In this life there are many things to prepare for, but the most important is for our entrance into the kingdom of heaven. I will take you with me, should you want to come along, on my personal journey to the door which will lead to eternity, through which every soul must pass. Where the angel of death waits to ask the all important question, "Are you prepared for the Kingdom?"

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Location: Anacortes, Washington, United States

Two years ago I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was one of the fortunate ones who survived surgery along with chemo/radiation treatments. Recently, it was discovered that the cancer had returned and although I am again on chemotherapy, in all probability I have perhaps one more year to live. During these last months I would like to share what I have learned about the most important thing we'll ever do in this life and that is, prepare for the kingdom of God.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

More Thoughts on Laura's Passing

I’d like to share with you a few thoughts, more or less random, that have come to me during these days of mourning for Laura. Perhaps they may be of some benefit to you as you ponder the mysteries of life and death. I plan to write more for our monastery newsletter’s summer issue, but perhaps this will suffice for now.

First, I’m grateful that Laura was blessed with a holy death, even though her sufferings were prolonged (but that may have contributed to the holiness). She had the priceless and indispensable benefit of access to the sacraments of the Church, for one thing. They say that the Catholic Church is sometimes the hardest one to live in, but it’s the very best to die in! Everything that can possibly be done for the soul preparing to meet God is done through the ministry of the Church. She also had the benefit of being in an environment of love and care, where all her needs were met by her family and the hospice nurses (and the visiting priests!). So many people die alone, in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, tenement apartments, war- or strife-torn lands or even on the street. Even though the Lord called her to suffer, He gave her the best possible environment in which to spend her last days. She may have shared something of the darkness and apparent abandonment of his passion, but at least she was not brutally tortured, and mocked and reviled on top of it, as was our Savior.

The next point is perhaps a bit fanciful, but I can’t help wondering what the experience of her soul leaving her body must have been like. After all, she was sleeping. Did she think she was having a dream and then suddenly realized it was no dream but that angels had really come and taken her to the presence of the Holy One? Or was she actually dreaming of the Lord, and her dream unexpectedly came true, to her delight and joy? Or while to the eye of an observer she was asleep, was she really in some kind of interior communion with the Lord, who was calling her to rise and come to Him? We’ll never know that until we ask her ourselves in Paradise, but I find the various possibilities quite fascinating.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the very moment that I received the news. It is very difficult to describe everything that was packed into that instant when I heard the words: “She’s gone!” I was hoping and praying for her liberation and entrance into Heaven, yet it was as if some rushing flood had suddenly overwhelmed me, and I almost didn’t know how to react. Perhaps all the accumulated emotion and stress and prayer and waiting of the past few weeks had in that instant coalesced into a point of extreme density and suddenly found its release. I was happy, sorrowful, relieved, in pain, in gratitude, and in some other nameless feeling all at once. There’s an incredible finality to death. A loved one can be in a coma for months, but when they finally pass it is still a shock, a loss that feels like it was unexpected, even though it wasn’t. Even when Laura was mostly unconscious, there was still a possibility that she might at least temporarily revive (as happened a couple times before) and I could talk to her. Now it was no longer a possibility. She left this world and is not coming back. I was expecting that call at any moment, yet I somehow couldn’t quite grasp the full import of it when it finally came. Perhaps we have our own scenarios of how we’d like to see things happen, but death foils them all and leaves us no time to reset the stage. When the moment arrives, one must inexorably go.

Laura told me about a sort of vision she had, maybe a year ago, when she was in our monastery church. It was as if it were the moment of her death, and she felt two angels escorting her to the presence of the Lord. The vision did last long enough for her to see Him or know what happens at his judgment seat, but the thing that impressed her was the absolute certainty that that’s where she was going, and the same certainty that she had no choice in the matter. The angels were gentle, but firm enough so that she realized that she was utterly unable to turn back, even if she wanted to. When they take you, you go. You cannot resist. Perhaps she was being given a little advance notice of what to expect when her soul would leave her body. The experience did not leave her afraid, yet it was sobering.

