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

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 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.