Tag Archives: Heaven

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

MikeMcCoySpokeo-235x300
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

Five Steps to Peace: Step 2 – Keep Your Eyes on Heaven

Boston MarathonA few years ago, I got it into my head that  I wanted to run a marathon. I started a training program and ran and ran for five months straight – long runs on the weekends and short runs during the week. When the big day came I was bursting with energy and practically biting at the bit to take on the 26.2-mile challenge. After so much training, I was in the best shape of my life.

I went to the starting line with the idea of sticking to a pace of 9 minutes per mile, but since I felt so great, I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me and I committed the most typical mistake of first-time marathoners: I started way too fast. I was knocking out 8-minute mile after 8-minute mile and things seemed just fine…until mile 18 when I hit the wall hard. My legs cramped, my vision blurred, and my head felt light. Eight-minute miles became 9 minutes and then 10 minutes and finally 11 minutes. I was hurting. The only thing that kept me going was thinking about the finish line. When I finally hobbled across and received my medal and a cold Gatorade, I felt like I was in Paradise.

Focusing on the Finish

If life is like a marathon, Heaven is the finish line. Life is tough and we will doubtlessly hit the wall numerous times during the course of our earthly existence, but if we keep our eyes on the goal, one day we will be able to say with St. Paul, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

To keep our eyes on Heaven, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are pilgrims on a journey, and we have to keep in mind that goodness of our life on Earth is just a preview of  what is to come.

This is me hobbling to finish in mile 26. All that matters is that we make it!
This is me hobbling to the finish in mile 26. At least I made it!

This is easier said than done since it is so easy to get entirely caught up and engrossed in the here and now. When I was in that last stretch of the marathon, it was very hard to stay focused on the finish line because I was caught up in the suffering of my rebelling body. My whole world seemed to be comprised of cramps and sore feet, so it was all that I could do to keep my mind focused on the goal, which seemed so far away no matter how much closer I got.

The water breaks were what helped me stay focused. Every mile or so a table would appear on the horizon with smiling volunteers handing out cups of cold Gatorade. I would walk through those water stops, enjoying the cool drink and re-motivating myself to make it to the finish. If I had tried to push through those stops, I certainly would have collapsed. Each water break was a little taste of the finish that provided me with the mental energy that I needed to keep going.

Staying Heaven-Oriented

In life, breaks are essential. If we allow ourselves to be engulfed in the more unpleasant aspects of our earthly existence (work for instance) and if we just try to soldier onward without resting, we will eventually collapse, physically or emotionally or both.

It is crucial that we allow ourselves times to taste and savor the goodness that awaits us; we must allow ourselves the leisure to detach from the mundane activities that consume us and do things that are more heavenly. We need to be free to contemplate what is to come.

To be Heaven-oriented is to be beauty-oriented, so it isfinish-line indispensable that we take time to contemplate beauty. Beautiful music, beautiful art, beautiful cinematography, beautiful nature: all of the finer things of life are essential for helping us remember the finest things that are yet to come. Contemplatively walking through the woods, visiting an art exhibit, or listening to a symphony are all examples of things we can do to contemplate beauty and orient ourselves towards Heaven.

It is also very important to remember that leisure is not just about regaining energy in order to go back to work: rather, leisure is about re-focusing on our final destination, on what we were really made for. We should dedicate at least part of our evenings, weekends, and vacations to remind ourselves of the beauty to come. We should use these times to remember that we are spiritual beings en route to something incredibly awesome.

“Eye Has not Seen”

We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this world foreshadows it. When we encounter beauty, like that of a gorgeous sunrise or a moving symphony, we are touched and our hearts are tugged; a desire for something more is aroused. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.

The beauty of this world is but a faint reminder of what awaits us.

Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has in store for imagethose who love Him. (1 Cor 2:9)

When things get tough and stress accumulates, take a moment to disconnect and remember the beauty that is waiting for you. The more you take time to think of Heaven, the more you will find yourself at peace.

A Time to Re-Focus on Heaven

2013-02-17 CES_Paseo_Greccio_164A couple of years ago, I accompanied a priest on a sick call. Since it was my first time visiting someone with a terminal illness, I was not quite sure what to expect or what to say. We entered the room and saw a thin old man lying in his hospital bed. After being greeted, he looked at us sadly, and with a raspy, gasping voice said, “Well…it’s all over!” I will never forget the priest’s reply: with a big smile, he looked at him and responded, “No. It’s all about to begin!”

As we tried to converse with the patient, I was having trouble thinking of what to say. The TV was on and a coach was being interviewed about the World Series, so I considered chatting about the championship, but it occurred to me how pointless that would be. This man was about to pass on to something greater: he was on the threshold of eternity – everything else was just fading background noise.

En route to Eternity

I really enjoy traveling, which is good because as a missionary I do it a lot. It has always struck me as interesting how life takes on a very different tone right before a big trip. As the departure approaches, everything else becomes less and less important; all thoughts and energy go towards preparing for the journey, and it becomes hard to focus on anything else. The life of a Christian is likewise an ongoing preparation for the final voyage – as we get closer and closer to embarking, everything else fades away in light of the ultimate destination.

The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.
The sun shining on an Umbrian valley.

Lent is about preparing for Heaven. It is not about making ourselves suffer with fasting and abstinence. Our Lenten sacrifices are motivated by something very profound: the expectation of eternal happiness. Through personal asceticism, we distance ourselves from certain goods because we want to be more centered on The Ultimate Good for which we are striving.

The Lenten exercise of self-denial is necessary for staying focused. If we do not periodically abstain from earthly pleasures, we run the risk of forgetting the heavenly ones for which we were made.  In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

…earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our longing for Heaven], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.

A morning view from my dorm.
A morning view from my dorm.

Expectation of Heaven does not mean that we should go through life withholding from ourselves all that it has to offer. On the contrary, we should enjoy life, but we must do so realizing that each good thing is but a small foretaste of what is yet to come. Paradoxically, when we live this way, life becomes all the more enjoyable and fulfilling. Conversely, if we refuse to seek what is above and neglect to live for the joy of Heaven, we confine ourselves to the misery of shallow pleasures. As C.S. Lewis puts it elsewhere, when we limit ourselves to earthly happiness, “we are half-hearted creatures…like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.”

An Eternal Weight of Glory

I love this quote from St. Paul:

Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17

This verse resonates so much with me because not long ago I accompanied my mother on the final stretch of her earthly journey. Anyone who has accompanied a family member through a terminal illness knows that there are few sufferings as emotionally acute as watching a loved one physically “wasting away.” However, for Christians, this gradual debilitation is offset by what is at the other end. The illness and death, as painful as they are, are only “momentary light affliction” in comparison with the glory to come.

What can make terminal sickness seem like a “momentary light affliction”? Heaven.

We cannot imagine the beauty of Heaven, but the beauty of this620-667-I-G36 world foreshadows it. When we encounter beauty, like that of a gorgeous sunrise or a moving symphony, we are touched and our hearts are tugged; a desire for something more is aroused. Again, C.S. Lewis says it perfectly:

We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.

This is what Lent is all about: it is a time for reawakening in our souls the yearning that we have for the boundless joy that awaits us. It is a time to embrace a simpler lifestyle in order to enjoy the peace that comes with simplicity. It is a time for preparing to put on the “greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch”; for receiving the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”; it is a time to prepare for Heaven.

“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.

image

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?