A Calming Grace

A Certain PresenceIn the midst of fight­ing his ‘mal­a­dy’, Father Michael was think­ing about chang­ing his future min­istry. He was so impressed by the nurs­es, tech­ni­cians, clerks, doc­tors-all of the hos­pi­tal work­ers he dealt with on a reg­u­lar basis. He decid­ed that, if he were healed, he want­ed a hos­pi­tal min­istry. Hav­ing worked at Loy­ola Med­ical Cen­ter myself for sev­en years, I encour­aged him. I thought how won­der­ful it would have been to have the pres­ence of a Father Michael avail­able-not just for patients, but staff too.

And this is what he was think­ing of, more of being with staff for their needs , but also assist­ing at times with the min­istry to patients. So many times, in the course of patient care, the entire team would be so stressed and some sit­u­a­tions were so volatile and tax­ing. It would have been nice to have the sweet­ness of a Father Michael there to con­fide in or even just to vent-or again , be with, his pres­ence.

So my moth­er is in the hos­pi­tal. It’s a small­er local one where Father Michael spent much time vis­it­ing sick parish­ioners from St Vin­cent Fer­rer. And I almost feel like he’s still around in spir­it. There’s just some­thing very calm­ing there and it is com­fort­ing and feels so com­fort­able- like Father M.  Hon­est­ly, I noticed it right away. Maybe he is just grac­ing the place with his pres­ence again.I’m sure many of the per­son­nel were well acquaint­ed with Father Michael and remem­ber him. When things set­tle down, I’ll con­sid­er ask­ing the nurs­es and aides and see if they’d like to con­tribute to the sto­ries on this blog. I’ll bet they’d have some very mem­o­rable thoughts to share.

My moth­er had her surgery and was in and out of sleep the first day, recovering.Funny thing, she awoke from one of her naps and grog­gi­ly said. “Guess who I saw ? I saw Father Michael!”. Well, she had nev­er met him, but she has seen pic­tures. So I asked “What was he doing?” She said “Oh ‚we were con­vers­ing, he and I, and a young woman. I don’t remem­ber what we talked about, but he let me know he was Father Michael.” With my hangup on Father Michael’s celes­tial cler­i­cal attire prompt­ing me , I asked “What was he wear­ing?” My moth­er said “Oh, some­thing gray”. Kind of won­der about that.…. a fad­ed cappa?.…interesting.

I can see Father Michael want­i­ng to help oth­ers, as always. I don’t doubt that he’d want to con­tin­ue to use his peace­ful pres­ence among sick peo­ple. No sur­prise there. I sure do miss him.

Folks can talk for­ev­er (myself includ­ed) about the gift that Father Michael was. Some go on about how he gave us the best exam­ple and how we should emu­late him-as though doing that will some­how res­ur­rect him in us . No, we can’t. No one can be him. No one can take his place. We can try to be like him, but our gift will be dif­fer­ent-unique, lov­ing, but total­ly dif­fer­ent. We can only be our best selves and even then, we’ll nev­er be Father Michael. We all were so for­tu­nate to have shared his ‘shin­ing time’. I think that is why, for now, we still need to remem­ber and appre­ci­ate him.

I once shared a love­ly arti­cle writ­ten by Katie Peter­son Warn­er with Father Michael. I brought it to his atten­tion because I thought it per­fect­ly explained how all the things he did as our priest were undoubt­ed­ly won­der­ful. But to me, the most sig­nif­i­cant thing was what he was,his being.Father Michael called the arti­cle ‘pow­er­ful’. Here is a link:

http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2013/04/katie-warner-the-war-between-doing-and-being/

A Simple Song

Feel­ing nos­tal­gic today.  In the ‘70s , I often lis­tened to Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”. I became very fond of sev­er­al of the songs. “A Sim­ple Song” is so love­ly; it is my favorite. I liked it so much that I chose to have it sung as part of my wed­ding Mass. It’s one of those songs that reg­u­lar­ly goes through my mind every oth­er day or so. It is like an ‘ongo­ing prayer’ for me. The say­ing goes “He who sings, prays twice”. The beau­ty of the song makes that so easy!

