I originally wrote "Closer than a Brother" several years ago, and I thought that I'd go ahead and share it on the blog this week. I hope you find it meaningful.
Although Sunday, November 16th, 2008, failed to dawn clear and sunny in western Oregon, there was still hope and excitement hanging in the air at the Erickson household. Our son’s birthday party was planned for the afternoon, and everyone had been scurrying around that morning to get the house ready for the young guests. Except for the party preparations, all was a fairly typical Sunday morning for us until we arrived in the Queen of Peace Church parking lot. As we exited the van and walked towards the church entrance for Mass, my wife Kimberly silently collapsed and lay still on the ground. I bent down and immediately asked what was wrong and gently shook her, but there was no response. I tried to raise her to her feet, but she did not move. Her eyes were open, and I noticed a tear slide down from her left eye, but not a word was said. She recalls trying to stand, then falling back down, and shaking uncontrollably. I was afraid that my wife had just suffered a stroke, and I felt utterly helpless.
Just as I was about to send our two children into church to call an ambulance, she spoke, and I helped her get to her feet again. Within a few moments, I had Kimberly seated back in our van, and I was on the phone to the doctor’s office. We learned from our doctor a few days later that an MRI had located a possible tumor in her frontal lobe (information sensitively sent via e-mail from our HMO, but for which a genuine apology was offered by the doctor). With heavy hearts we prepared for the coming storm, but I was also reminded of a mysteriously encouraging warning of sorts I received within a dream the summer before.
The dream began in a dark and frightening place, warm sunlight disappearing behind growing storm clouds on the horizon. I believe we were standing outside our home, when a priest was suddenly there with us. I did not recognize this dark-haired man who stood a bit shorter than I. Looking at us, he pointed off to the distance and sternly warned that a terrible storm was coming for us. He went on to tell us, however, that there was no need to worry; we would be safe. The Lord’s messenger was reminding us that we were under the protection of the Almighty God. Although there were black clouds rolling towards us, I felt at the time that the real storm he was talking about had little to do with the weather. He seemed to be referring to something more dangerous and destructive than wind and rain. Before the dream ended, the priest said something along the lines of “Remember John 14:14.” The verse was spoken with such force and clarity that I easily remembered it when I woke. Not recalling the specifics of the passage at all, I decided to look it up before I went back to sleep. I didn’t expect anything particularly significant, as I still imagined it was likely just an ordinary dream. I was quite stunned to read it. “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.”
This, in turn, reminded me of an article ("Mysterious Tools") on prayer I wrote several years ago concerning an experience of healing regarding my son. In that essay, I wrote about invoking the sacred name of Christ in faithful prayer--with results that left me speechless. My mind continued to wander after the dream, and, because of the element of prayer, I think I also recall remembering my wife’s first health emergency several years ago. I remembered driving behind her speeding ambulance on the interstate highway with our crying children in the back of the car. I prayed to God for protection of my dear wife and invoked the name of Christ in that short prayer we said together in the car. I pleaded for healing in Christ’s name, and I sought mercy for her and our family--of which she is the most integral part. After parking the car, I took the kids in tow and headed for the Emergency Room doors, my brain in a haze. When my son Stephen asked whether his mother was going to be okay, I answered with a certainty which was simply an act; I had no idea, but I was praying it would be so with every fiber of my being.
Looking back on these past trials through which we successfully passed only by the bountiful grace of Christ, I am reminded that everything we currently experience is seen through the imperfect lens of our past struggles. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that God frequently speaks to us through our past and into our present. That is, those things we struggled under are, sometimes at least, infused with a new and profound meaning when we look back at them from the vantage point of the present. This also sheds light on the way in which God chooses to communicate with us, which often resembles words shared between friends--only at an infinitely deeper and more personal level. It is encouraging to remember that any trial or hardship we encounter can be met with success, if we trust in the Lord. (Of course, “success” may not be what we necessarily imagine or understand.)
When our family crossed the Tiber and came into full communion with the Catholic Church several Easters ago, it was a decision to follow the leading hand of Christ wherever He led. The choice was not an easy decision for us. It was never what I had ever expected to do. Some of our family and friends were mystified by what they mistook as our turning our backs upon what it meant to be a Christian, and a few friendships were broken beyond repair. The fact of the matter was, however, that our coming home to the Catholic Church only enriched and deepened our faith in Christ. We simply opened our hearts to the fullness and beauty of the Catholic Church as we continued to be led by Christ on our spiritual journey. If we accept that we are indeed created in the image of God, then a conscious effort to follow the will of our Savior is the most transforming and healing power we can bring to bear upon our sick culture—not to mention ourselves. It also offers a way in which we may offer up all of our daily hardships to the Lord, infusing our daily struggles and sacrifices with meaning and importance beyond ourselves.
