Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Vigil

It was after they changed him from home care to hospice that we got serious about the business of waiting. Of course, we had been waiting for eight years, since the first time the word "cancer" hung in the air during tense conversation.

For the last few months, he spent less time in the front room when we gathered. In the last few weeks, he came out mostly for his meal and retreated quickly again, and so we ate on the back porch with the French doors to the bedroom open.

We had planned an evening to have the grand kids in the back yard playing so he could see them one last time. He wasn't able to get out of bed anymore, so we each took our turns talking to him, telling him how much he meant to us, making sure we didn't leave anything unsaid. I told him I would bring communion to him in the mornings.

"You know, you will get to meet someone there we've never met ourselves. You'll get to meet our unborn child."

His face changed and lightened, and he smiled.

I brought communion each morning, except for Sunday since I had a long day of service at our parish. I sprinkled him with holy water, blessed him and my brother, and offered whatever I could to my mother. Tim sat with him for long hours, just as he had done for my grandmother and Uncle Bob when they had passed.

By the middle of the next week, he became less communicative, less engaged. He could still respond, but he was letting everything go. The caregiver told Mom that he was waiting for someone—waiting to be told that it was okay to go, waiting to see someone for the last time—waiting... for something.

On Thursday before noon, they called and said, "It looks like it's getting close." I called my daughter and her mother, and everyone began to gather to wait with him. He could still respond to us, but spoke very little. He had started morphine that day, and there was a moment when there was no one who could respond to his request for more relief. While we waited, I began to pray the evening hour from my iPhone. The pain agitated him, and he didn't seem welcome the noise. I chanted the Our Father, and that seemed to calm him. I resolved to talk less and chant more.

Finally we were able to get his medication, and he relaxed a bit. I called my daughter's brother in Brazil by Skype and carried the laptop into the room so he could say goodbye. We told him we loved him, that we would take care of each other, of Mom, of her sister, and that he could go when he was ready. I asked if he would like Fr. -- to come and bring him viaticum, and he nodded.

That was the last lucid moment that I had with him.

We continued to gather in the evenings, but after the last anointing, he began to let go. The nurse gave him days. He fell deeper into sleep. His breathing became very regular, and it gradually began to slow. Tim sat by his bed and waited. Mom stood at the foot of his bed and held his feet, or she kissed him and caressed his head. I sat and prayed.

Our Father who art in heaven...

O salutaris hostia...

Pangue lingua generosi...

On Sunday, Father's Day, we gathered again, aware that this would be his last and wanting just to celebrate fatherhood. His favorite meal was prepared, and we milled about and chatted as usual. As everyone sat outside, I went to sit and pray the evening hour. And I went to give him one last song.

During the Easter Vigil this year, my first as a deacon, I was given the gift to sing the Exultet. Doc was not able to attend these long services anymore, and we mistakenly believed that it would be carried on the local Catholic radio station. He had not heard me that night. He would hear me this night.

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of Heaven. Let angel ministers of God exult. Let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud the mighty King's triumph...

I told him that he'd soon hear the best choir ever and that he shouldn't keep them waiting.

We said grace that night and thanked God for the gift of each other and even the gift of grief that we shared. When we parted, I think we all knew it was the last night.

He passed the next morning at 6:00 AM.

The grace of these last few days is that all of us came and did what we knew how to do for each other. Tim was present, which is a greatly undervalued gift. My mom lavished affection on my dad. My brother Pat cooked and fed us. I offered what I could through music and prayer. Everyone offered something up.

I know I will miss my father, but right now what stays with me is the grace of family and of a good death. I told my daughter this, in part to console her, but in part simply to verbalize my own desire for a good death: with family at my side, with the sacraments, with prayer, and with the knowledge that this end is not the end. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dr. John B. Burns (USAF Retired): Jan. 7, 1936–June 16, 2014

My father passed away this morning after eight years of fighting cancer. He was a physician in the USAF for 20 years, a pediatrician for much of that time. When he retired (a Lt. Col. by choice, having turned down several promotions), he went into residency at USC in Columbia, SC for psychiatry and child psychiatry. He was also very active in Boy Scouts for 45 years, and sponsored a chancel choir at our cathedral and another local parish.

Here is a photo of us at my brother's wedding two years ago.

