Sunday, January 29, 2023

Saint Charles de Foucauld, mission, friendship, and my cancer

The life of Charles de Foucauld and the communities which were inspired by his life have fascinated me since the early 1980s, especially when I met some Little Brothers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and attended Mass there many Sundays. My diaconal stole for my ordination bears the heart and cross which he sewed on his habit.

Yet there was one aspect of the life of Saint Charles de Foucauld that I never knew until I recently read Little Sister Cathy Wright’s book, Saint Charles de Foucauld: His Life and Spirituality.

About 1907, a severe drought hit the Algerian Sahara, including Tamanrasset, where he was living. His life was in danger and his poor neighbors helped restore his life. As Sister Cathy writes:
    Charles was at his lowest point, physically and as well as spiritually. He felt himself broken and a failure. Previously no matter how poor he was, he had always been the one who had something to give to others. True to the missionary customs of the day, he felt he should never receive anything from the people, never be beholden to them. Now, for the first time in his life, except possibly in Morocco, he had nothing left to give. 
    Brother Charles was now the one in need, and the Tuareg responded by scouring the countryside looking for a little bit of milk to nurse him back to health. Their sense of the sacred duty of hospitality moved them to care for the foreigner. Charles truly owed them his life. Weakness brought about a level of relationship that would not have been possible without this reciprocity. It was a conversion for him in terms of his own inner life — of accepting his weakness and need — and one that further transformed his theories about mission into a relationship of friendship. (pp. 92, 94)
This event in the life of Saint Charles de Foucauld has struck me deeply in the last few weeks. 

I've had some prostate problems since June last year. After some medication and later a blood test (PSA), my doctor in November sent me to a urologist. A young Honduran doctor whom I knew from his work with Honduras Amigas, a medical brigade that comes regularly to our area, arranged an appointment for me with a urologist in San Pedro Sula in December. 

After that appointment, it was clear to me that I had prostate cancer, though its extent was unclear. The urologist ordered a biopsy.

Because of Christmas holidays, I was not able to schedule a biopsy until January. A Honduran friend whom I’ve known for 15 years gave me a ride to San Pedro and refused my offer to at least pay for the fuel. The young doctor arranged for a place for me to stay with a friend of his and then accompanied me to the hospital for the biopsy.

The Saturday before the biopsy we had a meeting of the parish’s communion ministers. I asked our pastor, Padre German, for the anointing of the sick, which we celebrated at the meeting of the communion ministers.

Last Friday I went to San Pedro to meet with the urologist and later with an oncologist. I have to get an MRI (a full body scan) in Santa Rosa this week and then I’ll go see the oncologist to determine what treatment will be best.

I have been reluctant to share my medical situation publicly, partly because I did not fully know my medical situation and partly because I don’t like to call attention to myself, especially living in the midst of so much suffering. I shared information with some friends and family. I put a generic request for prayers for me on my Facebook page, but no more than that.

Early on, I did share my medical situation with some close friends here and in the US, with my spiritual director, and my pastor and the bishop. But Friday, I decided to share more broadly – first with a detailed e-mail to some friends and family and then with a Facebook post restricted to friends. 

The responses have been overwhelming. Some friends have sent me e-mails or private messages, several sharing their experience with prostate cancer. But over 100 wrote comments on my Facebook post and there are, as of now, more than 160 likes – from Catholics, Episcopalians, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others, from all over the globe, including people here in Honduras whom I know. These signs of solidarity, love, and accompaniment give me strength and courage. 

After the biopsy, I had thought my situation might be worse and was, as Nouwen and Rolheiser have written, “befriending my death.” 

When I thought of offering to host a night of the Posadas next December, I noted to myself, “if I’m still alive.” This was not a macabre fascination with death but, in the words of Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, “an acceptance of my vulnerability and mortality,” something which I have been struggling with for the past year or so. It has been a freeing experience.

Last year I came across this quote of Ronald Rolheiser in Essential Spiritual Writings, p. 22:
Henri Nouwen suggests that at a certain point of our lives, the real question is no longer: What can I still do so that my life makes a contribution? Rather, the question becomes: How can I now live so that my death will be an optimal blessing for my family, my church, and the world? We must leave home a second time, and this time we face a much larger unknown.
About three months ago, I began considering if God might be calling me to something more.

There are a lot of changes in my life: the Dubuque Franciscans left Honduras a few weeks ago; my pastor will probably be changed in April; I turned seventy-five last June. 

I feel a need or a call to not only be closer to the poor but also to devote myself to more quiet – for contemplation and for some writing projects I’d like to finish. I have even begun looking for places to make an eight-day Ignatian directed retreat.

