It is the Feast of the Visitation, the 25th anniversary of my Ordination and immensity of grace to be thankful for.
During Holy Mass in the hermitage this evening one priest in particular was on my heart.
I met him one cold and wet November night, around two in the morning.
It was towards the end of the hippie era and I was hitchhiking to a commune, but the days of many young people wandering the country, the globe really, on foot or in beat-up vans or old Volkswagens, were dwindling.
The non-violent approach to civil rights, after the deaths of both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the seemingly never ending bloodbath in Viet-Nam, - well the expectancy of the ‘6o’s was giving way to the nihilism of the 70’s, background music no longer “We shall overcome” and other protest songs, but increasingly the numbing thump of disco.
Perhaps there is an important symbol in the fact this encounter with the old priest occurred in the dark of night, when the November sleet had me soaked to the bone, in the tiny town with no all-night gas station or coffee shop, with nary a car nor person about, no warm light coming from any building or house, my aching body starved for food after being on the road with no money, nothing to eat – well in desperation, even though I hated the Catholic Church and did not believe in God, when I saw the small brick church and the rectory – I just went and banged on the door!
Eventually an upstairs light came on, then one behind the glass of the front door and the human shadow, once the door opened, was revealed as an elderly priest, dressed in full cassock and collar.
There was something luminous and gentle about his face and I had barely begun to describe my plight when he ushered me into the warm hallway.
“You’re soaked. This will not do. Wait here.”, and with that he went upstairs, coming down some minutes later and telling me to go up myself, the light would be on in the bathroom.
“Have a nice hot shower. Put on the dry clothes – leave your things in the hall and then come down to the kitchen.”
I was so tried and grimy and hungry!
Upstairs I went and there in the bathroom were fresh towels, clean clothes – so I took off my wet stuff, piled them outside the bathroom door and had a lingering hot shower.
When I eventually came down to the kitchen the old priest had made a meal of hot coffee, thick slices of bread, butter, roast beef.
While I ate, he gently asked where I was going.
No pressure, no invasive questions, just a gentle and paternal expression of what amazed me as genuine concern.
When I was well and truly stuffed he told me where the guest room was and suggested I get some sleep.
Typical and suspicious me I lay there in the bed trying to figure out what his angle was, but being exhausted fell into a deep sleep without having figured out his angle.
Next morning when I opened the guest room door, there on a chair were my own clothes, washed and ironed.
When I walked into the kitchen a huge breakfast awaited me, but the old priest was not there.
It was only when I had finished eating that he came in [ I was too dumb to have figured out at the time he had been in the church celebrating the morning Mass!] and asked if there was anything more he could do before I headed off on the road again.
I assured him not and thanked him and headed to the front door.
As I stepped outside he said: “You know I believe Our Blessed Mother wants you to be a priest. Here, for your journey.”
He handed me a book of the Lives of the Saints and a rather large amount of tens and twenties.
I was so shocked by his words and the book and the money I barely mumbled a thank-you and typical me, in those days, when confronted with pure kindness, fled!
Some twenty years later, by now I had been ordained seven years, I was called to the death bed of a priest. A good priest, who had been ordained 70 years before.
I brought him Holy Viaticum, anointed him, stayed with him until he had breathed his last.
Yes, it was the same priest from that November night.
The name of the parish where he had shown me such kindness: Our Lady of Mercy.
Praying these days in preparation for my 25th anniversary persons and events which Jesus and Mary used to draw me from atheistic-Marxism and other addictions to the Catholic life of faith and trust in Jesus, keep coming into my heart.
Just today I was contemplating in the hermitage chapel, gazing upon two icons, recalling the woman who gifted them to me.
The events which led to our meeting and her gift occurred some thirty years ago after a series of front page articles and tv stories had been done about the work the unit I was assigned do were doing, especially at night, in child protection and juvenile crime.
One summer’s day I was informed a woman was at the front desk asking for me and when I went to see her I was struck by how old and exhausted she appeared.
She told me, in broken English, she was a widowed Russian émigré with one child, a teenage boy, who was missing and, she feared, involved in life on the streets.
