PREPARE FOR THE KINGDOM

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.

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…

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

:'-( Thank You, Jesus.

God love you, Abbot Joseph. We'll hold the family, now.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Paula said...

may God rest her gentle soul in peace...:-(...

8:45 PM  
Blogger MikeF said...

Dear Abbot Joseph, thank you so much for writing the postscript to Laura's life.

I have just discovered this wonderful blog - I do hope you will leave it up so that more of us may read of our Lord's beautiful grace to this extraordinary woman. We don't think enough about dying in the 21st century, yet it is a gate we shall all go through in our time; it is so good and wholesome to read the account of someone who walked up to it with such faith and such honest love...

5:20 AM  
Anonymous Pia said...

Rest in Peace Laura. I has been an honor to walk with you a bit.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Veritas said...

May laura rest in peace and live forever among the angels and the saints.

7:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peace be with you all. One of Laura's icons shows on my computer desktop. It's been there for a few weeks. Of course, it's a reminder of many things. It's kept Laura in my mind and acted as a spur to prayer. It's pricked my sense of mortality. It's reminded me of Abbot Joseph and God's grace that's shown so eloquently through him to my edification and inspiration. Life is short, art is long. All icons attempt to follow the rubrics, the traditions and the cartoon we trace. But as the Holy Spirit participates in the writing, all icons take on an individuality. Laura is in the icon that looks back to me from my computer screen. She left a piece of herself. She has become part of my devotional apparatus; her hand has written part of the story of my prayer life. Life is short, art is long. God bless Laura who now writes in the heavenly chambers. Please pray for me, Laura; pray for me all you other iconographers out there, pray for me Abbot Joseph. You all have my prayers as unworthy as they may be. Laura's journey has become part of the mystery of faith. Thanks be to God.

9:57 AM  
Blogger onionboy said...

Dear Abbot Joseph, thank you for your faithfulness in keeping this blog up to date. For us, it's done now. For Laura, it's just begun. God bless you.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Gabrielle said...

It's hard to say goodbye, Laura. Thank you for sharing your life with us, and your passing into the eternal alleluia. We will miss you.

10:24 PM  
Anonymous Pia said...

Abbot Joseph, please don't take down her blog for a while, I'd like to re-read some posts, and when you do publish the booklet, please let us know how to order it, especially for those of us living abroad.
Thank you.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Abbot Joseph said...

I will leave the blog up indefinitely and will announce when the book is ready. Thank you all for your love and prayers.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous ukok said...

This is my first visit and I am heartily saddened for not having been able to share in Laura's journey, to offer encouragement and prayers. Now, however, perhaps Laura will pray for me?

I would be very interested in reading the little book that you will publish about Laura's journey.

May her memory be eternal...

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was searching for the prayer "eternal memory" in remembrance of a Byzantine friend's late mother and came across this journal. Thank you for posting these beautiful tributes. My father died of pancreatic cancer on Good Friday 1998 after receiving the sacraments. I do not love death, but share the hope of what is beyond death with Christ.

8:26 PM  

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