When I find myself slipping into a cynical or negative frame of mind at the office or elsewhere, I may recall the act of receiving the Eucharist. Since Christ died for all of us, each person we meet within our hectic daily schedules is someone for whom His blood was spilled, and, therefore, a fellow member or potential member, of the Body of Christ. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory, there aren’t “ordinary people”. We all have everlasting souls. Cultures and civilizations will vanish, but that grocery clerk you may be inclined to snap at has the profound gift of an eternal soul and may be in heaven with you throughout eternity. If we can apply a kind of internal reverence to our daily lives, we are offering those routine activities up to Christ, and we give them greater meaning. In this way, we are also acknowledging that we our identity is greater than what our daily life may trick us to think. In other words, our identity should not be tied too closely to our work or vocation, if our work is secular in nature. When we understand this, we are transforming the mundane to the eternal and creating stances of grace as we strive to live Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 10:31: “whatever you do, do for the glory of God.” This mindset also makes us more prepared to endure terrible trials when they come upon us.
While the term “relationship,” has been turned into a bit of a cliche by some recent Christian fiction writers, it’s important for Catholics not to forget the personal dimension of their faith. Having a personal relationship with Christ is not, after all, simply an Evangelical notion; it’s biblical, which means it’s Catholic. The problem comes when Christians misunderstand the nature of personal faith. Like any relationship between friends, there are both boundaries and responsibilities. If having a personal relationship with Christ means, for example, that it is just “God and me,” then we’re lost in a faith where we alone stand as the final arbiter and the sole authority. Tradition and valid religious authority educate and enlighten our own interpretations of Scripture and what it means to live the faith. Furthermore, the Christian faith can’t exist in a vacuum. To ignore the community in favor of the self is to turn our backs on the essence of our Christian faith altogether. If the self were all that truly mattered, then there would have been no reason for Christ’s sacrifice. As we are reminded in Matthew 25:40, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Our goal should be the death of self in the shadow of the Cross.
Someone recently asked me how to place the love of God above all else, since we have never seen or touched our Creator. The question was posed by a fellow Catholic who was struggling to understand the nature of love. It’s an honest question that points to a heart yearning to truly know and love God. Volumes have been written on the nature of love (C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves being arguably one of the best), but, if we are experiencing difficulties in feeling “connected” to our Savior, we should remember that all relationships take an investment of time, energy, and pain. We should also avoid depending on feelings too much as our spiritual guide. Just like it takes time to build a solid marriage, it takes time and struggles to build and strengthen our faith. If all that a marriage is based on is feelings, it has no foundation for when hard times set in. Perhaps one way to begin to understand and know God better is through the good we find in others. If we struggle to know how to go about loving God, do we love the qualities of kindness, mercy, compassion, truth, or forgiveness? These qualities that we see imperfectly reflected in those we love and care for are but faint glimpses of the eternal nature of God.
When dealing with the daily temptations and hardships of life, it’s helpful to remember, as that old hymn goes, “what a friend we have in Jesus.” At the same time, it’s necessary to bear in mind what an enemy we have in Satan. “The Father of Lies,” after all, is the true source of our trials and temptations. The hatred and malevolence he bears for God and the human race can’t be over-stated. If we see Christ as both our friend and Redeemer, we must remember that Satan is a foe whose only aim is to catch our souls within his snare. If we find ourselves struggling against temptation, do we surrender to the hater of all life and goodness, or do we call out for aid to the Son of Man who humbled himself as an innocent and died upon the cross for our sins; a Creator who knew us in our mother’s womb and knows and loves us without bounds today? Rather than embracing the betrayal of sin, strive to remember that “you were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:23)
I am thankful to add a happy postscript regarding my wife’s illness. After many days of tests, the doctors determined that sometime before the November incident my wife had experienced a very small stroke in a quiet (or non-critical) area of her brain. The stroke created a lesion, and this, in turn, sparked the seizure she suffered that morning. Tests currently show that the lesion is healing on its own, and we’re unaware of any stroke damage. I am confident that the prayers of friends and family played no small part in her healing. In fact, we were blest with prayers from several priests around the Willamette Valley. Even our archbishop in Portland mentioned in a letter that Kimberly’s recovery was in his prayers. We can never adequately express our thankfulness for each and every prayer offered for her, and it is truly a reminder of the power of our Lord. Whatever our journey may be, let us endeavor to open our hearts to God and persevere in the race set before us, because “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” That friend is our Lord Jesus Christ.