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Friday, June 19, 2009

“Jairus said to Jesus, ‘My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.’ Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.” (Mark 5:23, 41-42)

“SOUL-SURFING” – June 28, 2009
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 5:21-43
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

“My heart is broken. My doctor told me so.” This was the simple answer given me by Marilyn when, on a bright May morning I entered her room in the cardiac care unit in response to her request to see a priest. I’d knocked on her door, entered the room, introduced myself and dropped the casual question between us: “So what brings you to the hospital?” It was an invitation for her to tell her story. And she did. She’d been waiting for me, in fact, seemingly have rehearsed her lines.

Asking if I might sit down, I pulled a chair up close to her bed and, in best chaplain fashion, repeated her opening declaration: “Your heart is broken. Your doctor said so.” I waited. She cleared her throat. I reached out to hold her hand.

“Yes,” she replied. “I have what’s called Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s a particular type of heart attack that happens when people have suffered a terrible loss. My doctor explained it all to me. Then he asked if I’d suffered a painful loss recently. And, you know, I have. My church is closing. St. Rita’s. And it’s not the first time they’ve closed my church. I used to go to St. Patrick’s, and that closed about ten years ago. It’s been an awful shock for me. The whole history of my family for four generations centered on St. Patrick’s Church, and when it closed it was like I became an orphan all over again. Then I began going to St. Rita’s, and I was just getting comfortable there when the bishop announced it was closing. Where do I belong now?”

We sat in silence, but my insides were churning at what I imagined might have come next. She might have lashed out at me, a representative of the church that had caused her such grief. But she didn’t. She might have told me that she was giving up on the Catholic Church altogether. But she didn’t. She might have told me that she no longer believed in the God who had promised to be with her always. But she didn’t. Rather, she asked to receive Holy Communion as she confessed, “I need the healing that only God can give.” We prayed together before I placed the consecrated host in Marilyn’s hand. She swallowed. I waited. Then I spoke.

“You asked the question, ‘Where do I belong now?’ A few weeks ago a man asked me the same question. He’d lost his church, too, and didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He’d been a life-long member of the church just down the block from his house, and now it was closing. When he asked me, ‘Where do I belong?’ I suggested he re-word the question, asking rather, ‘To whom do I belong?’ And the answer, of course, was obvious to him. He said, ‘I belong to God.’ It seemed to help him when he realized that God is surely more present in a praying congregation than in the building that houses it. Maybe that man’s words can help you too.”

Marilyn smiled, squeezing my hand tightly. “He’s right. I know it. But it’ll take a while for my heart to know it, I think. My doctor says that patients like me who’ve suffered Broken Heart Syndrome usually recover very well. I’ll be here in the hospital for a few more days, and I expect I’ll do a lot of praying. I’m asking God to lead me to the place he wants me to be. Maybe it’ll be to another church; who knows?” And with that she laughed as I left her to her prayers.

For Marilyn, and perhaps also for some of us, a crisis can awaken faith that may long have gone unchallenged. The closing of St. Patrick’s Church, home to generations of her family, shook her faith. And then, just when she was becoming comfortable at St. Rita’s, its closing was announced. This time, with her faith pushed to the limit, Marilyn suffered a heart attack. But quickly did she also realize that she’d been given an opportunity, albeit an unwelcome one, to deepen her faith and discover the living God in people rather than in buildings. A painful lesson for sure, but it promised Marilyn new life. Her parting laughter told me it was so.

In the gospel passage we hear today, the doting father of a little girl is likewise offered a most unwelcome opportunity to strengthen his faith. “Jairus said to Jesus, ‘My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.’ Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.” (Mark 5:23, 41-42)

At first observation, it may seem that the little girl is the focus of the story. And we may well ask the question whether she was really dead or not. The townspeople said she was; Jesus said she was not but was merely asleep. Does it even matter? Not really. What does matter is the faith of Jairus, who thought his beloved daughter dead and who trusted that Jesus could bring her back to life. It is the faith of this man that is the true focus of the story. Something dearer to him than his own life had been snatched away, and he went to the man he believed could restore it.

Just so for Marilyn following the heart attack she suffered when her church closed: she knew where to go for healing, requesting Holy Communion as the consolation for her grief, the antidote for her broken heart.

When I left Marilyn’s hospital room that bright May morning, she was laughing. She’d lost her beloved church, two of them in fact, but she realized she’d surely not lost the companionship of the loving God who had promised to be with her always. As she told me at my departure, “I’m asking God to lead me to the place he wants me to be. Maybe it’ll be to another church; who knows?” And she laughed, a broken heart well on the mend.


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