Laura had 54 years in which to “prepare for the Kingdom.” She didn’t spend all of those years actively doing so, but thanks be to God the last three or four were quite focused on this preparation. It’s over now. Her time is up. There’s nothing more she can do—not that she needs to, but the point is that we are allotted a certain number of years on earth in which our eternal destiny is prepared and decided. Some people have many more years than Laura did, some have many less. We don’t know when it is going to be over, when the moment will come that we have to make an account for our lives, the moment when there will be no more chances to do things differently. It may come suddenly; the Lord constantly has reminded us to watch, be ready, for we know not the day or the hour. Are you ready right now if suddenly the Lord appeared and said, “It is time”? Laura was blessed not only to have several years to take stock of her life and turn wholeheartedly to the Lord; she also had a period of decline in which she knew death was imminent and could focus all her available energies on meeting the Lord face to face so that her entrance into Paradise could be richly provided for. Many people are not so fortunate. This is why life has to be a preparation for the Kingdom. This preparation cannot be postponed until a convenient time, because that time may never materialize. We are perhaps not sufficiently aware that there is no second chance once we die. We may or may not be given many chances while we live, but we have to live in such a way as to be spiritually ready for death and judgment at any moment.

I have prayed much and with fervor and even tears, both before and after Laura’s death. I have learned that nothing wounds more deeply than love, especially if that love is rooted in the love of Christ. You can only hurt so much from the attacks of an enemy, for the hatred or malice of an enemy cannot access the depths of the human heart. Those depths can only be freely opened to others in love, but once opened they are forever vulnerable, and one is powerless to defend oneself. I think Jesus was showing us this when He allowed his heart to be pierced on the Cross. It was a symbol of what had already happened. He says to each of us, whose sins crushed Him to death: “If an enemy had done this, I could bear it… But it is you, my companion, my intimate friend” (Ps 55:13-14). His love for us made the wound all the more painful. Perhaps, when grieving the loss of a loved one, we can identify with Mary’s heart as well, which was “pierced by a sword,” according to Simeon’s prophecy, when she saw her beloved Son crucified in agony before her eyes. Love is the only sword that can penetrate that deeply. Yet love is also what makes us most fully human, and because humans are created in the image of God, who is Love, it makes us most like Him.

So now I have to “switch gears” and go back to my usual rounds of prayer and work and ministry. I was able, mostly, to do so during the past weeks, but some things will be different now. There will be no anxious checking of phone messages to see if there has been any development, no focusing of prayer upon Laura’s final preparation and purification (though I will continue to pray for her soul until she appears to me and tells me she’s already in Heaven!). There’s a kind of relief now, yet also a kind of emptiness. There’s peace, yet the grieving is not over. There’s gratitude and joy for her joy, yet there is that sword-point of loss. I think, though, that it’s not just going to be a return to my usual life. I think Laura is praying for me. My vision has improved; my life is coming into sharper focus. I’m going to spend the rest of it preparing for the Kingdom.

Abbot Joseph

Thursday, June 21, 2007

May Her Memory Be Eternal!

“Love never ends… when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away… now we see dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall understand fully…” (1Cor 13:8-12). Laura now sees face to face; she understands fully, for the imperfect has passed away. Laura died today at about 2:15 PM. She was 54 years old. Laura was sleeping, and the hospice nurse had just arrived, and she and Laura’s daughter Stephanie were about to change the dressings on her bedsores. They noticed she had stopped breathing and then checked and discovered that her heart had stopped as well. No violent throes, no last gasp. Her body quietly ceased functioning as her soul went to the Lord. Stephanie called me shortly afterward with the longed-for yet dreaded news, fully expected yet still a shock. When I answered the phone she said simply: “She’s gone!” We both had a good cry and talked a little. Shortly afterward I prayed a short memorial service for her and will do a fuller service later. Stephanie was right to say “gone” and not “dead,” for Laura is not dead, only her body is. Laura has gone to Heaven to be with her beloved Lord, for whom she suffered, in whom she believed and trusted, to whom she fervently prayed. She has gone to the place where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). God has wiped every tear from her eyes, even though our eyes may still be full of tears. But though they are to some extent tears of pain over the loss of her, they are also tears of joy and gratitude that God has taken her unto Himself, that she has fought the good fight and run the race. She has made it! She is now entering into the realization of the reason of her being; she now knows perfectly clearly why God created her, and she “rejoices with unutterable and exalted joy” (1Peter 1:8) and will do so forever. The next verse reads: “As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.” I am really very happy for her—not too happy for myself, but very happy for her!

