The calendar next to her bed contained the picture of a man falling from a plane clutching a parachute in one hand and a closed bible in the other. The caption read, “The human mind and a parachute are only helpful when they are open.” Following the month, the day of the week and the date was the phrase: “Do you want to change something in your life?” I thought for a moment and, if my parachute failed to open, I would want to change my shorts!
I had to lean close to the bed to hear her. The hoarseness of her voice was due to esophageal cancer and the consequent radiation treatments. She was only 53 years old and had been a very heavy cigarette smoker. Samantha was an optimistic person who still took refuge in hope and the promise of medical miracles. She was in bed one. We talked for a while and at one point she asked if I would pray with her. She said, “I always found your voice soothing and comforting when you prayed. Would you mind saying the First Joyful Mystery of the rosary?” As I recited the mystery of the Annunciation I keep imaging Mary trying to comprehend the changes taking place in her life, the uncertainty of what God was asking of her. Samantha morphed into Mary.
“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women and blessed
Is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners
Now and at the hour of our death.”
The tears in her eyes refracted the light in the room and seemed to sparkle with magical intensity when she emphatically responded “Amen!” Sitting up in bed and speaking in a raspy voice she said, I am finding it easier to say, “Let it be done unto me according to God’s Will.”
As I was preparing to leave the room, I heard a kind of growling sound, but very clearly someone calling me by name. “Father Gillespie, Fr. Gillespie.” When I looked behind the curtain, a woman was motioning to me and said, “I recognized your voice. Would you mind talking with me?” I vaguely remembered her, a former parishioner, who was now in the hospital dealing with lung cancer and related throat problems. As it turned out, Gloria had never smoked a cigarette in her life. Looking up at me with tears in her eyes she said, “Go figure!” Pulling the curtain aside, I sat in a chair between the hospital beds of these two extraordinary women, listening to their pain and rediscovering their will to live. Both were professional women who were married, had children and young grandchildren. The “Big C” had redefined their lives in traumatic ways and invited both of them, like Mary at the Annunciation, to find the courage to say, “Yes” to an uncertain life.
Gloria mentioned that when I came into the room, she immediately knew my voice. For years she had been a member of the Basilica of St. Mary and had heard me preach. She reminded me of the story when I was standing in line at Kieran’s Irish pub and talking with friends, a man turned around and said, “I know your voice. You are at the Guthrie Theater.” I said, “No, I was at the Basilica of St. Mary.” He said, “Well, one stage or another.” Regardless of what stage, the complementary Guinness flowed freely that evening.
Voice recognition was important for both Samantha and Gloria and the compromise of their voices was a clear threat to their identity. Barely audible, both Samantha and Gloria wanted to be heard and know that their voices would be remembered. It didn’t matter what “stage” they would be on or what stage of cancer they were at, but it clearly did matter that family and friends would remember their distinct voices. Long hours of therapy and voice training lay ahead for both. Before leaving, Gloria asked if I would recite a poem I had used in a homily, the one about “nobody beautiful ever hurries.” Begging liberties from the poet e.e. cummings, I remembered listening to a recording of his words and memorizing his unusual message of hope:
“Why do the fingers of the little once beautiful lady
sitting sewing at an open window this fine morning fly
instead of dancing? Are they possibly afraid that life is running away from them, I wonder, or isn’t she aware that life, who never grows old, is always beautiful and nobody beautiful ever hurries.”
Searching for a familiar voice is at the heart of our gospel reading for The Fourth Sunday of Easter. Jesus, borrowing from the words of the prophet Ezekiel (34:1-31) warns the Pharisees that he is the “good shepherd” and that he is seeking his sheep who will know his voice. The metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep becomes a prophetic image for Jesus and is used repeatedly in the gospel accounts. In today’s gospel (John 10:1-10), Jesus quite literally presents himself as the shepherd who leads as well as the “sheep gate” through which the sheep must pass in order to be safe (saved for the Kingdom). “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he brought out all his own, he goes a ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” Jesus was quite emphatic in helping his followers understand that he is, not only the voice they must follow, but also the gate they must pass through to enter the Kingdom. “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Summarizing the difference between a good and bad shepherd, Jesus said, “The thief (bad shepherd) comes only to steal, kill and destroy. I (the good shepherd) come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
This wonderful tag line, “I have come that they (we) may have life, and have it more abundantly” becomes the basis of hope in a world saturated in competing cultures of injustice, violence and death. Despite the enormous pain and suffering of the Corona Virus and the consequent disorientation of our lives, we must come to remember the compassionate voice of Jesus whose teachings are filled with courage, love, forgiveness and hope. The fragility of our world is understood in the indifference of a devastating earthquake, hurricane, tornado, malignant tumor or the perniciousness of the Corona Virus. Searching for a “voice of reason” that pursues life rather than death demands a genuine gift of discernment and perseverance.
Transcending the need to blame one another might short circuit the need to seek revenge. However, while the root causes of evil remain complex and mysterious, we must foster the desire to seek solutions to eradicate war, cancer or unsafe environmental practices and rogue viruses. Searching for invitations “to enjoy life, and have it more abundantly,” demands an adherence to the voice of reason, A little child once asked his mother what the word Bible meant. Thinking for a few moments she replied: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. As we try to listen for Jesus’ basic instructions amid the cacophony of competing voices in a very fragile world, maybe it would be a good idea to open our Bibles and our minds to imagine Jesus as a good shepherd who will lead his sheep through the valley of death. Indeed, comforting lines of Psalm 23 might prove to be the mantra in our time of need:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me besides still waters: he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. for you are with me.”
If we are to float safely to earth with an open parachute, our minds might be open to the Bible, as well. If we are able to let go and let God designate the correct landing zone, hopefully the place will be marked by peace and acceptance. In the bewilderment of an inscrutable pandemic seeking to overwhelm us, we, like Mary, must rediscover the grace of God and remember there is no need to hurry, because “Nobody beautiful ever hurries.”
Peace, Fr. Joe Gillespie, O.P.