Longing and Not Letting Go

2009+Ordination+(279)-1It’s April Fool’s Day, a year to the day that we buried our Father Michael. It’s also the good and kind Father Louie’s birthday. I’ll always remember what a fitting homily he gave to honor his best friend a year ago.

 The recent memorial Mass for Father Michael  seemed in some ways to celebrate a person that I had never known. I only got to know Father Michael right before his cancer diagnosis, when he was suffering from unknown stomach ailments. Although I had heard about his priestly partying, he was taking meds and being cautious at this time. At Mass there were pointed acknowledgments given to certain people and of favors helpful to Father Michael. It was a very, very exclusive group. I think the recognition could have been rendered to those fifteen(or so)people privately. The rest of us thousands of friends couldn’t expect to be mentioned , but it seemed so incredibly narrow for the full scope of Father’s friendships to be deliberately and pointedly ignored.The Father Michael I knew, who ‘talked the talk’ and ‘walked the walk’ about exclusion, would surely have been put off by this.

So if you were one of the thousands of other friends, like me, there was a feeling of emptiness, of being excluded, of not being appreciated. All those in attendance loved Father Michael. Most likely all prayed for him devotedly throughout his illness. We wept at his death. There was no lack of acknowledgment of his significance on our part. Our pastor waxed on about our having gratitude-one of his old themes regarding Father M. He was sincere and well-meaning and right, as usual. And the priest preaching the homily emphasized what a good, good priest Father Michael had been. He specified how Father Michael had served us so well in the most important moments of our lives. He talked about Father sharing our joy, illness, suffering, loss. But both priests lacked the warmth and conviction that comes with expressing the whole truth. What they said was all definitely true, I can’t fault them. But I know something was missing. I think the homilist touched upon it slightly when he said “We think of Father Michael with longing”.

I think they recognize our need to remember Father Michael. We’re going to build the hall in Father’s name-a good thing. We can continue to have memorial Masses-great. We have a scholarship fund and a preaching fund. But how do we address the longing for Father Michael?  How do our priests assist us in this?  They are the Order of Preachers; it is their charism to tell and instruct us.

I know the longing for Father Michael is the longing for God as embodied so beautifully in Father Michael. It is so strong that we cannot let it go-even after a year. I’m anxiously waiting for our good Dominicans to start talking.

The Prior and ‘The Boys’

Father MichaeSome of 'the boys' at AI, a few years ago with their nurse, Fr Wisdom & Fr Michaell became Prior at St Pius V Priory in 2011. Since St Pius is a residence for many of the Dominican senior fathers and brothers,it was a new experience for Father Michael . He had been a prior previously , but the St Pius assignment offered him many challenges. Father M stayed ‘halftime’ as parochial vicar of St Vincent Ferrer , continuing with Masses, weddings  and funerals there,commuting back and forth. But he was now  also in charge of the older priests, including some living in nursing facilities. He visited all his charges often. He was very dedicated to the seniors, though he heard a lot of complaints and demands from them. He tried to keep it all in perspective  and in good humor. In May 2012 Father Michael wrote me this email:”Thanks for the prayers. I find this period of my life difficult as I have to travel so much and looking after older Fathers has many challenges.” An understatement!

Sometimes stories of “the boys” would creep into the Sunday homilies. I remember once when Father Michael told us of the broken St Pius elevator and the great project it was to get everyone up and down the stairs safely. It sounded like such a catastrophe ! I think Father Michael was most upset with the complaints about something that obviously could not be immediately fixed. So he vented to us and we all kind of chuckled. But I remember Father M ending the homily with a description of his ‘boys’, rapt in evening prayer,their collective lives and presence a gift of grace. He said “And when they are praying all together, what power for the Lord they show!” He loved them and held them in reverence. Father Michael wrote me an email the next day :

“Even when I am close to the ‘edge’, I still keep laughing with ‘the boys’. Praise God the elevator is fixed and we are back to our routine.Funny how little things really upset the applecart.But it all keeps me quite humble and thank God I have humor.”

