Friday, May 03, 2013

Love in joy and sorrow: a day in the life of a priest and a young couple

What follows is the story of a privileged "day in the life of a priest." I say, "privileged," because it's a story that normally goes untold, because it's very private, very delicate. This post would not have happened, had not the family given me permission to do so. They hoped that others might be helped by their story. As it is, some details will be omitted or altered, for privacy.

Several times in my priesthood, I've had one of the most heartbreaking calls or messages I can get: from a parent letting me know that a child, looked for, prayed for, still on the way, will not survive--and can I come and do something?

Another of those calls came recently: the couple had lost a child to miscarriage, and would I offer prayers? After some messages back and forth, we set a day and time. Dad would pick me up and we'd drive together to the cemetery, where we met mom and their youngest child--two years old.

The day arrived: pretty and pleasant, something rare for Cincinnati, which seems to go from bluster to swelter in about a week. While I waited for the doorbell to ring, I went and got a surplice to wear over my cassock, a stole, and the holy water bucket (I couldn't find my little plastic bottle).

Now, I'll stop here to explain something for those wondering about this: why would I wear a cassock? Why bring the "get up"? I know many of my fellow priests would simply go in their black suit--and I won't fault them.

But here's my thought: this is a time I wanted to give this family my best. This would be the only funeral for "Jacob" (names will all be changed). This was what I could do to say this was not a small thing, even if it was brief and away from church. (Of course, had I thought the couple would prefer otherwise, then I would have done differently.)

When we got to the cemetery, little Christopher, the two-year-old, was delighted to see some geese and ducks--to him, they were all ducks. Who knows, maybe the geese think they're ducks as well? A fellow from the cemetery met us, and then led us to the gravesite. The cemetery had kept little Jacob, in a small, lovely, carved wooden container, and he led us to a special section set aside for this purpose. This was not this couple's first visit; they had lost another child, early in a pregnancy.

Along the way, Christopher delighted to point out the colorful trees and other things that delight a two-year-old; how much each of us needs to spend time seeing with child's wide eyes! If only we could recover a bit of that wonder! When we got there, dad held the holy water bucket; and I asked Christopher if he'd "like to help"--he and his dad, Steven, handed me the aspergillum (the "sprinkler") so I could bless the grave. One of the prayers ("Saints of God")--which is included in every Catholic funeral--I was able to sing. Again, it seemed to me the least I could do.

You can imagine the emotions of the couple; I will not share that. You can understand that their little boy was probably only somewhat attuned to the moment, yet he was quiet and attentive. Parents, you will have wiser observations on this subject--but I think children "get" more than we think, but their comprehension is on a different level, and they don't give us the signals we need to know it happened. No doubt Christopher knew his parents were sad--and that there was love. I respect parents who feel otherwise, but I don't see anything here to "protect" a child from.

After we finished our prayers, we lingered a moment--the couple located one of the small markers that was familiar.

Dad and I talked a fair amount on the way out and back. We talked about suffering. Why is there pain? That's the question of questions. He brought up C.S. Lewis, and we talked about The Problem of Pain, which Steven had heard of; I told him about A Grief Observed, which he hadn't known about. Lewis wrote this latter late in life--after being a bachelor, not expecting to marry; then an improbable "romance" (if you read the story, you'll understand the quote marks) that became romance, and then a brief but passionate marriage cut short by a cancer diagnosis.

Just now, I remembered something more about that. In the movie about this episode in Jack and Joy Lewis' life, Joy, in a brief, happy respite from the cancer--makes this point: "the pain then is part of the happiness now--that's the deal." (I'm sorry the clip is rough, it's the only clip of this scene I could find.)

And we talked about something I read from Pope Blessed John Paul's Crossing the Threshold of Hope--a startling account of the crucifixion as God allowing humanity to put him on trial, and punish him, so that humanity might forgive God--and they would be reconciled.