I am also happy that the Lord in his mercy allowed me to be an instrument in her salvation. She first came to the monastery with her husband in the early ‘80s, and we got to know each other then, though not particularly well. After a few years of regular retreats, she stopped coming and we fell out of touch. A number of years went by, and she experienced many troubles and hardships, and she fell away from the Church and the sacraments, but not her faith, which was still alive in the depths of her soul, though I think she tried to more or less ignore it. At a certain moment in June of 2003 (this has been almost exactly a four-year adventure) she providentially discovered our website and decided to e-mail me, not sure if I would even remember her. She was at a particularly low point in her life. I was glad to hear from her and invited her to make another retreat here and we would talk about her life and her relationship with God and the Church.

The Lord blessed us very much. We renewed our friendship, and most importantly, Laura responded to the grace of God and returned to the Church and the sacraments. She did so wholeheartedly, even though it took some time to enter deeply into her spiritual life. About six months later she was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas.

She had never been sick in her life; it was a devastating blow to both of us, but there were two obvious graces to be noticed right off. First, she had turned back to God months before she had the slightest idea she was sick (the cancer was only discovered “by accident” when she had to see a doctor about an apparently unrelated case of jaundice). That means she wouldn’t have to wonder if her conversion were sincere, as if she were forced to turn to God only in desperation and fear of death. The second grace is the realization that God had foreseen all of this and arranged everything so that she would be in his grace when this “death sentence” was pronounced. How loving and merciful He is! She later told me that if she had been in her pre-conversion (or pre-“reversion,” as they call it) state when she received that diagnosis, she would have been utterly terrified and would probably have fallen into despair.

She underwent a long and dangerous surgery (in March of 2004), and I went up to be with her for a while at that time, till she was out of the hospital at least. She then underwent a grueling series of chemo and radiation treatments that nearly killed her. She cut them short and said that she would rather live the rest of her life, even if it would be shorter. She recovered slowly, but as soon as she was able (I think it was actually a little sooner than she was able!) she returned to the monastery to give thanks and to reconnect with the life and prayer of the monks, all of whom she soon grew to love. She wanted to grow spiritually. Even though she was extremely grateful to have been in the Lord’s grace when she went through her surgery and all that, she said she still did not feel spiritually prepared to die. I invested her in the Brown Scapular (she is Roman Catholic but preferred Byzantine Liturgy and spirituality), and I tried to assure her that she was on the path to salvation. She had a strong but healthy sense of repentance, as her writings show, and this kept her close to Truth. Her favorite psalm was Psalm 50(51).

I helped her as much as I could, teaching her the Divine Office and other ways of prayer, answering her questions about God and the Scriptures, etc.—even having a few debates once in a while. She was eminently teachable, but still had her own mind and opinions! She made fairly frequent retreats over the next year and a half, and her health improved remarkably well. Aside from a little extra fatigue, she was living a normal, healthy life, and we entertained the hope that perhaps the Lord had actually healed her completely. I suggested once in a while that she have a scan just to check, but she didn’t want to, saying that if she felt fine that was enough for her. During this time she also received the gift from God to write holy icons. She has done several that are in our church, as well as the one for our shrine of the Mother of God, which we dedicated in August of 2005. I am blessed and honored that she gave me the very first icon she ever wrote (the Holy Face, which you can see at the "Laura's icons" site). The last icon she wrote was, appropriately, the Crucifixion.

In March of 2006, she had a routine doctor’s appointment. Afterward, she called me and said, “Fr Joseph, be strong…” My heart sank. They found that the cancer had returned and had also spread, and they couldn’t do anything about it except buy her a little time with more chemo. The prognosis: minimum lifetime left, 4 months; maximum, 2 years (it ended up being a year and three months). She went on a milder form of chemo for a short time, but then gave it up. Again, she wanted to fully live whatever time she had left.

During that time she was sharing some of her thoughts with me—good ones, too!—about life and death and getting ready to cross the threshold into eternity. That’s when I suggested she start a blog and share them with the world. She hesitated at first, but I didn’t relent, and I think many people are glad that she wrote. Six weeks or so before she died she asked me to publish her blog in a little book, as I published my blog posts in book form. I will honor her request, and add some more information about her journey toward the Kingdom, and hopefully it will be published early next year.

