Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Cheerful Pilgrim: November


"Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return."         

Ash Wednesday admonition

    November arrives gently with crisp, frosty nights and warm days. We go to morning Mass for All Saints Day and enjoy the little ones dressed up as saints. One young boy, obviously St. George, carries a sword to vanquish his little sister, the green dragon with the spiky tail trying to keep up with him as they march down the aisle. St. Bernadette, St. Therese of Liseux, the three little shepherds of Fatima, King Louis of France in his regal robes and crown, St. Michael and St. Gabriel, St. Joseph with his hammer, and a mini Blessed Mother in a blue dress, white veil, downcast eyes and hands beautifully folded – all the saints, the heroes of heaven, pass in review. How can the minds and hearts of the congregation not be lifted up to the Church Triumphant with such a display of her holy treasures?

    For sure, it is a day to ponder the saints’ influence in our lives. Larry and I go out to breakfast and discuss our own patron saints: Our Lady, St. Ann, and St. Dominic for me; St. Lawrence, St. Paul, and St. Joseph for him. Can we see the power of their intercession, especially our Confirmation patrons? Larry is, indeed, a “just man” in the model of St. Joseph. He’s a hard worker and a good and faithful husband and father. Now that we are the patriarchal generation, he is a model grandfather as well, not only building (and pushing) swings, playing cards, and taking little ones on tractor rides; but inviting everyone to join in an evening rosary before bed around a campfire or on the porch. Thank you, St. Joseph for your powerful assistance.

    St. Dominic is my special friend. Most of my adult life I have defended the unborn and fought for the true faith. How often has St. Dominic, the preacher and defender against heresy, hovered in the background inspiring me as I beg parents outside an abortion mill to let their little ones live or evangelize the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door? We thank you, dear saints, for your friendship and assistance.

    I can’t leave this subject without acknowledging our guardian angels. Whenever Larry and I travel, we ask their particular help. And how often we notice in the churches we visit, that there are two angles in the sanctuary. Perhaps they are etched in the golden tabernacle or kneeling on either side of the altar in adoration. It reminds me how often our angels rescue us, sometimes even before we ask: the close calls on the highway, the punctured tire or dead battery that only strands us when we are safe in our own driveway, the convenient parking place when we really need it. We are constantly aware of their help and protection.

    On November 2nd, the canonized saints give way to the unknown saints and saints-to-be in Purgatory. All Souls Day we make it our habit to visit cemeteries. We stop at four in Woodstock praying the rosary for the deceased members of our family, for friends, and for all those who have touched our lives in any way, as well as for all those buried there. Wandering among the gravestones, we are reminded that no one remains on this earth for very long. In a few generations we will mostly be forgotten except by diehard genealogists who study their family trees. Both the Schneiders and Kreitzers are only removed from the German mother country a few generations. We are post Civil War families with no connection to the founding fathers and mothers. In some ways that’s a blessing. It is good to know that our families have no accountability for the injustice of slavery or the persecution of the Indians. Our families came to the country too late for the worst of America’s 19th century national sins - and left Germany before the atrocity of the holocaust.

     The most poignant cemetery visits are those to the graves of our parents. We make the pilgrimage to Annapolis where we'll pray the rosary for my dad and mom who are buried at the Naval Academy. We begin the twenty decades on the two and a half hour drive and share memories. I didn’t renew my parking permit and security is tight since 9/11, so we park off campus and enter through a back gate presenting our IDs. It’s a short walk from there to the cemetery where we follow the familiar paths. The pink granite headstone is easy to find; there are so few colored stones amongst the gray and black.

I know it is only my parents’ bodies that rest there in the earth, but I still feel close to them kneeling on the damp ground. And I think how important the body is for Jesus to have occupied one and promised us resurrection. Feeling the lettering on the stone reminds me of the touch of their living bodies -- rubbing daddy’s back that last afternoon as he sat in a chair with his head resting on the bed, stroking my mother’s arm and praying the rosary aloud as she took her last struggling breath. “Why is it so hard to die?” she asked a few days before that final separation of body and soul. Why, indeed, I think.There are so many ties: children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends, and those who depended on us. Do these all hold us to the earth like the Lilliputians threads ensnared Gulliver? Does each one have to be cut through one moment of suffering? Good-byes are always hard, even when we expect to see the person again, but that final, earthly good-bye is especially heart-wrenching.

I used to be cavalier about death. After all, we are Christians. We know this life is just a temporary stop on the way to our final destination. Why should people cry when their loved ones have led a good life and are going to see God? Shouldn't we celebrate?

And then my dad died.

I finally understood, and am ashamed of my dimwitted failrure to realize it sooner. My sisters and I knelt by his coffin weeping and we clipped bits of his hair for remembrance, relics of love. And I knew then: Of course, we aren’t crying for the dead but for the living who must go on without the comfort, wisdom, and love of their dear ones.

