Friday, August 27, 2010
"Jesus said, 'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.'" (Luke 14:26)
SOUL-SURFING - September 5, 2010
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
Hunched over cups of coffee in the hospital cafeteria, I asked him the question I knew would lead to painful telling on his part, painful hearing on mine. "Matt, how are things with your parents these days?" With wry smile and sardonic chuckle, he recounted his mother's comment on the recent occasion of his parents' 70th wedding anniversary. Said Matt, "When I asked Mom how she planned to celebrate the day, she asked me to get her a gun so she could shoot him. I knew she was kidding, but I also knew she was exhausted and wanted an end to all this."
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A fellow hospital employee and my contemporary in age, Matt and I bump into each other on a regular basis, and over the past several years I've heard the painful progress of his 93 year-old father's increasing dementia due to Alzheimer's and his 89 year-old mother's increasing physical disability. Yet the two of them continue stubbornly to live in their own apartment, with Matt, who lives several miles away, daily checking in, doing the shopping, responding to his mother's increasing emergency summons through "Lifeline," and generally serving as a stressed-out guardian angel.
An only child, the heavy burden of caring for elderly parents has taken a noticeable toll on Matt's own health. With high blood pressure, anxiety attacks, depression and frequent sinus and bronchial infections, he has more than once mused aloud that he may well beat his parents to heaven. Yet the obvious solution - placing them in an assisted living facility - has been a verboten topic for all of us who have tried to help. Matt just won't hear of it, and neither will his parents. At the moment, it's a tense stand-off. As Matt resignedly admits, "The only thing that's going to change the situation is the death of any one of us, Mom, Dad or me."
As our coffee cups neared empty on the day we sat and talked, Matt asked me the question that pinned me to the wall. "Where's God in all of this?" he asked. The intensity in his face was nearing tears as he desperately sought the answer I didn't have. While I was sure the compassionate God was to be found right in the middle of this painful situation, I couldn't see him either. The fog was just too thick.
I've seen Matt several more times since that last cup of coffee, and each time I open my mouth to ask the obvious question, he preempts as if reading my mind, "Don't even ask. Nothing has changed." I tell him I'm praying for him and his parents, and he assures me he's doing the very same thing. "But is God listening?" he asks.
In the gospel passage we hear today, Jesus addresses his followers with what seems an ultimatum, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26) And I wonder, hearing those words, how many of those following turned away. How many of the crowd thought this charismatic man just crazy? And how many of us today might join their company as we apply the same demand to our own lives? Impossible, we may well think! Who's going to abandon family to be a disciple? And even though we remember that Peter and his boat crew dropped their fishing nets in a flash when Jesus said "Come, follow me," that's quite a different thing from leaving behind one's very flesh and blood. Is Jesus really serious when he says that nobody and nothing can come between him and his disciples?
I think of Matt and his parents. I'd surely understand if he hated his father and mother for the burden they've become in their old age. I could understand if he hated his parents for making impossible demands upon him. I'd understand if he hated them because, though they first breathed life into him, now they were taking it back breath by breath. But none of this describes Matt. Rather, he loves them more than ever and prays daily for the strength to keep on loving them. As he admits, "The hardest part is accepting the fact that my parents, who were once my sturdiest crutch, have now become my heaviest cross."
And I think to myself, but didn't Jesus also say, "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple?" (Luke 14:27) The time isn't right to speak such a thought, but it seems their present suffering is surely prelude to the freedom that only heaven can provide. Matt and his parents, life-long, devout Catholics, believe this, surely, but knowing the story has a rewarding ending doesn't much mitigate the pain of the journey toward that ending. Day by day they trudge along together, the hope of heaven always on the far horizon.
The pointed question Matt asked that I couldn't answer hangs still in the air: "Where's God in all this?" The fog only begins to clear as I think of that great prayer attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola: "Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me."
Where is God? More in the question than in any obvious answer, it seems. As Matt and his Mom and Dad trudge along, love strained but still sustaining, maybe that's as much of God's presence as they'll ever know - the love that's holding it all together. I pray it's enough for them.