Simple Gifts and Insights

 

Mexican fresco
Mex­i­can fres­co

I’ve been think­ing some more (in my con­tin­ued insom­ni­ac con­di­tion) of the last month of Father Michael’s life. Because it was this time last year, it is so very easy to feel like it was yes­ter­day!

On Fat Tues­day in 2014, I brought some Pol­ish pacz­ki to treat the broth­ers at St Pius. I was due to meet Father Michael at 3pm.  I parked my usu­al  three blocks away  from St Pius and walked-car­ry­ing the pas­tries-which were quite heavy. As I approached Ash­land, I saw a famil­iar fig­ure come out of the Province office build­ing. It was Father Michael, all bun­dled up, walk­ing slow­ly and lean­ing heav­i­ly on his cane. I was too far away to catch up with him. So I con­tin­ued my care­ful walk on the icy side­walks ‚but also kept an eye on Father M. He moved slow­ly, but deter­mined­ly, got to the light and rest­ed his weight on the cane. I was so touched , watch­ing Father. He was putting all his effort into get­ting him­self to that pri­o­ry. And he was going there in sheer good­ness and self­less­ness, to meet with me-a proven thorn in his side! I was as moved  think­ing this as I had been at hear­ing so many of Father’s hom­i­lies. I was teary- eyed when I final­ly caught up with Father at the pri­o­ry door. He greet­ed me kind­ly and we went into the par­lor to talk.

Father Michael said he’d again been doing the cler­i­cal work- some phone calls for the province. He was hap­py that he could do some­thing.  I also think at that time, that his liv­ing quar­ters were prob­a­bly over­run with ‘orga­niz­ers’. After Father died,  some parish ladies told me they had been recruit­ed to orga­nize, rearrange and dis­card Father’s  papers, cards, let­ters and many pos­ses­sions. I can imag­ine how uncom­fort­able he was with this. Not want­i­ng to hurt anyone’s feel­ings though, I bet he act­ed grate­ful to the ladies. No won­der he stayed down in the par­lor!

But any­way, that day, Father M hap­pi­ly told me he had writ­ten a Lenten reflec­tion for the Domini­can web­site. There is a link to it at the end of the “Hum­ble Preach­er” post on this blog. Father told me “I men­tion you in the reflec­tion”. Well, I knew it real­ly couldn’t be that sim­ple or per­son­al. But he said “Lis­ten” and took a paper from his pock­et and read it to me. Here is the line he was talk­ing about:

What we are expe­ri­enc­ing is the fideli­ty of God. He nev­er aban­dons us. No mat­ter how low life might seem to get there is always abun­dant hope. I am liv­ing my time of hope. Even though things do not always look good I feel so blessed by many peo­ple ask­ing God for ‘ a total cure for Father Michael.’ ”

I thanked Father Michael for remem­ber­ing me (and so many oth­ers!!) in that reflec­tion. We had a love­ly, peace­ful vis­it-for the most part.

In these lat­ter vis­its, many times Father Michael would  get very angry and con­fronta­tion­al. He was quite moody. I remem­ber one con­ver­sa­tion where he got irri­tat­ed that I had used the term ‘water sports’. I had been talk­ing about his young life in Nova Sco­tia, imag­in­ing how kids would grow up sur­round­ed by the ocean and lakes and would take advan­tage of the many recre­ation pos­si­bil­i­ties of the water. Well, Father Michael got so angry with me, say­ing that I was imply­ing all Nova Sco­tia peo­ple  hung out in fan­cy yachts.

Some­times it was very hard for him to calm down. I think many peo­ple would say this was his can­cer talk­ing and act­ing in such a mean way. I cer­tain­ly believe the stress and pain and sad­ness act­ed as cat­a­lysts for this unchar­ac­ter­is­tic behav­ior. But that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that there was no truth in it. On the contrary,in see­ing these moments I feel that I was blessed with a glimpse of the soul and char­ac­ter of Father Michael. It was a glimpse with a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, for sure.It was always so easy to see the good in Father when all was well. Father Michael sim­ply shone with the good. But  these oth­er traits-the dark­ness, the anger, the impa­tience-they were very real. In observ­ing these neg­a­tives, I com­pre­hend­ed  the human and sin­ful things with which Father Michael strug­gled. Along with Father M’s many virtues, these strug­gles, too, con­tributed to the mak­ing of this won­der­ful man . And see­ing this com­plete pic­ture, it made me all the more appre­cia­tive of Father Michael’s true holi­ness.

