LET IT aLL sTART hERE
For Catholics who care...
"I'm not a praying minstrel”.
Those were the words of a 93 year old Italian-Catholic friend and fellow parishioner. I was taken aback!
I wondered: This man is one of the most generous supporters of our church? A man whose last "outing" in his old life...was to go to Mass? …And he doesn't pray? Who else would he be but a praying minstrel if he truly believed in his Catholic faith? I am afraid that too many of us settle for the religious “tag” of “Catholic,” and too few of us regularly exercise its privilege.
While visiting this man in a nursing home, the topic of how we converse with God came up. I wanted to talk about his prayer life and he wanted to change the subject. I don't change subjects readily when I want my way and I suggested that he spend some of his time in prayer – rather than sitting, hour upon hour, feeling alone. I think all of these elders of the Catholic faith who live in such facilities should consider banding together, in teams, to pray – collectively - for our world (A world that is a yardstick away from being the next Sodom and Gomorrah). This world has become one that our older generation can’t even recognize anymore; a world that they will be departing from before most of the rest of us. What better use of their time?
I believe that if Catholic senior citizens were to recognize the powers they possess - from a lifetime of being in a relationship with God – and if they would own them, they just might be able to pray this world well. But, alas, that is a whole other topic.
"I'm not a praying minstrel!" he reiterated the next time I visited. I asked if he wanted to pray the rosary with me. He frowned, and pushed my suggestion aside with his thick, arthritic hands; strong hands that had tended to the needs of hundreds of cows on his family's dairy farm for two-thirds of a century. Hands that knew hard work, but hands that never fished; hands that never held the hand of his own offspring. These were hands that rarely found themselves woven together in prayer. Or so he said....
Jesus' disciples only asked Him to teach them one thing - how to pray. I once read: "A learned behavior is easier caught than taught." Jesus understood, and prayed as an example to his followers. Pastor Rick Ezell writes this about Jesus’ prayer life:
1) Jesus believed that prayer works.
2) Praying did not make Jesus passive.
3) Jesus prayed alone.
4) Jesus prayed in community.
5) Jesus prayed before meals.
6) Jesus offered thanks.
7) Jesus prayed before making important decisions.
8) Jesus prayed for his disciples.
My visit yesterday to the nursing home was a sad one. My "would-be" praying minstrel's health has taken a serious turn for the worse. I held his hand to comfort him as he wept at his own predicament. I struggled to find something meaningful to say, or do. Then, it became clear that solace cannot be offered to an aged, stricken, solitary man with a box of chocolate, a bouquet of flowers, or in the promise of future outings once good health returns. None of that matters.
So, I said this: "I love you, and I need you to pray for me. Will you do that? Will you pray for me? I could use some help." I asked him this three times. He agreed. Now, let’s see what happens.
Dear Evelyn: May God bless you in many ways, and especially with peace of mind and heart and joy in your service. I realized I failed to write to you personally after your blog post - I wanted you to know that yes I did immediately recognize Juan by your description AND by the rosary I had noticed around his neck when I served on the Monday evening that week. I noticed it because I know we are not "supposed" to wear rosaries as jewelry, but of course I would not comment. So when I went again last night and he was there but not wearing it. So I asked where is your Rosary? He pointed to a special pocket in the jacket that he was carrying and said reverently, in there. He said "when I shower I have to take it off, so ..." keeping it safe there. I thought you might enjoy this sequel from another perspective. I had never spoken to him before, except to take his tray and ask God to bless him. Now we have a smiling relationship!
All week I have been searching for the notice of my friend Gary G.’s death in the local newspaper. I found that there was no “notice” of him, no obituary. Its absence caused me to pause and wonder: Why? Someone said: He didn’t want anyone to have to spend the money on him....” As if $1.25 a word to write a life, or to acknowledge a soul’s passing, would break anyone. But perhaps my friend didn’t see the value in his own life. There is where the shame of it lies. So I ask myself: How do we live worthy lives?
Obituaries are not unlike resumes. Both are a “summing up” of one’s history. Both try to convince the reader that the person whose name appears in the bold letters is or was “somebody”. So, in a way, a person becomes a product or a thing that is “sold”. Sadly, if the product isn’t or wasn’t useful enough... it is in that same way... discontinued. Not thought of. Not noted.
I have built a lot of resumes in my time. I’m good at constructing a life that “sells”. And yet if I were to die tomorrow, would the notice of my death convince anyone I was worth knowing? I hope someone would spend $55.00 on an "obit" and write the following about me: She was poor in spirit. She was meek. She mourned and was comforted. She hungered and thirst for justice. She was merciful. She was clean of heart. She was a peacemaker. She suffered persecution for justice’ sake. And . . . The kingdom of heaven is hers!