Even though we knew her days were numbered, she still felt pretty well and still came to Mt Tabor, and so even though we talked about her approaching death, the magnitude of it didn’t really sink in. After all, there she was, healthy-looking (if a bit too thin), smiling, talking, attending services in our church, etc. Then came Holy Week of 2007.

Her family called me and said they had to rush her to the ER in the middle of the night because of severe pain. They thought she might die right then. I was deeply grieved, not only because of this turn of events, but because I could not be there to comfort her. It is would have been wrong for me to leave the monastery during Holy Week, for this is my primary responsibility. But as she declined further, I did go and spend a few days with her, a couple weeks after Easter. She was frail then, already on morphine, and could not walk even a few steps without assistance. But one day she insisted I take her out for an Orange Julius and to see the cemetery where she was going to be buried! I did it only because she asked, but it was a kind of reality check on her health, because that short trip so completely exhausted her that she wept, realizing that she really could never do even such simple things again. We talked and prayed together, I heard her confession and brought her Holy Communion while I was there, just trying to take care of her final preparations for the Kingdom.

I left with a heavy heart, knowing that it would be the last time I would see her on earth. But we still talked on the phone from time to time. Then, in mid-May she had another crisis, and everyone, including the hospice nurses, thought she had no more than a couple days left. That is when this great and painful journey to the Cross (or rather, through the Cross to the Kingdom) began. She couldn’t eat any more (the cancer was in her pancreas, stomach, and liver), and only took liquid from a wet sponge placed in her mouth. She went in and out of consciousness, pain increasing and morphine increasing apace. She went through a kind of “dark night” of fear and the absence of the sense of God’s presence—like Jesus: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”—through which I tried to help her, but I was never sure if she was really taking it all in. It was very painful for me to know she was going through this, but I just prayed more earnestly. I was able to talk to her a few times during those weeks, as you’ve read in previous posts. I was a kind of connection to God for her, and that is why she called for me in her agony. But I prayed that I would decrease and that Jesus would increase, so she would see only Him. I’m grateful to the Lord for giving me one last chance to talk to her on Tuesday, even though she couldn’t respond. I wanted to reassure her that Jesus was taking his sufferings into his and that she had nothing to fear, for nothing could separate her from his love. I also was able to tell her how proud of her I was for all she was courageously enduring. I will miss very much being able to talk to her, though I’m sure I still will go on doing so, even if I can’t hear any reply! I prayed for her much and with my whole heart, offering many Divine Liturgies for her. It was difficult, but I received this word in the midst of this trial: "Under this test...glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the Gospel of Christ" (2Cor 9:13). What I was to acknowledge, I think, is the "bottom line" of the Gospel of Christ: "He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live" (Jn 11:25).

She was still not sleeping well on Wednesday, but that’s when I received the precious news that she was calling on the name of the Lord, even in her semi-conscious state. I’m pretty sure now that it meant that she had safely passed through the dark night, and all that was left was for the Lord, the heavenly Bridegroom, to come for his faithful little bride. In my daily reading of Scripture (presently the Gospel of Mark), during the week before Laura’s death, I was getting little hints: “He called to Him those whom He desired, and they came to Him (Mk 3); “Let us cross over to the other side…” (Mk 4); “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5). Then, when I was getting a bit nervous about how things were progressing, this was for me: "Peace, be still!... Have you no faith?" (Mk 6). Then back to Laura: “Take heart, it is I, have no fear” (Mk 6); “Whoever loses his life for My sake…will save it” (Mk 8).

Finally, today I read: “Take heart, rise, He is calling you…” (Mk 10). Furthermore, the Gospel at the Liturgy today was: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” (Mt 11). Tears came to my eyes as I heard that, and I prayed that this would be the day that He would give her eternal rest. It was so perfect. [I'm adding this on Friday: I asked for a word from Scripture to somehow confirm that she is with the Lord. I opened the Bible, and it is as if she herself gave me the word: "The King has brought me into his chambers" (Songs 1:4). God is good.]

