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The art of hearing God

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, March 18, 2005

When that little devil and miniature angel sit on opposite shoulders to advise me, it seems like the devil’s seductions are always more intriguing. So it follows that religious institutions divide teaching about faith in similar terms – extol the positive to gain heavenly rewards or warn of the damnation awaiting sinners. Human nature, such as it is, inevitably responds more vociferously to a negative reaction, especially one replete with the disgust of abominations. Ultimately, American clergy pepper us with definitions of “what is wrong with us” more than “what is right with God.”

Lost in the everyday lives, we generally gloss over religious rhetoric and miss the subtle ways God whispers his lessons to us. After many Lenten seasons with a deaf ear, I finally heard God’s word this year through Deacon Nicholas at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. It took three experiences with the deacon before the enlightened word echoed loud and clear.

Last autumn I served as a lector at mass with Deacon “Nick” when I first met him. After he missed reading the general intercessions, I joked with him about “covering his back” since I literally walked up behind him to mumble that he missed his assignment but that I was on my way to cover for him. Our seamless choreography left the congregation none the wiser for his mistake.

In February when I next saw Deacon Nick, he drank several glasses of water before mass. He shook slightly while he sat waiting for the procession to begin. I offered to read the intercessions again if he was unable to during mass. He thanked me for offering and said that he would let me know when the time came.

Deacon Nicholas delivered his homily on the transfiguration while standing in the aisle outside the sanctuary. He described his daily fight with Parkinson’s Disease. I cannot recall many of his specific comments, but remember that tears welled in my eyes. He spoke of his rationalization of his daily challenge and thanked those who at times had to feed and dress him. He spoke of his appreciation of events that transformed his life, like his spiritual journey to the mountain top and returning to see the brilliance in the eyes of his loved ones.

While he spoke, he tightly grasped his garment in the middle of his back with his right hand so it would not shake. It reminded me of Adolf Hitler whose same right hand violently shook by the end of World War II. Why would God afflict the deacon with the same punishment for a dictator?

As he climbed the stairs to the alter and paused to bow, he lost his balance, staggered back a step but did not fall. His courage to continue fought complete exhaustion. I read the intercessions this time because he could not. It was the second time I did my small part for him at our next mass.

Deacon Nick stood rigid behind the alter directly in front of me looking like one of the military guard at Arlington National Cemetery. His shaved head and tall profile stood almost at attention while he tightly gripped his robe square in the middle of his back.

When we again served together two weeks ago, Deacon Nicholas swallowed pills with his several glasses of water before mass. I asked him if he and the Pope had the same affliction to which he said yes. He had thought of the why of the coincidence. Feeling awkward, I blurted out, “You are lucky. You know your path. It is an honor to have the same cross to bear as the Pope.”

During the prayer prior to our departure, he mentioned the recent passing of a 39-year-old woman he once dated. Then, while we stood in line before our procession, he joked that the period before mass seemed like back stage at a rock concert with its hustle and organized chaos. It was his favorite time of mass.

The deacon tired during mass but did not stumble. Taking the pills before mass probably had an effect since his hand shook less than the other times I had accompanied him. For the third time in as many masses I read the intercessions for him even though I did not have an opportunity to practice before mass. Death is the great equalizer among us. As all of us march toward our end on earth, we hold many varying thoughts of what lies ahead. Yet none of us has the answer. Christians, in search of answers, comb through every word of the Bible to know Jesus. However, those literal words are probably revised concoctions rewritten during the first few hundred years of the Church by zealous men with agendas like Pope Gregory.

Early Christians gladly offered their lives without defining specific personal relationships with their savior. True Christians never called on a ban of thought like the Italian Cardinal from Genoa who now seems to have begun his campaign for Bishop of Rome by suddenly opposing the sale of “The Da Vinci Code” in Catholic bookstores. Brothers in faith never worried about the politics of Caesar like Americans today who seem to blur with their religious agendas slogans like “culture of life” that turns a blind eye to opposing the death penalty and war.

We may learn about God, but none of us really knows God unless we hear his whispers of worth, dignity and rights for all mankind. Those whispers come in many forms and events. For me, reading three times for Deacon Nicholas has given meaning and understanding to life. I am fortunate to have heard a meaningful Lenten whisper.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.