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.