Making Sure of God

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

At St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica. SJG photo

“Pooh!” Piglet whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
- A.A. Milne

On a visit a few years ago to St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica for a mid-day Mass, I pushed open the massive doors, and the chilly fall wind behind me seemed to almost blow me inside. “Get in there right now,” I could almost hear God say in the gust.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit sanctuary, I saw a scattered body of twenty or thirty devout souls who had made their way here from their jobs, their classes, and their lives. I was not a regular like many of them no doubt were, but I did come here occasionally for holy days or, more to the point on this given day, when it seemed like I should. This particular day was the tenth anniversary of my father’s death.

I slid into a pew, removed my coat and tried to breathe normally. I closed my eyes, soaking in the quiet of the stone walls and the lingering aroma of spent incense. In some ways, I didn’t want to be there at all because, when it came right down to it, I was angry. I’m always angry when I try to figure out what happened to my father’s life. His was a life of promise, creativity, and healing cut short by alcohol, cigarettes, and depression. I wanted God’s undivided attention on this point. I wanted to scream and pound my fists on his chest like a bewildered child. That not really being an option, I instead lowered the kneeler and dropped to my knees.

At that instant, I remembered a moment more than ten years earlier, kneeling on the cold, tiled floor beside the hospital bed where my father was dying, trying to get on his eye-level, trying to make contact with a man who was not all that communicative even in his healthier days. I desperately wanted to see into his mind and soul, to get answers to questions, to get a glimpse of understanding about him and his life. I knelt down because I loved him, even if I didn’t understand him. I knelt down because I wanted to be seen by him, and I wanted him to hear the words I whispered. I wanted to look into his eyes and know he was there.

My Old Man, circa 1980. SJG photo.

I guess, in many ways, that has been my prayer to my heavenly Father since the day I learned of my disease. I want to know that God is there. I have to know for sure that there is a larger purpose and force in my life. I require something or someone to be sure of, even as I am not sure at all of my own life. I need to know I am not alone.

Thinking back on that day at the cathedral, I remember falling into the well-known rhythm of the liturgy. And like I still do now, on occasion, when I find my mind wandering away from the prayers and toward the aches and pains of my latest chemo treatment, I found comfort in what my body and soul knows and loves best – the blessed gift of the Eucharist, this coming together of the Body and Blood of Christ as both a mystical transformation of bread and wine and a people gathered to pray and be Christ for one another. Even when I am not really fully present and participating, there is a power in this act of communion that refreshes and sustains me. Today, more than ever, I need the power of Christ’s Body and Blood in my life, especially as I do battle with my own body and blood.

That day in the cathedral, as my mind wandered to my father, the words of the priest echoed around the cathedral and brought me back: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” And I prayed harder and more earnestly than ever, tears welling in my eyes because my own weakly voiced reply rang so true to me at that moment: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I was brought to my knees – metaphorically and in reality – as I tried to fathom the immensity of the undeserved and unearned love in which I was about to participate. I was healed.

That day – and many times since — I looked the crucified Jesus in the eyes, stretched to the limit on the cross, Lamb of God and Son of God, blood streaming down his forehead and congealing at his wrists and feet, broken and dying. And I whispered, “Abba. Father. Daddy. I’m not worthy. But I need to know you’re there.”

Up Next: Laughter and Friends

I will be giving a retreat based on my book this summer from July 14 – 16 at the Marianist Retreat and Conference Center just outside St. Louis. “Embraced by God” will be a weekend retreat exploring the spirituality of living with cancer and other chronic diseases. For more information, visit: http://mretreat.org

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