Friday, March 27, 2009
“As Jesus sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. He said, ‘She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’” (Mark 14:3, 8-9)
“SOUL-SURFING” – April 5, 2009
Mark 14:1 – 15:47
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
Had she not appeared so frail, I would have taken offense at her presumption. I would have said something to let her know that she could not just barge into my life the way she did. But it all happened so quickly that I never really had the chance to object. All of a sudden, there she was, sitting right next to me.
Oftentimes I’m the only one in the otherwise deserted hospital cafeteria at 7 AM on Saturday mornings. Thus it was on a late winter Saturday when I sat with bagel and coffee for a moment of solitary peace. I’d already made rounds of the ER and all the ICUs getting a feel for what challenges the day may hold. There seemed to be no obvious “hot spots” this day, so I could relax for a bit from the intense emotional engagements that marked most days among the sick, their families and their caregivers.
I must have closed my eyes for just a moment or been staring at the ceiling or something like that, because all of a sudden she was right next to me with the pronouncement, “I’m going to have breakfast with you.” And it was clearly a declaration, not a question. While there must have been 50 unoccupied tables in the deserted cafeteria, this elderly woman came right up to me. And she didn’t even sit across the table from me; she sat right next to me. Stunned, I heard myself stammer out defensively, “Who are you?” She just smiled at me between sips of her coffee.
“I saw you upstairs a little while ago. You were talking and laughing with the nurses outside my husband’s room. So I decided to have breakfast with you.” She returned to her coffee and jelly donut, smiling at me as powdered sugar rounded her lips. I detected an accent in her voice, maybe Eastern European, and I likewise surmised that she had a positive relationship with her church, probably Catholic or something related, since she exhibited such comfortability with me attired as a priest. She put down the donut in exchange for another sip of coffee.
“Viktor, my husband, is 92 and just had very serious surgery to repair an aneurysm. They let me spend the night right in his room since we only have each other. The nurses were so nice to me. He’s much better this morning.” Aha! Clues to her identity were emerging! “I’m so glad to hear that,” I responded. Then, hoping to learn more, I continued, “You know, I don’t think we introduced ourselves to each other when you joined me for breakfast. I’m Fr. Bob, one of the chaplains here at the hospital.” She nodded her head in acknowledgement, “And I’m Anya, Viktor’s wife. He’s a lot older than me, though; I’m only 86.” Genuinely surprised at this revelation, I tell her that she looks at least 10 years younger. Her wide smile spills powdered sugar from her lips onto her blue sweater. Revelations continue.
“My husband and I belong to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. You know the place?” I tell her I’ve driven by it a number of times but had never been inside. “No matter,” she continues. “It’s a small congregation, more Ukrainian than Russian, but that’s okay. This is America, after all. Room for everybody.”
“Do you have children?” I ask Anya. “No,” she replies sadly. “Viktor and I just have each other. Second marriage for both of us. My first husband died in a Nazi concentration camp, so I came to America hoping to find a new life. I never dreamed I’d be married again. My grief was awful. But then God brought me my Viktor. After his first wife died, he left Ukraine and also came to America. He was as heartbroken as I was. But we found each other, got married, and it’s been 54 years already. Quite a story, huh?” Another huge smile.
As Anya returned to her coffee and donut, I began to wonder why God had brought this amazing woman right to my side on this quiet Saturday morning. With a whole cafeteria of unoccupied tables, why had she taken a seat right next to me? It was unusual behavior at best. From many years of experience, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that, while most cafeteria patrons will nod deferentially in my direction, only the most desperate will actually sit anywhere near the priest. After all, the man in black roaming the hospital corridors is a most unwelcome reminder that death is not so far off. But Anya had befriended me even from a distance. I think she’d already made peace with death.
In the gospel passage we hear this Palm Sunday, we find Jesus sitting at table with his disciples when, “A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. He said, ‘She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’” (Mark 14:3, 8-9)
Just so, on a Saturday morning Anya came right up to me with the announcement, “I’m going to have breakfast with you.” In fact, the coffee and jelly donut on her cafeteria tray were only a ruse, for her real mission was to pour out the sweet ointment of hope upon my head. As powdered sugar fell from her lips unto her sweater, she narrated a life that had seemed all but over when the Nazis killed her husband and she was forced to flee to America. Husband and homeland were in ashes. “But then God brought me my Viktor,” she’d told me. And here they were, she 86, he 92, so very alive, so much in love. She wasn’t afraid of any black-attired priest. She wasn’t afraid of death. She’d already experienced one resurrection and knew for sure that another was not so very far off.
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