The wedding was held at the Mountain Magnolia Inn in Hot Springs, NC. Naturally, at the end of May, the bugs were out in force. My father had a remedy, though: Bounce dryer sheets. He would tuck one into his shirt pocket and another in the collar of his shirt behind his neck. He went bug free all weekend and went around the wedding rehearsal and reception singing the praises of Bounce.

I wrote a poem a few years ago as a Fathers' Day tribute, I think. It's not very good, but it had sentimental value to my father... a lot like the belt I made for him. Here's is the belt I made in 7th grade. He gave it back to me around Christmas time this year.

When I was working on my MA in theology and finishing diaconal formation, I prayed on a number of occasions that he be able to see me finish both of those goals. I had hoped he'd be around to see me finish a doctorate, but I am happy that he at least saw his son ordained.

Enjoy those heavenly choirs, Dad. You have earned a seat in front.


I apologize to anyone who perhaps doesn't quite get my family's sensibilities or sense of humor. The funeral home that is handling the arrangements usually drapes the bodies of veterans as they remove them from the homes. Unfortunately, the last person who took out the van forgot to restock the van with flags, so we looked around to find a suitable flag. Dad had a couple around, but the first one we found in his closet was a Betsy Ross flag. We didn't notice until we started to unfold it that it only had 13 stars. The only other flag had been used at summer camps over the years and had water stains and rust marks. So the Betsy Ross flag won out. Before the attendants removed my father from the house, I stepped out side where my sister-in-law Emily waited, and I told her that they had draped my father with a flag from his childhood.

In actuality, it was more like a flag from my childhood. I have always been a colonial history buff. Perhaps my father intended it this way because he was aware that I would be helping with the final arrangements. In any case, he went out draped in a revolution-era flag.

Update 2:

My father's obituary and tribute wall.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Fire of the Spirit—Pentecost (Cycle A)

