The Last Will Be First
Memorial of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ninth Day of the Novena in Honour of St. Anne (St. Anne’s Church, Hamilton, Ontario)

This week has been a source of tremendous inspiration. At every parish I’ve been to, we’d typically get 50 to 100 people out to a parish mission. To see so many of you here because of your faith and devotion to St. Anne has done something for me that I find difficult to articulate. And to think people still use prayers like these, found in the novena booklet—they are so rich in good theological content. But it’s your faith and devotion that has influenced me profoundly.

One of you, last night, asked me to pray for your three children, and as you were telling me something about each one of them, again, I saw the faith and love of a mother, and the thought occurred to me that God’s providence is ingenious, that when we place our children in His hands and in the hands of the Blessed Mother, the way God chooses to bring about and achieve our prayer is always so ingenious, and this made me recall a story with my own mother. It was from her that I first heard the famous prayer for the single girl: “St. Anne, St. Anne. Send me a man,...and any old man won’t do. St. Anne, St. Anne, as fast as you can! and one with a special devotion to you! Amen.”

My mother’s grandfather, my great grandfather, when he was only 15 years old hopped a train from New Jersey to New York City and got a job as a stenographer in a lawyer’s office. He eventually made his way up to being the Vice President of the New York telephone company, which is now AT&T New York. I can assure you, none of that money ever made its way down to me or my brothers and sisters. Not a penny.

When he died, his son, my grandfather, left Princeton, moved to the South of France, and just threw parties for his friends, the likes of which included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Eugene Hemingway, William Somerset Maugham, and his close friend Eugene O’Neill.

He and my grandmother had three girls: my two aunts, and my mother, the youngest. And because my grandparents had money, they travelled, and when each girl reached the age of four, they would be put in a boarding school wherever they were in their travels. So one of my aunts was in a boarding school in England, another in France, and my mother in Quebec City, with the Grey nuns.

So my mother never knew her sisters growing up. She had a lot of anger towards her own mother, my grandmother, for abandoning her throughout her childhood, and we saw this as kids. We didn’t think much of it, it was entertaining to hear her say things under her breath. But it was only much later on that I began to reflect upon it.

Of course that anger had everything to do with her eventual drinking problem. But she was a member of AA and was twenty years sober when she died. But it was one night in the mid 90s while out on the Danforth in Toronto that my mother said something that gave me pause. At the time I was reading the writings of two Catholic psychologists, Dr. Robert Enright and Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, on the psychology of forgiveness, and we got talking about the Grey nuns, my mother was telling me how joyless they were, how difficult it was being brought up by them, with very little kindness. So I said to her: “Well, are you willing to release them from Purgatory by forgiving them?” I don’t know what gave me that idea, but my mother said: “Oh sure, they can go on ahead...” and then she stopped: “Well no, why should I forgive them? Why should I?”

That surprised me. We moved on to other topics, but I kept that filed in the back of my mind for a later time. A few years later my mother broke her hip; she spent a lot of time in the hospital trying to recover. It was during the March Break 2001 that she had six seizures one night, and she was no longer conscious. We had her anointed, and we thought that was the end. I continued to visit and continued to read to her, even thought she was unconscious, and that went on for a week or so. One day I arrived and she was gone. I thought she’d died, but they only moved her to another floor. So when I walked into the new room, you can imagine my surprise when I saw her sitting up in bed talking to another lady. She had recovered from the seizures, but something was different; she thought I was my deceased brother, and she couldn’t remember one day to the next. She had a severe case of dementia. God is so good, because that turned out to be one of her greatest blessings.

I eventually had her moved to a nursing home only a few minutes from my house, and I remember the first day I went to see her after school. I put her in a wheel chair and moved to a nice big window. She tells me: “A priest was here this morning to say Mass. He spoke of forgiveness”.

At that very moment, I recalled a photo I’d seen of my mother as a four year old, in a little black tunic, being sent off to boarding school in Quebec, while her mother goes off home to New York City, which was where she was then living. So I said to my mother: “Forgiveness? Let me ask you something. If there is one person in your life that you need to forgive, who would it be?” She thought about it. I said: “Maybe your mother?” She said “Yes, yes, my mother”.

So I said: “Let’s play a game. Close your eyes”. She closed her eyes. “Imagine your mother. Now say to her: I forgive you”.

She paused, sat up in her wheel chair and said: “Nope. I don’t think so”.

I was astounded. I had no idea how deeply ingrained was that resentment. I thought: “Of course, she was abandoned as a child, she grew up with abandonment issues. It’s not as easy as all that”. But I knew what my work was for the summer, and her dementia was just what I needed to succeed.

So I returned the next day, put her in her wheel chair, moved to the big window again, and she didn’t remember anything of what happened the day before. So I said to her: “I hear a priest came in yesterday and said Mass.” “Oh really”, she said. “That’s what you told me. And you said he spoke of forgiveness”. “Isn’t that nice?” “Well let me ask you, mom. If there was one person in your life that you need to forgive, who would it be?” This time she didn’t hesitate. “Oh, I’d have to say my mother”. “Your mother? Hey, let’s play a game. Close your eyes. Imagine your mother. “She’s right there,” she said. “Tell your mother how angry you are for having abandoned you in that boarding school, and having to grow up without knowing your sisters.” And she did. She really did. I thought to myself: “What have I gotten myself into?” After a while I brought her back, but I was able to continue that the next day, and the days following, all because of her dementia. There’s no way I would have been able to get away with that had she not had that degree of dementia.

