Yes, at this reborn Catholic parish, we celebrated an Advent Penance Service that suggested a penance that helps a person live in the spirit of Christmas. One creative idea was to visit a friend during this time of year.
For my penance, I was overdue to visit my 90-year-old spiritual advisor. He lives at an assisted living facility in Brockport but I learned that he was transferred to a hospital in Rochester. I walked into his hospital room and he was sleeping. I softly whispered his name and he immediately woke up and said: “My prayers have been answered.” He had prayed to God that I would come and spoke these words: “For the first time in my life, I’m scared.” He shared that he was in so much pain that you could not touch him. He came to emergency and thankfully the doctors reviewed his symptoms and started a treatment that relieved his pain. He said he was relieved but it was time to make his funeral plans. I said: “what am I the ‘angel of death, to which he scolded at me and said “no such thing.” Rather, he humbly shared that there have been times when he wondered if God heard his prayers. It seemed my presence, (my penance) reassured him that God listens to us when we feel down or worse like nobody understand what we are going through.
Now my spiritual advisor is not a monk or religious theologian, but a retired college professor respected by colleagues and hundreds of students for his wise counsel and deep faith. He wants a simple funeral but knew that his friends would be angry if he did not have a Catholic Mass in the downtown church. But, after this service he would instruct the funeral director to plan the “real ceremony.” At this private service, he would invite his twelve best friends to come to Hill Haven Funeral Chapel and request that I lead a service of joy and gratitude to God for his wonderful life. His plan included a luncheon where two extra chairs would be set up for his mother and father in gratitude for their gift of faith. He swore that once out of the hospital he would contact the funeral director and put it in writing.
His life was teaching young adults about the physical sciences and helping each student reach their potential. Sometimes, he had to motivate a few students who were slacking off or making excuses. He guided each apprentice to not just pass the course, but go on in life to find a vocation that would make this a better world. He would challenge his students to be their best because like Our Lord he always saw the good in each student. He prayed for his students and asked God to instill them with gifts of charity and justice, compassion and respect for all God’s creatures. Besides his knowledge of the physical sciences, he mastered the gift of faith and taught by his life never to give up on ourselves. At his funeral, he wanted the hymn “How Great Thou Art “ to be sung not like some funeral dirge, slow and somber, but rather with enthusiasm and gratitude for all the wonderful things God had blessed him in this life and in the world to come. I am truly blessed to have this kind and humble soul to be my spiritual mentor.
At the Christmas Eve Mass, I shared this “angel story” and ended the homily with a quote from a Christmas Carol movie produced in 1988 that featured actor Bill Murray and is perhaps the version we need most this year in 2017. At the end of the movie Bill Murray offered these lines:
“I get it now! Then if you give, then it can happen, then the miracle can happen to you! It’s not just the poor and the hungry, it’s everybody’s who’s GOT to have this miracle! And it can happen tonight for all of you. If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these nasty people who say ‘Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud’, it’s NOT! It can happen every day, you’ve just got to want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it! You’ll want it every day of your life and it can happen to you. I believe in it now! I believe it’s going to happen to me now! I’m ready for it! And it’s great! It’s a good feeling, it’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time. I, I, I’m ready.” My spiritual mentor has had this feeling for 90 years and feels blessed by Our Lord. Everyone who has had contact with this teacher feels the same way.
Lord, I pray for all my Sonshine Friends this Christmas that the most important gift that we receive this year comes from our hearts filled with love and gratitude for our family, friends and faith community.