Yesterday between noon and 10 pm, I had three encounters that touched my heart. A friend who is terminally ill. A man with cerebral palsy. A drinking buddy who has lapsed from the faith. Together, they formed a triptych, with love at the center, faith and hope to either side. As Charles Péguy wrote, hope is the most surprising of the three, even to God.
At the noon hour I visited a friend whose brain cancer is progressing. Doctors have given her a year, maybe less. Since she sponsored me in RCIA three years ago, we have stayed in touch, and when she was treated for lung cancer two years ago, I began visiting her about once a week. The cancer jumped from her lung to her brain.
My friend is a lifelong practicing Catholic whose faith is striking. This faith of hers is not a leap of the imagination. It stands two-footed on a rock of certainty. She does not speak of the future, of what awaits her beyond the end of her life. Her life is about now: what’s happening with her seven children, her grandchildren and siblings, her friends in the parish. Despite her short, thin, frail body you feel as though you could stand on her rock with her and she would hold you up through any storm. She can’t weigh more than 110 pounds, and her fingers, poking out of her bathrobe, are thin and knobby like bamboo. But her eyes sparkle, her toothy grin is girlish and irrepressible, and the impression of strength is one you take with you when you say goodbye.
My friend has trouble focusing her eyes and so cannot read to herself any longer. So I read to her for twenty minutes from St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul, written under a death sentence of tuberculosis. I thought it was the least I could do for all the strength I get from my friend.
Three hours later, I accompanied a man to Mass. Now in his seventies, this man has lived his entire life with cerebral palsy, although his symptoms seem relatively mild. When his face moves involuntarily, it breaks into a grin. I had never met him before, so for a while, I interpreted his grin as a form of well-deserved appreciation for my sense of humor and general all-round good-guyness. Eventually, though, I realized that I had nothing to do with it.
The man lives alone in an elderly housing project three blocks from our church, and he recently put out a request for someone to accompany him to weekly Mass. With a couple of friends, I have volunteered in rotation. Here is someone, I realized, who lives alone and has every reason to feel sorry for himself. He is confined to a motorized wheelchair, which causes perpetual discomfort to his backside and frequent annoyance; when his legs spasm, his feet are forced out of the chair’s stirrups, and he asked me many times to put his feet back in place for him.
What struck me about this man was his love for the Church. “Born a Catholic, I will die a Catholic,” he said. His parents now dead, his brother living across the country, he could so easily check out into bitterness and despair. But he loves going to Mass. We sat side by side near the front under the statue of St. Joseph that I love so much, and it was moving to me to hear his responses, sometimes incomplete because of his disability, but always on cue. Saying the Our Father by his side was an event I won’t soon forget.
Afterward, a lady friend of mine came over to us, and I introduced her to the man in the chair. She said, “You two look like you’re having way too much fun over here,” and she was right. I loved attending Mass with my new friend because he loves attending Mass. It’s contagious, love is.
Yesterday evening, I spent some time with a male friend who has been Catholic all his life but rarely attends church anymore. He is brilliant, creative, a bit diffident about his own talents, but generally a really good person, and I like hanging out with him. We don’t see each other much, only because we live thirty minutes apart and he seldom leaves home. “I don’t like crossing the bridge,” he says.
My friend is a lapsed Catholic, as I have said, and I know many of the breed. Most of them want to talk about anything other than the faith. It is a door they don’t want to approach, much less pass through. My friend is different. Whenever we meet, he begins by asking me about my life in the Church, about an abbey I used to visit, about my experiences singing in the choir. Last night, he was asking simple questions about the Bible, and when I mentioned the Way of St. James, a 500-mile pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela in Spain, he couldn’t stop talking about it. His last words to me, as I left, were, “St. James! I have to find out more about him.”
What struck me about my friend last night was his hope and mine, a hope that there is still a door that will open for him, although he has let himself fall away from regular practice of his faith. It is a hope that sets him before his artist’s easel every day, a hope that has started several “great American novels,” although he is yet to be published. It was moving to me to realize that, in my own practice of the faith, I represent a hope for him. I will make an effort to see him sooner and more often in the future.
In his book-length poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, French writer Charles Péguy wrote that Christians often forget about hope, and God, Péguy says, is surprised by it! The poem opens with God saying that neither faith nor charity surprise him. God says he is so “resplendent in my creation” that “in order not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.”
Charity, God continues, “doesn’t surprise me. . . . These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for each other.”
But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.
That is surprising.
That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.
That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.
That is surprising to me and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.
And I’m surprised by it myself.
And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.
And must flow freely and like an inexhaustible river.
It is really striking to encounter examples of any kind of virtue, but I would agree with Péguy, at least to judge by my experiences yesterday. Two practicing Catholics should be expected to display virtue, and so the faith of my terminally ill friend and the love of my new friend with cerebral palsy are perhaps what you would expect. But the hope of my drinking buddy, who has left the Church but seems to turn his gaze back toward it in hope—the hope that his faith will catch fire again someday—this is what I went to bed thinking most about, and what surprises me again today.