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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