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.