There are people in this world who live every day in pain. It varies from person to person, but it is still pain. For some of these valiant souls the pain that they suffer would debilitate many of us who are presently reading these lines. Some people go to work daily while suffering the discomfort of nearly failed kidneys. Some do the same while staving off the effects of 500 blood sugar levels. There are those who have incorrigible back pain caused by some other condition that robs their body of the symmetrical balance that it requires to be comfortable. Finally, so as not to prolong this enumeration, there are those who have to go through life with mental and emotional deficiencies.
A few short weeks ago, my loving spouse and I participated in a funeral Mass that was very meaningful to both of us.
It was for a 31 year old Down Syndrome woman whose mother is professionally close to us. I am writing this because I could not stop thanking God for filling the church for this celebration. Small church, but wall to wall people, 350 according to my count, from a stuffed up choir loft! God's little ones sure have a way of dragging us behind them, don't they? I kept remembering what my Internet preacher brother, Reef Lector, wrote about his daughter Laurie some time ago. In the case about which I am musing here, we had learned just shortly before her dying, that she was not well. We also learned about her personal spiritual relationship with God. She was so close to God that it did not frighten her when she said "No" to dialysis. Some few days later she went home. Five days after that she filled the church. I was glad to be there. It was a moment of high spirituality for me and for Belle, my spouse..
It somehow reminded me of the last time I celebrated the Holy Mass. It was a funeral for a seven year old boy. He too filled the church with more Protestants than I ever thought could fit into a Catholic church for any reason. Baptists, every last one. This was a military child who suffered bravely before going to the bosom of Abraham. We had a big church in El Cajon, CA, and it was full.
The father was Catholic and the mother Baptist. You should have heard the singing...they were rocking the place. The whole thing lasted for nearly two hours and we still had to go to the cemetery. The cemetery was almost too small! As we were hugging and wiping our eyes I found myself being hugged by Mama and when the squeeze got a little looser she said from the depths of her heart, "I'll never be Catholic, but I will carry this to the grave in the happy corner of my heart."
I left there and started my journey into the future from LAX six hours later.
I remember my father. From the time he was still a pre-teen lad he was in pain. He had broken his leg in a winter sledding accident. The family was financially incapable to have a doctor intervene in the setting of the leg. The lad contracted a case of pneumonia during the setting period of the leg. The infection got into the bone, leaving the leg nearly two inches shorter than the one on the other side. The resulting disequilibrium caused skeletal pain that was always present. Despite it all, the man led a normal life. He never graduated from high school, but at age 35 he passed the state exams to qualify as a tool engineer - on his one and only try.
He was a holy man. He never suffered alone. He walked the Way of the Cross every single day side by side with Jesus. He was rewarded with a sudden death at the ripe old age of 47 years.
This past Saturday I presided over the Celebration of the Memorial for a dear aunt of mine who died at the age of 88. She endured many different sorts of pain during her last few years. She shared her journey with God and she shared it with her loving son and daughter-in-law. Through it all, the art that she created lives on behind her. The love that she shared is still shaking those that she left behind.
At that Memorial service some of the siblings of our dear cousin David shared the suffering of their brother who had just died in Idaho, 1,100 miles away. I spoke to two of them and they are happy that they had participated in their brother's preparation for his departure from here into Eternal Life. His suffering was intense, but they all knew that is was a shared reality, both physical and earthly, spiritual and heavenly.
Those of you who are familiar with this blog know that I am not afraid of death. I am not afraid of pain, chronic or otherwise. When I see people die in the presence of God and in the presence of God as presented to the dying person by and through loving family members I am not moved to tears of sadness. Dying is a spiritual exercise. We learn that from the Gospel. It is there that we hear the warning, "Stay ready." I once heard a priest who was talking to a church full of simple villagers in a country far, far away, "To stay ready, practice every night. Tell God that it's OK of you don't wake up. When you wake up thank God sincerely for the new day and tell him that you are ready now and will be again as you lay down to sleep." So, I do that every day too.
Finally, I say, remember the last words of the Ave Maria, "...pray for us now and at the hour of our death."
If we all did that we wouldn't have to cry at funerals.