Father Michael had humor, yes, but he also was very human. He had his moments of pure irritation with the boys. Once he called me to vent about some incident, asking me if he should start writing a blog about all the stuff that happened at St Pius. I said I thought it could be interesting and entertaining, if  he kept his humor forefront. I don’t think he ever wrote it…..too bad. There was another time when Father Michael was so exasperated by some of the boys, he told me that he and Father Louie were making a list of all the individual brothers’ most admirable traits and accomplishments. Father Michael said he felt he needed to remind himself to look beyond the surface.

Here are some typical quotes from Father Michael’s emails about his prior duties:

“I’m off to see my brothers in the nursing home. Today at mass I realized how many of them had illnesses that are truly slowing them down. But they are troupers.”

“Now I will go to the emergency room to bring one of the brothers who fell and cracked his head. He doesn’t want to go , but we have to have him checked. I hope it is not a 7 hour stay!!!!!”

“I am off to see one of the brothers in rehab. Another has to go in the nursing home and there are no beds at the moment.A third will soon be told he has to stay here permanently. I am running for shelter!!!!!”

Written when he was in cancer treatment:”I’m just back from more blood work and off to the hospital with one of the Fathers.”

When Father Michael returned to St Pius from Albuquerque, diagnosed with cancer, he broke down when he entered the building . The community had gathered to welcome him.He described his reaction as profound and told me how incredibly moved he was when one of the senior Fathers asked him sweetly and tentatively “Will you still be our Prior?” Father Michael continued as prior as long as he could, quite far into his illness. Then Father M resigned, but remained deeply involved with” the boys”.

In the fall of 2013, I began to visit a very weak Father Michael at St Pius. Father Michael loved pie, so I’d bring him a pie. And then I added coffee cake for sharing and later a loaf of Czech houska bread–and then an extra one for the boys. I felt so good because it was so simple to do and pleased Father Michael. Here is a typical response from Father M:

“The food was delicious. I even put my favorite bread in the bread box thinking there would be some for the morning. Was I wrong! They got a taste of that and they were off to the races! It is a joy to see that small things make them so joyful. Thanks for bringing that joy to our house.”

In that amusing vein, I recall Father Michael warning me not to just drop off the cakes and bread with the receptionist. He said “No,no,no — give me a call to meet you there…..otherwise ” the boys” are like vultures “. So funny.

Around the same time last year, I started to send Father Michael beautiful lilies every month. He enjoyed them so much, but was more excited that “the boys are delighted”. Later he told me that the scent was overpowering at times for some of the fathers, including him! I  made a mental note about that.

I have no one to visit at St Pius anymore, so no more bakery deliveries from me! But I still send the brothers lilies on special days– Asiatic lilies with no annoying scent. I know it must please “the boys” to receive lovely flowers…a little joy. I hope it reminds them of their days with Father Michael. I know they are grateful.

And the Prayer Goes On


 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.

Serendipity and “Solsbury Hill”

Solsbury Hill
Solsbury Hill

Growing up with the music of the ’60s and ’70s, I wasn’t too familiar with Peter Gabriel’s work. But I listen to the oldies radio station and, alas, now 80’s and 90’s music is old. So I was pleased one day last summer when I heard Gabriel’s song “Solsbury Hill”. I was enchanted by the beat and the cheery melody. And the words…well nothing stuck out until I heard “Grab your things , I’m going to take you home”. Those certainly struck a chord with me. I thought of Father Michael and the possibility of his ‘going home’. I found myself listening attentively each time the song played.

Those oldies stations seem to group these songs in bunches and some then get played more frequently. I was hearing “Solsbury Hill” probably every other day. It was a trigger for some kind of meditation . First I enjoyed it and just thought it was beautiful. Then I’d sometimes focus more on the words and I would find it ominous . Peter Gabriel would belt out “my heart going boom, boom, boom,” and I would loudly sing over it, yelling “no, no, no!”. The song became a kind of anthem of Father Michael’s cancer journey for me. Eventually I reached a point where I’d hear the opening bars and a mellowness would come to me, a peacefulness. Instead of yelling “no, no, no”, I found myself smiling, joining in enthusiastically at “you can keep my things , they’ve come to take me home!”

