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.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

One Year

Today marks the first anniversary of Laura’s death. In some ways it seems like it has been a long time, and in other ways it all seems very recent. Probably she has little awareness of the passage of earth-time anymore, since she is in the heavenly “time zone.” She must feel as if she has only very recently stepped through the Pearly Gates, what with all the wonder and blessing and new joys to discover. It’s almost too hard to imagine: is she really walking through Paradise with the Mother of God, to whom she prayed often to be with her at the hour of her death? And is she singing incredibly beautiful hymns with St Ephrem, whose lyrical writings she enjoyed so much? Is she having lunch (as it were) with St Joseph and St John the Evangelist, whose icons she painted here below? Is she looking into the eyes of Jesus, who loved her with an everlasting love and drew her to Himself after she shared in his Passion during her last weeks of suffering? Our minds are so limited. We don’t know much more than our own small troubles and joys, and the little bit of God’s wonders that we may have had the good fortune to experience, however briefly.

But of course, she is there and it is more than she could even communicate to us, should she be given the opportunity. Perhaps one reason the faithful departed don’t come to visit us very often is simply that we probably wouldn’t understand a thing they would tell us, since their new reality is so far beyond anything we could relate to in our own experience. They are the same persons, yet not the same. They are elevated, transformed; they see with eternal eyes now, and their thoughts are no longer like our thoughts. But they smile upon us and pray that we have the faith and the good sense to persevere in loving and serving the Lord on earth, so that we too may enter one day into the brilliant magnificence of the glory of God and the joy of the saints.

Back in February I received a couple e-mails from a newly-ordained priest who was known to Laura and who was with her shortly before she died. Once I had heard, through others, that another priest had been there, I wanted to know more details about how things were near the end of her life. He shared with me the following description of his visit to her, which has given me further consolation and confirmation that the Lord took special care that she would die in his grace and mercy, and be welcomed into his heavenly Kingdom.

“After the Priestly Ordination and First Mass this June, I had to leave directly to our Annual Priest’s Convocation at Ocean Shores for that week, and then proceed to Masses of Thanksgiving Port Angeles, WA, both about 4-5 hours from Anacortes [where Laura lived]. Being totally exhausted and pulled in many directions, I felt horribly guilty about not visiting Laura in the days before and after the Priesthood Ordination, noticing that she was not present for the celebrations and hearing from parishioners that she was near her end. I was praying that I might be able to see her before she died. I remember I had talked with her when she was bedridden about the date of my ordination on the Feast of St. Ephrem, and she lit up and talked for quite some time about how beautiful his hymns are.

“Finally a day or two before I was to leave again for some more Masses in the southern part of the diocese… I concelebrated Holy Mass at St. Mary’s, and then decided it was time to go see Laura. After Mass, I caught Sr. Mary Matthew and Kathy Moore, and asked them to come with me… This would also be my first Anointing and giving of the Last Rites.

“When we arrived, JP [one of her sons] met us at the door and showed us to her room with all the beautiful icons. Sr. Mary Matthew and Kathy had already been in the room first and were praying over her with the Relic of the True Cross. I was shocked at how emaciated she was. JP said that she should have died weeks before, and that she had been restless, and was waiting for the priest to come. When I knelt down to look at her, she started to react, though she could not say anything, but I know she knew who I was. I told her I was just ordained and was going to give her the Last Rites. So for the first time in my priesthood, with her family present and the good sisters praying, I led the prayers, and then gave her the Absolution, and for the first time of my priesthood, I then gave her the Apostolic Pardon, laid my hands on her and gave her the Sacrament of the Anointing. She was alert and responsive throughout the whole ceremony, and afterwards. I then thanked her for waiting for me and allowing me the privilege to exercise priestly ministry to the sick for the first time with her. I know she tried to respond. She tried to speak after it was over, but she did seem more at rest. I stayed a bit with her, blessed the room and the family with Holy Water, and [we] paid our respects and left.

“Later I learned with great emotion that she had died shortly after I was there that day. It was about 10:30 AM when we arrived at the house, I forget when we left [Laura died about 2:15 PM]. I think the fact she let go so soon afterward reassures me that she was at peace with the Lord that day. Though I barely knew Laura for only a few years and with brief exchanges and visits at church and related to her son, it still was a very humbling experience to know that she did wait almost two weeks since my ordination for the priest to come welcome her home. I still regret not having arrived sooner, but I know she is praying for me all the same… Also, I had the privilege to concelebrate the Divine Liturgy of her funeral with Fr. Stanichar and Fr. Vu Tran. It was all quite a dream and a sorrow and a joy!”

I don’t know if I’ll have much more to say on this blog, unless Providence decrees that I become the happy recipient of some vision or miracle related to her. But I did want to acknowledge this anniversary, the first—and most difficult, I’m sure—and again to thank all those who “kept vigil” on this blog as she prepared to enter the Kingdom, and all those who prayed for her. May her prayers for us now help keep us on the narrow but life-giving path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

One last thing. Since I have not actually heard personally from Laura since she died, though I believe St Therese gave me a sign of her salvation, I still have wanted something clearer. I thought to myself that I should ask for some "sign from Heaven," though I figured that the Lord figured that He had given me enough. I thought, "if it rains on her anniversary, that will be a sign she is safe in Heaven." That may not sound like much, but where I live we don't usually get a drop of rain from about mid-May to October or so, and there is always danger of wildfires because everything is so dry. I was a little afraid to seek this sign, because it would be like setting myself up for disappointment. The weather forecast was as it always is this time of year. Same every day: sunny, sunny, sunny. As I write this post it is raining...

Abbot Joseph