Divine Mercy

On a recent week-end, I found myself racing from house to house, ministering to the dying, while my faithful brothers and sisters were celebrating Divine Mercy Sunday.

Since I’m careening across three counties on my rounds, I can almost always snag an opportunity to assist at Mass on Sunday. But it was not to be.

No matter. Every morning, I pray, “Arrange my day to your good pleasure.” So I can only conclude that His good pleasure was tending the suffering on His day. (And the church gives me a pass for this. Failing to assist at mass on the Lord’s day, which includes the vigil on Saturday night, is only acceptable if you are sick, tending the sick, or absolutely incapable of getting there. By absolutely incapable, I do not mean hung-over, tired or cranky. I mean, physically impeded by distance, gunfire or freakish storms.)

When I pulled up to check on a man in his thirties who had managed to drink himself to the brink of death, I saw a garishly painted statue of the Blessed Mother in the front yard. (First I called it hideous, and my husband admonished me. “How could a statue of Mary be hideous?” Well, in my experience, people will mess up every chance they get, even when fashioning holy objects. Don’t believe me? Check this out: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19349921)

From the doorway I could see that the man was in very bad shape. But people under fifty can live for days and days gripping onto the tiniest thread of will.

Suddenly I had the urge to take off my brown scapular and put it around his neck. (In over twenty years, I’ve never done this before.)

“Is he Catholic?” I asked his sister.

“No. Yes. Well, his mother is Catholic, so I guess that means he is, too.”

I decided to finish my assessment, then go out to the living room and ask his mother permission to put my scapular on him. But I got an even stronger nudge to “do it now!”

Even though I’m a slow learner, I have finally caught on that when I get a strong nudge, it’s best to follow through. So I took off my scapular and put it around his neck, whispering, “Now you belong to Mother Mary. She will keep you safe and lead you straight to Jesus.”

And he died! That very instant!!!

I thought about this when I heard Stevie Ray Vaughn on the radio this morning. Stevie had an amazing conversion and died soon after in a helicopter crash. It seems to me that God snatched Stevie at the perfect moment, before he had a chance to return to his former evil ways.

Over the years, I’ve told many patients who were afraid of going to sleep, “God won’t snatch you up when you’re not looking. He’ll wait for you to take a swan dive into His arms.” (Pretty presumptuous of me, now that I think of it!  But everybody’s got to sleep.)

Sometimes He does snatch us up. I’m guessing that He does that, knowing the moment when we are most disposed for giving our final “Yes!”, with the ultimate goal of having us safely home, where we belong.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His mercy endures forever.

Psalm 118:1

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The Smile

One of the most precious aspects of my job is “bearing witness” at the foot of the cross. It is a sweet sorrow, lending comfort and prayerful presence,and most usually painful. But every so often I witness a piercing of the veil between heaven and earth, and experience a descent of the divine spirit of love, and can’t believe my good fortune.

Last weekend I was present for one of those delightful moments.  The patient was an elderly gentleman from Pakistan who hovered very near death. Just the day before, his family told me they were anxiously awaiting the arrival of his granddaughter from out-of-state.  “He loves her so!” they told me. “We just hope he knows she’s here.”

When I arrived the next day to check on him, I found the beloved granddaughter sitting beside his bed, holding his hand. He appeared unresponsive. The granddaughter moved out of the way to the other side of the bed, leaned down and softly said, “Dada, the nurse is here.”

He opened his eyes, and a look of shocked wonder washed over his face.

“How ARE you?” He asked, grinning with delight.

“I’m fine, Dada; how are you?”

“How ARE you!” he exclaimed. It wasn’t a question anymore. It seemed to be a proclamation of her presence..

The granddaughter laughed gently. “I am fine; the question is – how are YOU?”

“How ARE you!” he said, again and again, practically wriggling with delight.

That man’s beatific smile is seared into my memory. Over the last three days it comes to mind at the oddest times, and leaves me warmed with delight.

As I write this, my husband, his siblings and beloved grandchildren hold vigil hundreds of miles away by the ICU bed of their patriarch. I pray that he will recognize their presence, and that they will feel his spirit smiling on them as well.

Traveling mercies, Pop, and Godspeed.

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Lent: The Season for Conditioning

Well, here we are in Lent once again. I’ve shared in the past how I usually dread this penitential season. My basic orientation is to joy, and sad occasions of want and deprivation wear down my spirit. (O.K., that’s just spin. The truth is, I’m really bad at self-denial. With few exceptions, what I gave up for Lent doesn’t stay given up for long, and I slog into Easter feeling like a bouquet of rear ends.)

But this year looks to be different. I feel led to see it more like a boot camp of spiritual conditioning. For the record, I will never run a marathon. (I’ll never run again, please God, except to escape fire, flood or wild animals.)  But I know that I’m called to be a spiritual athlete. These last months I’ve been gifted with an increasing love of prayer and silence. Still, I worry that in hard times I could easily put second things first (I’ve seen me do it.)

Lately, my prayer has been, “You have showered me with grace my whole life, and I’ve been a sorry steward of that bounty. Now I am asking You for grace upon grace, to make me strong, so that I do not disappoint you, especially when it counts the most.”

So, this year, my conditioning plan is more spiritual exercise than self-denial. I’m going to Mass, praying the gauntlet of Catholic prayers (the rosary, chaplet of divine mercy, etc.) and spending time before the Blessed Sacrament every day. Doing these things just naturally leaves less time for soul-draining activities and self-indulgence.  They also turn my appetite to the good, the true and the beautiful.

Just as I was devising my training schedule before Lent kicked off, I ran across a post that served as confirmation.

“We may be familiar with the analogies that compare spiritual conditioning to physical conditioning. An athlete prepares for an event through training and practice; it’s a lot of hard work and discipline. It may even be described as suffering and sacrifice. The same is true in the spiritual life if we want to defeat our adversary. But St. John touches on something a little different; something that is dangerous even for those who are spiritually well-disciplined. It’s what happens when we are fatigued by divided desires.

He says:
“Weakness and tepidity are another kind of harm the appetites produce in a man. For the appetites sap the strength needed for perseverance in the practice of a virtue…. A man whose will is divided among trifles is like water which, because of some leakage, will not rise higher and consequently becomes useless.”
- St. John of the Cross
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