Although I begin each day with prayer and try to keep every day holy, I must confess that I do not go to mass every Sunday. Or even most Sundays. Although I went through a painful annulment process last year, I do not receive communion as often as I should. However, this past Sunday did not begin like other days.
I was in an extreme amount of pain. I had been praying hard for healing of the Treyden Kurtzweil family (Saving Treyden on Facebook), people I probably will never meet. I too am a parent, and I am also a grandparent of a beautiful, healthy 8-month old boy. And even then it has been hard to imagine the grief Cassie and Travis must be experiencing. I have two vials of holy water from Lourdes that belonged to my mother. I had never opened them, not even when my elderly mother was dying. I did not feel that would have been right. God’s will trumps holy water. But Saturday morning I did open one, blessed myself with it and prayed for the healing not only of Treyden but especially for his family. Although I saw no moisture on the tip of my finger, it felt cool on my forehead, unnaturally so. Like alcohol evaporating. Except that the coolness lasted a long time.
I was disconsolate with grief. How could so many prayers from so many people go unanswered? My prayers and my grief had taken me out of myself for a change, and in so doing, I was able to step back and take a good, hard look. I realized that the person I saw was himself in desperate need of healing. How disordered and self-indulgent his life had become. He was only able to see this when he became concerned about someone else.
So Sunday morning I took the bottle of Lourdes water again and blessed myself. My prayers would not only be for the Kurtzweils but for my own healing as well. I was desperate. Let’s be clear about what happened next: I do not hear voices. But I might as well have, because my next thought came as a complete surprise. You anoint yourself with holy water when you could be receiving the body and blood of my son.
The power of this thought was irresistible. I would have to go to mass. Instead of finishing my usual prayers and the mass readings, I prepared myself for mass and receiving the Blessed Sacrament.
The opening hymn was “Jesus Christ, the Healer.” Tears began to well in my eyes, and I could not even choke out most of the words. The water from Lourdes had sent me exactly to where I belonged. I had not realized the daily mass readings would be about death and healing, about the sons of two widows being brought back to life. I had not realized the whole theme of the mass would be about Christ’s power to heal. I had not realized Father Andrew’s homily would be rooted in all the funerals he had attended and about grief and how shared grief brings us closer together. And most certainly I had overlooked the healing power of the Blessed Sacrament.
During the entire mass, I felt I was truly living something miraculous. The deep healing my soul needed so badly had begun. When we really need Him, God will be there for us. If He can be there for me, I am sure He is there for Treyden, Cassie and Travis in their time of deepest need.
Prayer can sometimes be an adventure. The distractions in prayer are not always without meaning. The other morning after finishing the Office of Readings and the Morning Prayer, I put down the Liturgy of the Hours and picked up my Kindle for the daily mass readings from “The Word Among Us,” which is sent to me every month.
The morning before I’d been going through my file of most read books, of which there are about 90, and thought I saw the title Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. I could not remember getting that book, but for some reason I’d promised myself to look for it the next time I opened my device. So instead of going to the mass readings, I went looking for Louise. Whether I had the book or not (of course a hardbound copy was sitting up on the shelf), there was something spooky about thinking I’d seen it. No, I couldn’t find it, so I ordered a Kindle edition. For the books I treasure the most, I’ll get a Kindle version in addition to the physical copy.
Then I thought, gee, where was Annie Dillard? Louise Erdrich and Annie Dillard are writers I can open to any page of any work just to enjoy their writing, to read prose rich as poetry or poetry that transcends. So then I went looking for Annie, found her and opened to the last book I had been reading, Holy the Firm. She recalled a time when she had been camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ramsey Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting under a tree by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring. Moths kept flying into the candle….
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burned dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second….
When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? …
And then this moth essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.
She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burned out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet….
How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives and be writers?
For a long time I have toyed with the idea of becoming a tertiary of some kind. I thought maybe a Benedictine Oblate, but somehow I always had a conflict with the next meeting or retreat. I don’t really care for the rule enjoining idle chatter and “words that lead to laughter.” I love to talk and joke and laugh and I really think God has a far better sense of humor than Saint Benedict. So how about the third order Franciscans or the Confraternity of Penitents? These commitments haven’t seemed to fit either.
The truth of the matter is I am more wordsmith than monk, more poet than priest, more writer than theologian. This is why my morning prayers found me reading Annie Dillard instead of the Gospel of Luke (which I read later at the doctor’s office waiting for my wife). I am still Catholic to the bone. The metaphor of the moth was not lost on me. To be a true writer, you have to burn your brains out. To be a true Christian, you have to lose your life to find it. You must die to bear much fruit. Or, as St. Francis of Assisi said, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
So no matter what we do, poet or priest, we have to die and burn. We have to wick God’s grace in order to be His Light.