 

Faith and Chaos

Chaos ....and BeautyMore insom­nia mus­ings.…

Today is my son’s birth­day and as I men­tioned in a pre­vi­ous post, a year ago today, I vis­it­ed Father Michael at St Pius. Father Michael talked about 1981, the year of my son’s birth,as being the begin­ning of his own Domini­can life. He was so serene talk­ing about that ear­li­er time of his life.What a dif­fer­ence from his cur­rent suf­fer­ing!

As it hap­pened, this vis­it was the first since Father Michael had got­ten so angry with me. I was still quite shak­en and ill at ease. Father Michael was calm and talked about Lent and my bring­ing ‘the boys’ pacz­ki the next Tues­day. He told me he felt so use­ful as he was doing cler­i­cal work for the Province at their office across the street.Yet, he com­pared his pro­duc­tiv­i­ty to oth­ers and felt he didn’t mea­sure up. He talked and talked,it was almost like a phone call, but he could bare­ly make eye con­tact with me. And when he did, Father would quick­ly look away. All was not nor­mal, but it sure was civ­il.

Before leaving,I decid­ed to address the ele­phant in the room. I told Father M    “I’ve had a cou­ple of real­ly bad weeks in the time since we talked.” Father Michael sat across from me, we were knee to knee-he nod­ded and pursed his mouth.  He kept his head down and eyes avert­ed. I told him I’d found a poem that had helped me and I’d like to read it to him. He nod­ded, still look­ing down. Here is the poem I read:

Bless­ing in the Chaos

by

Jan Richard­son

To all that is chaot­ic
in you,
let there come silence.

Let there be
a calm­ing
of the clam­or­ing,
a still­ing
of the voic­es that
have laid their claim
on you,
that have made their
home in you,

that go with you
even to the
holy places
but will not
let you rest,
will not let you
hear your life
with whole­ness
or feel the grace
that fash­ioned you.

Let what dis­tracts you
cease.
Let what divides you
cease.
Let there come an end
to what dimin­ish­es
and demeans,
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.

Let there be
an open­ing
into the qui­et
that lies beneath
the chaos,
where you find
the peace
you did not think
pos­si­ble
and see what shim­mers
with­in the storm.

Father Michael liked the poem very much, but he didn’t want to accept the copy I’d brought, which was odd of him. Father told me he knew after hear­ing me read the poem and see­ing how I was with him, that I would be “all right”.  Per­haps he expect­ed some kind of ‘col­lapse’?? If so, that sad­dens me , as it shows how much he did NOT know about me.

But I sure did have the chaos, still have it some­what. I’m always look­ing for the bless­ing in it- that was so much eas­i­er to do with Father Michael in this world. But I have my faith, too.

Iron­i­cal­ly, as we said good­bye that day, still not able to meet my eyes, Father Michael told me “I have had SO MUCH CHAOS  in my own life, so much, so much. I do under­stand”.

 

Insomnia, Memory and Letters

A Flood-Millais
A Flood-Mil­lais

I’ve had a long stretch of insom­nia these last few weeks. I go to bed around 11-sleep till 2 am and then I am awake-for the day! Strange­ly, it doesn’t seem to make me fatigued(yet), so I feel like there is some under­ly­ing spir­i­tu­al pur­pose to it. I get up and read a bit and then check out my com­put­er- some­times even play games on it. But I also pray…a lot. It seems I get antsy and anx­ious and the pray­ing calms me down. Luck­i­ly I have plen­ty to pray for and it is Lent-so I know it’s worth­while for me and those for whom I pray.