Yes, November is for remembrance. I reflect on the faces and voices of the past. For me, a litany of holy women from a local nursing home where I take Communion runs through my mind. Margaret, pray for us; Teresa, pray for us; Dorothy, Velma, Annie, Agnes, Betty, Madeline, Dolly, and Pauline, pray for us. Each of them flares briefly in my memory with her joys and sufferings, her virtues and faults. Some of them suffered from dementia and were barely aware; others had better memories than mine. Madeline at 94 welcomed us each week and asked how our trip to Texas was or our camping weekend, or our horseback ride. It was a rare week she didn’t awe us with her power of recall. And now, as I go by her room, and see “her bed” occupied by a different resident, I’m reminded once again that man is dust and unto dust he shall return.

Fewer men make my litany; there just aren’t as many at the home. Charlie, a stroke victim, spoke volumes with his smile, but couldn’t get a sentence from his brain to his mouth. What frustration! I imagine him now singing with the angels. Lydia, an Alzheimer’s patient, is lost without her friend who kept her company, treated her so tenderly, and made the long days short. What a kind man, I remember.

A nursing home is a microcosm of life, filled with struggling individuals, both residents and staff, dealing with pain and suffering, sometimes well and sometimes badly, but always in the battle against the dark night. Visiting the sick, a corporal work of mercy, calls to my heart especially this month. How long will these dear ones be with us after all?

Larry and I visit my younger brother, John, who lives with the aftermath of a serious stroke. He personifies the trials of Job as one complication after another assaults him: transverse myelitis, UTIs, chronic pain, depression, etc. How many rosaries we pray for him, his doctors, his caregivers. Two of my five sisters take on the bulk of service spending between them five or six days a week -- first at the hospital, then at home, then for a long stint in a nursing facility, and finally back home again. Like guardian angels they advocate for his best care with doctors, nursing home staff, and home health care. They train the aides who work with him and don’t hesitate to carry out the humblest tasks themselves. They fill out the endless paperwork . Others come for an hour or an afternoon or a day, but Carol and Susie are the faithful angels. What insight it gives our family into the reality of the Christian call to serve the least ones. These wonderful women embody the virtues of fortitude and charity.

I have an “aha” moment about John at morning Mass while reading my Magnificat. The featured “saint” of the day is Blessed Vincenza Maria Poloni, one of twelve children, only three of whom lived to adulthood. Why am I struck by this Blessed? The immediate coincidence is her religious name, Vincenza because John lives on Vincenza Drive. Second, like Blessed Vincenza we also come from a large family. My mother had eleven full term pregnancies with ten children living to adulthood. Blessed Vincenza was found dead November 11, 1855 (of a stroke perhaps?); she was 53 almost the same age as John when he was struck down, and her death year was 100 years before John’s birth. Finally, Blessed Vincenza founded an order to care for the sick and infirm. Are all these connections with John just random coincidences or wishful thinking? Or is Blessed Vincenza inviting her intercession? I determine to ask my family to begin praying for John’s cure through this Blessed’s prayers before the throne of God. What a grace if his cure should be the miracle needed for her canonization.

Veterans Day arrives and nudges my thoughts toward my dad, a graduate of the Naval Academy and career naval officer. Daddy was serving as an ensign and the ranking officer on the U.S.S. Detroit stationed at Pearl Harbor on that fateful morning of December 7, 1941 All the senior officers were on shore eating breakfast, getting ready for church, oblivious of the danger. My day was asleep n his bunk after serving the night watch. The bombing awakened him and he raced to the deck, barefoot and in his skivvies, to begin shooting at the Japanese planes with a rifle. The altitude fuses for the anti-aircraft guns were locked up and no one on board had the keys, so the sailors couldn’t aim very accurately, but between the guns and rifles they put up a lot of firepower as they steamed out of the harbor. The Detroit was one of only two ships that day to reach the open sea. Meanwhile, Mom huddled in their apartment on the other side of Oahu, praying for dad’s safety. It would be several days before she knew if he was dead or alive.

I watch some films from the attack and wonder what it was like for those who lived through it. Imagine the high pitched screaming of the bombs as they fell and the massive explosions as they made contact. How many families became lost sons and fathers that morning as ships sank in the harbor with trapped men on board? The U.S.S. Oklahoma suffered several torpedo hits and capsized as crew members struggled to escape and rescue their comrades dragging them out of portholes. One of every five sailors on the Oklahoma died in the attack. A direct hit on the Arizona exploded her forward magazine causing a massive explosion that quickly sank the ship killing 1100, almost half of the American casualties that day. The billowing smoke, the stench of burning oil, the cries of agony …summarizes the “day of infamy.”

My childhood memories include The Fighting Lady, a film about an aircraft carrier during World War II. Daddy had a 16 mm projector and on occasional weekends would show the movie. I think he wanted us to remember the sacrifice of men and women who fight for freedom and the ultimate price so many pay.

November's cold, its short, gray days and brisk winds that blow the remaining leaves off the trees remind us of a world going to sleep, the little seasonal "death" as winter waits in the wings. We know life is not ended, that new growth will sprout when spring warms the earth. Nevertheless, November remind us of those who went before us, the saints and the sinner, the heroes and the less–than-heroic. For the pilgrim, the memories spark the desire to pray and sacrifice for the repose of the souls of the dead and the conversion of the living.

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