Before I close, I want to fulfill another one of her requests. She had wanted me to serve her funeral, though I will be unable to do so (I told her that, so she didn’t die with that expectation). But the reason was not so much that it would be I who did it, but that the people could hear the texts of the Byzantine service. I don’t know if they are going to arrange for the Byzantine priest from Seattle to come and do it (that was suggested) or if the local pastor would do it (it’s OK, he’s orthodox). But she did not want one of those funerals at which people tell funny stories and make a party out of it. (That can and should be done with family and friends—but not in church.) True to the Byzantine tradition, she wanted her funeral to be a “teaching moment” in which people would be reminded of the brevity of life and the inescapability of death and judgment. So here are a few typical texts from the service (this is definitely not a politically correct funeral but a sobering tonic):

“Come, brothers and sisters, let us bid a last farewell to her who has passed away, and also let us thank God. She is leaving her relatives and is hastening to the grave. No longer is she concerned about the vanity of the world and her human passions. Where are her relatives and friends? Behold, we are parting now. Let us pray to the Lord for her repose.

“What is our life? Indeed, it resembles a flower or smoke or the morning dew. Let us come and we will see: where is the physical beauty, where the youthfulness? All such things have faded like the grass and have disappeared. Despite all this, let us come and with tears fall down before Christ.”

The service even puts words in the mouth of the deceased:

“I am going to the Lord God, my Judge, to stand in judgment and to give an account of all my deeds. In the meantime I ask you to pray for me, that the Savior be merciful to me when He judges me. Thus we separate; indeed all is vanity… Just a while ago I talked to you and then the awful hour of death struck. Come, all who love me, and greet me for the last time.”

Finally, there are prayers of commending her soul to the Lord. There is actually much hope reflected in the service, but the texts do not flinch at the hard and final reality of death. It actually helps us grieve now, so we can rejoice in hope before too long. Here is the final prayer (personalized):

“O God of all spirits and of all flesh, You trampled death and broke the power of satan and granted life to your world. Now grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of your handmaid Laura, in a place of light, joy, and peace, where there is no pain, sorrow or mourning. As a kind and gracious God, forgive every sin committed by her in word, deed, or thought, since there is no one who exists and does not sin. You alone are without sin, your righteousness is everlasting and your word is truth. For You are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of your departed handmaid, Laura, O Christ our God, and we glorify You, together with your Eternal Father and your All-holy, Good, and Life-giving Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

“In blessed repose, grant eternal rest, O Lord, to the soul of your departed handmaid Laura, and remember her forever.”

The choir then sings: “Let her memory be eternal, let her memory be eternal. With your saints, O Christ, grant her rest—and eternal memory.” At the end of the burial, the priest blesses the four sides of the grave, saying: “This grave is sealed until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Amen, Laura’s “passion” is over. Consummatum est. I’m so glad that the moment of her soul’s liberation has come. All that remains is life everlasting. So this is not an end but a glorious beginning. I’m sure she is happier at this moment than she ever imagined she could be. We used to say to each other, on her journey of growing faith, when we had some experience that confirmed what we believe: “It’s all true!” If only I could see her now and hear her say those words to me, with her big smile! But the day will come when we all share the same glory and joy—if we live this life as a preparation for the Kingdom.

Goodbye Laura, for now. We will miss you. Please pray for us that we may one day join you in Paradise. For love never ends…

A Bit of Encouragement

I talked to one of Laura's sons yesterday. At first the news wasn't too good; she's still in and out of consciousness, trying to speak but mostly unable. They think she's building up a tolerance to the medication and so can't sleep very well, and is still in some pain (though it's hard to know just how much), but there are limits as to how much morphine and sedatives can be administered.

The encouragement, however, is this: he said that, while they could make out almost nothing of what she is trying to say, two words were clear: "God" and "Jesus". I thought to myself: She's praying! He also said he thought he heard her trying to say the Hail Mary. I'm not sure, but I hope and pray that this means she has passed through the darkest stage of fear and confusion and lack of awareness of God's presence, and that she is somehow connecting with Him, despite her diminished physical and mental capacities. I don't know how her body keeps going; she has "fasted" for 40 days now, and has been without water for 10, and the cancer continues to destroy her body from within. She still seems to be quite alive interiorly, though she is entirely immobile physically and unable to communicate what she is thinking or feeling. This, I think, is quite frustrating for her. But the fact that she has the name of God on her lips is something of a relief for me, and it gives me more confidence that God truly has her secure in his hands.