I will miss my friend Gary whom God sent into my life to assist me in living a life of value.
This is a story of Jesus asking me to do something for Him. Then, permitting me His Grace… all that is necessary to answer His call. It is also the story of Juan Pablo – a Salvadoran native, and a veteran of their decade-long Civil War of the 1980s. And it is the story of a string of aqua blue glass beads-- a discarded rosary that found its way to Juan Pablo.
It began on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. During the reading of Mark's Gospel, the narrator’s voice filled the church, and weighed heavy on my heart:
At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, he is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it
on a reed and gave it to him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
As we knelt, I said: “If I were there, I would have saved you.” Suddenly, a voice outside me replied: Really… What are you doing to save me now?
I looked up in surprise. I glanced over at the priest on the altar; I half expected that he was in on it, or that he had heard Jesus’ question as well. Then I looked around at the rest of the congregation, but they remained faithfully bent in reverence and prayer. No one else seemed to hear Him!? After mass, I left the church hastily - eager to call a friend about what had happened.
Two days later, I sat home alone reading about the Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Pope Francis had recently declared him a martyr), and how he is due to be beatified in San Salvador on May 23, the day before Pentecost. I was struck by the fact that even outside of Catholicism, Archbishop Romero is honored by other Christian denominations, including the Church of England; that he is one of only ten 20th-Century martyrs to be depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London. I hadn’t ever thought much about him, simply because, in our Catholic tradition, there are so many other things to think about!
But that was about to change.
Every Wednesday I travel to The Albany City Mission to work in their kitchen to help feed the homeless. In almost three years, I’ve rarely missed a day. I know the men who loiter there. I know who likes rice, who can’t eat pork, who never smiles, who has fallen off the wagon, who doesn’t buy into The Mission’s mission, and who does.
Enter Juan Pablo.
The massacre that raged on in the small Central American country he called home had left Juan Pablo with a sick spirit, nearly blind, and destined to wander these some 35 years without real family, friends or homeland. Today, Juan Pablo is a pilgrim in a foreign land searching for Christ among us. He lives some days on the streets and some days in a homeless shelter in Albany, NY.
I knew the face of this drunken, little man very well. I have smiled at him; asked him how he was doing? Tried to feed him…. But he barely and rarely responded to me. However, this past Wednesday something was different. As he sat at his table, staring into the mayhem of pre-lunch preparation, I decided to challenge myself to speak to him because I was able I recognized that he is Jesus and Jesus is waiting for me.
I sat next to Juan Pablo, and tried to engage him: I asked him if he were hungry? If he were Native American or Latin (at the time I didn’t know?). If he could see me? For the first time, it became clear to me that Juan Pablo had very poor vision, and that much of the time he must not have even realized I was speaking to him because I stood too far away. Now, I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with him…close enough for him to smell the scent of my perfumed lotion. He turned to me, and and answered my question pointedly: “I am from Central America. I am from El Salvador!” Shocked at the coincidence of my encountering the life of Archbishop Romero only the night before, I asked Juan Pablo if he knew Romero.
“Of course.” He replied. “I am a soldier. He was a great man! We would do anything for him. He brought God to the people wherever he went….”
“You knew him?” I repeated excitedly. Inspired by the undeniable fact that God was with me just then, and had been since Palm Sunday Mass, I felt compelled to give this sad stranger something to hold on to. I went to my coat and found the rosary I had taken from a small wooden "give-away" box at our church. It was one of many that I've collected, and when I lifted it from the box I felt a bit guilty for wanting it so much. I took it anyway, telling myself I would give it to someone who needs it.
The crucifix’s silver patina was rubbed off in places, and some of the glass beads were chipped. Clearly, someone had been praying to Mary for her intercession on these beads for a long time; I had been praying hard on them, and now Juan Pablo could as well. He took the rosary from me as if it were a handful of precious gems, and laughed gleefully to himself. From that moment on, I ceased to exist in his world. Now, it was just Juan Pablo, the rosary, his memories of San Romero, and his feeling that all was right in his world - if only for these few minutes . He turned from me, and kissed the crucifix of the rosary. Then, Juan Pablo hung the strand of glass beads around his soiled neck, and walked away.
I was in a bar tonight on Main Street in Stamford, NY chatting with the regulars, when my friend Don suddenly offered: "If you want to know how to pray...watch Fiddler On The Roof." I looked at him in disbelief. What a simple yet profound statement! I was shocked at how right he was. I remembered the play. I remembered the film. I remembered just how Tevye, the milkman, was in constant dialogue with God. This is how we are instructed to pray so that we might develop the bond we all are so desperately seeking with The Father. I promised Don two things: I would post his words of wisdom at LetItAllStartHere.com before I closed my eyes tonight. And I would make a point to see the film again. I hope you all do as well. Thanks Don!