emptiness of space. They simply trust, leaping in at the right time, confident of the secure grip of their partner. They also understand that only by releasing themselves from the secure bar will they move on with grace and swing to the next position. Before they can be caught, they must let go. They show great courage to let go and take that leap in the darkness. Living with this kind of willingness to “let go” is one of the greatest challenges we face in life. We hold on to many things—a person, possessions or a personal reputation. We will not let go of them, whatever the cost. In the battle of survival, we consider failure as a huge loss. The great irony is that it is in giving and letting go that we receive. It takes so much courage to do that. These trapeze artists are heroes to me because it is definitely not something I would do. Those who face challenges in life become real heroes when they put their faith and trust in God. All for you Life sometimes brings tough situations. To surrender completely to God, we must first trust in His plans. Setting aside one’s dreams and desires is not easy. Interestingly, God gives a new meaning to all we desire and dream of when we dance to the tunes of His wishes. Grace and peace will fill our lives when we do so! Only when we feel a firm grip can we let go, just like the trapeze artists. many falter in life because their eyes are fixed on the emptiness around them and they do not recognize the firm and secure grip of the Lord. In the gospel of Matthew (14:25-30) Jesus was walking on the lake. The disciples, watching from the boat, were amazed. Peter dared to ask if he could also walk on the water. Jesus beckoned him to “come.” With his eyes on the Lord Peter walked on the water, but when he noticed the strong wind he began to feel afraid and started to sink. jesus immediately took hold of his hand and said, “You of little faith ... why did you doubt?” Life is always beautiful and graceful for those who fix their eyes on the Lord and firmly hold on to His hand. They dance gracefully to wherever the Lord takes them. They do not worry about their lives—what is to come, their sicknesses or the future plans. They walk against the strong wind, coping with their problems and knowing nothing will harm them. They know God is in control and He will make their ways straight. Their reliance is on an eternal kingdom that will never be destroyed. He knows you To live with an eternal perspective and to walk holding Jesus’ hands is the most secure and worry-free way to live life. Who else knows our heart and desires more than the one who created us? “For you created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). He knew me even before my mother came to know of my existence. This is amazing! God can transform your dreams and desires in unimaginable ways—“For surely I know the plans I have for you” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). This assurance is challenged in our lives by the evil in this world. The evil one only offers us the dangers, the pitfalls, the adverse outcomes and all the unhappiness in our life. Your choice In the book “Way of the Cross with Pope Francis: The meditations on the Stations” we get an interesting insight shared by His Holiness at the first station. jesus is condemned to death. Pontius Pilate is faced with a dilemma. He has to make a judgment on jesus. Pope Francis states that Pilate finds himself before a mystery that he cannot understand. He asks questions and demands explanations. He is searching for a solution and he almost makes it to the threshold of truth. But he decides not to cross it—between life and the truth, he chooses his own life. Between the present and eternity, he chooses the present. Like Pilate, the crowd also comes face-to-face with the “Truth.” The crowd chooses to “Crucify Him!” The crowd and Pilate, in fact, were driven by a sentiment that unites all people: fear—the fear of losing security, possessions, life and the present. We can easily identify ourselves with Pilate and the crowd. What would you choose? The truth or your life? The present or eternity? For only through His piercing gaze and pierced hands can we choose truth and brave the uncertainty. Turn to Jesus. He is your stronghold and refuge. He is waiting for you. Take that leap of faith! Lord, it is your grace that helps me seek Your tender face. Let Your gaze fall upon me and pierce my heart to live a life for You. I see Your hands stretched out to hold mine tight; all I desire is to walk with You and dance to the tune of divine love. May my eyes be fixed on You. I put my hands in Yours, in this journey to eternity. Help me, Lord, to take that leap of faith and let go of everything that separates me from you. Take hold of me!
