Half-Day Retreat – March 7, 2020
Fr. Marcus Milless – morning conference
It’s a great blessing to be here with Curatio and the great work that Teresa and Dianne have done and I have been privileged to be a part of and I hold dear in my heart. I’m very grateful and it helped get me off to the right footing as I began my work as a hospital chaplain at HCMC, and this talk is just as much for me as it is for you.
The theme of the talk today is finding consolation in Christ and finding hope as a healer as well, and the theme of the topic came right away. Dianne asked me, “What do you want the theme to be?” and it came right away. And it came from two images that I was working with already. It had come up with the Missionaries of Charity as well, and we were going through Spe salvi, and that’s the encyclical by Pope Benedict on hope, the Spe salvi encyclical – hope saves. Now we think of the youth, and what leads to the destruction of humanity in the youth? There is no vision. Where am I going? If one doesn’t have a vision to where they are going, they will be destroyed or will give in to destructive forces, and Pope Benedict in his encyclical lays out how we have hope, and hope is a virtue and also a gift. We can’t earn it. We receive hope from God; He gives us a vision for eternal life, and so hope is what saves us. We are saved in hope. And the second is an image in the MIA, the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I saw this image several years back, but in Spe salvi there’s a paragraph – I’ll get there, paragraph 38 – which talks about how Christ brings us consolation and hope in the midst of suffering. But there’s an image in the MIA. Normally I go to the medieval section, right? There’s a lot of church art there. And I thought, I wonder if there are any images of Christ in the modern section, and there is. It’s kind of tucked away in a little corner, and it’s Christus Consolator, Christ being consoled, painted in 1851 by Ary Scheffer, a French-Dutch artist:
The image has Christ seated on a throne, and he’s floating in on a cloud, and on both sides you see people suffering. There is a man who is shipwrecked, and he’s holding a piece of a ship and he’s reaching out to Christ. There’s also a man contemplating taking his own life with a dagger. And then there’s the three ages of women, about 15, 50, and 80, and all suffering in those stages. And then, at the bottom, there’s a woman who has a stillborn child, placing the child on the cloud. And then … I guess it was in the 1850s, Russia had defeated Poland and there’s a young man wrapped in a Polish flag, totally laid out. And on the other end there are three soldiers and then three slaves of different backgrounds, the serfs, a Greek slave, and an African slave, and all of this is centered on Christ. And then, the most beautiful image of Mary Magdalene, who is holding onto the arm of Christ. And we see that Jesus had pulled her out of her sin, cast out demons, and was holding her as a beautiful image, and you just see Christ confidently looking forward, and with that the left hand is holding chains and all of them are freed. That’s an image for us, what hope does; it saves us, it frees us, and for us it is centered in Christ Jesus.
Now, when I first described this in a homily at All Saints, a blind woman came up to me and she said, “Father, thank you so much for painting the picture for me. I can see how Christ looks.” I said, “Oh, my God!” But this is also precisely hope. We hope for things that we can’t see in the present moment. So, as a health care professional, how is God going to work through this? How is God going to work … how is God going to bring healing? And this brings us to Romans 8, where the encyclical gets its name. This is Romans 8:22-27 … we know that all creation is groaning in labor pains, even until now. And not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we await the adaption and redemption of our bodies, for in hope we were saved. Now hope that seeks for itself is not hope, for who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. In the same way the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit Itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings, and the One Who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because It intercedes for the holy ones, according to God’s Will.”
