Sunday, July 28, 2013

Follow the Thread

After Mass last evening, a parishioner stopped to say: "Father, I once got called out in confession for saying I was 'partly sorry'..."

   Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

I’m going to call her Wanda.
(While that’s not her real name, the rest of her story is true.)
About two or three months ago, 
Wanda called wanting to “talk to a priest.”
Experience led me to assume that she was looking for assistance:
that she’d be asking me for food, shelter, or cash.
But I was wrong.
Wanda’s concerns were spiritual.
She wanted to talk about her exceptionally troubled life.
She wanted to talk about the bad choices she’d made.
She wanted to receive the sacraments—
to go to confession and be anointed—
and to make a fresh start.
We talked about the changes she needed to make in her life.
We talked about her need to stay close to Christ and to the Church.
She left with a rosary, and made a commitment to pray it regularly.
I think it’s safe to say that we were both feeling pretty hopeful as she left.

Wanda called while I was away at Guggenheim,
and I returned her call this past Thursday.
We hadn’t been in touch since that first meeting…
…but I had seen her name in the police blotter just a few days later.
Needless to say, I wondered where this conversation was headed,
since our first one didn’t appear to have had much of an effect.

Wanda admitted to having some more trouble after she’d seen me.
“I got in a fight with my daughter,” she said,
“which landed me in the hospital and my name in the paper.
Thank God, the charges were dropped.
I knew I was being tested, Father.
I knew I needed to get out of that bad environment.
So I moved out on my boyfriend—
and told him I wouldn’t move back unless we got married.
I headed to Plattsburgh, where I found some help:
got counseling, a small apartment, and a part-time job.
And I’ve been going to Mass every Sunday.”

“What good news, Wanda!”  I told her.
“But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about, Father,” she said.
“I wanted to tell you about the rosary.
You see, I ran into this homeless woman,
whose husband was spending all their money on booze.
I found out that she was Catholic,
and that she wanted to make a fresh start—like I was doing.
So I gave her sixty bucks to buy some food for her kids,
and I gave her my rosary.
I told her, ‘Pray a decade of it everyday for me,
and I’ll pray a decade every day for you.’”

Wanda continued:
“Father, I wanted so bad to know how she was doing,
so I couldn’t help myself and asked God for a sign.
And there I was, waiting in line at the grocery store,
when I noticed that the man in front of me had a rosary.
I was bold and asked, ‘Do you say it everyday?’
That’s when he pulled it out
and I recognized immediately that it was my rosary!
(And I’m sure it was mine, because it had been broken
and I had tied it back together with a piece of purple string.)
I blurted out, ‘That’s my rosary!’
and the man said, ‘No, I don't think so!’
So I said, ‘Then Joanne gave it to you.’
And he froze and asked, ‘How did you know?’
I told him about the purple string.
I told him about meeting her.
He told me he was Joanne’s husband.
He told me she’d fed the kids for two weeks
with the money that I gave her.
He told me she’d moved back to Montréal,
where she was getting the help she needed.
And then he said, ‘Before she left, she gave me this rosary
and said, “Pray a decade of it everyday for me,
and I’ll pray a decade every day for you.”’”

In many ways, the rosary is the quintessential Catholic prayer.
Even Catholics who have not faithfully prayed it in life
often ask to have a rosary placed in their hands at death.
It’s long string of beads—with the cross as their anchor—
are an apt symbol for some of the lessons about prayer
which the Scriptures put before us this Sunday.

Prayer is like a chain in the way that the habit of prayer is passed on
from one person to another, from one generation to the next.
Lord, teach us to praythe disciples beg in the gospel.
Of course, they already knew something about prayer,
but they wanted to pray like Jesus:
with great confidence and in intimate union with God.
And so the words and example of Jesus
have been handed down to the present day.

But I worry that the chain is getting broken.
We’re in need of some purple string.

Every year, as I meet with our second graders
preparing for First Holy Communion,
I’m saddened to see how they struggle
with the most basic prayers—if they even know them at all.
Things don’t seem to get much better
among our teens preparing for Confirmation.
And while at Guggenheim,
one of the counselors shared with me his concern that nobody—youth or adult—
seems to know the correct words to our customary Grace before Meals.
I responded with what I hear in the confessional:
I’ve lost track of how many time people have professed
to being “hardly sorry” for having offended God.
It would seem that those who know the traditional words
don’t take too much time to actually consider what they’re saying.

Which tells me that the repairs needed in our chain of prayer
aren’t so much in strings of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.

The tradition of prayer we most urgently need to recover
is speaking to God—one-on-one—from the heart.
St. Thérèse—the “little flower”—defines prayer so simply and beautifully:
            For me, prayer is a surge of the heart;
            it is a simple look turned toward heaven,
            it is a cry of recognition and love,
            embracing both trial and joy.
Is that not the kind of prayer we hear coming from Abraham,
who respectfully but daringly negotiates with God to save the city of Sodom?
And is that not the sort of prayerful persistence which Jesus encourages,
since we have a heavenly Father who only wants what is best for us?

Now, we can't very well pass on what we do not have for ourselves.
Prayer can be studied in books and discussed in sermons,
but it is best learned from another disciple.
Do you know any good pray-ers?
The sort of people to whom others turn
when they face a crisis or have an important request?
Ask them about their habits of prayer.
And straight away get to practicing what you learn.
Trust me: if what you’re saying to God comes from the heart,
then the only way you could do it wrong would be not to pray at all.

I thanked Wanda on Thursday for telling me her story.
And I sent her three rosaries:
one for her, and two more to give away.
Let’s follow her example:
let’s strengthen and lengthen that chain.


Unknown said...

Fr. Joe, What a beautiful story. I'm so happy that we have priests like you in our diocese.

Fr. Joe said...

--Fr. Joe

Ann Spazz said...

Great story. One of my favorite prayers:

SOUL of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds, hide me.
Separated from Thee let me never be.
From the malignant enemy, defend me.
At the hour of death, call me.
To come to Thee, bid me,
That I may praise Thee in the company
Of Thy Saints, for all eternity.