Saturday, January 24, 2015

Three Catholic Friends

In his new book Miracles, Eric Metaxas describes miracles that have happened to people he knows personally. I am not sure that this approach works as science but it is compelling as testimony.

An e-mail received this morning prompted me to think of a companion volume I could write called Friends. Such a book would describe Catholic people I have met since being received into the Church seven years ago. For those who think Catholicism is medieval and therefore unnecessary, such a book might not be convincing, but it could open a few eyes.

My friends are central to my experience of the Church. Asked if and how I know Christ and where and when I meet Him, I would say that, first of all, I meet Him in the faces of my “church friends.” Let me write briefly about three of them. I will use their real first names, no aliases needed.

David is a Catholic priest. I imagine that David would be the perfect Catholic priest—charismatic, knowledgeable, energetic, compassionate friendly—if only he answered e-mails and text messages. He is famous for not doing so. Otherwise, I can’t imagine a better pastor.

He is central to my experience of the Church because he was the pastor at the parish I walked into as a lapsed Protestant in the fall of 2007. He was among the first people to extend a hand to me, asking “What’s your name?” after seeing me for a few weeks at daily mass.

While David was at our parish, several young men from our community decided to enter the seminary; one of them is already a priest and four are still in formation. David is such an exemplary priest that other young men undoubtedly look at him and think, “He seems a pretty normal guy. I could live like that.”

David has been transferred to an urban university where he now serves as the Catholic chaplain. I understand that after only a year there, one of his students has entered the seminary. I am not surprised. I pray for David that he will continue to thrive in this position and inspire other vocations, priestly and religious.

Carol is a townswoman I knew at a distance for thirty years before I became a Catholic. Only after 2007 did I realize that she and her daughter Sarah were parishioners at my church.

It was not hard to recognize Carol and Sarah in those earlier years. Sarah, now in her thirties, has a severe neurological disability. She is unable to care for herself, so Carol, a single mother now, cares for Sarah. I used to see them walking around town: Carol pushing Sarah in a rather elaborate wheelchair. Until the recent death of Carol’s locally celebrated father, Charlie, a beloved restaurant owner, Carol took care of both her father and her daughter in her home. Such dedication to a parent and child simultaneously speaks for itself.

During the past year I have been granted the gift of helping Carol and other friends help Sarah. Two years ago, Carol learned of a form of movement therapy used for children with severe brain impairments like Sarah’s; she traveled to Philadelphia to learn the therapy; and she returned home knowing that, to implement the therapy with Sarah, she needed to perform the therapy several days a week, one hour per day, with no fewer than two (preferably four) friends helping out each time.

Carol’s friends have rallied around her in a way that is beautiful. I am just one of them, helping out only one hour a week at “Sarah’s Table.” There is something sacramental about this communal experience as we gather around Sarah and manipulate her head and limbs to simulate the movements of an infant crawling. The experience has had several remarkable effects for me.

It has bonded me to these friends in a deeper way, as I have written previously. It has made me recognize Carol as a model for my own Christian life. Finally, it has made Sarah a human being for me.

This may sound harsh, but I have never been comfortable around people with severe disabilities. I am, in a word, squeamish. But being brought to Sarah’s side once a week and moving one of her arms in concert with several others (Carol always takes Sarah’s head) is a powerful experience. It is one that has had a quite surprising effect on my mind and heart. Pardon me for saying it this way, but it has turned Sarah from an object into a human person.

No, it is better than that. Sarah is now my friend too.

Angel is the name of a Spanish man living in Santiago de Compostela, the destination city for the famous Camino de Santiago. Before I met him in 2012, that was all I knew about him, except that he was a reader of my blog.

As my daughter and I walked the 500 miles together from the Pyrenees to Santiago, I began receiving messages from Angel that he wanted to meet me when I arrived. Only after arriving did I learn that he is a consecrated lay person, a Ph.D, and a professor at the major university in that city.

Then this Angel took my breath away. He offered to show me around Santiago de Compostela and proceeded to dedicate most of two days to this personally guided tour. He proved to be deeply knowledgeable about church history, architecture, religious art, Scripture, classical texts—pretty much anything he could summon to enrich my experience of this great pilgrimage site.

This morning I received an e-mail from Angel. That e-mail incited this post. Angel told me that he continues to read this blog and has finished reading my memoir excerpts posted here. “It must have been very difficult for you to sort out those difficult times in your youth,” he wrote. “I hope it has helped you to put it in letters.”

I wrote back my thanks, and with this post I mean to extend those thanks to the many friends who have made themselves known to me in my first seven years as a Catholic.

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