Tag Archives: Eternity

Waking up to Life

Dear friends,

Today is All Souls Day, when we pray for our departed and peacefully remember the eternity that awaits us. In this context, I would like to share with you this powerful experience that I had a few years ago on my first hospital visit with a priest.

God bless!

Eric


We were in the Dutchess County Hospital, passing rooms with silent, withered occupants.  We came to Room 349 and entered quietly. He was lying in bed, dressed in a hospital gown.  His arms were painfully thin and his eyes sunk deeply into his skull.  He was all alone.  No daughter, no son, no wife, no brother, no sister, no nephew, no cousin, no distant relative, no friend, no power of attorney: he was dying alone.

After introductions and gentle shaking of his weak hand, he looked up from his bed and rasped, “It’s all over!”  The words struck deep, “It’s all over.”  What can you say to a man on death’s door?

The priest knew exactly what to say.  With a smile that lit up the room, he responded “No! Everything is just about to begin!”

The dying man’s grave, pained expression lightened a little, “Well, I guess you’re right.”

Glancing around his room, I noticed a muted TV set, connected to the wall on a metal arm.  The first game of the World Series would take place that night.  One of the coaches was speaking in the pre-game press conference.

The priest tried to converse with him.  Each attempt was met with a brief reply and a distant gaze.  I thought about talking with the man about the World Series.  Opening my mouth to ask whom he thought would have the better chance at the pennant, I stopped myself.  What would he care?  This man is about to die.  He is about to leave the world. He doesn’t give a darn about its World Series.

In this room where death was so close, the World Series was nothing more than background noise and images on a screen.  Beyond this room, people were glued to the TV, treating the result of the World Series as a matter of life or death. Inside Room 349, death approached and everything else was fading away.

As the priest prayed over the man and gave him communion, I began to experience an emotion that I did not expect on a visit to a dying man. I was actually happy for him. He had received the Anointing of the Sick. He was clean; he was about to see God. I was excited for him.  This man was on the verge of making it. He was almost out of the valley of tears. Just on the other side of death his eternal reward awaited.  In a few hours, he would be free of his suffering and within the embrace of the Father.

True, this man was close to death, but he was also close to Heaven.

It became apparent that the man was heavily sedated with painkillers, so our conversation did not last long. But the experience of the dying man impacted me deeply.  God spoke to me through him.  I left with a yearning for what the man was about to get. I realized just how close heaven is, and I realized how much I wanted it. It awakened in me the desire to renew my effort and to keep striving for heaven. God used the visit to the dying man to remind me that heaven is closer than I think.

Speaking with and watching him slowly let go of life, I experienced death vicariously. I saw what will one day happen to me. I saw things from the perspective of a dying man. For us, daily life seems so immediate, so real; things like the World Series seem like events of tremendous importance. But in Room 349, death was approaching; life was becoming more like a dream, something fragile, something less than reality that disappears as soon as the sun rises.

God brought me close to death to refocus me on what really matters. Compared to the reality and eternity of heaven, life is just a fleeting dream. Death is not a sunset, but a dawn. When we die, we wake up to the beautiful reality for which we were made.

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“Angel on Ice”: The Amazing Testimony of a Figure-Skating Mom

In this post, I continue my series of “God-Encounters” – providential meetings with amazing people. This encounter happened two years ago and left a deep impression on me.

Tours of the Vatican

St Peter's at nightOne of my favorite activities here in Rome is giving tours in the Vatican. For me, it is more than a side-job – it’s a rewarding ministry: there is nothing like accompanying pilgrims as they encounter the rich artistic heritage with which the Eternal City abounds. There is something very special about watching someone walk into the Sistine Chapel for the first time and marvel at Michelangelo’s frescoes. I have found that in those moments of wonder, people are made vulnerable by beauty and become more sensitive to spiritual truths: it is a privileged moment to communicate the Gospel.

However, I have also found also that I am not always the one doing the preaching. On some occasions, the people on my tours teach me lessons more profound than anything I could ever offer. This is was the case when I met Mike and Kiara McCoy.

A Green Bay Packer and His Wife

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Mike McCoy at Notre Dame Stadium [Photo: US Presswire, via Spokeo]

Mike McCoy was a star defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers. In 1970, he was drafted out of Notre Dame University, the second pick of the first round. He went on to have a successful career with the Packers, as well as with the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants, before retiring in 1980. At 6-foot-5, he still has the commanding presence that accompanied him on the field, so it was not hard to find him in St. Peter’s Square where I met him with his wife Kiara (who went by “Kia”), his son Caleb, and his two granddaughters. Caleb was pushing his mother in a wheelchair since she was suffering from cancer.

After our tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, I accepted their kind invitation to join them for lunch. As I accompanied Kia to the taxi stand, I found out that she was suffering from the same rare form of cancer from which my mother was suffering: leiomyosarcoma. Kia’s had progressed so much what it was necessary to amputate part of her leg, thus confining her to a wheelchair. She knew that her time was probably limited, but she was not letting that stop her from joining her family for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe.

