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Friday, June 12, 2009

“A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:37-38)

“SOUL-SURFING” – June 21, 2009
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 4:35-41
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

The intensity in his weak voice communicated the depth at which he was touched by his experience at the New Mexico shrine. “Before I could even get to the hole in the floor to scoop up some of the holy sand, all these people came up to me and put their hands on my head. They could tell how sick I was. They told me they’d pray for me.” Then Gus started to sob quietly on the phone before he could continue. “You know, I felt strength there; not mine but God’s.” More sobs. I spoke, “Gus, I remember what it was like when I was there. It’s a powerful place, a place where many meet God.”

The early May phone call from Gus was both welcome and heart-wrenching. This former student of mine, with whom I’d been in frequent contact for several months, was now nearing the end of his battle with liver cancer and wanted me to know that my long-distance prayers were a support as he struggled on, refusing to give up on earthly life even as his eyes were opening anew to what life lay ahead. And indeed, his pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo near Santa Fe, New Mexico, served to sharpen his vision even further. “It’s a powerful place,” I told Gus, “A place where many meet God.”

I’d been there myself fifteen years ago, not seeking healing but as a tourist while attending a pastoral care conference in Albuquerque. Out of the way, off a dusty road and looking to have been constructed of the poorest materials, the small shrine had, over the years, become a place of many miracles. An on-line guidebook describes the site:

“Sometime around 1810, a [Franciscan] friar was performing penances when he saw a light bursting from a hillside. Digging, he found a crucifix, quickly dubbed the miraculous crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas. A local priest brought the crucifix to Santa Cruz, but three times it disappeared and was later found back in its hole. By the third time, everyone understood that El Senor de Esquipulas wanted to remain in Chimayo, and so a small chapel was built on the site. Then the miraculous healings began. These grew so numerous that the chapel had to be replaced in 1816 by the larger, current Chimayo Shrine, an adobe mission.

“El Santuario de Chimayo is now known as the ‘Lourdes of America.’ The crucifix still resides on the chapel altar, but its curative powers have been overshadowed by El Posito, the ‘sacred sand pit’ from which it sprang, which gapes unevenly behind the main altar. Over 300,000 people visit this ‘dustbin of heaven’ every year. The prayer room next to the pit is filled with discarded crutches, braces, and handmade shrines.” (RoadsideAmerica.com)

As Gus’ weak but excited voice related his experience of getting down on his hands and knees to scoop out a handful of the miraculous sand, I remembered doing the very same thing. I remembered, too, the chill that went down my spine as, arising from the pit in the floor, I spied the testimonies of the multitude that had found a physical cure at this sacred place. And amidst the crutches, canes and braces hanging from the walls were notes of intercession, many from relatives of servicemen and women serving in the Middle East, asking God’s protection for their loved ones so far from home. Indeed, Gus aptly summed up our shared reaction when he said, “I felt strength there; not mine but God’s.”

These might have been the very words uttered by the disciples as we hear of their harrowing experience in today’s gospel passage. St. Mark relates, “A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:37-38) And, of course, we know that Jesus calmed both the terrified disciples and the raging sea.

A commentary posits the lesson of this gospel story: “Jesus is with experienced fishermen who know well the peril of a storm at sea. What they do not yet know fully is the extent of Jesus’ power and of his care for them. So from what disaster does Jesus really save the disciples? From a storm? Yes, but much more: he saves them from their own lack of faith and trust in him – an even bigger disaster than a storm at sea. So does Jesus do for us.” (Living Liturgy, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2009)

And so, I trust, has Jesus done for Gus, my former student. Several weeks after calling me about his visit to El Santuario de Chimayo, Gus finally agreed to give up his months-long cross-country search for a cure. During his last hospital admission in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he could finally accept the words he’d been so long shutting out: “There’s nothing more medicine can offer you.” Within days, Gus was on a flight back home to Rochester, New York, to enter hospice care.

A friend assisted him in calling me the day after he arrived back home. Gus’ voice was so weak and garbled that I had trouble understanding most of what he said. I could make out clearly just a few words: “prayers… love… thank you…” When his words ceased, I spoke. “Gus, remember the shrine. You told me you felt the strength of God there.” After a long exhalation of breath, I heard a faint chuckle on the other end of the phone line. Even as his physical body was storm-tossed as the disciples’ boat on the sea, Gus knew the saving power of Jesus, his travelling companion. Finally, it seemed, Gus knew he had found safe harbor. Home was very near.

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