Twists and Turns Every morning for nearly 14 years, I have opened my kitchen blinds and watched a group of sycamore trees behind our property grow. Sycamore trees are common in California and the developer of this area planted a variety named London Plane, not indigenous to Sacramento County. This variety grows fast and very tall; at full height, they can top out at more than 130 feet! Although they thrive well in the hot dry summers of the Sacramento area, they need full sun to grow to such majestic heights. They will bend and twist to find the sun, which in turn can give them interesting shapes. One of these sycamore trees had a rocky start when, only a few years old, it became badly infested with aphids. That weakened the trunk, making it droop to nearly a 90-degree angle. It could no longer seek the sun and looked like it was going to be removed. Fortunately, a local arborist—through pruning, nourishment and time— was able to save the little tree. It recovered yet had to twist to reorient itself for its upward journey to the sun. The misshapen tree is still angled quite a bit but if one can say they love a tree, I have to say it: I love this tree! This tree has a story and its very shape reflects my story and perhaps yours as well. I am a “Cradle Catholic” born of Cradle Catholics. Having strong Catholic roots, I grew on a solid sacramental journey through my Catholic school years. The catechism of my parents’ generation seemed to focus on the “dos and don’ts” of the church but the “whys and wherefores” also intrigued my young questioning mind. At some point, when my questions could not be answered to satisfaction, I was told to “take it on faith.” It sounded like loving Catholic advice but to a growing inquisitive child, who did not quite understand the concept of faith, it equated to: “I don’t know,” “ Because I said so” or “Don’t bother me.” Those words planted within me small seeds of doubt. Those seeds grew and weakened the faith I had, much like what the aphids did to the tree. Thus, throughout my young adult years I tested, stretched and ignored many of God’s and the church’s teachings. This led to sinful thoughts and behaviors that ultimately ended in painful consequences. My journey toward Christ had become weighed down by sin, and I had bent so far that I was no longer actively seeking the Son. God loved me mercifully and unconditionally. Even though I had stopped seeking Him, He never stopped seeking me. “For thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick’” (Ezekiel 34:11, 16). To Be or Not To Be The years passed, I married young and had three sons before I was 30. We baptized our children and tried to make it to mass when we were not too tired or could not rationalize our way out of it. Although I was not actively seeking God, the roots were still strong enough to at least consider God as a sort of good insurance plan, sort of like a “get-out-of-hell-free” card. In my early 30s, I questioned whether it was worth the effort of taking our kids to church. Our boys could be rambunctious and noisy. Sundays felt more frustrating than fulfilling. When I wearily fed, bathed and dressed the boys in their Sunday best, I weighed the pros and cons of such a decision. Thankfully, one Sunday forever changed my life. I packed bottles, snacks, books, toys, blankies and diapers, then our little family dutifully headed to mass. For some odd reason, that Sunday I chose to sit in the front row. We never sat in the front. It only meant a longer walk of shame to the back of the church if one of the boys acted up. In retrospect, God had a hand in that decision. I had rationalized that perhaps they might behave if they could see what was happening on the altar. I surveyed their behavior after the Gospel ... so far so good. The thought popped in my head, “Hey, I might actually get to listen to a homily for a change.” The priest began speaking on the topic of faith, which immediately caught and held my attention because its concept still felt elusive to me. Then he spoke words that pierced my heart. He said that faith is not a RIGHT. Faith is a GIFT. It is a grace given by God and we just need to ask for it. WHAT? A Gift for All I thought being a Cradle Catholic meant faith came with the insurance plan and I just did not understand the policy. I had a swirling mixture of emotions. I was mad that I had not been told this before. I was sad that it had taken so long to hear this information. Yet, I was glad and grateful that it was just as simple as asking for it! Boldly, then and there, I prayed. “God, if faith is a gift and all I have to do is ask for it, then I want it. I want the gift of faith. I want all of it and I want it now! I’ve lost my way. The weight of my sins is too heavy for me and I need faith so I can find my way back to You.” I sat there waiting. Nothing obvious happened, but somehow just asking brought me peace. Maybe I would keep coming to mass. God works in His timing and although I did not immediately recognize what was happening, He began to bring His own arborists into my life. Through pruning, nourishment, time and love, He introduced me to people whose faith was strong and healthy. They in turn introduced me to God through their words and actions. Eventually, they introduced me to God’s word and that is when the real healing began. I started to read the Holy Bible daily and continued to ask questions. Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Every day I grew in a faith that led me back to the sacrament of reconciliation. Like the little sycamore tree, I had to twist my thoughts and actions to reorient them toward Jesus. My life straightened out when I actively began to seek Him and the weight of sin no longer bent me away from His Son. I am still a work in progress needing God’s grace to grow upward. When I recently closed my kitchen blind, I noticed something for the first time; the sun was shining through the leaves and branches of that twisted little tree and the light it cast was interesting and beautiful. That became my simple prayer: May the Son cast His light through me to shine beautifully every day. Amen.
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