Please continue to pray. She is still suffering, but I hope her liberation will come very soon.

Abbot Joseph

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Divine Schedule

I received a call from Laura’s daughter this morning. (I’m glad I received that letter yesterday, for it helped me accept the events of today.) She said that Laura woke up somewhat, but was still not able to communicate much. But she did say that Laura asked for me, so she put the phone to her ear so I could talk to her. For that I am grateful, because I was able to say a few things that I had wanted to say before she died. Yet it was also heartbreaking because Laura was struggling to say something to me, but she couldn’t. All she could do was make little sounds that no one could decipher. She was in pain, and that’s another reason her daughter called. Even with heavy doses of morphine (when she first started taking it, the dosage was 30mg every 12 hours; now it is 160mg every hour) as well as the sedatives, she is still in pain. But I’m sure her agony isn’t only about physical pain. When one is reduced to such a basic level of functioning, the primal instincts of self-preservation and fear of death surface, along with the sense of helplessness and of being alone—unable to say what one is desperately trying to say. Whatever else may be going on in her soul is something that God infuses in her, and that profound spiritual communion may even be something of which she is not consciously aware—yet everything God does will bear its intended fruit. It is very painful to stand next to her cross, even from a distance, but I’m doing everything I can to be available and to help her. It’s even more difficult for her family who helplessly stand by.

The most important thing I told her was something I believe that I heard from the Lord over a week ago, but which I was unable to tell her. During the Creed at Compline, when we said “He was crucified for us,” I looked up at our large icon of the crucifixion and suddenly I heard in my soul: “I am taking her death into Mine.” This must be the reason for her extended suffering. I told her that to comfort her—both so that she understands that her pain is not random or fruitless, but something wholly in God’s hands, and also that she would know that because Jesus is taking her death into his, nothing can separate her from his love. She is safe, secure, and on her way to Heaven. He has done this for her, even though it costs much suffering. I think she needed to know that she was not alone, that even her fears or turmoil do not mean that God is absent, but that this is all part of the mystery of the Cross and that she will soon be free from pain and enjoying the happiness of the blessed. I repeated these and similar things several times so that it would sink in, and I told her I was proud of her for her witness and her sacrifice and suffering for the Lord’s sake.

I also was able to give her a consoling Scripture verse, and I think this was providential, because I was working on a reflection on the “farewell discourses” of Jesus, beginning with chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, when her daughter called, so it was on my computer screen: “I will come and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.” She may be with Him on the Cross now, but soon she will be with Him where He is in his glory and light. I don’t know how much of all this she understood or will be able to remember, but her daughter said she thinks that Laura understands what is said to her, even if she cannot speak. She said that the pain etched in Laura’s face subsided after I talked to her, so I hope that she will have some peace for a while.

Last night I opened a book I’m reading and saw this chapter title: “The Divine Schedule is Flawless.” (I recommend this book for anyone in a time of grief or pain. It is A Path through Suffering: Discovering the Relationship between God’s Mercy and our Pain, by Elisabeth Elliot.) It is based to some extent on the writings of a Christian missionary who died in North Africa in 1928. These writings are reflections on our relationship to God, using the life cycles of various flowers as analogies. “There is a definite moment at which the seed is ripe for being liberated… All prepared are the hooks or spikes or gummy secretions needed to anchor it to the ground, and so to give purchase to the embryo shoot when the time comes for it to heave its tombstone and come out into the light. Even its center of gravity is so adjusted that, in falling from the sheath, the germ is in the very position for its future growth. If it is torn out of the husk a day too soon, all this marvelous preparation will be wasted and come to naught.”

Laura is following the divine schedule. There is a definite moment at which her soul will be ripe for liberation. Everything that has been going on, painful as it is both for her and for us, is part of the “marvelous preparation.” The Lord will not allow her to go a day too soon and thus spoil the perfection of his work. Perhaps her pain is that of the “adjustment of her center of gravity,” so that when the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it will bear much fruit (Jn 12:24).

So let us pray that Laura will follow the flawless divine schedule to perfection. I hope that means that Jesus will take her to Himself soon, that where He is she will be, but in the meantime the Lord’s will is being done. Even Jesus once sought deliverance from it because of the unspeakable pain of body and soul required of Him, but in the end—to our everlasting happiness—He chose the Father’s will, as we are called to do now.

