Anyone who has entrusted a loved one into a surgeon’s care knows the power of a physician’s words to give hope, or rip it away, to comfort, or to crush. On a sunny Saint Patrick’s Day eve, almost thirty years ago, my Irish-American grandma’s cardiologist told us that he was “guardedly optimistic.” Her worn out valve had been replaced, and her heart was beating on its own. Four hours later, he snatched the word “optimistic” from our mouths and replaced it with the bitter word, “serious.” As the night progressed, the word “serious,” gave way to a succession of ever more ominous vocabulary words.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, A skilled hospital chaplain, familiar with a different vocabulary taken from the Christian lexicon helped my grandfather to accomplish the last act of self-giving love in his fifty-five-year relationship with his Irish Rose. He authorized the nurses to shut off the machine that inflated and collapsed his wife’s fluid-filled lungs.
When in the presence of the sublime, vocabulary words lose their relevance. With the flip of a switch, the nurse put the rhythmic hissing, sucking breathing machine to sleep. The steady beep of the heart monitor fell silent. With her IV bruised hand cradled in the familiar embrace of her husband’s hands, the only sound in that room was my grandfather’s reverential words chanted like a monk in the deepest possible contemplation. Throughout my childhood I was always struck by how grandma and grandpa affectionately referred to one other as, “mom, and “dad.” As her spirit prepared to journey from that antiseptic, fluorescent room to the realms of natural, undying light, my grandpa repeated that affectionate term, “mom” over and over again like a sacred mantra.
I am convinced that the angels sent to keep watch over my grandma and grandpa were singing that old spiritual, “What wondrous love is this, oh my soul, oh my soul? What wondrous love is this….” Endowed with uninterrupted immortality, nothing could prepare those heavenly spirits for the crushingly tender love that a human soul is capable of feeling and giving at a time like this.
This Sunday, John’s Gospel proclaimed one of the most profound sayings ever uttered in human speech.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:20).
This passage, when taken to heart, has the power to drive even the most proud of us to our knees. When faced with the truth toward which this scripture points, all vocabulary falls inadequately short. The simultaneous poverty and power that is woven into the human condition is laid bare.
For some, a meditation on this scripture provides an opening into the mystery of their own, or someone else’s death. Catholic fiction writers such Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene have noted that faith doesn’t protect one from death, but it does promise that none of us has to die alone. For a friend of mine, this passage woke him up to the fact that his perfectionistic expectations of his wife had become abusive. He had to die to his desire for a wife made to his specifications. In doing so, his marriage is now producing the nutritious fruit of trust and affection. When these words are allowed to penetrate the heart, they carry with them the power to reframe an old area of suffering with soul sustaining new meaning.
This week, will you allow this passage to speak to you? Are you ready to allow God to be your guide and take you on an adventure to uncover the mystery you are meant to explore? The exercise outlined below is one way that you could place yourself in the hands of the Master.
A Lenten Spiritual Exercise
Try to give yourself at least twenty minutes for this exercise. Ask God for the grace to be present from that place in your heart where your deepest longings and sufferings reside. Kneel down with your palms open, facing upward. In this posture of receptivity and petition, silently breathe in and out the words quoted above (John 12: 20).
In your mind’s eye, picture yourself holding in your hands the thing that is causing you great longing or suffering. Simply utter a heartfelt prayer from this position of poverty. Just pay attention to the response that wells up from within.
Throughout the course of the next week, reflect back on what happened. See what messages show up in the midst of the next week through the course of conversations, songs on the radio, or a quiet urge to do the good or loving thing. You might consider sharing it with a spiritual mentor.