In those wee hours, I also con­tem­plate a lot of what I expe­ri­enced in my friend­ship with Father Michael. In a month, he will have been dead for a year. Yet so much about him is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly fresh in my mem­o­ry. My mem­o­ry is pret­ty decent for a 65 year old. And that brings me to some­thing that I became aware of a while back: Father Michael’s mem­o­ry. Well, he had trou­bles. I noticed it the very first time I had a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion with Father Michael. I wrote it off to nerves . But it soon became clear to me that Father Michael had great dif­fi­cul­ty remem­ber­ing a lot. He couldn’t remem­ber some things from one day to the next. He con­fused my con­ver­sa­tions with oth­er people’s, recount­ing this or that anecdote.…or men­tion­ing a fun­ny rel­a­tive of mine I’d nev­er heard of. Some­times he’d tell me of receiv­ing a gift from some­one -and I’d been the per­son who’d giv­en it to him! It was very dis­con­cert­ing. Yes, Father Michael was incred­i­bly busy and dealt with count­less peo­ple con­stant­ly and unselfish­ly, one could expect and under­stand some con­fu­sion. But this was clear­ly some­thing on a dif­fer­ent plane.

I’m no expert on the Mass, but I will men­tion here that I nev­er noticed Father Michael hav­ing any dif­fi­cul­ty in church. God took good care of him there. But Father Michael did allude to his mem­o­ry prob­lem in one of his first email respons­es to me:

That was the kind­est note. Some­times I am hes­i­tant to say things but I do know that Mrs Ryan’s words had a big impact on me. Can you imag­ine that I remem­ber her words all these years lat­er!! I’m get­ting old and my dear mem­o­ry is going!!!!”

At the time, my objec­tive was to become Father’s friend and also be able to dis­cuss spir­i­tu­al things with him. I tried to think of how I could get Father Michael to know and remem­ber me as a per­son, not just some anony­mous con­ver­sa­tion. I decid­ed to write to him. First I wrote emails.
Lat­er, after his can­cer diag­no­sis, I switched to hand­writ­ten or typed paper let­ters. He was delight­ed with them always; he said so. Near­ly every Sun­day, as I greet­ed him after Mass he would say “Keep writ­ing those love­ly emails -don’t stop!” After a few months I’d ask hes­i­tant­ly “Are you sure?” He’d always say “Yes. Keep it up!”

And so I won­dered then what did he expect me to write about ? In a few months I had pret­ty much exhaust­ed my cur­rent “spir­i­tu­al state” and recent expe­ri­ences. Well, the experts say “Write about what you know”. For me it was my fam­i­ly, past expe­ri­ences, church, every­day rou­tine. So I did that. Mun­dane stuff-but I tried to be light­heart­ed about it and fun­ny when I could be. For some­one as edu­cat­ed, adven­ture­some and world-trav­eled as Father Michael, I’m sure it was an exer­cise of patience to read my let­ters. But I do think that Father Michael got to know me as a per­son because of those ordi­nary letters.I’ll always be grate­ful I was dri­ven to write them.

Once he became ill, in 2012 and 2013, there was very lit­tle socializing.Father M would call me every week -or I’d call him. But those calls were real­ly not his forte-at least not with me. They were always 15–20 min­utes and he spoke of his ill­ness, the weath­er, pol­i­tics or cur­rent events-pret­ty clipped. A bom­bard­ment of chatter.I had the feel­ing I was on the ‘to call’ list. But Father was pret­ty fun­ny; I sus­pect­ed that 95% of the time he had anoth­er per­son with him and the clever jokes were for that person’s amuse­ment as much as mine. I guess I would say that the calls sel­dom felt like pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions. I was hap­py to receive them, but kind of felt like I was talk­ing so aim­less­ly-about things that didn’t real­ly mat­ter. Maybe two or three times, I felt that Father Michael was relaxed and tru­ly him­self on the phone. Those few were extra­or­di­nary con­ver­sa­tions I felt priv­i­leged to have.

Then Father Michael began invit­ing me to vis­it him at St Pius in fall 2013. Except for lots of inter­rup­tions, we had the nicest vis­its. I still wrote him the let­ters as I only vis­it­ed him every few weeks. Toward the mid­dle of Feb­ru­ary, Father M was vis­i­bly weak­er, thin­ner, moody and again in pain. He talked to me calm­ly about dying and meet­ing God . Try­ing to be sup­port­ive, I tact­ful­ly (I thought)commented- indi­cat­ing my accep­tance of his death. Then, he sud­den­ly yelled at me, angry and tear­ful at the same time BUT I WANT TO LIVE!!  I WANT TO LIVE!!” Can you imag­ine dear Father Michael act­ing that way ? His emo­tions were all over the place. Can­cer is sure­ly a beast….or  per­haps can­cer is THE beast.