But now this comes along – provoking a change, though I have no idea where this will lead me. But, as if to push me into unknown waters, earlier this week I came across these words of Patrick McGrath, SJ, in An Ignatian Book of Days (p.29):
Looking back on our lives, can any of us honestly say we knew exactly the path our lives would take? Isn’t it true that God has moved about in each of our lives and surprised us with all manner of twists and turns we could not have predicted or perhaps even desired? Ignatius reminds us that we must remain ever open to the new ways God is inviting us to live our lives. If anything impedes our ability to remain open, then we must prayerfully consider what to do. When Ignatius instructs us not to fix our desires on health over sickness, for example, he prods us to consider whether our faith allows us to trust that God can be experienced even in frailty and sickness—and that good can come of it.
What are the new ways God is inviting me to live my life? 

I don’t know, but I feel surrounded by a community of love that is accompanying me into uncharted waters. I also feel that these experiences are helping me move forward, becoming more open to the people around me. 

This is a blessing. 

I want to share two other thoughts,  seemingly unconnected. 

First, in a meeting with Padre German, my pastor, a few days ago, as I brought him up to date on my situation, he told me what a Jesuit once told him. 

The Jesuit was talking of where one wants to be buried. He noted that these are the people whom we will see on the day of the resurrection of the dead and so we should ask to be buried where we will be surrounded by people we know and love.

That touched me, because I have told people that, when I die, I want to be buried in the cemetery in the nearby aldea of Candelaria where I have assisted at the burial of people from Plan Grande and Candelaria – my neighbors. 

Second, a few days ago, I was reflecting how I see my ministry as opening spaces for grace. Then, I remembered the ending of Georges Bernanos’s novel, The Diary of a Country Priest.
A friend who had left the active priesthood and was married had given the country priest a place to stay for the night. His condition worsened, and he was vomiting blood. He asked his friend for absolution which his friend did with some trepidation: “Although I realized that I had no right to accede ever hastily to this request, it was quite impossible in the name of humanity and friendship, to refuse him.” 
Afterwards, his friend sent for the parish priest and apologized for the “delay that threatened to deprive my colleague of the final consolations of the church.” Shortly after, as this friend tells it, the country priest “put his hand over mine, and his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him. He then uttered these words, almost in my ear. And I am quite sure that I have recorded them accurately, for his voice, though halting, was strongly distinct. 
    ‘Does it matter? Grace is . . . everywhere.’ 
     I think he died just then.
Yes, grace is everywhere. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to recognize.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Quite a day

Saturday was quite a day. 

I woke up early (5:20 am) to a chill morning (55 F on the terrace). After putting on the coffee and taking a warm shower, I sat down to pray in my prayer room. About 7:00 am, I had breakfast, washed some clothes and hung them up to dry, even though it’s cold and drizzly. I also did a bit of computer work. 

From my house on the morning of January 1

At about 8 am, I headed out to Dulce Nombre. I had an interview with a couple who will be married next week. These interviews are part of their final preparation – going through a number of questions with them and two witnesses to make sure there are no glitches and that they can freely and voluntarily share the sacrament of matrimony. 

Often these interviews are a gift for me, giving me a share in the lives of a couple who want to welcome God in their marriage in a special, sacramental way. Sometimes they are couples who have not been living together, but often these are couples who have lived together for several years and have children. In a culture where many couples just get together and have kids, it is a real sign of faith when a couple decides to share the sacrament. 

 This time, the interview was especially significant. I’ve known the husband since my first years helping in the parish. He was involved in some of the youth group activities. I also had the privilege of baptizing their child two years ago. 

After the interview, I went to the meeting of the extraordinary ministers of communion in the parish. They meet every month and I usually accompany them. This time, though, they accompanied me. 

This week I’ll be going to San Pedro Sula for a biopsy of my prostate. I had asked our pastor, Padre German, if I could receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and I requested that we do this during the meeting of the ministers. 

So, after the meeting was finished, we gathered around and celebrated the sacrament. Before being anointed on the forehead and the hands, we prayed the penitential rite and Father German read the Gospel of the healing of the servant of the centurion. I found myself close to tears, surrounded by the love of God and of Padre German and the communion ministers. In some ways, I felt like the sick man let down by his friends into the house where Jesus was (Luke 5: 17-26), surrounded I was by those who were present and by others who have supported me in this time and who have offered to help me. 

After this, the ministers had a gift exchange and then lunch and a cake. 

Rather than go back home, I stayed around the parish center since at 4:00 we celebrated the 17th anniversary of Father German’s priestly ordination.
I got home close to 7:00 pm, had dinner, read, and prayed. 

Sunday, I went to a rural village for a Celebration of the Word with Communion. In the afternoon, I went to San Agustín for Mass, serving as deacon and preaching.

Tomorrow, I’ll be preparing for my trip to San Pedro on Tuesday. 

I’ll close with this rather amazing photo that someone took yesterday before the Mass to celebrate the anniversary of Father German’s ordination.