Death can be truly frightening even to those of us who are faithful. Today, on the Feast of All Souls I particularly remember my friend Patrick who I had the privilege to be a spiritual director for a brief time. Patrick was a writer who struggled with much in his life. He had anxieties about his sins, the things he felt kept him from God and the things that others may have told him that kept him from God--things that probably weren't sins at all, but things that nonetheless, kept him in fear, kept him from welcoming God.
As Patrick was lying sick in a hospital bed one day he longed for serenity. I giggle a bit when I recall the story he told me that day:
"Mike the other day I was walking the halls here and there was this woman who had stage four cancer! No turning back. She's going to die. She's even going to die SOON! And as I passed her room, she was SINGING! Not only was she singing but she was singing a HAPPY song! I wanted to stick my head into her room and shout: DOOM!"
I couldn't help but laugh at his negativity, but his thought probably reflected what we all fear about death. What I think I fear from time to time when doubt creeps in. We don't fear the inevitability of our human life, but rather we fear that we might be wrong about what lies beyond death. What we fear is the lack of certainty.
And that, my friends, is what we call faith. And faith is the opposite of fear. It is what conquers fear. It is the faith of the Saints we celebrated yesterday who lived lives not of quiet solitude mostly, but of fearless love. They lived, as we say in Catholic rituals, in that sure and certain hope of the mercy of God--which almost sounds like an oxymoron--we have a certain HOPE?
As I said to Patrick that day, "We hope that there is a God and we are only certain that God is not us and that whatever God may be is completely mysterious to us. And that is not always comforting. But what we cling to is our hope and I think we get closer to certainty whenever we call forth the souls of the faithful departed into our consciousness, when we feel their presence even in a small way we believe they are interceding for us, just as we are comforted by friends praying for us. I truly believe that those souls send us signs and give us messages of comfort.
For me, Patrick was someone who I learned much from while he was alive. As his director I hoped I would bring him much comfort about life. I do think I was helpful to him in facing his fears and anxieties and seeing where God indeed was working in his life. I hope in that. But when Patrick died very unexpectedly while trying to recover from cancer, something he was expected to beat, I needed hope. I went to his funeral and heard the stories of how many people's lives he touched, how he loved his family, especially his niece. I listened to how his passion for causes he believed in led others to share in caring for those who needed hope in their lives--for those he served who were dying of AIDS, for those who felt injustice, for those who often had nobody to pray for them. I left the funeral sad but hopeful.
The following day, I went to a conference at a Connecticut retreat center on the beachfront. I walked on the sandy shores with my ipod on shuffle as the sun rose. I prayed not only for Patrick, but to Patrick, asking him to pray for me. And he was my sign of hope. As the sun rose over the horizon, the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen with reds and oranges and yellows and even blues shimmering in the cool morning air I asked Patrick if it made any sense for us to hope. I prayed for some kind of sign that Patrick could not only hope but rest in the mercy of God. I hoped that Patrick's loneliness would cease and I prayed that he was no longer a lonely soul but was able to feel the accompaniment of God.
My iPod clicked from a Gregorian Chant to this song:
I laughed heartedly. I let the sun wash over me. I hoped and felt secure in that hope of God's presence and mercy. And I remembered two things:
1) Patrick and his gentle and passionate heart for others.
and 2) That I couldn't remember downloading this song at all onto my iPod. But I did remember Patrick owning it.
A miracle? A sign? A comfort?
It was that and more...not just for Patrick and I...but for All Souls.