The other day, I flipped my calendar to August to see if I’d written in the month’s birthdays and special events. When I went to the August 22 square to list an appointment, the significance of the date hit home. This day will be the eighteenth anniversary of my loss of a dear lifelong friend. This parish priest is probably as responsible as my parents are for who I am today. Losing him was as difficult as losing my mom and dad. As I considered his loss, I couldn’t ignore the lesson in faith he’d left with me.
I vividly recall my shock when I discovered how sick he was. I fully expected my friendship with Father Bill to continue for at least another decade. When I received the news, I immediately paid him a visit. It didn’t take long for Father to reveal his concerns regarding his future. These included the immediate tasks of getting enough oxygen into his lungs and nourishment into his body to last another day. He knew the details of his condition and the pros and cons of every treatment his doctors proposed. There were no games to be played with this patient because he’d listened to the experts and done his homework. Father made the most informed choices he could every step of the way. Then, he placed himself in the hands of those who knew best. One of my most vivid memories from that visit is his frail hand wrapped tightly around what he knew best –a small crucifix. I watched as he clasped this small image of his Lord and closed his eyes to pray.
Faith defies definition. Some of us profess to be of one faith or another. Some associate the depth of faith with the heights of theological training. Some regard faith as an improbable concept because nothing in this world seems worthy of our complete trust. Some rely on their faith for everything, including their next breath. Father Bill embraced this illusive gift with all of his might. After doing everything he could to understand his prognosis and to cooperate in his care, he lay back and placed his life into someone else’s hands. Though his doctors remained nearby, God remained even closer. When he admitted to me, “Mary, it’s hard to die,” Father continued to grasp that crucifix as though it was the only source of strength worthy of his attention. That crucifix was no good luck charm. It was more like a photo of those best friends and loyal cheerleaders who spur us on no matter what. Though Father admitted that it was hard to die, he fully expected to face the challenge in the best of company.
Father isn’t the first and hasn’t been the last to inspire me with his faith in God’s close proximity. Many of you have survived impossible situations. You’ve said “good-bye” to your spouses much too soon. You’ve lost your children long before you ever expected to give them up. Dear friends with whom we’ve shared so much have passed in spite of our enduring need for them. I believe that one of the most heartbreaking realizations of this life is that a loved one is gone for what will seem like forever to us. Yet, after the illnesses, the accidents and the violence which steal our loved ones away, we continue to celebrate their lives and the promise of better things to come. In our darkest hours, we cling to one another and to what we hope we believe. Yes, the sometimes illusive gift of our faith shows itself unexpectedly and precisely when we need it most.
During his hospital stay, Father endured a procedure which might have taken his life. Though he knew this, a quiet peace seemed to envelop him. He seemed certain that everything would evolve as it should. As it happened, he was gifted with a few more months which he spent in the comfort of his home. When he did pass away, he had set aside his crucifix for a few minutes to read from his prayer-book. As he read God’s name, Father Bill heard his own name being called.
Luke’s gospel (12:32-48) chronicles an account of one of the most hope-filled commands Jesus offered his disciples: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also your heart will be.” You know, faith is more than a feeling of hope in God’s care for us. Indeed, faith is the knowledge that God truly loves us.
If you need to strengthen your faith as I do, repeat my dying friend’s hand exercises with me. Open your hand and let go of what worries you most. Then, wrap your fingers around the One who has been there all the while. Repeat until you instinctively realize God’s presence in the palm of your hand and in your heart.
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