Last evening, I received this beautiful story of love and resurrection from a friend of mine. A lesson learned once again: when we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, the Lord has a way of surprising us, even catching us off guard at times. If we are open to such surprises, we too, will experience a resurrected heart in Christ.
Easter Sunday is one of the biggest days of the year in the Catholic Church, but for priests like myself it can sometimes be an occasion for sleepiness and maybe some crankiness. We’re cranky because the night before, the Easter Vigil, is a very large celebration in which the liturgy itself and the festivities afterward can go on for hours until early in the morning. Getting up the next morning for 7:30am mass can be pretty difficult.
This past Easter Sunday, I was helping out at a Carmelite parish in Kansas. It was a beautiful day; but that didn’t quite cut through the sleepiness. The aisles were choked, every pew taken, and I’m wrapping up one mass and preparing for the next when a man approaches me and asks me to give Last Rites to his dying father. Though this the last thing I want to hear at this moment, I tell him I can be there that afternoon, after the last mass.
Afterward, as I am plugging his address into the GPS in my car, I seriously consider blowing it off. I really need a cup of coffee and maybe something to eat. I need some time to rest. ‘I could show up tomorrow morning, no damage done’ I think to myself. But there was something quietly urgent about the man’s request, so I head over.
When I pull into the driveway, a crowd of people that could only be family is standing on the front lawn of the house. I think they must be waiting for the ambulance; I’m sure that because I hesitated, I am too late. But I find out pretty quickly that the family isn’t waiting for the doctor – they are waiting for me.
‘Dad asked us to carry him out to the backyard to enjoy this weather,” the man explains. “We were afraid that if we stayed out back we wouldn’t hear the doorbell ring.” The family members– the dying man’s wife, two daughters, two sons, and a handful of college-age grandchildren – are pleasant enough, and as I am following them out to the backyard, I feel a bit calmer.
Out back, the dying man is propped up on a lawn chair. After relaxing in the sun and visiting for a while, I bring out the anointing oil, as well as Communion, in case anybody wants to receive. The Catholics in the group have skipped mass, afraid they’d lose their father while at church, and they are relieved at not having to forgo Communion today. I perform the Last Rites ceremony, and then I talk briefly about the Easter Gospel from this morning’s mass. I talk about the Doubting Thomas story, and about how Thomas’s newfound faith in Jesus is its own resurrection.
After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?.’”
After distributing communion, the dying man asks to speak with me privately. Assuming he wants his confession heard, the family gets up and retreats into the house, and we are alone. After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?’
“I’ve worked hard all my life,” he explains. “I’ve always had one or two jobs to keep food on the table. My kids – I think they knew I loved them, but I never told them that.” He pauses for a moment. He’s looking away from me. “I think they loved me, but they never told me that. We never said these things out loud – we just were a family.” He turns to me again. “But suddenly these last two days, being with them all the time, I know how much they love me. And I never really knew that before.”
As he speaks, I can feel my attention to his words sharpening. “I married my wife because she was the prettiest woman I ever saw – but I never really knew that her heart was so much more beautiful than that.” My Doubting Thomas sermon is starting to feel a little silly in comparison.
He stares out into the grass. “And I finally realized what I’d been missing my whole life. Today, after a few days with family constantly at my side, I finally got it. The whole point of life is to love. The reason we are alive is to love – and that makes this the best day of my life.”
I begin to understand that this man has just given me a gift – and that clarity like this is contagious. Love itself is a resurrection. The family returns and we sit around chatting for a while, and suddenly I am not so hungry, not so desperate for a cup of coffee. This man is approaching death, I realize, with joy; and that is a gift to his family too. They are not grieving so much as delighting in watching him exit with grace.
The next morning the phone rings in the rectory at an oddly early hour. It’s a representative from the nearby funeral home: “We’d like to schedule a funeral this week.”
“I know” I say to the voice over the phone. After hanging up, I’m sitting alone in silence for a few moments when I realize that tears are falling down my face. As a priest, I’m often called to be present when people die but, in truth, I’m generally not much of a crier. It dawns on me that my tears are not in sadness for the death of a man I barely knew. Instead, they are for the grace and privilege I felt at being witness to a resurrection on Easter Sunday afternoon in a backyard in Kansas. -Fr. Gregory Houck, O.Carm.
This past Friday and Saturday, the Office of Stewardship hosted the Come, Holy Spirit Lenten Retreat as a way to promote the lens of lively faith through prayer — the spiritual formation of the heart.
The retreat was put on by the Community of Beatitudes out of Denver, Colorado. One of their charisms is praying with Israel.
“Bringing to completion the promise made to our fathers in the first covenant, Christ admits all who embrace salvation into the inheritance of Israel. Like the apostle Paul says, the Church is in some ways grafted into the root of Israel, the olive tree. The unveiling of the plenitude of the mystery of Christ to Israel is essential, because it concerns the definitive union of all the people of Israel and the eschatological vocation of the Church. We wait for the moment in which the Glorified Christ will be all in all, for ourselves but also for the chosen people, and can only pray with fervor for the hastening of the day when Jesus will be fully revealed as Messiah to Israel” (Book of Life 11).
