Some two decades ago, I served my diaconate in a parish located in a small town outside of Peoria, Illinois. During those months at St. Joseph’s Parish in Pekin, Illinois, I became very good friends with a family who belonged to the parish. Over the course of my diaconate, I also got to know the grandparents and especially enjoyed the maternal grandparents, Bob and Dorothy, who would come and visit their kids and grandkids during the holidays. Bob was a jocular veteran of World War II, a retired salesman who regaled in telling jokes and stirring the pot to initiate political arguments. Dorothy was a refined and sophisticated woman who always offered gracious hospitality. She would chide her husband’s excesses by saying in a stern tone, “Now, Bob….”
Bob and Dorothy owned a summer home located on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, near a town named Douglas, Michigan. Ever since we first met, Bob and Dorothy would invite me up to stay for a few days not only to partake of all of the beautiful things that western Michigan had to offer but also the daily cocktail hour, too, that on most days lasted more than one hour! Bob loved his martinis (that’s plural) and Dorothy enjoyed one gin and tonic with a twist of lime (that’s singular). Those days were filled with lots of conviviality, absolutely gorgeous weather even if it rained, the beach, and some serious conversation, including life’s lessons, the importance of family, and religious topics, too. (I had to get into the conversation somehow!)
By all accounts, Bob and Dorothy were staunch Catholics. They never missed Sunday mass. They sent their two kids to Catholic school and their son attended Notre Dame University. (I guess that’s like the Good Housekeeping “Seal of Approval” making parents “real” Catholics!) And, I know of no meal at Bob and Dorothy’s that didn’t begin first with a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving.
Several years ago, I considered it a great honor to be asked to celebrate Bob and Dorothy’s golden wedding anniversary. The anniversary mass was idyllic. The couple renewed their wedding vows with the same best man and maid of honor as witnesses and their two children, six grandchildren, scads of other family members and friends in attendance. For me, the highlight of the celebration was viewing a videotape of family pictures from over the decades that had been spliced together with videos of family members and friends offering their best wishes to the anniversarians.
It wasn’t all that long after the fiftieth anniversary celebration¾perhaps it was the following winter or maybe the second winter when Bob and Dorothy were at their winter home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida¾that Dorothy became sick. Dorothy dutifully went to the doctor as she had pestered Bob to do all of their years together until he had a heart attack and was forced to go to the hospital. The doc ran some tests on Dorothy and, sure enough, discovered that she had cancer.
From that day forward, Dorothy¾the person I knew as a staunch Irish Catholic matron¾didn’t want anything to do with God, the Church, or religion. Over the months of her sickness and suffering, Dorothy increasingly became bitter with God who she blamed for giving her cancer or, at least, allowing the disease to attack her and to take away her health, energy and all of her dreams, too. As the cancer progressed and exerted its power over her very strong will, Dorothy passed beyond bitterness and she grew increasingly angry with God, the Church, and anything religious. Dorothy’s daughter was shocked by her mother’s attitude and we talked about it on several occasions. But, no matter what her daughter would say about the test of faith that Dorothy’s disease presented her mother, Dorothy would have nothing of what she called Susie’s “rationalizations.” Dorothy at one point said that religion was basically a crutch people used because they are afraid of dying and need the security that religion promises.
The storms and tempests confronting Dorothy as she dealt with the reality of cancer and her mortality aren’t all that different from the storms and tempests people confront day in and day out except perhaps in terms of degree. We might not be battling cancer but we may fear being laid off at work and worrying about how we will make the next mortgage payment. As kids, we might be watching from the sidelines as our parents squabble over visitation rights before a judge in a divorce court. For a teenager or young adult, the person we believed would be the love of our life may have just dumped us for some flash in the pan whose character we know to be about a shallow as a saucer. Over the years, a spouse may have turned out to be a lout and the idea of the binding nature of the sacrament of marriage seems like some sado-masochist’s cruel invention. As a little kid, our mother or father may have met a tragic end and we may suddenly find ourselves standing beside the open grave and looking down into it as the hearse brings mom’s or dad’s body for burial. Or, as a parent, we might find ourselves burying a son or daughter whose early death makes absolutely no sense.
It’s really so very easy to believe in God and to be religious when the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers of our lives are calm and placid. When the baby is born and it has ten fingers and ten toes and starts crying aloud, it’s so easy to be thankful to God. As we progress in our vocation, professional careers, and personal aspirations, giving God His due¾even if it does require a little effort and discipline on our part¾isn’t all that terribly difficult. We may even throw some chump change into the collection basket, too.