When Father Michael was bat­tling his can­cer, he often spoke of his dif­fi­cul­ty in sleep­ing. He’d tell me he’d been up at three or four in the morn­ing, unable to feel any peace or relax. Some­times I’d wake up, usu­al­ly about 3:30 am and just feel that Father M was also awake. I would text him then, most times with some of the love­ly words of this song with its ori­gin in the Psalms. I often wished I could have some­how com­mu­ni­cat­ed the song itself to Father Michael. I know he would have found it sooth­ing to hear. It was so appro­pri­ate for Father Michael.….Blessed is the man who loves the Lord…and walks in His ways.

We are so blessed to have our holy priests.

This ver­sion of the song is from a 1981 revival of “Mass”. Enjoy!

And the Prayer Goes On

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 Father Michael was always more than hap­py to pray. In fact, in one of the first emails I wrote to him, I asked for prayers for my niece. Emi­ly had been new­ly diag­nosed with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis -just three weeks after her wed­ding. Always kind and reas­sur­ing, Father Michael wrote this back to me:

I promise to say Mass for your niece. Again, I can’t imag­ine what it is like to be so hap­py at one’s wed­ding and to have this diag­no­sis so soon after­wards. Did you see the lady with the cane giv­ing out Com­mu­nion yes­ter­day? She found out she had MS just a few weeks before her wed­ding. And that was 40 years ago. She is very hap­pi­ly mar­ried to a great and kind man.”

Father Michael con­tin­ued to pray for Emi­ly and often inquired about her MS treat­ments and gen­er­al health. Once I vis­it­ed him in the sac­risty and we just chat­ted and joked casu­al­ly. Father M then got very seri­ous and said he want­ed to ask a favor of me. I lis­tened atten­tive­ly. He told me again about Mrs. M (the lady in the quote above) and explained that he had asked her, a while back, to pray for my niece. “No names were men­tioned” he said. I grate­ful­ly expressed my thanks for the prayer.  Father Michael , smil­ing sweet­ly, said ” So I would real­ly love it , if you would start to pray for Mrs M. She’s recent­ly had some labs done and the num­bers were not good. She needs the prayer. And I thought it would be nice that you, being mem­bers of sep­a­rate fam­i­lies han­dling the same ill­ness,  would pray for each oth­er.”  Well, what could I say? “Of course I will Father M. I ‘d be hap­py to do that”.  Father Michael was so pleased.

So after that , when I’d vis­it, I’d often ask Father Michael how Mrs. M was doing. And he would be cau­tious­ly opti­mistic for the most part. He  would always thank me for my prayer. Even­tu­al­ly, Mrs. M improved quite a bit and Father Michael was very encour­aged and pleased. I then said to him a bit ten­ta­tive­ly “You know, I’m still pray­ing for her every day.” Father Michael said “Oh yes, I know you are! Thank you!” He said this to me with the biggest grin. I looked at him, thought about it and said ” I guess I will be pray­ing for Mrs. M .….always”. Father Michael said noth­ing in response,but gave me that huge grin again. I should have known I wouldn’t get off the hook! I’m think­ing Mrs M. is still pray­ing for Emi­ly, too.

Father Michael is tak­ing care of all kinds of heav­en­ly busi­ness in his new life. He wouldn’t be idle. Here on earth,still, Father’s thought­ful­ness, kind­ness  and grace live on in the prayers he request­ed of two fam­i­lies.

Journey’s Beginning

HeadstoneI vis­it­ed Father Michael’s grave again on Sun­day. I made a small pot of zin­nias- see­ing as there is a lot of sun there-they should be ok. Hope the rain keeps com­ing reg­u­lar­ly. I  placed the pot on the head­stone per ceme­tery pol­i­cy. It seems the peachy rose bush is gone, but anoth­er large one has been added at the foot of the grave. There are at least four mini ros­es plant­ed across the mid­dle. And sur­prise!  The lit­tle rock on the head­stone has been super-glued there!! No com­ment.