As a way to lift up this “praying with Israel,” the Community of Beatitudes will do Israeli folk dancing as a community. This dancing is done on Sunday, the day of resurrection, the Lord’s Day. As a way to end a retreat on Saturday evening, the Community of the Beatitudes taught us Israeli folk dancing.Here is a bit of dancing from the retreat: https://www.facebook.com/RCStewardship/videos/2039421662994264/
Israeli folk dancing is circle in nature and usually based on a number of biblical images, especially from the Psalms. One dance emphasized Mary stomping on the head of the serpent, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was a great way to end the retreat, with great laughter and joy as we learned to dance in and with the Lord, praying for the day when Jesus will be fully revealed as Messiah to Israel.
Israeli dancing also brought me back to the beginning of our stewardship initiative when we were encouraged to incorporate monthly hospitality events into parish life as a way to build up the body of Christ in our parishes. As we were dancing last Saturday night Israeli style, I thought this would be a great hospitality event for parishes. It is definitely stepping out of the box a bit and certainly goes beyond coffee and donuts.
I am interested in hearing what hospitality events your parish has been doing of late.
One of my favorite lines during priest retreat this year by
Fr. John Horn, who was our director, was “disposition isn’t everything,
but it’s almost everything.” I like this definition of disposition, the
way in which something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other
things. I thought about disposition when I was visiting with Bishop Gruss
about the opening Mass for the cause of canonization of Nicholas Black Elk —
Servant of God, last Saturday at Holy Rosary Mission in Pine Ridge.
My heart was moved to hear that Bishop Gruss went
to Manderson before the Mass so that he could visit and spend some
time praying at the grave of Nicholas Black Elk. I
wish I would have thought of this myself. To be honest, it did not even cross
my mind that this would be a good thing to do. It never entered my heart.
Bishop Gruss, had the right
disposition, I am sure moved by the Holy Spirit, and arranged his day to
give him sufficient time to go to Manderson first to visit the grave of
Nicholas Black Elk and then go on to Holy Rosary Mission in Pine Ridge for the
Hearing of Bishop Gruss’ side trip to Manderson left me with
an ache in my own heart, wishing that I had made the time to pray at the grave
of Nicholas Black Elk beforehand.
experience has taught me that disposition is connected to being more
aware of, or paying more attention to, the details of my day
and the movements of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps during my examen
the night before, I should look at the coming day or during my morning
offering I can be more intentional in praying to the Holy Spirit to reveal
to me the right disposition of my heart, to ask for the grace to pay attention
to the finer details of the day so that I will not continue to miss those
important side trips in my life.
coming Thursday, we will wrap up our seven-week course on the Life in the
Spirit Seminar at Terra Sancta. We have had over a 100 people that have
participated throughout the seven weeks. I have heard some moving stories of
people’s experience of being prayed over for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. A
number of people have said how their own faith has been enlivened by the presentations,
the testimonies, the small group discussion and the praise and worship music.
My own heart has been renewed in the Lord as well. The last six weeks I have
looked forward eagerly to Thursday evenings to gather with a group of lay
people and some priests to seek a more intentional relationship with the person
of the Holy Spirit.
Recently, at worldwide retreat for clergy at St
John Lateran Church in Rome, Pope Francis told over a 1,000
priests from some 90 countries to share the Baptism in the Spirit with their
congregations. “I ask all of you, each of you, that as part of the stream of
grace of the Charismatic Renewal plan seminars of life in the Spirit in your
parishes, in your seminaries and schools … share the Baptism of the Spirit in
your catechesis, because it is produced by the work of the Holy Spirit through a
personal encounter with Jesus; which changes lives.”
Pope Benedict XVI on
Pentecost Sunday 2008 spoke these remarkable words: “Today I would like to
extend this invitation to everyone: let’s rediscover, dear brothers and
sisters, the beauty of being baptized in the Holy Spirit; let us be aware again
of our baptism and confirmation, sources of grace that are always present. Let
us ask the Virgin Mary to obtain a renewed Pentecost for the church again
today, a Pentecost that will spread to everyone the joy of living and
witnessing to the gospel.”
Pope Francis and Pope
Benedict XVI Emeritus speak about the importance and the power of the role of
the Holy Spirit in bringing faith to life. As we move into lively faith in our
stewardship initiative: prayer, study and formation, holding Life in the Spirit
Seminars within our parishes and deaneries can foster and nourish a personal
encounter with Jesus.
Some might be wondering, “What is
the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?” “Baptism in the Spirit is a life-transforming
experience of the love of God the Father poured into one’s heart by the Holy
Spirit, received through a surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It brings
alive the sacramental graces of baptism and confirmation, deepens communion
with God and with fellow Christians, enkindles evangelistic fervor and equips a
person with charisms for service and mission.” (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, International Catholic Charismatic
Renewal Services Doctrinal Commission)
If you are interested in learning
more about hosting a Life in the Spirit Seminar for your youth, parishes or
deaneries, please give me a call.
Come, Holy Spirit!
Fr. Mark’s Musings