Here's that quote:

Could God have justified himself before human history, so full of suffering, without placing Christ’s Cross at the center of that history? Obviously, one response could be that God does not need to justify himself to man. It is enough that he is omnipotent. From this perspective everything he does or allows must be accepted. But God, who besides being Omnipotence is Wisdom and— to repeat once again—Love, desires to justify himself to mankind.  He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, a God who shares man’s lot and participates in his destiny. The crucified Christ is proof of God’s solidarity with man in his suffering.

On the way back, dad told me that he and Elizabeth had lost a child even before these two--but hadn't known about the option of having a funeral. One of the reasons he was happy to have me write this was the hope that other couples, facing what this couple faced, would know about this option.

I shared with them something I've shared with others who have lost an unborn child--yes, even in the vastly different situation of an abortion: you are welcome, even long after, to name that child. No matter the circumstances; even if you don't know if your child was a boy or girl, the child did exist. Give your child a name. Don't worry about whether it's a boy or girl name--that won't matter in heaven! Pray for your child; pray to your child--by which I mean, talk to him or her, and ask your child to pray for you.

What about baptism? What about children who die without baptism?

Pope Blessed John Paul II also had some beautiful words for parents who--having lost a child before he or she could be baptized--that reminded them, and all of us, that God created those children out of love, and when they die, the remain cradled in the love of God. I went looking for that passage just now, but I can't find it. Perhaps someone else will remember it.

Baptism is an urgent matter, and we do not take it lightly. I have baptized several children in emergency situations, including two children in situations it was, frankly, a doubtful matter. That said,  even if God imposes a necessity on us, through his commands regarding the sacraments, no one and nothing imposes any necessity on God.

As this couple, their youngest, and I were about to part--mom with Christopher back home, dad to take me back to the parish and then to work--it was a sad moment, yet full of love and hope. Mom was holding the boy in her arms, and Christopher was enjoying shaking hands. He said, "mommy, shake daddy's hand!" Mom said, I'm not going to shake daddy's hand, silly! I want to kiss him!" Mom and dad leaned toward each other, with little Christopher right in the middle. It may seem hopelessly old-fashioned, but for that moment, I felt an intruder and looked away. 

But even so, I saw a husband and wife embrace, and yet here was a little boy, who is the gift that God gives precisely through the embrace of a husband and wife. Another movie comes to mind--but I don't think I can use only a small scene to convey the power of it. The film is Life is Beautiful--and it's the story of a Jewish couple, in World War II Italy. The arc of the film moves from happy days of courtship, to marriage, to a child, to Nazi roundups, to a concentration camp, to desperate efforts of a father to protect his son. I will not describe the ending--which, remembering, brought sudden tears.

But I will describe one of the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen in a movie--depicting, so skillfully, what we believe about marital love. The couple are married, it is their wedding day, and they excuse themselves discreetly behind a closing door. The screen darkens and lightens--it would seem to be the next day after their honeymoon. The door opens--a small boy runs out! It is their son--the fruit of their love.

I cannot imagine, and so I won't presume to describe, the pain and anguish of a parent wanting a child, and having to let go of him or her after a few weeks of life in the womb. This couple, like so many others, has to experience that anguish as a shared thing, just as they share the joy and exultation of the children God's love-in-their-love has given them. If only we could have one, and not the other!

Until then, we hug and kiss each other, in joy and in sorrow, sharing both, finding beauty in both, finding our humanity in both, finding love in both, finding God. 


Jackie said...

Hauntingly lovely.

Thanks for sharing and for being a good and holy priest.

truthfinder2 said...

This is beautiful, and so is the gift you gave. Thank you! -- Rosemary

umblepie said...

Thank you for this moving and sensitive post.

Mary D said...

Thanks for sharing such a poignant story. May God bless you for your generous compassion, and may God bless this family in ways beyond comprehension!
A daughter of mine had 5 miscarriages, did not know why, but then began researching napro technology thru a friend's sharing. Praise God, thru the expertise of a napro Catholic Doctor in Columbus OH, Dr. Michael Parker, she was able to conceive twins naturally, thru additional natural hormones. All natural and according to God's laws. Praise God for His healings!