That period was made up with truly graced moments; for eventually she was able to say what she could not say earlier: “Mom, I forgive you.” And after she said that, I knew that her work was done, that there was no reason for her to stay, and a week later she began having seizures, was hospitalized, and she died that September, and was buried September 11th, 2001, the morning the Twin Towers were falling. The Lord did not allow my mother to die without forgiving her mother.

The genius of divine providence. God is so good, and He has the power and the love to orchestrate history to achieve the prayers we offer Him for our loved ones in ways that are beyond the scope of our own imagination.

I mentioned a few day ago that I came down with a serious illness over the Christmas holidays that doctors thought might be polymyalgia rheumatica. It turned out not to be, but I do recall being very frightened, thinking to myself: “Am I going to be able to live with this suffering? I don’t think I’m going to be able to endure this.” And I became very frightened. I thought: “I’m going to have to live one moment at a time, not one day at a time, but moment by moment”.

That illness certainly provided me with a much deeper understanding of what some of my patients go through every day in their moment by moment battle with depression. But yesterday night, one of you here introduced me to your mother and told me she has polymyalsia rheumatic and is on prednisone, and with a joyful demeanour and in a thick Italian accent, she says to me: “I getta to Church every day, every day, I getta to Mass in the Church”. The faith! The joy!

It’s amazing who it is we have among us—we clergy often have no idea. I bet Father Joe doesn’t realize that one of my former patients was giving me a weekly report on him. She was one of my favorite patients to visit, and she had such a hunger for the Eucharist. She’d call down a few times a day every Monday asking: “When is Deacon Doug coming?” All she wanted was the body of Christ. And when I was just about to give it to her, she’d take out her false teeth, put them right on the table in front of me, take communion, then put those teeth back in her mouth. After the final prayer she’d give me a couple of minutes. “So how are you doing?” “Good, and you?” “Good. Did you go back home for the weekend?” “Yes”. “Did you get to Mass?” “Yes, I did”. “How’s Father Joe?”. “Oh, he’s good”. And then she’d get up and say: “See you next week”.

All she wanted was Christ. She didn’t want me; just the body of Christ.

We just don’t know the souls we have among us. This year I was visiting a lady who suffers from schizophrenia. She was one of the first clients I visited when I was first ordained a Deacon, she was soon discharged, but she had to be hospitalized again, and she was not in good shape. I was happy to see her again and I came to give her a new prayer card that I wrote for those with bi-polar. Well, this lady loves prayer cards, prayer books, rosaries, etc., and she is a very good soul, a prayerful soul. One day she begins telling me—as well as two others who were at the table with us—what she experiences when she begins praying the rosary. Now I’ve been studying the great Spanish mystics for about 30 years and I know what infused contemplation is, I understand it well when it is being described, and I know how it differs from the ordinary peace experienced in mental prayer, and above all how it differs from acquired contemplation. What this lady was describing was a very profound, supernatural and infused contemplation, a profound joy, a glorious peace that is absolutely impossible for us to procure on our own efforts. As I am listening to her, I was astounded at the words she struggled to find to describe her experiences, and I was struck by her demeanour as she was searching for the words. She had no idea how rare was her experience. And I said to her: “Do you know how rare that experience is? You have something that most priests I know do not achieve. What you have just described to me is a gift that is so great that it surpasses in value a life of wealth, health and leisure.” She just smiled at me, saying “Oh, really?” I couldn’t get her to see how extraordinarily rare this gift is, which she says she experiences quite often in the midst of prayer. And for her, Mass is a profoundly delightful experience.

Why does this lady with schizophrenia get to experience this? And why do so few of us ever achieve such heights of contemplation? It’s not hard to explain.

This is a lady who has nothing. She cannot delight in herself, in her accomplishments—she has none, or none that she has made me aware of. She is profoundly sick and utterly dependent upon the care of others. She is completely and utterly poor, both materially and spiritually. And she prays, she turns to God, and to the Blessed Mother, and she prays without pretension or self-consciousness, she just prays like a child; she has the heart of a child. And that’s precisely the purpose of the ascetic stage of the spiritual life, to dispose ourselves properly for the gift of infused contemplation, by becoming what we are: nothing, utterly poor and dependent, like frail children. And so, of course the Lord will allow her to drink of the life giving water—she’s ready. She’s there.

What’s your pleasure? I ask that question because you always get what you want in the end. Why don’t more people drink from the fountain of living water? Because they have another pleasure. Perhaps it is in their accomplishments, perhaps they delight in being the center of attention, in being recognized, acknowledged, in being “in the know”, or in delicious meals, warm weather and the exhilaration of traveling from one country to another, etc. They are too full. They are not empty. So they don’t seek that living water. But one lady I know can’t help but taste her lack, her emptiness, and the result is that if I were asked to point to one person in the metropolitan Toronto area who I am relatively certain has experienced the profound and indescribable mystical peace that the world cannot give, I would not point to a professor, theologian, or any member of the clergy, but to a humble lady locked up in the schizophrenic unit of a hospital. The last will be first, and the first will be last. Amen.

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