Tuesday, November 20, 2018

My Parents' Greatest Gift

"Like Jesus, we too are meant to give our lives away in generosity and selflessness, but we are also meant to give our deaths away, not just at the moment of our deaths, but in a whole process of leaving this planet in such a way that our diminishment and death is our final, and perhaps greatest, gift to the world. Needless to say, this is not easy. Walking in discipleship behind the master will require that we too sweat blood and feel 'a stone's throw' from everybody. This struggle, to give our deaths away, constitutes Radical Discipleship."
— Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for A Deeper Human and Christian Maturity
I came across this quote by Ronald Rolheiser as I was doing research for a retreat. I was struck by his words and began reflecting on my own experience of being with another in their final hours of life.
My Mother died twenty years ago. It is difficult to image that much time has passed, but I remember my last conversation with her as if it was yesterday.

My Mom
Suffering from cancer and weakened by her struggle, she could barely hold a conversation in her final days. Late one night after I had left the hospital, the phone rang. I was afraid to answer, fearing it would be my Dad, telling me that Mom had died. Instead it was her faint voice I heard. She was so weak I have no clue how she dialed the phone, let alone held it to her head to speak, yet she called.

“Judith” she said, “I just want to tell you, I love you. I have always loved you and I always will.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I told her I loved her too. Those last words are so dear to me, because they speak of eternal love—and the hope of being reunited.

My Father died just this past year.

My last photo with Dad
Sitting next to his bed after having been put on a ventilator to give his heart and lungs a rest, the medical staff called the family together to tell us there was nothing more they could do for him. My Dad, who I had always looked to as my source of strength would not pull through this last battle. I would never hear his voice again and I said a silent prayer to God that I might, just one more time, get to see his dancing blue eyes that were always full of life.

Before they pulled the ventilator, the family said their final good-byes, not knowing how long he may survive without medical assistance. I was one of the last to leave the room before the medical team entered the room. Laying my head down on his pillow next to his head, I whispered into his ear how much I loved him. I looked at my sweet Father and thought of my prayer. With that his eyes opened, and he looked at me with a gaze filled with incredible love. A tear rolled down his cheek and we were held, suspended, in a sacred moment between father and daughter that was graced with eternal love.

My Mother and Father’s parting gave me incredible gifts: a depth of love that goes beyond the grave and the hope of reunion with God for all eternity. They were people of faith who through their dying moments shared the opening of new life, not lost life; eternal love, love that is not confined to this world.

Every time I receive the Eucharist at Mass, I am united in that love. I am surrounded by all those Radical Disciples who through their death gave me a glimpse of eternity. We are gathered together in the Celebration of Unity and Love. Christ has claimed the victory; death cannot destroy love.
This was my parents’ greatest gift and I thank Fr. Rolheiser for reminding me of this.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Reflecting on History and Invitation

I love history and am especially intrigued by the people and events of the Second World War. The era showcased man and society at its very worst and yet, there was always a ray of hope.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz in Poland. The horrors of the concentration camp were magnified by the realization that engineers, businessmen, bankers, and many others actually made money off the slave labor of the camps. Hair from shaved heads was sold as upholstery stuffing. Shoes, clothes, and personal belongings were sold to finance war efforts. Genetic testing on innocent children was done to determine best ways to control population. Chemists and engineers worked on the most efficient ways to exterminate people who were deemed “unnecessary”. 

How could this happen? Why didn’t people stand up against it?

Later in the day as we walked through the streets of Krak√≥w, I realized God in His infinite Mercy had never abandoned His people. Prior to the ramping up of World War II a young nun by the name of Sr. Faustina Kowalska began receiving messages from Jesus. The encounters not only taught her of His mercy, but encouraged her to tell the world. With little formal education this simple nun proclaimed the message of Jesus' Divine Mercy through her diary. The message reminded us of God’s incredible love for each of us, despite our sinfulness. His merciful arms are open and waiting and for us.

At the same time in history, another young woman answered God's call. Born into a Jewish family, Edith Stein spent her life in search of Truth, which took her on a journey through atheism to Catholicism. As a young college student and nurse she witnessed firsthand the horrors of World War I. As Nazism escalated Edith witnessed the systematic destruction of the Jewish culture and people. She spoke out, proclaiming, "The nation...doesn't simply need what we have, it needs what we are." Edith’s convictions led her to the Carmelite order, where she took the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Because of her Jewish heritage, Sr. Teresa was taken from her cloister in Holland and martyred in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. To one who lived mercy, none was given.

At our visit to the Divine Mercy Sanctuary just outside of Krakow, the incredible witness of God presence and mercy hit home. Below the main Sanctuary were several chapels connected by a glass wall to a main chapel dedicated to Sr. Faustina Kowalska. Following her death her diary been published, giving the message of Divine Mercy to the world.

One of the chapels was donated by Germany. The sacred space was unlike the others in its starkness. Walls painted white, a barbed wire stencil ran at chair height around the room. The altar was a stone block. Sitting on it was a small black iron crucifix made of nails. Hanging on the glass wall behind the altar, which looked out into the St. Faustina chapel, was a huge cross encircled by a crown of thorns. Made of steel and barbed wire, the harshness echoed the evil of the crucifixion of not only Jesus, but all the innocents who suffer at the hands of evil. Across from the chapel’s entrance was a life-sized sculpture of Sr. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), whose arms held the crucified body of Christ as it she had lifted Him from the Cross..

I froze as I entered into the chapel. Looking at the statue, it was as if Edith Stein was now offering Jesus’ broken Body to me. Stunned, I turned my head and through the cross and crown of thorns, could see the image of St. Faustina looking back at me. "Take Him," they seemed to be saying. "Take those who are suffering under the weight of sin, and be mercy."

Auschwitz is a reminder of the horrors of man's sinfulness. Despite of such incredible darkness, God was and is present. His Holy Spirit gives voice to those who, like Faustina, Edith Stein, and so many others who bravely stood against the face of evil, to speak out. Their courage reminds us to not succumb to hatred, sin, and evil, but to stand up and be a voice for love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness in the world.

The Church canonized St. Faustina and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross/Edith Stein (and many others from the WWII era). We must remember God has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to be His instruments of His Love, Compassion, Forgiveness, and Mercy, and today. When we do, we incarnate Jesus in a world so desperately in need of His Love.