‘For all who will meet God in the mystery of death today, we pray to the Lord.’
My friend, Jim Krings, said many wise things…heart-rending, soul-piercing things…to me, to us, as he lived out his vocation to the priesthood. This one thing, though—the petition he voiced at just about every Mass he celebrated for us—bubbled up for me today, the sixth anniversary of his death.
‘For all who will meet God in the mystery of death today…’
I suppose this recollection of Jim’s wisdom has to do in part with a liturgical coincidence: The reading we heard from Genesis at daily Mass is the same one proclaimed on the day of his death in 2009, and a few days later at his funeral. It’s the story of Abraham’s encounter with the Lord (or was it angels?) at the Terebinth of Mamre:
Looking up, he saw three men standing nearby.
When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them;
and bowing to the ground, he said:
“Sir, if I may ask you this favor,
please do not go on past your servant.
Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet,
and then rest yourselves under the tree.
Now that you have come this close to your servant,
let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves;
and afterward you may go on your way.”
On one level, the story certainly seems to endorse the spiritual gift of embracing mystery. When Abraham welcomes these strangers, he encounters God.
As I think back on our relationship, I realize that this is just the sort of grace that Jim grew to become in my life. We were strangers, more or less, when he agreed to serve as my spiritual director. In that capacity, he learned a lot about me, and I about him, over the next several years. He was my confessor, so he heard things from me that I don’t tend to reveal to others. And I always liked being reconciled through Jim, because so much of my sinfulness is habitual, systemic. It resists rooting out. Jim and his counsel were an elixir for that hardness of heart: Going to him regularly, he got to know my habits. He could point out, too, when certain sinful patterns came up less frequently in my confessions: ‘Progress!’, he’d say. And I would be encouraged, indeed.
In the end, though, his cancer returned. The man I’d looked to for answers began encountering a whole new set of mysteries—physical and spiritual needs that I often felt powerless to meet. And yet, he persisted…inviting me (and others) into the mystery of his illness. Through the final weeks of his life, I often felt like I didn’t know how to help him. And yet he forgave me that imperfection. My presence, imperfect as it was, seemed to console him. I in turn was blessed beyond measure by my proximity to him in his final days.
What a gift this stranger had become to me! For years on end, we’d tried to sort things out—Jim and I. We’d wrestled to find the answers to life’s most vexing questions. We’d celebrated each other’s insights, arriving perhaps at a waypoint on the path to enduring wisdom. Or were we simply nibbling on the peel of the forbidden fruit – attempting to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil?
Because mystery is often at the heart of things, is it not?
Jim’s frequent petition taught me that. His last brave and tentative steps toward death did, too.
That’s typically not the way of the world. Still steeped in the original sin, we always want answers.
God encourages us to welcome the stranger instead. And in that encounter, we come to understand a greater truth, the deepest mystery of all: that nothing ‘is too marvelous for the Lord to do.’
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.