How can I pray in the midst of my work or how is the person praying? (Sigh) You can hear that when someone is suffering, you can hear it in the room when praying, and there’s the groaning – the Spirit. There’s not much to be said in some of these components. You don’t have a crystal ball to say, “The sun is going to turn out.” But we walk with people, and this is our offering; that bed is the altar, our ministerial work is the chalice, and we lift that person up to God. Whether they’re Christian or not, that’s Christ Jesus. And I had to learn this, and I’m still learning, that hope is a gift and it comes from God, and this came to the fore for me in a very powerful way this past October. I am a chaplain at HCMC, and I have my office right where people walk to get into the Spiritual Center, so I see a lot of crazy and beautiful things. And one day a man entered into my office, and he said, “Father, do you remember me?” I said, “No. I don’t have the best memory. Remind me.” He said, “Well, you prayed for me. I have cancer and I’m struggling. Can you pray for me today? I said, “Yes. Where does your faith come from?” And he was an African-American and happened to grow up in Chicago and he went to Catholic schools taught by the nuns, and he said, “Well, one day I went to church and there was a nun near the front of the church, and I went up and talked to her. And she told me that she was my guardian angel.” I said, “Okay.” And because it was also the weekend of the parish festival, this nun (or guardian angel; I’ll let you decide) said to him, “You’re going to win a bunch of snack cakes today. So he was very delighted to hear this and he brought his brother back to the church and he said, “You see that nun over there?” And his brother said, “No, I don’t see. I can’t see the nun that you’re talking about.” So he went to the parish festival, and they’re calling the number for the cake walk. His name was called one time, two times, three, four, five, six … they thought it was rigged. They brought in someone else to call the numbers … seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I don’t know if he was the one walking, but he won all these snack cakes. He said, “I began to believe.”
He said, “Father, it’s more than that.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, one day a police officer came to my apartment and he had a warrant for my arrest. I had all of these overdue parking tickets.” And so, they arrested him and brought him in to prison. Now, he wasn’t very accepting. He was saying, “I’m going to jail for parking tickets. This is ridiculous.” And so he got upset and they had actually thrown him into solitary confinement for a while. One month passed, two months, three, four, five, six … a year had passed, and he grew angrier and angrier. But one day the Holy Spirit just kind of tugged on his heart and said, “You need to pray and fast. You need to pray and fast for three days.” So, he decided to pray in his room and decided to fast. And, you know, the dealers thought, “Where is this guy? He’s not trying.” So the first day they said, “Well, he must be coming down from a high. He must have got drugs in the prison.” So they went in his room and they tore everything apart, and they didn’t find anything. On the second day, they said, “Well, okay, he’s not coming down from drugs. Maybe he’s suicidal and cutting down his relationships with everyone.” So they called the priest, because he was Catholic. The priest said, “Well, what are you in here for?” “Well, I’ve got all these parking tickets and I don’t know why I’m still here; it’s been a year.” The priest said, “Okay, well I’ll go and check your record.” And he went to Records and found nothing. They had switched the system and there was nothing on him, and believe me that can happen in a large institution or a government entity. And so, on that third day he said, “You are free,” and he was filled with joy. It happens. And I thought to myself, “Well, okay. This guy has told his story. And I said, “Do you know what day it is?” He said, “No, I don’t know what day it is.” I said, “Today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels.” And then he left and I walked out to the room, and there had been a person that I had been working with for months and they had a tonic-clonic seizure ten minutes before I got there, and it was touch-and-go and the mom, who had been there every single day, was crying. I thought to myself, “I have no idea what to say here.” But I had been given a gift of hope through this man who randomly just walked through the door of the hospital. And I wasn’t pounding on it … “We need to pray! Trust in God!” I said, “We can say a little prayer.” “Yeah, we’ll pray a little bit.” So we prayed and nothing happened. I felt a tug – “Hey, pray and fast for three days.” It happened! On the third day or the fourth – I can’t remember – this person came out of it, and there is no greater joy than that. He didn’t have any brain damage, no other damage, and got out just before Christmas. Merry Christmas to that person!
Hope. You can’t see what’s going to happen, but Christ is present there with us, and often what happens in these moments, what do we do? “Let’s just numb it. Let’s get rid of the pain and suffering, or run like heavens. Let’s just run from this.” No. Christ is inviting us into the Passion, but it’s through the Passion that there’s Resurrection and life, and that’s the call for each one of us. We’re not called to run; we’re called to stay in the midst and look for Christ. Now we do have our limits; we have to respect these. We can’t do it all, but we do need to take time for rest, we do need to take time for family, but also to pray and to give these things over as they’re happening, and we need this more and more. And sometimes we lose hope and we think “Well, I’ll just walk away from this.”
