At The Hour Of Our Death

Maybe you heard the news about Tim Bowers week before last. On that Saturday, Tim went deer hunting near his home in rural Indiana. He said goodbye to his wife, who is expecting their first child in a few months. They were married last August. Tim, 32, owned an automotive repair shop and was well-known as a kind and generous man. He was a member of St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization. And he loved being out in the woods. That day he was hunting in a deer stand fixed 16 feet up in a tree. There was an accident. Tim fell from the stand and broke several vertebra in his neck. He was paralyzed from the neck down and had to have a ventilator do his breathing for him. Although his brain was not injured in the fall, his doctors used medications to place him in a coma to prevent further injury to his spinal cord.

The doctors told Tim’s wife and family that he would probably need a ventilator for the rest of his life. He would never walk again. He would never hold their new baby. His family was in a unique situation because just a month earlier they had heard Tim discuss what he wanted done in a situation like this. During that conversation Tim made it clear that if he were paralyzed or if he needed machines to keep him alive as the result of an accident or illness, he wouldn’t want to be kept alive by extraordinary means. So his family made a rather unusual request. They asked his doctors to remove Tim from the coma he was in so that they could talk things over with him. When he woke up, his family discussed his prognosis with him. Tim then made the decision to discontinue the ventilator which was keeping him alive. He knew that this action would hasten his death. According to his family and friends who were there, Tim made it very clear that he understood what he was doing and wanted the machines removed. The ventilator was removed and over the next five hours, Tim’s family and friends gathered in his room. They sang and talked and prayed. And Tim died.

I hope that all of us spend some time considering what Tim and his family must have been thinking about last Saturday in that hospital room. Decisions about end-of-life medical care need to be considered and discussed long before the last hours of our earthly existence. Tim’s family knew his wishes because they had talked about it. They knew what he wanted. That’s important. What’s also important is knowing what the Church teaches on these issues. We believe that life is God’s gift to us and must be treated as precious and irreplaceable. No one’s life may be purposefully-ended. To do that is murder. To aid in that end is to assist in murder. And yet the Church also teaches that there are mitigating factors in making decisions at or near the end of our lives. Suffering can be eased and pain can be managed in order to allow a natural end. This complex and delicate discussion isn’t appropriate for a reflection such as this one, but I hope that by sharing Tim’s story, you will be encouraged to talk about these issues with your family, your friends, and your pastor.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks at length about end-of-life care beginning at paragraph 2278. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops website is also an excellent resource (usccb.org). Both discuss “advance directives” such as living wills and durable powers of attorney which can direct the decisions made by your doctors and family if you’re unable to communicate. Talk with your pastor so you’re clear on Church teachings before you make any decisions or put anything in writing. He’s likely had this same discussion with many others before you and he’ll be a great help to you as you consider your future medical care. One of Tim’s friends spoke to the media about his friend’s strong Catholic faith and said of him, “He was ready to go to heaven. He was ready for God.” What a comfort this is to those who loved Tim. May all of us be just as ready to meet our Lord.

“God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.”
—Wisdom 1:13

20131124-083017.jpg

Advertisements

It’s All About Me

There are so many great stories in the Old Testament. The story of creation. Moses parting the Red Sea. My namesake Judith chopping off the head of Holofernes. God uses all of them to reveal His great love for us and His unfolding plan for our salvation. One of my favorite stories is about Naaman and how God cured him of leprosy. I’m drawn to his story, not because it makes me feel good to read it, but because it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a good bet that when a story from Scripture makes me uncomfortable it’s because God is trying to get something through my thick skull. And with Naaman, I think I know what it is.

You’ll find the story of Naaman told in II Kings, chapter 5. Here’s the gist of it. Naaman is an army general in ancient Syria. He’s got everything going for him—he’s rich and strong and powerful. His career is going great. The only downside to anything about Naaman is the fact that he has leprosy, which in those days was devastating both physically and socially. Even so, he was a big deal in Syria. Living in his household was a little Jewish girl who had been captured in an army raid and who served as a maid to Naaman’s wife. She wanted her master to see the prophet Elisha whom she knew could cure his leprosy. So Naaman wrote to the king of Israel and was invited to come and see the prophet. After the long journey, Naaman arrived in court and Elisha sent word to him telling him to wash 7 times in the Jordan River and he’d be cured.

This really made Naaman mad. To begin with, he was a great general and this prophet couldn’t even be bothered to come outside and greet him personally? Naaman thought he’d get his cure when Elisha would pray for him and lay his hands on him. But no. Elisha had the audacity to tell him to bathe in this muddy, filthy little backwater creek they called the Jordan. Weren’t the mighty rivers of Damascus more beautiful, more powerful and more suited for a general like himself?