Father was in that volatile, can­cer­ous kind of mood when he asked me to stop writ­ing, remark­ing that he’d rather get just a signed , print­ed card than any­thing I wrote. He was incred­i­bly unkind and cat­ty to me about it. If I recount­ed here every mean thing Father said to me, no one would believe it! It was as though he were a stranger.…as though I’d nev­er known him. He actu­al­ly scared me; he was so dif­fer­ent. Father M also expressed his anger that I didn’t fit the mold of all his friends “who nev­er had to write to me”. I thought —but didn’t dare say “There’s a first time for every­thing, Father M- and besides, you your­self told me to keep it up.” Any­way, I stopped the writ­ing. We con­tin­ued to text until the week before Father Michael’s death. I received a text from Father Michael the day after this blow-up. Father wrote ” For what it’s worth, I think I owe you about a thou­sand apolo­gies.”

All that effort to stay in a spe­cial, holy person’s mem­o­ry! I sure­ly would do it all over again.

At Father Michael’s wake I met his broth­ers and sis­ters. Every­one was so kind, charm­ing even. I intro­duced myself to Father’s sis­ters who stood all togeth­er. His sis­ter Coreen looked at me point­ed­ly when I said my name. She exclaimed “So you’re the lady who wrote my broth­er all those let­ters! You know, he real­ly loved them.” I looked at her ques­tion­ing­ly. She said “Yes, he real­ly did”.

God is so good.

If this insom­nia keeps up, I may get more and more pro­duc­tive on this blog!

It Takes a Great Heart

Entrance to Giverny under the Snow/MonetThis cold and snowy weath­er is rem­i­nis­cent of last year in Chica­go. I do think we had a lot more snow last year though. I vis­it­ed Father Michael and I got to be pret­ty good at par­al­lel park­ing in Pilsen, tak­ing my chances and cross­ing my fin­gers as I maneu­vered into the snow-banked spaces. I almost always parked two to three blocks away from St. Pius. There was always car­pool traf­fic for schools and many park­ing spaces being held by chairs or oth­er objects.

I’d call Father M (he want­ed to know when I’d arrived) and he’d say “Are you here? Where are you parked? I don’t see your car”. Often he’d say“I’m look­ing out on Ash­land and there is an open spot right across from me.Why don’t you just dri­ve over and grab it”. Now knew by the time I got over there, the space would be tak­en and I’d be out of luck. Father Michael didn’t under­stand my reluc­tance to try; he was a man of faith, after all. The Lord takes care of His spe­cial­ly beloved-His priests -and avail­able park­ing just might be a giv­en for them. But the rest of us.…no.

Father Michael liked to take short walks when he was feel­ing more ener­gized. I was priv­i­leged a few times to have him walk me to my car after my vis­its. Then I would dri­ve him back to St Pius and he would be so pleased that he had ‘exer­cised’. Such a sim­ple thing to do to make his day!

I remem­ber one icy ‚windy day when Father and I decid­ed to walk to my car. When we reached it, Father wait­ed on the side­walk as I pulled the car away from the piled snow to allow the pas­sen­ger door to open. It took a minute or two; some rock­ing, it was so slip­pery. I almost pan­icked as I looked over at the curb. Poor Father M stood there shak­ing so vis­i­bly as the wind whipped around his slight frame. He looked like he was going to cry. When he was final­ly able to get in the car, he went from not being able to talk because of his shiv­er­ing-to yelling at me for me being so slow. I felt so bad. I had under­es­ti­mat­ed the wind chill and the sun was going down, too. It was my bad judg­ment that Father Michael would be ok for the walk.

Father Michael was always cold. Even when he was well and tem­per­a­tures mild, Father M always wore a sweater! He used to joke about it. So often in his last year, he spoke of the cold. He dread­ed going out in it. In fight­ing his can­cer, his  body’s cold sen­si­tiv­i­ty was height­ened. Yet he was always keen­ly aware of the plight of the poor and the home­less. In one email he talked of being so chilled to the bone and anx­ious to get to the warmth of his bed, yet he told me-

I’m going to pray tonight for all the home­less out in this cold. There is so much suf­fer­ing.”

I was cer­tain­ly aware of the suf­fer­ing that extreme weath­er caused every­one. Effort­less­ly Father Michael could always put a face on that suf­fer­ing and elic­it a deep­er response. Father Michael’s sim­ple words were so powerful,so trans­par­ent­ly true, they went straight to the heart. How I miss him and his great heart.