And this is St. Augustine, and as I was reading today’s homily I was reminded of this, so I was re-reading it in preparation for this talk. St. Augustine had his initial conversion and this vision of purity, right? He could see the children come and climb on Our Lady; they were inviting him to come to follow Christ and to get baptized, and he said yes. Now, he still hadn’t worked out his life, and so, as he was praying with Scripture, he was praying to God, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to be married. I’m going to play the better part. I’m going to live the contemplative life out with a bunch of people in community, because I can’t take the temptation of the city. He was planning to live for God, right? Yes. He was willing to leave all behind to be with God.
And then he went to Mass that Sunday, after he’d made up his mind that that’s what he was going to do. And what happened? The priest – the bishop who was preaching – called Augustine up by name and said, “You are going to be a priest right here in Hippo,” which was right in the middle of the city, not way out in the sticks. And Hippo at the time obviously was a Roman city, and the Roman Empire was strong, and they had given into debauchery and all these things. It was not the best place to live, but that’s what God asked him to do.
I just want to share some of those quotes from Augustine himself. He said this in his Confessions, “Terrified by my sins and the weight of my misery, I had resolved in my heart and meditated flight into the wilderness, but you forbade me and gave me strength by saying, ‘Christ died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for their sins.’” And then he goes on. He described his state of life in the following terms: “The turbulent had to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported, the Gospel’s opponents needed to be refuted, its incidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught” … (and so on, and so forth). “The Gospel terrifies me,” producing that healthy fear which prevents us from living for ourselves alone and compels us to pass on the hope we hold in common. Amid the serious difficulties facing the Roman Empire and also posing a serious threat to Roman Africa, which was actually destroyed at the end of Augustine’s life, this was what he set out to do, to transmit hope, a hope which came to him decisively and with all his strength in the task of building up the city. And it continues: “My weaknesses are many and grave indeed, but more abundant still is your medicine. We might have thought that your word was far distant from union with man, and so we might have despaired of ourselves, if this Word had not become flesh and dwelt among us.” On the strength of his hope, Augustine dedicated himself completely to the ordinary people and to his city – renouncing his spiritual nobility, he preached and acted in a simple way for simple people.
So don’t run. Run to the Cross, where God’s calling you, and that’s where light embraces and that’s the work of mercy. Now many of us struggle with it; how do we increase our hope? Obviously it’s a gift given from God, but we do have a part to play. We are human; we have to will it. We can choose to live in hope or not, and there are three unexpected things that bring hope. One – prayer; okay, that was a given. Two – suffering. Three – the most unexpected of all – is judgment.
The first, prayer – I’m going back to Augustine for this one. Here’s how he defines prayer: “Prayer is an exercise in desire. Man was created for greatness – for God Himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. By delaying His gift, God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it He increases its capacity.” And then he goes on: “To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly, we undergo a process of an inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. “
You see this with the saints. When they pray, and if you read what they underwent, you think, “Oh, they just got everything right away. They just prayed and it happened.” No … no – God stretched them, and a lot of times it’s through suffering, which is point two, but there’s that stretching and stretching. And so hope isn’t just moving towards what I’m thinking about in the future. It’s actually waiting in the present moment and then God brings what He wants to us. Now we have to act – it’s a little bit of mutual there, but it’s not something just moving forward. It’s waiting on God’s Word, waiting for Him.
I’m going to go to Pacem in Terris. The last time I went, I read the book of the foundress, Shirley Wanchena. She had six children, lost her husband at a young age, and had to provide. But one of these things that she had was this gift of hospitality, and so she was inviting all of these people into her home and she began having this ministry, and then she prayed to God about what she should do about all of this, and it wasn’t like it all happened at once. She went to Africa, she went on retreat, and little pieces came together. But then eventually the time came when she felt called, after going to the Madonna House, to start something similar, and she had hardly any money. She had a house in St. Louis Park. I didn’t know she went to Holy Family; I just found that out. And she gave up all of that and started Pacem in Terris and invited all of these different leaders into what she was doing. That was her desire from the beginning and God stretched it. At one point too she got help. God was going to provide all of these benefactors and it’s all going to happen. She had a year and no one supported her for an entire year financially, but she persevered. And so we see that if God wants it, it will happen. And at the end, right before she died, one of her cohorts came and said, “Look at it; you followed your dreams and you did all of these things,” and she said, “Well, this was all God’s plan; I just said yes to it.” So that’s the vision of hope, and she’s provided that for so many.