So, in January this year, I wrote my weekly note to Father M. I wrote about how my experience had ‘evolved ‘ with this song – and how it always made me think about and pray for him. We never discussed it in person, though. Our time visiting was very limited and was constantly being interrupted. Play time of “Solsbury Hill” seemed to be waning on the radio.But it picked up again in February and March. As Father Michael’s journey began to wind down, the song was playing quite a bit once again.

March 27 was the day Father Michael died. It happened close to 9 am, but was never specified. I had attended Mass and for the very first time prayed for Father Michael’s “happy death”. Up till then I‘d held true to my promise of always praying for his complete healing. The presiding priest was quite frank about Father M’s state, so I knew it was time to change my prayer. I stayed after for a bit then went to my car and did my usual text to Father Michael. It was about 8:35. I drove home and pulled in front of my house. I was about to turn the car off, when “Solsbury Hill” started to play. I waited and listened and wondered “have they come to take him home?”

I got in the house, straightened up, made coffee and then looked at my computer. There was an email from the parish  :“Father Michael goes home to the Father”. I wept , but also prayed in thanksgiving. Later I wondered if “Solsbury Hill” had been playing shortly before 9…..a bit of serendipity? The oldies station has a website that publishes their playlists, past and future. I found March 27, scanned the time from 7am to 11am. The song was not listed! I suppose it was an omission or clerical error, but I also wonder if my hearing it that day wasn’t a special sign. It certainly felt that way and I believe in those things.

Father Michael always said he was a terrible dancer, but that his mother liked to dance with him,as songs played on the radio. She’d told him “You’re the only one with rhythm”. I used to say to him “ I bet you were a good dancer, Father M. I’m sure, because your own mother saw it”. He’d say “Oh,no, no”, but as his condition worsened, he loosened up and finally told me, “ You know, I really was a great dancer “. I ‘ll bet he’s dancing now…maybe to “Solsbury Hill” !



Reverend and Dear Father

Father Michael

Father Michael was just so MUCH person and he always made sure there was enough of him to go around. He took the time for us. Yes, he did all those lovely, kind, funny, holy, silly, human things with and for us. Father Michael was so much a reflection of the Lord in all ways. John the Baptist’s words “He must increase so I must decrease” bespeak our Father Michael’s life. He squeezed every iota of the Lord into his persona: His kindness, His love, His generosity, His humility, His suffering, His attention, His presence. These were all facets of Father Michael which were so completely good, so guilelessly presented, so achingly beautiful.

What a special man! How he could preach! It was always quite simple- about our everyday,ordinary lives- but punctuated with joy and laughter, with sadness and sometimes tears , always with beauty, understanding and eloquence. Father Michael’s gift to us there was only enhanced by his love for his prayer life- plain and simple- it was the focal point of his day. He once joyously told me “Guess what! Today I had three hours of contemplative prayer before Mass!” Another time, he spoke of people visiting religious websites on the net. Father Michael said “I don’t know why they’d do that! I ‘d rather spend the time in church!”

Father Michael was a man of great compassion. Once he was talking about a family he knew, and said, eyes welling up with tears  “Oh — People have such suffering in their lives!” He truly suffered with people;it was very moving to observe. Another time he listened to a family story of mine: I relayed how, as a small boy in the 30’s, my dad had used his newsboy money to buy his older sister some ice skates. I glanced at Father Michael and saw the tears form and fall. He loved seeing the goodness in people. “God is so good” he ‘d say again and again.

For me, it was the “being with” Father Michael that made such a difference in my life. The circumstances didn’t matter; the truth of our Faith was simply always there with him. It was a joy to be with him no matter what. That was the Kingdom of God- right there in Father Michael, plain as day–in that winsome yet wise presence, in that loving heart, in that smiling countenance of peace. If you were with him, you felt it, you saw it, you believed it and knew it – the truth…… the goodness of God.