I’ve been posting only rarely. I’ve been screamingly busy these past number of weeks and it’s only picking up steam. I entirely blame guardian angels for this. And thank them. In my experience, the angels like arranging things and doing stuff when they know this will do good both for others and even for me. Let me give you an example.
The other day I got a call from a wonderful 191 million year old lady who is on my weekly Communion Call list. She’s way up in the backsides of the beyonds in Northwest Graham County. It’s hard to get more remote than that. Her nephew, the exact same age as me, was dying of cancer, with only hours to live at the hospice on the far side of Asheville. “Could you say a prayer for him?” she asked. “Yes. And I will go see him,” said I.
Meanwhile, right away, like clock work, as soon as one emergency was over, another one came up, things which could not be delayed with others that I had to take care of. I’m thinking the whole time about the nephew. Finally, about 8:00 PM I was able to get on my way to the hospice, stopping halfway, an hour into the journey, for the Breviary, but starting up again immediately.
I got to the main medical campus at about 10:30 PM but couldn’t find the hospice for the life of me. The campus takes up an entire mountain top and has, it seems, dozens of clinics for every ailment under the sun. No hospice. I’m now despairing, as it is now 11:00 PM. Finally, I headed down a tiny alley that seemed to go off campus straight down the mountain. There were still more clinics. Finally, the last building in the most unusual place with a most unusual name seemed like it might possibly be the hospice and it was. It’s open 24/7, of course.
No one was on duty out front. “Go to the nurses station down the hall” was the sign up on the desk. So, off I went. My friend was in the room adjacent to the nurses desk and they were happy to send me in. I’ll just relate to you a few of the events that went on in the next 20 minutes or so with this man who was filled to the brim with cancer.
His eyes were closed and he was in the death rattle which I’ve witnessed it seems a thousand times, head way back, throat way out in bulbous fashion, having difficulty breathing. I took his hand in mine and rocked it back and forth, arm wrestling fashion, but ever so gentle and reassuring. He gave plenty of squeezes, happy someone was there. Finally, I said, “This is Father George.” He opened his eyes with some effort and confirmed that that was the case and gave a little smile, closing his eyes once again, squeezing my hand in appreciation. After a few minutes, I said a long prayer for him, a prayer which is sure to set the soul on a straight path to Jesus, and looking forward to a heavenly meeting. To this prayer he added the most peaceful, all encompassing, affirmational, assenting to everything that is the will of God “Amen” I think I ever did hear. And that was through the death rattle breathing.
Saint Thomas Aquinas says that such agreement with the faith is consonant with the gift of sanctifying grace, but that the grace of final perseverance is a special gift that kicks in right at the time of death for the person either to accept or reject.
After more minutes of rocking his hand in mine I offered him something else, a joke, of sorts. If you tell a joke when someone is actively and immediately dying, it had better be pretty good. I think I had told him about this bit of humor previously, but now was the time to repeat it. I told him that I had a request of him, that I wanted to give him a message to deliver to Jesus, saying that if he was too embarrassed to say it, the whole heavenly court would say it for him, or even Jesus Himself, so he may as well go ahead and repeat my request. I told him that I had made this request, by now, to I think some dozens if not hundreds of dying people in my priesthood. By this time, he was all ears.
I said that I wanted him to tell Jesus that there’s a donkey-priest still down on earth who especially needs His watchful protection and guidance. That, of course, made him laugh, death rattle or not, as it has for everyone else. This is something that sets those who are dying totally at ease with what they are about to do, with where they are about to go, with whom they are going to meet. They are happy and peaceful, in a good place, aimed at the heavens, able to rest with no fear in the prayers that had been said, like little kids about to jump into the arms of Jesus. It is then that he died.
But there is more. A couple of things. The first is that this was all impossible without the direct intervention of the angels since early that morning and more. I had been delayed and delayed and delayed and, I must say, almost gave up and turned around fifty miles into the trip already, thinking I would never be let in at that hour of the night, and who would blame me for avoiding a further one hundred and fifty miles in the middle of the night when maybe I could see him the next day? None of these delays or my perseverance were coincidences. As soon as one thing would finish, the phone would ring. And on it went until I arrived at that precise time of his dying with those exact of amount of minutes before he actually expired. This had to be the angels, right? Well… there’s also this:
The second thing is that the angels made themselves evident, not by appearing, but – how to say it? – almost appearing. I think they were so very happy and let this be known. You have to know that the angels are part of the family and are always with us. Jesus says they behold the very face of God in heaven, and yet are with us, and that they rejoice over us being with Jesus and that we not to offend them. We must not ignore them! After this gentleman’s “Amen!” to the prayer and until he died there was a – what? – I don’t know what to call it… perhaps a visitation of sorts.
While I had his hand in mine, with me looking up to heaven (only seeing the ceiling, mind you), I received a very strong impression, very personal, very immediate, that the heavens had opened up right then and there and that the heavenly court was looking down at this spectacle of a Catholic priest and a Presbyterian layman in a hospice room in the middle of the night more than a hundred miles away from the priest’s parish. Very peaceful, though with much rejoicing, as if to say that my petition for his soul was granted by the Most High and the angels were now eager to bring him on his way. They didn’t have to wait long at all. The weight of the glory of God was upon us. His final perseverance, it seemed to me, was assured. I felt very self-conscious, thinking I was just a bit of a donkey-priest, doing only what I absolutely had to do. And not that this had anything to do with my weak prayers. The prayers of his 191 million year old aunt were always before the throne of God.
I experienced what Lewis and Short secondarily define for admīrātĭo , ōnis, f. admiror, that is, II. Wonder, surprise, astonishment. I must say that I rejoice in all this as a tiny little child.
There is a danger in writing about such things. Some might think I’m special. I’m not. Some might think the nephew who died is special. No, not really, though he did make it a campaign to let it be known that “God belongs in Graham County.” Some might think it is improper for me to write that showing love to a fellow Christian is good since they think that this offends against ecumenism because they say you can only be kind to someone who is Catholic because otherwise non-Catholics won’t become Catholic, or some other absurdity like that. Some might think that writing such things is offensive to those who are not Christian. Why? Some might think it’s simply improper to write about such things because it causes them to think about the end of their own lives and they don’t like it one bit. Ahhh…. Yes, the ol’ takin’ offense at the proclamation of the Gospel tantrum. O.K. Whatever. I just think that Jesus and His mom and the angels are all pretty cool and that we can love them and share the greatest love of our lives with others. I think that that’s not a bad thing, is it?
Having said all that, let’s all of us go to Confession and be at the ready!