The second means to which we can increase our hope is through suffering, and this is what Pope Benedict has to say: “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through compassion is a cruel and inhuman society. Yet society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another’s suffering unless he is personally able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope.” This is the real means right here. Suffering is not enabled in and of itself. And sometimes the suffering that comes with it is “That’s a result of the Fall,” so it’s not like, “Oh, yes … suffering! Whoo!” But there is deep meaning in it, and if we walk with people in their suffering, whether there’s a hopeful outcome or not, then you will find meaning.
And this is the other part. I gave examples of hope where everything worked out in the end in terms of human standards, but what about someone who has a terminal diagnosis? Can there be hope there? You bet there can, because we believe in the Resurrection; we believe in life after death. There was an encounter I had this summer with this man. He was dying and he was terminal and he hadn’t made his confession, and his brother was continually calling me from another state. “You need to get him to confession. You need to hear his confession.” I said, “That’s not your business, but okay; I’ll try.” He went to confession, he reconciled with God, and he started receiving the sacraments. He reconciled with his estranged daughter and reconciled with his ex-wife. All that came together. And then, when I read him the reading, he would smile. And the last day of his life I came in, brought him communion, he smiled, went back into a coma, and died the next day. That’s a taste of heaven. There is meaning in suffering.
I know one guy who received the diagnosis that he may be handicapped. God can work through that. Who we are is not found in what we can do. Each person has dignity and value because they exist, and this people are trying to erase while we are giving witness to the contrary. And so, we are to find the meaning in suffering.
And then the Latin word, consolata. Consolation expresses this and suggests kneeling with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. These are very precious moments I am speaking about, that nurses, doctors, and health care professionals are invited into, and that person who once suffers – it does tend to isolate them. “How can I relate to someone else, because I’m going through this suffering?” And there is one who can relate – it’s Jesus Christ. But I found that’s true not only for the person, but for nurses, doctors, and health care professionals who are working with them. You go into this intense environment like gravel and then you go home. “Does anyone know what I’ve been through today?” Probably not, and not to that degree, but it’s not some badge of honor. No … we need to wait for that to happen and give each patient over, so that when you’re home – okay. Yes, you go back to your normal life. We can’t always be in combat mode. So there’s meaning and there’s consolation.
God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. Man is worth so much to God that He Himself became Man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way, in flesh and blood, as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’ Passion. And because time is short, the third is judgment. This is hope for us, because in judgment all things are made right, and only God can do this. We can help to the best of our ability and help work for a just society, but people need God to understand justice, because we were made in the image and likeness of God and we all have equal dignity, so all are befitting of care, and help, and love, and concern. And so, to the Christian we have insight into this, and one of the things that communism seeks to do is say we no longer need God and the hope for all of us is that everyone has enough material and resources, and the one issue with that is that man isn’t born of just material; he is body, blood and soul, who is open to despair. And it also is a doctrinal fact that yes, if you give someone all the resources that they need, they can still choose evil. And this is why, as Christians, we say that in the end all things will be made well, but that’s not to say, “Okay, then we don’t have to do anything.” No. We will have to give an account, and this is where Jesus preaches about Lazarus and the Rich Man … the rich man who died sumptuously and Lazarus was holding out his hand, and Lazarus was denied, and denied, and denied. And what happened at the end? Well, Lazarus went right to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man to Sheol. “What you have done to the least of My brethren, you have done to Me.”
And that’s the call for us as health care workers. Each person is befitting of dignity and you want to treat each person with love and respect. And so, my sisters and brothers, when we are feeling down and despairing, we are to turn to Christ, the Consoler, and He renews our hope that the suffering will come to pass someday – maybe in this present moment, this present situation, but definitely when the kingdom comes. So find hope, and the place we find hope is in Christ Jesus.