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May 21, 2019 329 0 Father Thomas Casey, SJ
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The Miracle of Total Trust

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.

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