It was a somber vis­it for me. I think there is some­thing defin­i­tive and very final about see­ing that head­stone-sum­ming up a person’s time on this earth. Defin­i­tive and yet so inad­e­quate, true for every­one, yet most mea­ger for some , espe­cial­ly a man like Father Michael. But I know he would say “I’m just a sim­ple priest”.

Pray­ing at the ceme­tery got me rem­i­nisc­ing about ear­ly Decem­ber in 2012. Father Michael was get­ting ready for provin­cial meet­ings. They would be held in Albu­querque. Father Michael was talk­ing a lot about his upcom­ing meet­ing and a ‘regift­ing par­ty’ for staff that the fathers were going to throw at St Pius . I remem­bered I’d received a gift of  two Tiffany crys­tal glass­es , which I had nev­er used-for two years! They were still in the box; I offered them to Father Michael. He was so hap­py; said he knew just the lady he want­ed to sur­prise with them.

So I brought the glass­es to church one week­day. After he said Mass,Father Michael came out to the park­ing lot to accept them. He was so amazed that they were all wrapped and still in the blue Tiffany box with its white rib­bon. I’d also brought some fan­cy tea for him. He was very pleased and thanked me over and over. Then I asked when he’d be return­ing from Albu­querque. He turned very somber and said “I don’t want to go . I real­ly don’t want to go”.

This was so unusu­al -the way Father said this and the way he looked. I imme­di­ate­ly had this chill­ing thought ( in Span­ish ! ): “Cór­do­ba. Lejana y sola.….la muerte me está miran­do …”. It’s from García-Lorca’s “Song of the Rid­er”. A lit­tle shak­en, I asked Father Michael why he was think­ing this way. He said he didn’t know why, but just had this dread of going. I told him I would pray more than usu­al that all would be well. I was scared for him , because I knew that Father Michael was intu­itive about so much, so often. And I’d just had those fright­en­ing words come to me also. So we said good­bye and Father Michael left for Albu­querque the next day.

Father Michael received his can­cer diag­no­sis in Albu­querque. The doc­tors revealed the colon can­cer on the Feast of the Immac­u­late Conception.A few days lat­er, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, they told him of the liv­er can­cer. On the Feast of the Annunciation,2014, Father Michael received the news that doc­tors could do no more for him. He’d always told me “Our Lady has been with me from the begin­ning with this ‘mal­a­dy’.” And she stayed with him till the end.

Father M missed the ‘regift­ing’. He was still in the hos­pi­tal.  Lat­er he had no mem­o­ry of where he’d got­ten the Tiffany glass­es. He end­ed up giv­ing them to a dif­fer­ent lady. I men­tioned them once in con­ver­sa­tion and he was so sur­prised I knew about them and even more sur­prised that I’d been their donor! Those were trau­mat­ic days for him in Albu­querque.

Our feel­ings of dread turned out to be on the mark. I thought of them in All Saints Ceme­tery that morn­ing in the light of Father Michael’s  trav­el­ing the long road home.  What a dig­ni­fied and holy trav­el­er! He jour­neyed with suf­fer­ing, with hope and ulti­mate­ly-sur­ren­der.

Here is a trans­la­tion of Lorca’s poem:

SONG OF THE RIDER

Cór­do­ba.

Far away and alone

Black pony, full moon

and olives in my sad­dle­bag.

Although I know the roads

I’ll nev­er reach Cór­do­ba.

Through the plain, through the wind,

black pony ‚red moon.

Death is look­ing at me

from the tow­ers of Cór­do­ba.

Ay! How long the road!

Ay! My valiant pony!

Ay! That death should await me

Before I reach Cór­do­ba.

Cór­do­ba.

Far away and alone.

Out of the Depths…

De ProfundisIt was easy to see Father Michael’s great empa­thy for peo­ple. He was very open, very respon­sive , very vul­ner­a­ble. All his emo­tions were right there on his face, an open book.

