Original painting and digital imaging, H.J. McEnroe

Author’s note:  This is the third of a three-part series on the intersection of mortality and faith.
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed…
…I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

          -T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Recently, a dear friend who lost her husband to brain cancer asked me to join a quartet to sing for his funeral mass.  Standing there, blending our voices in communion song, I glanced up to find my friend turning to her right, Eucharistic Host perched upon her tongue.  Bravely pushing on in a slow, measured gait, she wavered slightly…as if hearing the Footman snicker.  Fiercely squelching tears, she returned to the front pew, between family members – measured, precise…utterly alone, so I thought. 
Her beloved husband of twenty-eight years had been taken swiftly in the middle of a frenzied night in hospital.  Admitted just hours before, and undergoing tests, he fell into full seizure, and never recovered consciousness.  The top of his brain was nearly covered in deadly glioblastoma…and he never knew.  But did he occasionally hear the snicker?

Mortality, sinking jagged teeth into our fragile egos, tears a ravenous bite…each time whispering, “memento mori.”  In my case, several bites have caused me to hear the eternal footman snicker.  And I know:  it will return.
Ours is a species that fears death.  Part of what it means to be a sentient being is self-awareness.  With that awareness, we watch our bodies take shape and blossom; we grow aware by degrees of frailties and failings as we age.  With trepidation, we fear and face our declining years fumbling for words to comfort one another in profound loss, as I have struggled to express comforting words for my friend.  Perhaps that’s because we know our words are, at best, cold comfort when the void left by a loved one’s departure is the most palpable thing we can feel.
All we can do is hope to see them again…unless we embrace faith.  Ah, that murkiest of ethereal sensations brushing against us, raising the hair on the back of our necks when unexplained events transform our dark sarcasm into a breathless gasp of possibility…like the moment that Thomas placed his fingers in Christ’s wounds.  If you’re reading this, you likely know what I’m talking about.  Its one thing to profess belief in an afterlife; quite another to feel it…like a whorl of electric energy, moving through us, connecting us with our spirits, the spirits of our loved ones…with our God.
I suppose, at this point, it’s only fair to mention that my friend and I share at least two things in common:

  1. love of choral music
  2. belief in angels

Angels – you know, those mystical messengers from God?  Such messengers, cited at various times throughout the Judeo-Christian bible, are a common faith tradition of Christians and Muslims.  Why do I mention this…?  Perhaps because it’s important to me that you understand why I have chosen to believe in them…these messengers who attended Christ in the desert; they, who greeted the Israelite, Jacob, within his dream, ascending and descending upon his ladder; they, who declared to His disciples the reality-altering truth of Jesus’ resurrection, and its impact upon our human lives.
So, let me tell you something true…an event that supports Blaise Pascal’s statement that “we ultimately choose what we believe, not based on logic, but our own desires.”  It’s a story involving one of those painful bites that mortality took from me…
Early March, 2005.  At 11:55 p.m. on a Saturday night, I found myself lying on a bed in an operating room amidst preparations for emergency surgery to repair damage from gall bladder removal surgery three days earlier.  I was bleeding to death, internally, but the surgeon didn’t yet know that.  The surgical team he’d assembled scurried about finishing preparations – surgical tools in place, gauze and bandages, anesthesia, etcetera – all were ready to go.  The chief of surgery suddenly called the team (all six, by my count) to retreat momentarily – said he wanted to see them for a moment outside. 
Alone in the silence of an operating room, in a chill reminiscent of a meat locker, I watched the clock tick incessantly toward midnight – earnestly wondering if I would leave the hospital alive.  Suddenly, I heard the OR doors open.  Moments later, someone dressed in the typical garb of a surgical nurse leaned forward, her head directly over mine, wearing a surgical mask and cap.  In a liquid voice, she asked, “How are you feeling?” 
            “Worried,” I replied, “but I suppose that never helps…?”
Without a word, she brought her hands to my head, gently rubbing my temples for approximately 15 seconds.  Then, she leaned closer.
            “You’re going to be all right now,” she whispered, “…you needn’t worry.”  (That voice still resonates in my head.)
Without another word, she touched my shoulder, turned and exited the operating room…as quietly as she’d entered.  Immediately, the entire surgical team re-entered, frenetically commencing their pre-op tasks.  I scanned the group for the nurse who’d just laid her hands on me, but couldn’t find her.  So, I asked the team,
            “Which of you was just in here talking with me…?”
They all looked at one another, obviously puzzled.  One of them asked,
            “Somebody was in here…?”
            “Yes!” I explained, “didn’t you see her leaving?  She must have bumped into you on her way out!?  She was wearing royal blue.”
Without a word, all six stared at one another in knowing glances.  It was clear they thought I must be hallucinating.  They set about their tasks; seconds later, the propofol took me under… I awoke, I could hear the surgeon discussing with my wife the extent of damage they’d found and repaired:   liver lacerated, artery slashed and bleeding, a spaghetti patchwork of poison sprayed across my abdomen.
The following day, I went home at 2:00 p.m.  Excruciating pain, overwhelming sensation of dying and bloating from internal damage, all gone…as if it had never happened.
There are angels among us, though not all are winged messengers.  They come in all sizes, in various shapes and colors of the human spirit.  Some live on streets; others occupy homeless shelters, classrooms, construction sites, prisons, graveyards, hospitals…and our own homes.  Anywhere we encounter suffering and despair, look for them.  They place arms around us, embrace us in our sorrows, and tend to our wounds…to our brokenness.  If you give them a chance, they may just impart to you a nugget of wisdom from our Heavenly Father – a kind word, a gesture of pure love, a prayer for your safety.  And some, doubtless, occupy a Heavenly realm, only appearing when we most need them, or are ready to return home.  They are not to be feared; rather, rejoice in why they’ve come:  to straighten your path…or to lead you home.
Re-thinking that day, my friend’s plight from a slightly different angle, I now see anew…
Turning to her right, Christ’s body and blood filling her senses, my friend bravely pushed on in slow, measured steps, pausing briefly…as if hearing the angel who supported her wobbly gait, whispering, “Fear not -- he is soon with God…and you will be with him again.”  Fiercely squelching tears, she resumed her place in the front pew, between family members – measured, precise…knowing she would never be alone.  Somewhere within the Heavenly ascent, her husband began to awaken…to an angel smiling upon him.
“Faith is to believe what you do not see.  The reward of that faith is to see what we believe.
                                 -Saint Augustine

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