Because she had seen me on the news she knew I could find him.
When she told me where she lived it was in a neighbouring city, outside our jurisdiction and so I offered to put her in touch with a contact in the other department.
She would have none of it insisting since ours was the larger city this is where the boy was and that only I could find him.
Admittedly this appealed to my ego more than did concern for her son and so as I was about to start my time off I agreed to look for him, figuring if nothing else this would send her on her way, as strangely there was a weird sense within me more was going on here than seemed apparent.
So I left her there at the front desk, return to the unit’s office, completed some paperwork, and headed out to the back to my car.
There she was, beside my car!
Don’t ask me a] how she got into that secure area nor b] knew which car was mine, but there she was, insisting she was coming with me!
I said, suddenly changing my plans, I was going to look for her son on foot and that given the hot and humid summer afternoon she really should go home and I would call her.
Abruptly I turned away and began walking further into the downtown.
I quickened my pace.
She kept up within a few yards of me.
In and out of various dives where juvenile hustlers, addicts and other lost hang-out; up and down various alleys, always with this frantic maternal shadow.
By late afternoon I was frustrated, finding no clue as to where the boy might be and even more furious I could not shake the maternal shadow, I suddenly spun around at one point, walked towards her, vented my anger and said I was through and, pushed past her, turned onto a pedestrian outdoor mall, immediately bumping into a little group consisting of an elderly priest and three women.
I recognized each one of them as people from my past, people consecrated to Christ in a lay community, people whose mission house was in a city hundreds of miles away.
Yet here they were.
And there she was, right on my heals.
Pushing past me the mother began to tell the priest what was going on, even as I was trying to talk and suddenly there I was surrounded by the mother, the three women, the priest and they are all asking Our Blessed Mother and the Angels: “Lead him to the boy that the child be returned to his mother.”
Filled with a mixture of terror and anger I pushed past them but it was more like I was being pushed and I headed to the street we had just come from, turned quickly down an alley, shouldered open a door, went, two at a time, up a flight of stairs, kicked in a door, grabbed a youth by the hair, yanked him to this feet, securing my grip on his shoulder with one hand, and bending, with a tight wrist hold, one arm and hustled him down the stairs, out the door, along the alley, across the street and shoved him into the arms of his weeping mother.
Several months later, Christmas Eve night, and the duty officer comes by my desk and drops a small package onto the desk saying some old woman left it for me with a simple message: “Thank-you.”
I opened the package.
There were two small icons:
Grace is all around us, Jesus is always seeking us, Our Blessed Mother urging us to “Do whatever He tells you.”
Sometimes we encounter Jesus, do what Mary asks, without really apprehending at the time the actual reality that is happening!
In eight days will be my 25th anniversary of ordination and I found myself in prayer today allowing everyone who might come into the eyes of my mind and heart, to pass by, as it were, to be thanked – even my enemies whose lies have caused so much harm – and blest.
One, about whom I have not been aware of for some years admittedly, came to mind and caused me to smile over the expanse of forty years.
At the time I was an atheist and Marxist working in a street clinic.
In those days such places were rare, indeed in that particular city we were the first and provided medical, counselling, legal services for free.
It was, of course, located in the inner city with all the concomitant grub and crime, poverty and anger.
Those who came were of various ages, gender, people of various races, religions and none, of varying degrees of mental health, and none, and of course there was a kaleidoscope of addictions, wounds, while overarching all the immense and intense poverty of loneliness.
The lower, poorer, less bright echelons of the underworld came too because at the clinic all sorts of wounds could be treated without fear of police involvement – not because we would ever cover-up criminal activity but because the inner city police knew we could tell the difference between wounds from a dispute between gang members and wounds of the innocent.
In the days before women’s shelters and a better understanding of all forms of domestic violence we dealt with a lot of people, mostly women and children, on occasion a battered and totally humiliated man, the immense agony of the vulnerable was a constant reality.
One day a rather large man, looking like every film version of a bike gang member, which in truth he was, came and asked if he could bring in his ‘old lady’ and what the charge would be.
