On the Camino, you meet interesting people who share stories and themselves in the most intimate of ways, so as to take each of us to new depths of understanding, insight, faith and life. Such an encounter with an Irishman led to this.
Frank (not his real name) crossed paths with us as we waited for a bus to take us to the Santiago airport to fly to Dublin. We would continue the next day to home in the US; Frank would arrive in his own land and take a several hour bus ride to his home in another Irish county.
Since we had several hours to wait at the airport we spent the afternoon together, talking about why we had done the Camino and sharing our lives, ever so briefly. Frank described himself as Catholic but not practicing. He hadn’t been to Mass since he was nine, and he was now in his 60s. Oddly enough, he got into trouble with the church the one time he confessed honestly and truly, but that’s another story for another time. Nevertheless, there was much of Christ in him.
A story or two or three (and one hilarious joke) stand out from our time together. In one he told of his sister’s grief of a mother, whose son was struck down one day by an aneurysm. He was rushed to hospital and while at first there was hope and expectation that all would be well, it was not to be. The aneurysm had sufficiently damaged her son’s brain that there was little or no activity and no prospect of change. A doctor came to visit her and confessed, “This is the hardest conversation you and I can ever have…” and initiated an invitation for her to give permission to donate her son’s organs to bring hope and life to others. Because he had a history of alcohol abuse, his liver could not be used, but there were other, more promising possibilities.
“How long do I have to make such a decision?” the mother asked. “Not long,” came the reply. The mother, Frank’s sister, needed a day, and Frank and his other sister accompanied her on the deciding path, although it was hers alone to walk. As Frank told the story, there was such tenderness and love for his sister, and the awful choice laid on her. He did not tell her what to do, but helped her to see that her son was gone. There would be no more stories or conversations. No more shared memories or asking about each other’s day. What was, was what would be, now and always. To let him go was to let go of what had already departed, and to open a better possibility for others.
It was not an easy conversation then, and the telling to us was still somber, quiet, reflective, alive with the memory of a mother’s grief and loss and generosity; and perhaps a hint of question about how he had done a good thing and if he had done it well enough.
That called to mind a story I also could tell, of a friend who received a new heart from another son not unlike Frank’s nephew. Amber Donald (not her real name) had been living with her new heart for a year or more when circumstances brought her together with the mother of the dead son who was now making life possible for her. They met in a hotel gathering of donors and recipients, if I remember the story right,and when that mother met Amber, her first action was to draw close to Amber to lean her head against Amber’s chest and listen to the steady, strong beat of her son’s heart, pulsing with life in the body of another. The image is beautiful; the mother leaning in, ear pressed to chest, quiet, attentive and attuned, connected to her son once more in the life of another.
That story seemed to be a gift to Frank, who found himself unexpectedly moved by the beauty of the generous unity of those lives entwined as one. Irishmen may not weep, but that afternoon one did. And because he was so struck by it, I was led to take another, deeper, metaphorical step.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters are drawn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a devotional path. And now I find myself imagining another Parent whose Son’s death has brought life to me and to many, drawing close and leaning into my chest to listen if that Son’s living heart can be heard and felt in me, throbbing with His life in mine. Does His sacred heart send his life-giving flow of compassion and kindness, mercy and grace throughout and through me? Through His sacrificial death, does His life now live in me? Is His hospitality and care for the least and the last taking form in me? Will the steady beat of His commitment to the hungry poor, the stranger and imprisoned, the sick and the thirsty and the very heart of God be known and felt and heard as God leans in to listen? Has His life been transplanted into me, strong and resistant to sin’s infection, thriving and strong?
O God, may it be so; may it be so.
When that mother leaned into Amber and listened, there was joy, gratitude, wonder, awe, even holiness. May that be true for all, blessed to have received the heart of Christ.
There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God.
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us, who wait before Thee,
Near to the heart of God.
-Cleland Boyd McAfee (1903)