The tragedy of the world is that so many are unloved. Ros­es always look beau­ti­ful and smell sweet, and hence they are a prize to be pos­sessed. Sweet­bri­ar, how­ev­er, has fra­grant leaves, and they are nev­er so fra­grant as when it rains. The com­mon peo­ple of the world are like these leaves; they have some­thing fra­grant about them, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the days are dark and cloud­ed and rain falls in their lives. Any­one can love a rose; but it takes a great heart to love a leaf.” — Arch­bish­op Ful­ton Sheen

Sublime in the Ordinary

Aurora Borealis/ NASA photo

Around this time last year, I saw Father Michael at St Pius, and he told me a sto­ry which had giv­en him so much hope. One of Father’s younger sis­ters had vis­it­ed him recent­ly and told him some­thing which had hap­pened a few months back-on one of her ear­li­er vis­its.

Father Michael’s blood was defi­cient in mag­ne­sium; yep, it was pret­ty much nil. As he was receiv­ing one of his many mag­ne­sium infu­sions, his sister,(whom Father called ‘my sen­si­tive sis­ter’) decid­ed to talk pri­vate­ly to Father’s oncol­o­gist. She relayed to Father Michael how upset she had been, cry­ing and cry­ing and cry­ing. Things were look­ing so dis­cour­ag­ing- the mag­ne­sium prob­lem was just the most recent of many set­backs that had occurred. It was over­whelm­ing to her- and she had to go back to Cana­da that evening.  As she cried, she explained to the doc­tor “You have no idea how my broth­er Michael is just so spe­cial to our fam­i­ly- we can’t lose him.” The good doc­tor respond­ed  with ” I think with Father Michael we just might get a mir­a­cle.”

Well, Father Michael was so in awe of the doctor’s hope­ful words and so pleased that his sis­ter had shared them. It was as though he had received a trea­sure in those words. So I remem­ber today the solem­ni­ty with which Father Michael told me this story,the rev­er­ence, the grat­i­tude.  And there was such hon­esty and sim­plic­i­ty with which he told it to me. He was trans­par­ent and so very hum­ble.

I loved that, in telling the sto­ry, Father Michael had to refer to him­self as ‘spe­cial’. And he had no qualms or hes­i­ta­tion about say­ing it! He knew it was the truth. He knew very well that he had quite an impact on peo­ple.

So often, since Father’s death, I have heard oth­ers say  “Father Michael had NO idea of how influ­en­tial he was”. Or I have read “Father Michael just nev­er real­ized how spe­cial he was”. Just not true. Father Michael knew ; he was total­ly aware of his God-giv­en gifts and their effects.  He just didn’t need to talk about them or draw overt atten­tion to them. Cer­tain­ly, as a human being , he was pleased when he was rec­og­nized or praised. But Father Michael’s  true focus was on ‘being the vehi­cle’, a tool in the hand of God. He val­ued this above any praise for him­self. I once wrote him an email prais­ing him for a love­ly homi­ly. He respond­ed  with this :

For­give my tar­di­ness in acknowl­edg­ing your kind words. It meant a lot. Often times we won­der if our words are fine. Real­ly, we are sim­ply vehi­cles of the Word. We pray and study and hope that God gives us some­thing that will help fel­low ‘pil­grims’. So your kind words are a bless­ing to God.”

Leave it to Father M to see my would-be com­pli­ment to him as a bless­ing to God!  I miss him–and his per­cep­tive observations–so very much.

Once I asked Father M if he was going to con­cel­e­brate a farewell Mass with a priest who had just been reas­signed from our parish. He said “No, I hadn’t planned on it.” Sur­prised by this, I said “Oh, I thought you would be there just to be nice and to say good­bye”. Father Michael said noth­ing in response. But that Sun­day, there he was, up in the sanc­tu­ary . He had arrived too late to walk in the pro­ces­sion, but his pres­ence more than made up for his late arrival. And after Mass was over, Father Michael just beamed as he accom­pa­nied the oth­er priest back down the aisle. Yes, Father Michael was blessed with an hon­est under­stand­ing of his influ­ence.

And we were priv­i­leged to know and love a man of true humility.….the sub­lime in the ordi­nary.