But, when the tides rise and the waves threaten to overwhelm us, it is much more difficult to believe in God and to be religious. Faced with unrelenting calamity and turmoil or dealing with an unexplainable loss, it is so very easy to cry out to God and to demand an explanation about why He is doing (or, at least, allowing) such terrible things to happen. Like Peter, we may want to believe and we may even try to believe. And yet, when we look about and see the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers of our lives churning and swirling about us and threatening to engulf us, it is much easier to avert our eyes from God and to look for someone or something else to trust. Like Peter, we begin to cast about looking for explanations because God doesn’t seem to doing what we want Him to do, in the way we want Him to do it, and according to our time schedule, we find ourselves becoming engulfed by the morass we’re sinking more deeply into. And, as we flail our arms and shout from the depths of our lungs, we only increase the ferocity of the turbulence in which we find ourselves.
Don’t make any mistake about it; the power of evil does exert its influence in our lives, seeking to get us to trust everyone and everything else but God. For some, evil offers vague promises of longevity, but only if we choose to forget that God is the Author of Life and to put our faith in doctors. For others, evil offers the vague promise of happiness if we are but willing to choose to forget that the God is the Source of Justice and to put our faith in hire lawyers who will use clever arguments and prevarications to get us out of our messes. Sadly, evil tells us to forget that God is the Rock of Salvation by convincing us that we can only trust in ourselves.
It’s a clever rouse because God does not introduce calamity into our lives to test our faith. No, evil uses calamity to inject doubt into our minds in order to allow fear to swirl and churn, all in an attempt to get people to choose to have faith in everyone and everything but in God.
Like many of us, the prophet Elijah had his share of challenges. And, as the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers of his life grew turbulent, Elijah looked for God in the dramatic and hoped for that one burst of almighty power that would prove beyond any doubt whatsoever that God was with Elijah. But, today’s first reading tells us, this is not how God works. Bombarded by the noise of Elijah’s useless anxiety and worry¾the same kind of noise we experience when the tempests and storms arise in our lives¾it was in the quiet and calm of Elijah’s life where God made Himself present. The story reminds us that God isn’t found in the bombast and awesome displays of majestic power that we desire. No, God manifests his presence in the quiet of a gentle breeze at the end of a hot day, in the rainbow following the mighty storm, and the touch of an outstretched hand of one we’ve betrayed.
After Peter failed to believe and Jesus offered his hand to Peter, Jesus questioned Peter’s lack of awareness, “O you of so little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus was not so much chastising Peter but challenging Peter to recognize that he did have faith but needed to stand firm upon it.
Most of us have faith and, perhaps, it is more like Peter’s little bit of faith. When the tides rise and the storm waves threaten to overwhelm us, we allow these hardships to distract us and we find ourselves beginning to sink. “Why is God doing this to me?” we may ask. Or, “Why is God letting this happen?” Like Dorothy, Elijah, and Peter, we desperately want God to spring forth from the heavens and provide the miracle that will take away the evil besetting us.
Two weeks ago, I participated in the funeral of the twin sister of a friend. Diane was fifty years old and the mother of two children, a son who graduated high school last year and a daughter who will be a senior this year. Ten years ago, when Diane was diagnosed with breast cancer, her husband abandoned her and his two children. Fortunately, medical science cured Diane of her cancer. Then, about three years ago, cancer appeared in Diane’s spine. Again, through medical science and the intercession of St. Padre Pio, Diane’s cancer miraculously disappeared. The doctors were completely baffled as there was no medical explanation for the cancer’s remission. Hope sprang eternal. Last fall, however, Diane was diagnosed with brain cancer. Sadly, there wasn’t much that medical science could do for Diane or her children, family members, or friends.
All of these people were tested by the churning and turbulent waters of Diane’s disease, perhaps no one more so than Diane. Throughout her years of suffering, however, Diane was a daily communicant and never appeared to waver in her love of God and neighbor. As the cancer in her brain transformed Diane into an invalid, her pastor brought her communion and one rose every day of the week. By all accounts, Diane’s disease never shook her faith in God and Divine providence, but seemed only to strengthen it. During the last few months of her suffering, hospice care provided pain medication laced with narcotics to ease Diane’s pain, but she didn’t take any. She wanted to offer up her suffering as an expiation for others. One week before she died, Diane asked that her former husband come to visit her and, during that visit, she asked him to forgive her for anything she might have done to alienate him.
Even in our desperation, God stretches out His hand to us so that¾like Elijah, Peter, Dorothy, and Diane¾we too can walk over and pass beyond the chaos that surrounds us. But, in order for us to do so, we have to choose to act upon faith¾even if it is just a little bit of faith like Peter’s¾and trust in the God who bids us in today's gospel, “Come,” and in another selection from the same gospel we heard several weeks ago, “Come to me all of you who find life burdensome…and I will give you rest.”
Does today’s homily raise any
question(s) that you would like