So in his anger Naaman got ready to leave. But his servants stopped him from going. They said if Elisha had asked Naaman to do something really difficult or extravagant that he’d have done it. Naaman agreed. Really sir, they told him, all you’ve got to do is go wash in the river. Naaman thought it over and did as he was told. And sure enough, his leprosy disappeared. He got the cure that he’d desperately longed for, but the way he went about it is what reminds me of my own sins and shortcomings. Sometimes when God blesses me I still find a reason to be unhappy with it. With Him. I think, “God, this isn’t the way I thought it would be.” When I had imagined Him answering my prayer, I had imagined Him doing it MY way. And when I do that, I limit God. Even though God alone can know what is best for me, I want him to bless me on MY terms. I want the prophet to come meet me personally, like Naaman did. I want God to bless me in the way that I expect to be blessed, in a way that will honor and exalt me. I don’t want to bathe in a muddy creek even though that’s exactly what I might need to do in order to be blessed. Me and Naaman? We understand each other.

Naaman and I are proud. We want to be treated like we’re important. We want a showy cure, something we think is “worthy” of us. What we have to learn is humility. For me, this is a daily lesson. Sometimes the greatest healings and most profound blessings come to us in the simple, straightforward “stuff” of our daily lives: our jobs, our families, our friends, and all the small ordinary challenges of every day. Too often we expect the Lord’s blessings to be big and dramatic: we win the lottery, we find a cure for cancer, we are awarded the Nobel Prize. But God uses the most mundane things and ordinary processes to perform His great miracles. He creates the universe with His word. He uses spittle and mud to cure a blind man. His breath imparts the Holy Spirit. Water cleanses us of sin in Baptism. Bread and wine become His precious Body and Blood.

Naaman reminds me not to try and put God in a box. My prayers (and my life) should reflect humility and gratitude. When God blesses me every moment my heart and my hands must be open to accept His gifts. Naaman’s little housemaid knew that. She knew that if her master asked, he’d be cured. May my heart be like her heart.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you,”
— I Peter 5:7

20131117-155719.jpg

The Living Christ

In October of 1995, Pope John Paul II was on a trip to the United States. As part of his visit he was scheduled to meet with the faculty and seminarians at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. His plan was to first make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the seminary chapel. Prior to the Pope’s arrival, a group of security teams made a sweep of the campus using dogs trained to detect anyone who might have hidden themselves in the area. These dogs and their handlers made their way down hallways and through offices and classrooms as they searched every nook and cranny.  Lastly, they began their search of the chapel. The dogs and officers looked down every aisle and through every pew. Finally they went into the side chapel where the Eucharist was reserved. When the dogs got to the Tabernacle they whined and sat down, staring at it. This was their signal to the officers that they’d found a Person. They refused to leave, their eyes fixed on the Tabernacle. Their handlers had to remove the dogs. They’d done their job alright: they’d found a real living Person there in the chapel after all.

A real living Person IS present in the Holy Eucharist.  And yet this is something far too many Catholics don’t seem to recognize. The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. On the night before He died to save us, Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper and told us to do the same “in remembrance of Me”(Luke 22:19).  I’m afraid many Catholics don’t know what our faith teaches us about the Eucharist. And what the Church teaches is exactly what Jesus taught His apostles. If you want to know what Jesus says, I’d encourage you to read the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. You’ll hear him say: “I am the bread if life. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”  In total Jesus tells us 12 times that He is the Bread that came down from heaven. He was born in Bethlehem which means “house of bread” and He was lain in a manger, where food was kept. Our Catechism teaches that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life”(paragraph 1324).  The source—from where our faith originates (Jesus) and the summit—where our faith leads us (Jesus).

We must know the truth of the Eucharist if we call ourselves Catholic. Read John chapter 6 again. Read the Catechism, especially paragraphs 1322-1419. Read some of the earliest Church fathers to see that, from the very beginning of the Church, the Eucharist has been understood to be the Body and Blood of Jesus. Men like St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote extensively about the Real Presence in the first 200 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. So much of what we Catholics believe and how we worship God can only be understood through the lens of the Most Blessed Sacrament. His Presence is why we have Mass and not just pretty music and a sermon. He is why we genuflect when we come into church. He is why we kneel and bow. He is why we are reverent and quiet during Mass. His presence in the Eucharist is why we go to Adoration. The Eucharist is Jesus Himself, just as alive and just as present with us today as He was talking with His apostles or His Blessed Mother. We say we want to be with Him, to be in His presence and know His love and peace. This is what we do at Adoration. We sit with Him and open our hearts, telling Him everything. We adore Him. Jesus gives us the gift of faith to believe in His presence in the Eucharist. Ask Him for that faith and He’ll remove the scales from your eyes like he did for St. Paul (Acts 9:18).  You’ll know that your Savior lives, humbly hidden in a little piece if bread, waiting for you. And you’ll run to Him.

“When we look at the Cross, we know how much Jesus loved us then. When we look at the Tabernacle, we know how much Jesus loves us now.”
          —Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta