This morning, I was driven to write, amongst the tears I am shedding. I was watching the Pope address the crowds at Castel Gondolfo this morning and he said (paraphrased here) ” I am now just a fellow pilgrim on my journey to my final destination.” It made me weep. I am weeping because my stepdad, who is very loved, is entering hospice today, to also begin his pilgrimage to his final destination. And I could not help but notice the parallels between the two men. Pope Benedict looked so frail and weak as he climbed aboard his helicopter and then again, when he entered the cars waiting for him after his short flight from the Vatican, to his final home at Castel Gondolfo. He was peaceful but obviously tired, as he addressed the crowds waiting to hear, and cling to, his final words as Pope. The weight of office has certainly wreaked havoc on his physical health. My stepdad has been valiantly fighting cancer for the past 11 months. The doctors see no purpose in further exposure to chemo-therapy and feel that they can do no more for him, other than to keep him comfortable. My step-sister and I chatted, wept, laughed, and cried about her dad yesterday; it was a good conversation. He has been such a powerful personality in my life for the past 30 years, that realizing I may never hear one of his silly stories, or hear his laughter again, leaves a major hole in my life. My sons adore him as well. He always made us laugh and my mom used to roll her eyes and just sigh, having heard his stories and jokes countless times. But he also had her well in hand and has helped her to become a kinder, gentler woman in these past 30 years. He used to say, when she would go off on some tangent and be angry, “Oh Maureen, put a sock in it!” The first time he did that, I could not help but laugh and laugh. Seeing the “pin” pop my mom’s balloon was hilarious. All the starch would go out of her anger and she would look at him and just smile. He has been so good for her. He has insisted they attend Mass and has been receiving the sacraments regularly since making a confession and regularizing their relationship several years ago. The priest has been coming every Sunday with communion for him and my step-sister told me he received anointing, and had a good confession and communion, this past Sunday; it warmed my heart. After their last doctor’s appointment, my step-sister said he was “not ready to throw up the white flag.” That is so him! But after consultation with hospice specialists, he agreed that it was time and today, he begins his final journey. And I am sad, very sad. I posted that picture above because it made me think of how we all face our final judgement – alone. Family may be beside us, but we all enter into our final conversation with God. With my father-in-law last year, that became more and more evident as his time with us drew to an end; he was already in deep conversation with God. The photo reminds me of the Pope, beginning his final days in solitude; and my stepdad, his final days in hospice at home, with my mom. This all, of course, has me thinking.
The world revolves; it is part of how the cosmos was constructed by our very wise Lord. He was in the darkness and it became light – He alone controls the movements of the Heavens and all of us, His children, are under His watchful eye. We go through our days, facing many choices and making many decisions. Each choice laid before us is a temptation God has allowed for our own spiritual good – we opt, through free will, to “take a step towards God,” or we opt to “take a step away from God.” That is how the Eastern Churches, and the Orthodox, view sin. There is no gradation, it is just sin or it is not. From our early childhood, we begin to choose our pathway towards our final destination. I have been taking this time of Lent to re-evaluate my journey, and to tweak the things I need to, in order for my path to be more in line with God’s Will for me. Often, the spinning world interrupts our journey towards Heaven. We go off on tangents and we choose ways that are not strictly how God would have us live our lives. Elder Thaddeus, in his book, Chapter Ten, “On Spiritual Struggle,” #3 says this,” The evil spirits are always wanting to interfere with whatever we are doing for our salvation. Alas, we who are lukewarm usually say to ourselves, ‘Wait, I have not yet done this, I have not yet tried that … I will repent later. After I have done all these things I will repent, God, and I will walk the straight path, wandering neither to the right nor to the left.’ This is exactly what the spirits of evil want us to do; they want us to put off our salvation until tomorrow, or the day after, and so on and so forth, until the end of our life. But the Holy Fathers say,’Go with the Lord, go today, follow Him!”
We are all blessed to watch the journey not only that we make towards our own eternity, but the journeys others make alongside us. Watching someone like Pope Benedict struggle with the cross that was presented to him in the office of the Pope (something it seems to me he did not want and was not particularly suited to), or friends and family members who choose to put off getting their lives in order and are still struggling in this world, and people like my stepdad, who have struggled and are at the end of their journey. We can all learn from the struggles of those around us. Often incorrigible youth are taken to prisons, where the inmates, “scare them straight.” I think that watching the world around us should scare all of us “straight.” I know I am scared and am working diligently to “get my house in order.” And I am deeply in prayer for the Pope, as he settles into a cloistered existence of reading, writing, and continued prayer for the world. And I am also entering into a time of focused prayer for my stepdad, as he enters this final stage of his pilgrimage. Elder Thaddeus tells us that God doesn’t need our prayers; He wants our prayers. He knows our sinfulness first hand and is just waiting for us to acknowledge it before Him.
‘When you sin, blame your thought, not your action. For had your intellect not run ahead, your body would not have followed.’ St. Mark the Ascetic
As we all journey on as pilgrims, and especially for myself, I am prayerful that in the limited days I have been entrusted with, that I choose wisely; I decide that today is that day I will choose “to walk the straight path, wandering neither to the right nor to the left.”