Monday, January 23, 2017

A GREATLY LOVED PRIEST

Just before Christmas, my confessor and spiritual director, Father John, succumbed to pneumonia and took off for eternity.  Our Bishop had anointed him and told him how much his more than 50 years of priesthood had meant to the people in our diocese--and far beyond that.

I knew him for more than 30 years, and first asked him to be my confessor after a World Wide Marriage Encounter training weekend. I had gone into it feeling depressed and bereft of our loving Marriage Encounter community in Northern California, which we had had to leave when my husband got a job elsewhere. I was convinced I could never find people as loving and giving as those we had said goodbye to just a few months earlier.  I asked if I could go to Confession on that weekend, and I suspect he probably thought it would take maybe ten minutes at the most.  Instead, I sat there crying for an hour, telling him my world was falling apart and I didn't know what to do about it.  He listened quietly and patiently, and I have never experienced the loving, forgiving presence of Jesus as strongly as I did then. A few weeks later, I asked him if he would be my confessor, and he told me that's one of the things that priests do.  He moved all around the diocese, and wherever he went, I would go see him about once a month, and always drove home knowing I had also encountered Jesus through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

He became very much a part of our family, coming out for dinner, enjoying the children--and if there was a small one, usually paying much more attention to them than to us!  Our oldest granddaughter was about 4 when we got a St. Francis fountain and we asked him to bless it,  and Jung-Sook talked for a long time about how Fr. John had blessed the "mountain!"  Our daughter Catherine remembered how much he had loved the biscuits she made when he came for dinner.  Once we were in  a Marriage Encounter meeting and he shared how much he loved Bohemian food because his mother was Bohemian, and I asked what Bohemian food was.  He told me it was spareribs and sauerkraut with potato dumplings.  I never would have thought of that as a company dish, but the next time he came for dinner, I spent all day making spareribs and sauerkraut, and my husband made potato dumplings, although, as he told Fr. John, they spread out instead of making nice little round dumplings.  Fr. John, with a smile, told us that his mother had frequently had the same problem.  But he greatly enjoyed the dinner! He baptized one of our daughters and two grandsons, was the Confirmation sponsor of a different daughter, married four of them, and presided over my husband's funeral.

When we were coordinating an international convention for WWME, he was the priest member of our team, and it gave us two years to spend a lot of quality time with him.  We went out to lunch with him every other week and brainstormed ideas for the Convention. When it was over, and we were gathered together in our "command center," our son was there with us, and while we were talking to someone else, he told us that Fr. John was telling jokes and laughing in a way that he'd never seen him before, because he was so thrilled that the Convention had been such a success.

The night before the Convention began, the three of us had gone up to sign the paperwork at the Convention Center.  It had been a stressful two years of preparation, and we had no idea how the Convention would play out.  We asked him where he'd like to go for dinner, and he said anywhere we could get a glass of wine.  So we found a huge Mexican restaurant which had one side dedicated to noisy birthday parties, and the other side had a quieter ambience. He ordered his glass of wine while I looked at the extensive and colorful drink menu--in addition to margaritas in all varieties, they also had martinis of every hue, including one called the Ti-D-Bowl, made with blue curacao, and a 48 ounce martini called the "Adios, Amigo!"  The menu did say that you were limited to only two!

I am so grateful for the presence of Fr. John in our lives, for the love he shared with everyone he met, and the couples and priests whose lives he enriched on every Marriage Encounter Weekend he gave.  He died on my husband's birthday, and it was nice to think of the two of them (and many others) celebrating it together.  Until we all meet again in heaven, Adios, Amigo!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

MEANING, LOVE, WORD

Gretchen Rubin's first blogpost in 2017 quotes from Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.  This book was important to me when I was slowly digging my way out of a long depression. Frankl's insight that there is a space between what is done to us and how we respond gave me a sense of hope. We still have free will in the face of the suffering inevitable in this life, and can choose how to cope with it, to find meaning in it and to keep moving forward.




We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.” –Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
This underlined for me again my dear husband's last months of life as he was dying of cancer. Certainly one of his achievements then was to endure "his sufferings in the right way--an honorable way." He settled his last case two weeks before he died, and gave time in those last months to anyone who wanted to visit him: family, friends, and coworkers. Most said that they came to encourage him, but they left feeling as if they had been lifted up by being with him. I believe even more now than when we were walking that deep valley of sorrow together that his sufferings were being banked in the economy of salvation for our family and for the values that we supported during our marriage: for the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Matrimony, the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, and openness to life according to God's plan for those who are married.   

When I face the uncertainties of the years ahead without him, I know that his prayers continue for me in an even more powerful way than mine for him, and I cling to the belief that we will one day be reunited "in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

This is not an easy belief for me.  When I first started writing book reviews for a religious magazine, the priest who was the editor (and one of the priests who concelebrated our wedding) told me that I didn't need to have every review end in the Beatific Vision.  But when I was young and married to the most wonderful man in the world, it was easy to think that all roads led to Rome and thence to the eternal Wedding Banquet. But now when the roads to Rome look crooked and seem to vanish in dust, I can only cling to Peter's words that echo back from the dirty paths in Palestine, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).


The words are hard as rock. Sometimes we break them open in prayer and find geodes; at other times, we break upon them in loss, in sin, in dryness and emptiness.  We have to wait for resurrection when resurrection seems like just a word.  A Word enfleshed who dwells with us, walks with us, suffers with us, though we are blind and deaf and dumb--unable to understand, unable to speak the Word now in the enormity of our need.