Here are some reflections I am privileged to share with the Knights of Malta tomorrow during their annual Mass on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist in Osterville.
Lourdes taught me many things, among which was how to ask one very important question: What does it mean? What does it mean to be sick?
I met an orthopedic surgeon in Lourdes, a newly minted Knight of Malta, whose first contact with our Order came from first being a malade.
A wildly successful and prosperous surgeon he seemed to have life on a string and it was very good….until they noticed the spot on his brain scan. A few weeks later the headaches would wake him up in the middle of the night. And all of a sudden he went from being the doctor with the highest success rate in complex hip replacements, to an old man so weak that he could not stand without the assistance of his wife.
He quickly found out what it meant to be sick. It meant he was not longer in charge. He was no longer driving the bus, even of his own life. Someone else was in charge. At first, it was just aggravating. Not having enough energy to do what he wanted to. But it progressed to needing help to get to the bathroom, and sometimes just standing there like an infant, peeing in his own pants. And then he started to tremble so much that more food ended up in his lap than in his mouth.
What did it mean for him to be sick? It meant he was in longer in control.
“But you know," he told me one night as we went out for a walk, “that’ss the greatest gift I could have ever received. Even better than eventually getting rid of the brain tumor and returning to health. Getting so sick like that was the greatest gift of my life.
Cause the real sickness I had was thinking that I was in control. That the purpose of my life was being successful, respected and rich. And I was really successful, and have a whole wall full of awards and diplomas and three houses, four cars and a really big boat.
No the real sickness was not the one that started with the headaches. The real sickness was the one that tempted me to forget to pray to God and rely on my own resources, seeking my own pleasure and patting myself on the back for all my wonderful successes. I was a really sick man. Not in the head, but in the soul of me…way down deep where its only you and God.
I had forgotten what I learned from the Catechism as a little kid: That the whole reason God made me was to know him and love him and serve him in this world, in order that I might be happy with him in the next.
And it took that cancer…that blessed cancer…to bring me back to what really matters.
“I remember one night,” he told me, “when I was convinced the cancer was going to kill me. That night I went to bed and, maybe for he first time in my life, I asked myself the question: What’s this all about? My life. My career, My religion. My marriage, My kids.
“And it all came flooding in…the truth that its all about the cross, about that man up there on the Cross and about picking up my crosses and trying to love like him: a self-sacrificing, self-emptying love. That life is not about what we take, but what we give. And that all suffering, all sacrifice and even sickness itself is but an opportunity too love…to respond to Jesus after we nailed him to the cross, when he looked down at us and said: Love one another as I have loved you….just before he gave his last breath for love of us.
He touched me, that malady turned Knight. And he answered my question.
As George did, probably twenty years ago, as he watched his wife Mary dying of Cancer. George and Mary were two of the best Catholics I had ever known as a parish priest in Leominster. They gave their lives for the Church, day in and day out…whenever you couldn’t find someone else to do it you could always call George and Mary.
Now they were old and George and the kids were gathered around Mary’s death bed, and it was clear she didn’t have too many minutes to go. True story. I got there, and we prayed for a while, and then Mary tugged on my sleeve. She was breathing irregularly and she signaled for me to come closer so she could whisper in my ear. And with her dying breath, she said, “Father, I want you to do something for me.” I looked at this dying Saint and said, “Anything Mary, what do you want.” Everyone in the room was staring at us, some with tears in their eyes. “In my bedroom, in George’s closet on the top shelf is a white box. I want you to find it when I die. Because in the box is a new white shirt that I want George to wear at the funeral, because I don’t want them saying I didn’t do his laundry!”
I stood up and everyone looked at me to hear the profound last words of their beloved mother. And she looked up and winked at me. I told the story at the funeral.
Mary, in the face of her greatest trial had learned what sickness was about. That we are not made to fear the pain which threatens to swallow us up in the darkness of death. No, God is to be heard in the quiet stillness of the loving thought, the hopeful glance, the wink that says love lives! It’s not over, it’s just beginning. I still care for you. I will walk with you on your road of sorrows and through the door to the other side.
I need to remember that the next time I get the flu, and loudly lament to the heavens what did I do to deserve this! Or when I get a cold next week and curse the unfairness of a God who just does not realize how much important work I have to do. Or on that day when I will hear that the cancer is malignant, the heart valve irreparable or the virus resistant.
For on that day, in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, I am called to see my sickness as something more than a personal tragedy, but as an opportunity “to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a civilization of love.” (Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, n. 30)
So let is pray for ourselves, that we might one day sing with the Psalmist: “You have taught me, O God, from my youth, and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds. And now that I am old and grey, O God, forsake me not, till I proclaim your strength to every generation that is to come” (Ps 71:17-18).