Abbot Joseph

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Letter

I just received a letter from a friend who has been “following Laura's situation from the quiet sidelines for a while.” I had written to her just to unburden myself a little, and she wrote back the following. Since I haven’t yet asked her if I can make it public, I’ll leave her anonymous. But this is worth sharing with you:

“All I can conclude is that the death process is far more mysterious than we thought. And death is not limited to Laura's body, but it includes our expectations and assumptions about this as well. I've been getting one message consistently from this—that God is using her prolonged, protracted death to show us that He is greater than we imagine. Not greater at abandoning or neglecting us, or in delighting in our suffering to maybe settle some score, but greater in His love than we think we know. Something is going on here, something is being revealed in this mystery—I mean, the mystery itself is revealing something to us, and it may be more about us than Laura. My hunch is that God is using her faithfulness and love for Him for our good, for the enlightenment of the onlooker crowd who thought they might come to some reasonable expectation or presumption, given the medical knowledge and data and history of these illnesses.

“I have no idea what that lesson is yet, and it could run the gamut from something very simple—a goal of humility for us, say—to something way more heroic and loving on Laura's part—a kind of intercessory purpose to the powerful end days she's living right now. The fact that we can even propose conclusions tells me it may actually be something else, something we can't, and even aren't supposed to reason out. Father, they still do not know exactly what causes the onset of labor, when a mother's body begins the frightening mount of contractions. Let me tell you, it's involuntary, and you can't put it in reverse and come back the next day, or do it in doses. Once you give your body up to hold a growing new life, you are God's vessel. You are in His hands, and you will know that pain and agony of bringing that precious life forth. He can't do it without your flesh, muscles, sweat and pain.

“I keep getting that same picture here, but applied at the other end of life, in what we call "death". If Laura has given herself to God for His purpose, then she is His vessel. Whatever use He has of her, or plan for her, is His alone to know (until He clues her in eventually...). I loved what you wrote on her blog a few days back, when you rather firmly and clear-eyed-ly said that this is their intimacy. And intimacy is not for crowds, for commentary, for guessing why or what happens next. God veils these things for good reason.

“This is a time for reverent silence. And you know, it's going on all the time! Souls are doing this, have been doing this since time began, and still we are surprised, moved and awed—as we should be. It may be that God is…covering all eyes watching this. When He intends mystery, He's going to protect and guard it, until the time has come to draw the curtain back for our eyes to understand and know. I believe that he allows nothing out of unlove, but everything out of intense love: even a death that confounds our expectations, that will end as it began—in mystery, in intimacy; hidden, safe, held, and cherished.”

Nothing much to report. Laura has been unconscious for the past few days. We’re just keeping vigil.

Abbot Joseph

Thursday, June 14, 2007


I talked with Laura's daughter today. I was hoping I might find Laura awake, because there was something I thought I could tell her to give her a little peace, in case she was still troubled. But I was told that Laura is being sedated now, so that she will sleep most of the time. When she is awake, she is still in pain, even with the heavy dose of morphine she's been taking. The morphine plus the sleeping medication seem to keep her relatively comfortable. The combination of the morphine and her lack of nourishment and the pain tended to make her rather agitated, and her mental capabilities have been getting kind of inconsistent. Her children knew it wasn't really their mother talking if she would get upset or confused, but rather the drugs and the illness.

So they asked Laura first if she would mind if they gave her something that would make her sleep most of the time. Being so worn out with suffering and distress, she said that it was OK, that she was ready to "sleep and go." Perhaps the worst of her sufferings are finished now--let us pray--and hopefully she will be able to sleep until the Lord comes for her. I don't suppose it will be long now, but this whole journey has been much longer than expected. They told me that if she did have a lucid and alert moment, they would call so I could talk to her, but probably I've said my last words to her already.

To paraphrase the Gospel, I think the Lord is saying: "Our friend Laura has fallen asleep, but I go to wake her." Not like he woke Lazarus, who still had to die again, but an awakening unto everlasting life and happiness. "As for me, when I awake, I shall see the sight of Your glory" (Ps 17).

Thank you for your continued prayers.

