As Gold in the Furnace

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 7.41.10 PMFather Michael had ups and downs through­out his jour­ney with his can­cer. The most obvi­ous of them were phys­i­cal. He’d have some encour­ag­ing days where he’d feel very well and then over­do and stretch him­self. Then there would be those days where he was tired, full of pain, nau­seous or all of the above. He suf­fered ter­ri­bly with neu­ropa­thy both in his hands and his feet.Yet Father Michael was patient, resigned and deter­mined to get bet­ter, to be healed . He sent me this com­ment :

The pain is hard but I want to devel­op a bet­ter attitude.It real­ly is noth­ing com­pared to what He did for us. And I have pills for the pain! I also want to pray for an appetite.The pie was deli­cious. That is about the only thing I ate today.I will go to the kitchen soon and see if there is some­thing that seems good. Thanks again. I will now take some time and scratch my tick­ets!!!”

I can remem­ber when he was prepar­ing to vis­it his fam­i­ly in Cana­da in August, 2013. The week before, he con­fid­ed to me “I have nev­er felt pain like this in my life!” I urged him to talk to Father Louie and his doc­tor and get his pain meds adjusted.I saw him the Sun­day before he was to leave and it was evi­dent that Father M. was still in a lot of pain. Of course, when he returned from the vis­it, he was com­plete­ly wiped out. He loved his fam­i­ly and friends so much.He didn’t want to miss what would be his last vis­it home. But when he came back to Chica­go, he wrote me:

Had a won­der­ful trip home. I do feel tired from all the con­ver­sa­tions and con­stant­ly being with peo­ple. Now I long for a more con­tem­pla­tive time or at least some alone time. I see the grace that our life provides.Shall call you in the next few days after I get all set­tled in with ‘the boys’.”

So there was the phys­i­cal bur­den of Father Michael’s ‘mal­a­dy’. There was also the spir­i­tu­al aspect of deal­ing with the can­cer. I can’t pre­tend that I have any train­ing or tal­ent or insight for this part. I just had decid­ed with­in a week of Father’s diag­no­sis, that I would always pray for his ‘com­plete heal­ing’.  I could not bring myself to ask God just for ‘more time’ or ‘a com­fort­able and hap­py death’ .…not for Father Michael!!! He deserved my hope. How could one not ask for the ‘whole enchi­la­da’? Com­plete heal­ing. Father M. often joked that I meant phys­i­cal, spir­i­tu­al and men­tal. I’d say “Sure, why not? Let’s go for it!”

I prayed often for Father Michael’s spir­i­tu­al sta­mi­na, especially,when lat­er on in the ill­ness, he faced some big set­backs . He always tried to inter­pret these as  just a twist  in the road, some­thing that would have to be over­come in a dif­fer­ent way. But there were times when he’d speak with  such dread about his upcom­ing chemo, antic­i­pat­ing the mis­ery of its side-effects.He’d get very down. On oth­er occa­sions, Father M. was enthu­si­as­tic and want­i­ng to ‘get on with it’! So many times, he’d email or text me, “I think the worst is now over” or ” I need to rest so I will be fit for the onslaught !” Such hope­ful words. Yes, he cer­tain­ly lived with hope.

But I began to notice a change, begin­ning with Father Michael’s speech at his heal­ing ser­vice last Novem­ber. This was where he had said “no mat­ter what hap­pens, there will be a heal­ing”. I felt there was a bit of glib­ness in that state­ment. Personally,I found it dis­turb­ing. I thought about the atmos­phere of the pri­o­ry, the con­stant influ­ence and pres­ence of many lov­ing broth­ers. So many intel­lec­tu­al broth­ers, Dominicans,…men of faith and wis­dom, but also of sci­ence and log­ic. So many had known Father Michael from the begin­ning of his reli­gious life.This was the fam­i­ly that had sur­round­ed him for most of his adult life. They loved him. I found myself won­der­ing if some­times the broth­ers’ intel­li­gence and their liv­ing with the real­i­ty of his can­cer might unin­ten­tion­al­ly over­shad­ow their faith in a cure for Father Michael. So in one of my notes, I brought this up to Father Michael.

At our next vis­it , this was all that Father M. want­ed to talk about. He was very emo­tion­al about it, often on the brink of tears. He told me he knew that no one meant to be dis­cour­ag­ing or unhope­ful, but many things had been said. Father also spoke sad­ly of sev­er­al friends who would talk to him about his ‘enter­ing the pearly gates’ . And he men­tioned too, those who had lost some­one they loved, who asked him to relay mes­sages when he ‘got up there’. I know he took it all in good humor and was kind, but he real­ized that many peo­ple real­ly did not have hope or faith that he could ever be cured. We spoke of this every time we met after that, four or five times, in the weeks before Father Michael died. He found it so very dif­fi­cult to accept peo­ples’ res­ig­na­tion to his death and real­ly need­ed to express his sad­ness. I found it hard to accept,too. Yet in my con­ver­sa­tions with oth­er parish­ioners, I’d picked up on the neg­a­tiv­i­ty more and more .

Once, after a vis­it, I had the impres­sion that Father Michael had giv­en up.His mood had been so resigned. I texted him when I got home and flat-out asked him. He sent this back:“That is the far­thest thing from the truth !!! unless I am in ‘la-la’ land!! I live with hope !!!!”

Father Michael once took a break from St Pius and flew to vis­it his broth­er in Den­ver. I had no idea he’d gone there, but hadn’t heard from him via phone or text for a while. I was con­cerned. He had been kind of down at my most recent vis­it. I real­ly want­ed to call, but often felt intru­sive doing that, so I resist­ed. But some­thing kept urg­ing me to use my phone. Look­ing at it, I saw there was an option to record a mes­sage and just have the mes­sage go into the person’s voice­mail. Per­fect ! That way, Father M. doesn’t have to talk or even acknowl­edge me if he’s not up to it, I thought. So I record­ed a one minute mes­sage. I tried to say the most encour­ag­ing, hope­ful things I could think of. I just felt he real­ly need­ed it. I sent the mes­sage and then in the late evening, Father Michael called back. He was so grate­ful! He said “You know it was God who made you send that mes­sage to me. I need­ed it so bad­ly today. I have been so down here at my brother’s. Thank you!” Father Michael wept as he spoke to me and yet he was so hap­py, full of joy. I told him how I’d been want­i­ng to con­tact him, but had hes­i­tat­ed. He said “It was the Spir­it telling you to do this. Thank you so much for lis­ten­ing to Him and doing it.” I’ll nev­er for­get his joy …and his grate­ful tears.

I remem­ber one of my last vis­its where Father Michael talked of hav­ing read through all his cor­re­spon­dence. He pulled a let­ter from his desk and read me some of its con­tents. I don’t know his name, but the writer had been Father Michael’s novice mas­ter. Father Michael was so delight­ed, loud­ly read­ing the words “I am one who will pray for your com­plete heal­ing”. And this priest expressed his faith that mir­a­cles do hap­pen. Father Michael seemed so con­tent and at peace, read­ing those words aloud.

Suf­fer­ing and hope, dis­ap­point­ment and joy, hurt and faith- above all great love -all were part of Father Michael’s jour­ney. Some­day I will under­stand how it was a heal­ing. For now, I eas­i­ly see how the journey,with all its ups and downs, read­ied Father Michael to meet his God.

Chas­tised a little,they shall be great­ly blessed,because God tried them and found them wor­thy of him­self. As gold in the fur­nace, he proved them…”

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