Madonna House

Farewell from Fr. Pat

by Fr. Pat McNulty

Fr. Pat, who is in the final stages of leukemia, has been writing his popular column,“Word Made Flesh,” since the July-August 1999 issue of Restoration.

In this, his farewell article to you, his much-loved readers—and I do mean much-loved—he reveals the identity of the person with whom he has been dialoguing. Among other things. Of course.

Man, I thought you were gone, gone, gone. My unemployment insurance has just about run out and I was seriously out in the mob lookin’ for a new job.

Well, I thought I was “gone” too, at least twice in the last few months and then once again I was well on the way to gone.

These “Lazarus come forth” affairs are getting to be a little embarrassing: one day I’m in the tomb and next thing you know I’m out here with Martha and Mary celebrating my 84th birthday with lots of ice cream and cake! Before long nobody is gonna believe me one way or the other.

So are we back to “normal”? I mean, have I lost my job or what?

Well, in fact, Fr. Denis Lemieux has rescued my old column, “Word Made Flesh” inRestoration, and it is time for me to officially let go.

But to all my faithful readers I say, “Don’t worry, Fr. Denis is much more capable than I am.” P.S., but he’s not as clever. Well, actually he is, but don’t tell him that!

Yet I do want to bid a sort of farewell to the many friends I have made over the years via Restoration.

So you’re saying that I do have to find a new job.

Not really, because since you are my “alter ego” I guess you have to journey to the same Altar where I have to go. But strangely enough it’s not as bad as it sounds.

I grant you these leukemia episodes are a bit daunting, especially as they become more frequent, but look at the bright side: it’s as if God is mercifully purifying us very gently, one incident at a time, until we are ready for the big leap of Faith.

I’m not so sure I’m ready for the big one yet.

Me either, but one of my palliative care nurses made a profound comment to me recently, which really challenged my focus in this death and dying thing.

As I was recovering from one of the more deadly episodes which had me mostly physically and mentally focused on death, she said to me something like, “Yes, you are dying, but if you just roll over and focus on dying, your death is going to be very difficult. What you need to do is to live and let death come as it is meant to come, as part of your life.”

So I did, and suddenly my focus is living as I die, and this has made a great difference in these final moments of my life.

It has freed me to do two significant things: (1) to stop focusing on myself and be aware of others who come and go in my everyday life, especially those who take care of me, and (2) to “do” life-giving things whenever I can. This guides me more gently into actually dying. Does that make sense?

One of the surprising life-giving things along these lines, when I have the energy for it, has been my return to reading at night when I can’t sleep. (When I don’t have the energy I just hold my crucifix and kiss Jesus, and let him sooth my fears.)

But when I read, I’m not reading just any ole thing for the sake of doing something when I can’t sleep. I read with a purpose, with a focus, with a goal. For some reason I wanted to know, before I die, what really happened to so many of us in the 1960s.

We have a small theological library (it has other kinds of books, too) close by which I can get to on my electric wheel chair (beep beep!) and from there I chose books from every topic and author from that era I could find.

I decided to read more than one book at a time, so I would be exposed to those days from many angles at once.

It has been a fascinating read, though one which at first seemed like such a waste of precious time given the fact that I am dying and what difference does the past make now.

And though this is not the time or place to write an essay on The Sixties, I think it is my time and place to share what I now see about that era, which was so formative in my life, because it is helping me die peacefully in the present with my eyes and my heart turned toward Jesus in Whom all things find their meaning and their measure.

As I die, I don’t really have regrets as such, and if I could do it all over again, I would probably make the same mistakes. No, I don’t really have regrets, but I do feel humbled.

I thought it was so simple, this thing called Life—so possible, so exciting.

We Americans had come out of World War II, and we were living in an era of prosperity.

We had regained hope and could now at least imagine having the economic and political wherewithal to do anything we set our hearts on: from going to the moon to eradicating every injustice and unnecessary pain from our lives and the lives of countless others.

Amen, and about time if you ask me! So what happened?

Once again, simple, my friend: In our new sense of autonomy, many of us began to focus entirely on our Self, depending entirely on our own ideas, insights, and experiences. With that, we lost the sense of the inevitable mystery of Life and Faith, of Life and Death.

I never realized, I don’t think, that the very essence of living by Faith and dying by Faith is this capacity, as revealed in Christ, to live in the Great Paradox of the Incarnation—that God, as to his “form” (Phil 2:6) became little, human, poor, weak, even embracing death, and it is through this that he gave us life, eternal life, victory over evil, and transformation into the divine.

In fact, our life, our faith, is full of the paradox St. Paul speaks of in his letter to the Romans, I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very thing I hate … for though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not(Chapter 7:15, 19).

Yes, though everything can seem possible, that does not change the “paradoxical” aspects of Life or Death.

It does not change the fact that, though we are still essentially free, essential parts of our freedom can be taken from us against our will by all sorts of unexpected economic, political or psychological inequities. Paradox.

It does not change the fact that sometimes when we reach a zenith in Life, suddenly life or health can be taken from us with no explanation or option. Paradox.

It does not change the fact that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

It does not change the truth St. Paul lived, namely, for the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10).

In a word, we cannot change the fact that neither Life nor Death belong to us to do with as we choose. We cannot change the fact that it is God who is all-powerful, not us.

Why then did we, in the Sixties, imagine that by our own psychological, economic, political measures alone we could squeeze the paradox out of Life and Faith?

How did we think we had the power to be the total masters of our own destiny? How did we think we could believe this and act accordingly and still remain Christian?

I am not particularly happy about dying now that I am old enough and somewhat wise enough to really enjoy Life as it is. (And I am ever surprised that God did not “take me” as quickly and as young as so many are taken.)

But I must say I am a bit stunned that Death has become so much an integral part of my Life and that embracing the Divine Paradox of Life as I die soothes the psychological fears of letting go and pours the healing balm of Faith over such things as guilt and regret.

How could so many of us have forgotten the “answer” to it all: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death? Thanks be to God through [the paradox] Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rm.7: 24).

And, so it is that I can see much more clearly now the wonderful faith-friendship of all of you who have found life in my sometimes weird column. Your very readership has somehow taught me to be much more simple in my Faith and thus much more real in my life.

What better preparation for Death could I have? Bless you all for your part in it, and do keep me in your prayer.

Well, like I said, my unemployment insurance has just about worn out and though I don’t think I’m ready for the big one yet, I guess I have no choice seeing that I’m your Ego at the Altar.

Now that you mention it, I’ve always wondered who I really was in all thisRestoration business. Nice to know your identity before you die! Altar Ego? Hmmmm.

Amen, my friend. Amen. And isn’t it a bit of a not so tragic comedy to keep everyone guessing? “Is old Lazarus in the tomb yet or is he out with Martha and Mary eating ice cream and cake on his 85th birthday?” Ah, the sheer paradox of it all!