I had occasion in recent days to spend a little time with a priest whose debilitating neurological disease has almost entirely robbed him of the ability to speak.
A stammer afflicts every sentence he attempts to utter. Even the simplest pleasantries can take half-a-minute or more to complete. It takes a great deal of patience, therefore, to try to carry on a conversation. And as for his life’s work – witnessing to the saving power of Christ – it’s essentially an impossible gift for him to offer today.
Liturgy, sacraments – they require words after all. Same with counseling or spiritual direction: If the shepherd struggles to express himself, the sheep experience little benefit in the attempt.
Our conversation, such as it was, had turned to the various assignments he’d handled through the years – where he’d served, what experiences had been particularly formative. I couldn’t make out a lot of the specifics, but enough detail emerged through the stammer to show me that this now-broken priest had done a lot of spiritual fixing in his time. Many thousands of souls had been touched and brought closer to the Lord.
Somehow, though, it was his very brokenness that provided the clearest demonstration of the presence of grace in his ministry. At one point in our talk, a particular thought or phrase confounded him. Unable to form the words, he paused for a moment, and then confessed “This drives me crazy!”
As he said the words, I noticed that I felt a deep empathy with him. Odd, because there was little common ground between us in the ways we’ve lived our adult lives – he as a priest, and I as a husband and father. Still, the empathy welled up in me. Empathy, over our experience of a certain level of helplessness.
Who hasn’t felt helpless at times, even when we’ve done our best to know God’s will…and to carry it out in our vocations?
All that effort, all that energy…and yet as we approach the end, it can seem to have come to naught. God takes away the very gift we thought might define our lives.
This priest, this holy man, seems to have come to a different conclusion. With each halting utterance, he grows in the understanding that helplessness, too, can be a gift. He admits that, sure, it drives him crazy at times. But he also experiences in his helplessness another sort of grace – the very promise God made to Simeon two thousand years ago…a pledge of power and faithfulness and ultimate redemption.
And so even through a stammer, he is able to pray with Simeon:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.