Amazing Faith

Kiara McCoy [Photo: angelonice.com]
Kiara McCoy [Photo: angelonice.com]

Over lunch, I had a conversation with Kia that left me inspired. When she met her husband, she was a gifted figure skater, but after their marriage she decided to hang up her skates in order to dedicate herself entirely to her children. Years later, with her children grown and out of the house, she decided to take to the rink again. She trained and trained for months, eventually going to compete in the 2012 International Adult Figure Skating Championships where she won first place in her division skating to the music of Amazing Grace.

However, not long after this amazing accomplishment she noticed an unusual lump on her leg. She went to the doctors and discovered that it was cancerous tumor.

As she shared with me the spiritual journey that began with the discovery of cancer, my admiration for her increased all more – I realized that I was not only speaking to a woman of great will power and athletic talent, but to a woman of tremendous faith.

She told me that from the very beginning of her battle with cancer she told the Lord, “Do not let me miss any blessing that can come from this illness.” She determined that she would not spend her last days wallowing in self-pity, but would actively strive to live her life to the full, loving others day-in and day-out with all of her heart. She told me that she wanted to be like Jesus at the Last Supper: even though he was approaching his death, and even though he was fully aware of that fact, he went out of his way to lovingly serve his apostles, humbling himself to the point of washing their feet.

Jesus loved his own to the end, and she wanted to do no less.

Learning from Kia

The McCoy Family
The McCoy Family

In many ways, Kia reminded me of my own mother, another woman of great faith who was courageously battling sarcoma cancer. Like my own mother, Kia exuded maternal loved and concern with everyone she met, so, even though I only spent the better part of one day with her, I felt like I had known her for much longer.

This encounter with  Kia McCoy took place at the beginning of March 2013. After exchanging contact information, we went our different ways, promising to pray for each other.

Several weeks later, on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013, I received word that Kia had passed away that very day.

I went to the chapel to pray for the repose of her soul and was there struck my an amazing coincidence: in our conversation, Kia had told me that she wanted to live her final days the way Christ had lived his final day, and Christ had acknowledged her desire by calling her home on Holy Thursday, the memorial of the last full day before his death!

Christ Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox BrownThis coincidence touched me deeply, as did Kia’s amazing faith. Her example helped me prepare for a personal trial that would come a year later as I watched my own mother die from the same cancer. In her final weeks, I gained strength not only from my mother’s amazing faith but also from the lesson that I had learned from Kia.

I have no doubt that my mom and Kia have already connected in Heaven. I also have no doubt that both of them continue to help and guide their respective families with the maternal love and care that characterized their lives on earth.


To learn more about Kia and her inspiring life, check out the book written by her son Caleb McCoy: Angel on Ice

“What will you do with your dash?”

imageI mentioned in a previous blog that I had been accompanying a very beloved family member in the last stage of her life. On May 6th, the moment finally came and she silently slipped into eternity. Since then, we have been mourning her loss, but also celebrating the beautiful love with which she  lived her life.

According to her wishes, the last weeks of her life were spent at home. Living close to a dying family member is not easy, but, as painful as it is, I believe that it is a good thing. The suffering forces the family to come together, and just as a physical body exerts all energy to assist an ailing part, the individuals of the family sacrifice time and comfort to be at the side of the sick loved one. Thus, they are brought into the dying process, their love is tested and it is brought to a new level.

Another thing happens when you are close to the dying process of a loved one. Death becomes more of a reality. It is no longer something you hear about or see in movies: it is just down the hall. In my case, I was at her side when she breathed her last. The abruptness and finality of the experience left a deep impression on me: one moment she was there and the next moment she was not. When you are that close to someone’s death, you realize that not much stands between you and the other side. Death is just a few seconds away.

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The German philosopher Heidegger described man as a “being-towards-death” (Sein-zum-Tode). Although his philosophy was devoid of Christian hope, this aspect of man is nevertheless true. Whether we realize it or not, our daily existence is conditioned by our upcoming deaths. We live the way we do because we know that our time is limited. We work and seek happiness, and we do so almost frantically, because we only have so much time at our disposal.

I once had a very interesting conversation with a minister’s wife on a train ride from Manhattan to Westchester County. She was telling me about a common question in her husband’s preaching: “What will you do with your dash?” The dash refers to the little line that will appear on your tombstone between the date of your birth and the date of your death. It stands for all of the time that elapsed between your entrance into the world and your departure. It may represent 25 years, 50 or even 100. But it doesn’t matter how much time passed: on your tombstone it is going to be signified by nothing more than a little line.

After our conversation, I got off at my stop in the town of Valhalla20140417-161738.jpg and I was struck by something ironic. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the great banquet hall of the after-life. My short train ride ended in Valhalla, just as my short life will, God willing, end in Heaven. Really, compared to eternity, earthly life is as quick and fleeting as a daily commute.

But the shortness of life need not be a source of dread. Rather, we should view our time on Earth as an exciting prelude to the real thing. It is a journey towards and a preparation for something so great, so beyond our imagination, that a lifetime is needed to get ready for it. To use a mundane example, our life is like the preview of a movie: it is short and quick, but it offers a glimpse of something even better.

As painful and as dark as life can be, there are still rays of beauty that shine through, tugging at our hearts and reminding us that something greater is just around the corner.

20140418-112210.jpg“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” – John 14: 2 – 3

Time is ticking between now and the moment you enter the Father’s house. What will you do with your dash?