Sunday, January 23, 2011

Of hope and possibility

My dear friend, Juan, left this life recently to join the community of many loves, that family made up of those who now dwell in the presence of God. Dear Juan, my holy brother...

Juan was a well known figure at my church. He was often seen standing inside the large front doors, greeting people as they came streaming in on Sunday mornings. It did not matter so much that you could not always understand what Juan was saying: his hands and his smile reaching out to you made it clear enough that you were welcomed into this place where the feast of love was about to be celebrated.

But Juan did not stop there. Before age and illness caught up with him, he was known for bringing coummunion to countless people confined to their homes and unable to travel to the community celebration. Sometimes it was literally hours into Sunday afternoon before he completed his rounds. Juan did not have car until our pastor found him one to aid in this ministry of his. Then there came a time when Juan could no longer drive - for Juan was well into his seventies and had a stroke that took him out of commission for awhile. Juan's speech was getting harder to understand, not just because of his Puerto Rican roots, but because his thought process and memory were starting to fade.

I remember Juan telling me and a few others the story of his wife's passing from this life a number of years earlier. Although I could not understand everything he said, I could tell from the look on his face that he was telling me of a great miracle, not of a great loss. He was a man who believed. Even after his days bringing communion came to an end, Juan served the church by being sacristan (one who sets up the bread, the wine, the readings) for daily Mass at St. Patrick's church - not just once a day, but for both the morning and evening services. Once told he had to stop driving, he continued walking to the church, so as to continue his presence with us and service to us. As he became more frail, we worried about him walking the inner city streets, particularly after dark or when it was cold or raining.

I was only occasionally the one to give him a ride to his house in the evening. Sometimes we would ride in silence, but often we talked, despite the barriers imposed by his speech. I remember one evening, as I pulled up to his house, I heard him say clearly to me, "All things are possible with God." I do not remember - and am not sure I ever knew - why he said that at that particular time. I don't recall that we were talking about anything of great import. But I remember that the words struck a strong chord in me that, together with the look of certainty on his face, left me feeling that, yes, perhaps that is really so... I had heard these words before (the words of Jesus, as recorded in Mathew 26:19) - but had I believed them? Quite honestly, I'm not sure that I did. But I could tell that Juan believed them.

As Juan's body and mind declined further, he was moved from his house to a nursing home. I heard from others that his mind was increasingly confused and that he had reverted to speaking only Spanish. Yet he stayed in my prayers and I felt him present. And then, just over a week ago, I learned that he had died...

Often when life seems at its darkest, we wonder: does God really exist? Does he really hear me or care about my suffering? Why do solutions to my dilemmas elude me, leaving my frightened and without hope? As I ponder these questions, having pondered them both in my life and in the lives of many so many others, I now raise the question: did God let Juan down? Did God fail his faithful servant by allowing dementia to rob him of his abilities and his mind until there was nothing left but a shell of his body lying in a nursing home bed? Even if we all have to die, could God not have taken his good friend down an easier, gentler road?

Of course, I do not know. But somehow I sense that Juan was led down the path he was given to walk and he went willingly, faithfully, even joyfully. He had witnessed his wife's entrance into the presence of God and he did not seem to question that he too would follow her there. He did not complain about how hard it was or how tired life made him. He continued until it was time - time for the Merciful One to free him of his ailing body and welcome him into the loving Presence where he would no longer need it.

May I someday be as faithful. Juan, dear friend, patron of the near west side, watch over us and pray for us. Pray that we too may see that all things are possible, even when all we can see is impossibility. Pray that we too may be hopeful in our darkest of times, accepting that our path, however rough and torturous, will eventually lead us home to the heart of God - where together we will laugh and celebrate once more...