Acts 2:1–11; 1 Cor. 12: 3b–7, 12–13; John 20:19–23

The feast of Pentecost commemorates, for Christians, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, the Paraclete who would remind the Apostles of all that Jesus taught them. However, this festival, like Passover, was originally a Jewish festival that was transformed as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Jewish festival is called Shavuot and for them, it commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
We have so much in our faith that derives directly from the Jewish liturgies. We refer to the Eucharist as the “pascal” celebration because of its relation to the Pascha or Passion of Christ, which happened during the Passover of the Jews. We celebrate the day when the Spirit came and breathed life into the lungs of the Church, much like God breathing life into the A’Dam, the man Adam, whom He made from clay. Our faith and liturgy and all that we read about in scripture reverberates with the tones of Judaism.
            This point was brought home to me a few years ago when I was traveling to the Holy Land on business during the time of this same celebration. I was invited to a colleague’s home for the Shabbat evening meal. I was honored to be asked to join them, and I was struck by both the joy and solemnity with which they shared this weekly meal. But here is what really opened my eyes.
            As we began the meal, my colleague’s husband held up a glass of wine, and he said the following:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam borei p'ri hagafen.
And this means
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who creates the fruit of the vine.
And then he lifted a plate with two loaves of challah bread, and then he said,
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz.
Which means
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Now, why is this at all relevant to what we do here today? Some of you may already recognize the language here—that what the father of this family was saying is so very similar to what our priests say when they begin the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Blessed be the Lord, God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this bread we offer you.
So that meal really drove home to me the kinship we Catholics have with Jews. On that same trip, two days later, I was blessed to pray the Divine Office in the Cenacle, which is the upper room we hear mentioned in both Acts and Matthew today. I had visited the Cenacle in my previous trips to the Holy Land, but there was truly something blessed about that visit, as it occurred on the feast of Pentecost some 1976 years after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and the birth of our Church.
            This feast is about the life-giving spirit, the Holy Spirit, and His presence in our Church—in the clergy and in the people who have professed our Catholic faith since that day in the upper room. Prior to Christ’s presence here on earth, the Jews had the Law, which they memorized and struggled with from the time of Moses on. The Pagans, well, they had a pantheon of capricious, petty deities who seemed to be more like a cast from a soap opera or reality TV show. Fortunately, they also had reason, and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle pointed them to the One, the Logos—something that sounded very much like the God of the Jews. The Truth was there, but it was veiled. The Jews did the best with what they had, but as St. Paul noted, the Law was too hard to follow. They needed something more. They needed the Law to be written on their hearts, and they needed a savior.
            Likewise, the Spirit was also veiled but there from the beginning. In Genesis 1, the Spirit of the Lord moves across the water. The word for spirit in the Hebrew version of that book is ru’ah, which means breath. In Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of the man he has made. So God brings Adam to life by breathing it into him. In the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on the Apostles and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit, and that word “spirit” derives from the word inspirare, to breathe. And in the Cenacle, the Upper Room, there is the sound of a rushing wind with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that writes the truth on the hearts of the Apostles and gives the gospel life. And with the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles speak in the tongues of many nations.
            So Jesus is the fullness of revelation, and the Holy Spirit imbues the Apostles with this fullness of revelation so that they can teach the truth with fidelity. And they did! They passed down the teachings they heard from Jesus in their words and liturgy, which is what we call Sacred Tradition. They collected letters and wrote down eyewitness accounts of Jesus that we call gospels and together call the New Testament, and they continued to check and balance all that the Church taught through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We call this last element the Magisterium. It is the teaching office of the Church, established by Christ but confirmed by the Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost. This Magisterium is with us today, still guided by the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Father and the college of bishops gathered from around the world. We can see the spirit when we see our bishops and priests continue to stand for the moral teachings of the Church; when the Church carries out its ministry to the poor, persecuted, and imprisoned; when we celebrate this ancient liturgy whether it is done in Latin, Greek, Aramaic, or English; and when we go out into the world and proclaim the Truth.
Notice that the Holy Spirit descends and the Apostles are given the ability to speak to the world. The breath goes in, and then the breath comes out transmitting the Word. That is how speech works, and it is so perfectly exemplified in Acts. The Holy Spirit descends and the Apostles begin to preach.
            So this same spirit that teaches the Apostles, that inspired Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, guides the Magisterium of the Church today and is still present and active. It still dwells and stirs in our Church.
            The question I have for you is whether it stirs enough. If you follow the news, either religious or secular, you’ve probably heard all about the Holy Father’s encouragement that we evangelize—that we go out and share the good news. Now, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a new teaching. Francis isn’t telling us something new, but he’s reminding us of the Church’s central mission. Pope Benedict said the same thing, and Pope St. John Paul II even coined the term the New Evangelization. The mission of the Church is to evangelize—to speak the good news to the world. The Holy Spirit has given us the breath—the medium to use. Now we just have to open our mouths and flap our lips and tell the world why we are Catholics, why Jesus came, and why it matters. That sounds so simple!
            But it’s not. Our culture cuts us off in this conversation. It tells us that we’re superstitious, old fashioned, oppressive. None of that is true. If you dig into science, you find the Catholic Church. If you dig into philosophy, you find the Catholic Church. If you dig into social justice—in Poland, in South America, in Africa, in Syria, and all over the world–you find the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit is still here moving among us. We need to open our mouths and our hearts and preach the truth. We need to tell the world our story, because it’s the story of a tiny oppressed people, the People of Israel, who gave birth to the savior of the world; a story of a remnant of them who chose to follow an obscure rabbi from a backwater in Galilee despite the rather monumental setback of His death; a story of the remnant who saw Him again after he rose from the dead; a remnant that cowered in the Cenacle, the upper room, until the Holy Spirit breathed fire, life, and spinal fortitude into them so that they could go out and preach the truth. That is why the Holy Spirit came to us on this day 1976 years ago—that we would go out to all the world and tell the truth.

            At the end of every Eucharistic liturgy, the deacons send you out with the command of this mission. Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your lives. On this Pentecost, I impress upon you the need of the gospel in the world. I implore you to have courage. And I send you out to make fishers of men, to preach the good news to the world, and to glorify the Lord with your lives.
For further reading:

·         The Lamb’s Supper by Dr. Scott Hahn
·         Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Dr. Brant Pitre

Sunday, June 01, 2014

For a Lulabell

Photo courtesy of Starry Night Media.

You wouldn't know to look at her
that death awaited at her door
her toothy sometimes toothless gaze
and giggly girly gushing love
grace that she poured on all of us.

Oh sprightly eyes and purple locks
your impish grin, your mismatched socks
so draw us to the mystery
of you, which is to all of us,
that gap between what is and seems.

No angel but with angels dwells
the Lulabell I’ll never see
but Heaven sent and Heaven claimed
your soul a flit, a flight, a fling
that traipses through our sweetest dream.