“They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” (Mark 7:37)
September 6, 2015
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
In the Celtic tradition they’re called thin places — where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin, where we can sense the divine more readily. Thin places can be actual geographic locations, often of rare power and beauty, or they may be extraordinary interpersonal encounters where heaven and earth seem joined, where God seems nearer.
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Serving as a hospital chaplain, I’ve experienced regularly the nearness of God as I sit with patients and families. In such a critical setting and at such crucial times, there’s no room left for the idle chatter of earlier, better days. As a chaplain, I get to talk with people about what matters most. I often get to assist them in making the hardest decisions they’ve ever had to make. For many, I get to be the bridge spanning the dark chasm between the limits of medicine and the hope of heaven.
But my hospital encounters are not all weighty and grim; indeed, some are bright serendipitous moments when God’s grace and sense of humor blend and swirl in delight and mystery. As now I look back, I can see God’s provident hand inviting me into the lightsome encounters that sustained me in darker moments. Especially do I think of Millie and Natalina, two grandmotherly figures, wizened angels, who kept me close to God. And to laughter.
During the years 1990-2000, when I served as Director of Pastoral Care at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I crossed paths with Millie and Natalina almost daily. Living within a block of the hospital, both were elderly, devout Catholics. The noontime Mass in the hospital chapel was our usual sparring ground, they hawk-eyeing my every word and move from the chairs they'd claimed as matriarchal thrones set mid-congregation. When a brief homily offered at Mass was not brief enough, Millie would loudly clear her throat, then, having captured my attention, raise her eyebrows into high peaks of disdain. Natalina was less delicate. She'd begin a loud coughing fit, and if I persisted in spite of her cues, she'd begin rapping her cane on the side of her chair.
At both Christmas and Easter, the women showered me with special attention. Millie, Lithuanian by birth and marriage, prepared for the holidays with a baking blizzard in her small kitchen, turning out thousands of delicate kieflies, small bow-tie shaped pastries filled with a ground walnut mixture. Each Christmas and Easter, she'd haul tray loads of kieflies to the chapel, dropping the gift in my arms with a wide smile and a kiss planted on my cheek.
Natalina's holiday observance took quite a different turn. Italian by birth and marriage, she'd left Italy for Bridgeport in mid-life, and though she'd been in America forty years, she spoke little English, though her comprehension of the spoken word was fair. With the yearly approach of Christmas and Easter, Natalina felt the need to be absolved of her general nastiness toward the world, so she’d approach me for confession. I knew the chosen day had arrived when, entering the sacristy before Mass, she’d capture my attention with a whack of her cane against my leg, demanding in heavily accented English, "Hey priest, I confess now." Wishing to avoid further beatings, we'd immediately retire to my office where, in Italian, she'd confess her sins. Since I understood no Italian, I never knew whether she was telling me she'd used the Lord's name in vain or had killed her husband, but it didn't seem to matter. That look in her eye and the cane at her side communicated clearly that her sins were for God's ears alone, I merely the messenger of divine forgiveness. So, year by year at Christmas and Easter, I'd nurse my bruised calf and hear her Italian confession.
When I left Bridgeport in 2000, I said goodbye to many relationships, Millie and Natalina among them, but when word reached me that both had died during 2002, fond memories were rekindled. Millie died in the springtime, infirmity having forced her out of her house and into a nursing home where she was tended by regular visits from the Missionaries of Charity, Sisters from Mother Theresa's community recently come to Bridgeport. Natalina died mid-December at the age of 88, no doubt swinging her cane and loudly cursing her caregivers in Italian all the way to heaven's gate.
In the gospel passage we hear today, a crowd witnessed the miracle Jesus performed. As St. Mark writes, “They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” (Mark 7:37)
Jesus opened the deaf man’s ears to hear and freed his mute tongue to speak. This was the outward miracle that fascinated the crowd that had gathered. But the inner, invisible miracle was of greater significance as Jesus also opened the man’s heart and mind to belief in him as God’s own son.
I can imagine that grateful man returning to the place of healing many times, there remembering the miracle and giving praise to God for what wonders had occurred. For the man who had been healed, this physical location — this thin place — marked the very spot where heaven had come to earth.
As I look back and identify thin places in my own life, it’s more about rich encounters with people than physical locations. It’s about people like Millie and Natalina, wizened angels, who, entering the hospital chapel for Mass each noontime with kieflies, kisses and a stout cane, kept me loved and laughing.