Informed no charge late that night he arrived with a very ill woman, whom we treated to stabilize her and after some convincing directed him to a hospital where she could get the full care she needed.
This time he did not ask about cost as he knew it was serious and we also knew whatever their relationship he, in his own way, loved her.
Over the following months he returned from time to time with various minor wounds, scrapes, non-specific ‘pain’.
It was obvious he came mainly to talk and I happened to be the one he latched onto, as did ‘my woman the old lady’.
She was almost as big and tough as he was, tough on the outside though, for she had a maternal heart and eventually revealed how she yearned to be a mother.
Finally one day they told me he was going to stop his gang activity and they were going to disappear, go where they could not be found, begin life anew, have a family.
Around three in the morning the next night, when supposedly they were already gone, in he came and bellowing “Here!” , he tossed what seemed a black cloth at me.
Glancing down at the object I realized it was a rabat, a roman collar with silk black front.
I looked up at him and he said, rather definitively: “I know you are a priest. Why you are hiding out here I don’t wanna know or care about! Just go back. Be a good priest. Me and the woman ’ll pray for you.”
With that he was gone, ignoring my shouted: “I’m no ****priest you****idiot!”
It would be eleven years later, after obviously a conversion and finally listening to the persistent knock on the door of my heart by Jesus, through such events as this, that I would enter the seminary.
To anyone struggling to believe, in particular any man wondering about vocation: LISTEN!
For some reason, I have been thinking a great deal lately about the sense of disappointment or heaviness that often seems to cloud religious feast days, days that should be full of light and joy. Do you ever feel this?
I think one reason for this is that the power of evil tries to compete with a celebration which centers around the worship of God. Another reason has something to do with what we call “Christ living out his life in us,” and that is basically a good thing, though what we feel is seemingly to the contrary.
Recently it came to me as I prayed and read the Scriptures that our souls bear the imprint of Christ’s life, every experience of his life. This happens at Baptism. He didn’t give us only a part of himself at Baptism; he gave us his entire self, and that includes all the experiences of his life, of his great mind and heart.
I think that as we go on in life the full meaning and reality of our Baptism unfolds. We know something about Christ—not only with our intellects, as we read, study and think about him—but our whole being has been united with his whole being in Baptism, and his being is like a surge of new life running through our very arteries.
Through our Baptism we see the Child whom the Virgin Mother of God has brought forth; we know, by our own intimate relationship, who this Child is. Or, to put it another way: Christ in our souls recognizes himself, and we experience at times the leap for joy that Elizabeth felt in her womb at the moment when Mary’s voice of greeting reached her ears (Luke 1: 30-44).
Or, in a moment of utter stillness, perhaps we become aware of the intense heat of the fire of the love existing between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we become so caught up in it that we cry out to God, “Don’t show me any more! It is not for man to know!” We are then like the Apostles on Mount Tabor and we are struck with awe at the brilliance of Christ in his Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36).
And when we see our brother being crucified in the many ways man crucifies his brothers, isn’t there something excruciatingly painful that takes place in us? Isn’t it Christ suffering in us, being crucified again at the hands of his enemies?
And when, by the grace of God, we are able to forgive right on the spot some wrong that has been done to us, isn’t it Christ himself forgiving, repeating again from his cross, “Father forgive them”?
And the heaviness of feast days? Surely it is the groaning of the Spirit of Jesus in us, the travail in which all of creation is yearning for completion. Perhaps on these days we become acutely aware of being in unfulfilled time, even as we celebrate the fullness of time in Christ. Perhaps this heaviness is a grace also, because we experience the longing of Christ for all of creation to become one in his Father. Yes, I think this is what the heaviness of feast days is all about!
— Adapted from Coming Home
Listen to the Spirit—He Will Lead You
2010 Calendar Journal featuring the writings of Catherine Doherty
Begin your day with a quote from Scripture and deepen your relationship with God as you grow in your awareness of His presence in your life. An indispensable aid to your prayer life. And a superb gift to others! The calendar includes the saints and feasts for each day of the liturgical year as well as a listing of the day’s Mass readings and a short scriptural passage from them for your personal reflection. Click here for more information.
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