I was intro­duced to Father Michael’s man­ner of han­dling things long before I ever spoke to him. I had been back at St. Vincent’s for a month or two. I didn’t know Father Michael’s name, nor had I attend­ed any of his Mass­es. But I had seen him greet­ing peo­ple after Mass -and I’d noticed how there were always lines to talk to him or he’d be sur­round­ed by peo­ple.

So one day I was going to vis­it my moth­er, dri­ving past a local school. There are two stop signs about a block apart by this school. I stopped at the first sign and glanced in my rear view mir­ror. I saw a famil­iar face. It was Father Michael, dressed in a black suit with the Roman col­lar . I thought “Oh , it’s that pop­u­lar priest from St Vincent’s”. In the few sec­onds I watched, Father Michael began to gri­mace, and shake his head from side to side, he grasped the steer­ing wheel and then pound­ed it. He looked com­plete­ly exas­per­at­ed, almost about to cry, mov­ing sharply, lit­er­al­ly ‘beside him­self’. I’d nev­er seen any­thing like it. It was obvi­ous that Father Michael was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly upset and com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous of my atten­tion. I thought I’d bet­ter stop star­ing at him and get mov­ing. I drove to the next stop sign and Father quick­ly came up right behind me. I looked again in the mir­ror and Father Michael con­tin­ued all the agi­tat­ed move­ments and anguished faces. My gut feel­ing was that Father M had heard bad news about his health or that of a loved one. I felt so shak­en see­ing him like that. What on earth was wrong? Some­thing had to be wrong. I had to turn off that street to head to my mother’s and as I drove on I prayed for Father Michael. I looked for him that fol­low­ing Sun­day and he wasn’t at church. I feared the worst (this was two years before his can­cer diag­no­sis). The fol­low­ing Sun­day, Father Michael was back, hold­ing court after Mass. All was well, it seemed. I was so relieved.

Lat­er, when I got to know Father Michael, I wrote him about what I had seen a few years before. I didn’t ask him to explain it, but in this email, he did:

Isn’t it fun­ny that we see peo­ple in cars and won­der what is hap­pen­ing. I have a ten­den­cy to real­ly pon­der the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. One broth­er says that I have to ‘fil­ter’ all the pain I encounter from God’s peo­ple. You cer­tain­ly are intu­itive.

Keep me in your prayers that I can be more faith­ful to the qui­et and prayer. There is always so much to do that seems ‘urgent’. But one African Amer­i­can lady used to say to me ‘God is able’. So I have to trust that all will be well.

Bless­ings
Fr. Michael

After I under­stood how he processed people’s trou­bles in true pain of his own, I saw Father Michael’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty as his way of seek­ing to suf­fer with oth­ers. Anoth­er of his graces.

Last Novem­ber Father Michael ‚very ill, wrote me:

It is now 12:30 am and I can’t sleep. I have had sig­nif­i­cant anx­i­ety today. I think it was brought on by feel­ing rot­ten all day and being wor­ried that the pain lev­el doesn’t seem to go away nor is my appetite good. I think some days are just dif­fi­cult and filled with fear. I try to recite the Apos­tles Creed to calm me down. It is the one prayer that I was able to say since this jour­ney began last Decem­ber 8th when those three med­ical peo­ple came into my room and changed the direc­tion of my life.….…I thank you for your prayer ‘com­plete cure’. Again it may be the day and the fact that I am not so well that I real­ly need­ed that pos­i­tive ener­gy today.Hopefully ‚tomor­row will be bet­ter. Sur­ren­der­ing to the will of God is so much more dif­fi­cult than words or say­ing we will do so. I think you may know that I have always loved the Agony in the Gar­den because that is where Jesus says an absolute yes and expe­ri­ences a mar­velous sur­ren­der to what God the Father wants of Him.”

We all prayed so much for Father Michael. Read­ing his account of his own suf­fer­ing above, I could only hope that our prayers had helped. I remem­ber Father Michael call­ing me, talk­ing about being fear­ful in the night and men­tion­ing again the Apos­tles’ Creed-how he said it over and over. And then he prayed it with me on the phone- with so much emo­tion and strength in his voice.…out of the depths.