Abbot Joseph

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

This Morning

I talked to Laura at about 4:00 AM today. She is still somewhat troubled. She said she's been having strange thoughts and feelings that keep her from peace. She wants to go to the Lord, but she thinks there's still something blocking his coming for her, and that is why she is troubled.

I tried to explain to her that since she has had no food for almost a month and has been taking strong drugs during that time, her capacity to think clearly and feel normally is diminished. (Her pain has been getting worse, and now she is on a constant morphine drip.) So I just encouraged her repeatedly to trust in the Lord, to realize that "peace with God," which St Paul says is ours through Christ, is not a feeling but a fact, a state a being, a relationship, and that there is nothing she could do at this point to lose her salvation or to be separated from God's love. I told her to repeat the psalm verse, "Only in God is my soul at rest..." and before I could finish the verse, she did so herself: "in Him is my salvation." Her family told me that after I talked to her, she calmed down considerably.

She thought she was going to die on Sunday, but that didn't happen. I have no idea why she has survived this long, nor does anyone else. Her suffering has been increasing, both interiorly and exteriorly. As I was praying for her, I thought of what the Lord said about his own suffering after his resurrection: "Did not the Christ have to suffer and so enter into his glory?" So I resigned myself to the fact that Laura has to suffer before she can enter into glory.

I talked to one of her sons on Sunday. He spoke of her, that emaciated, semi-conscious figure lying on her bed of suffering, and he eloquently summed up all his love and pain simply by saying: "She's my mom." My heart went out to him and all her family who are caring for her and watching her slowly die.

I don't know if I will talk to her again. She may be in her final agony. I really have no idea what the Lord is doing with her, but to whom shall I go? He has the words of eternal life and the power to save, so I put my trust in Him. Please continue to pray for her.

Abbot Joseph

PS Pray also for so many people in the world who live heedlessly and have no idea what they are going to have to face when they come to the end of their lives. If Laura has to struggle so much--she who loves the Lord and has served Him well, has lived a fairly intense sacramental and prayer life the past few years, and has witnessed publicly to His truth--what will it be like for those who have ignored God's commandments and lived for their own pleasures? We only have one opportunity in this world to prepare ourselves for eternity. Let us not wait until the last minute, for we may find ourselves unable to endure the moment of realization that there's nothing more we can do, that we have no strength left, that it's too late to try to start living a righteous life. The Lord has told us; we must take Him seriously.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Please Pray

I was able to talk to Laura for a few minutes today, while her daughter held the phone to her ear. She was weak and rather groggy, but lucid. She said she feels like her time is almost up. She still hasn't eaten anything in almost 3 weeks, and only takes very small amounts of water. I'm surprised she is still alive.

This was a difficult conversation. She said she is afraid because she cannot feel the presence of God, and she began to cry. Then she said she wished I was there and I began to cry. I was there some weeks ago; I believe that was the time I was supposed to be there. Objectively seen, her soul is ready to go to God and is in his grace, even if she now has some subjective fear, which is normal. I'm unable to keep making the 850-mile trip, and chances are I would be too late anyway. What I can do for her I can do better here, since she's asleep most of the time. But I do feel rather helpless, and frankly, I hope the Lord will delay no longer in coming for her.

Laura seemed to be in relative peace after I talked to her. I had told her that even Jesus lost the awareness of his Father's presence when He was dying, and that this is her hour to share with Him on the Cross, for the Cross is the only way to Heaven. I reminded her of St Faustina's "Jesus, I trust in You," and of Jesus' own, "Into Your hands I commend my spirit." I tried to help her see that she has to focus all her attention on the Lord now. She is well taken care of; her family is all around her. I didn't want to add to her fear, and I didn't say it like this, but everyone has to die alone, that is, it is a most intimate matter between the soul and God. When that moment comes it doesn't matter who else is in the room; God is All. I reminded her of your prayers and concern as well, and she took comfort in that.

So please continue to pray. Pray that she has peace and trust, and that she will be protected from all fear and anxiety about crossing the threshold into eternity. Pray that after this moment of perceived abandonment, she will feel the Lord's presence and surrender to his embrace. I told her that He is waiting for her with open arms, and that she needs only to let herself go to Him. Pray also that she will remember the things I told her that gave her peace, because that's not easy in her condition. Thank you. I will keep you informed.

Abbot Joseph