Excerpt #9 from A TIME TO...
At St. Peter’s Catholic Church on the lower east side of Manhattan, in the shadows of the World Trade Center’s imposing twin towers, a NYC fire department chaplain contemplates the dream he had the night before.
He struggles to find meaning in it since the situation he found himself in is so out of character. When was the last time he cleaned his living quarters? He has had a housekeeper for as long as he can remember.
But there he was in his dream dusting furniture and vacuuming dirt from the floors. The other strange thing about his dream is that he couldn’t get rid of the dust. In fact, the more he cleaned, the more dust would appear. Finally, it got so bad that he began choking on the dust and that’s when he woke up.
As he sips his coffee, a passage from the book of Genesis comes to mind. “…For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.” Maybe that is it, he thinks. The night before, he had discussed death at length with several fire fighters at Ladder Company 6. It isn’t a subject the fire fighters speak of often, even though they each had friends who lost their lives while battling fires. A couple of these fire fighters almost died on the job. Frank is one of them.
“It happened so fast. One second there was a clear path to the door out, the next, nothing but flames between me and it,” Frank told Father Tom with horror in his voice. “I looked all over for another exit… other doors…. other windows. Flames and smoke were everywhere. We’re trained to deal with every situation, but for the life of me, nothing came to mind that would save me. My heart was racing. I was dripping sweat and thought I was about to die….”
“Oh, thank God you didn’t,” Father Tom interrupted. “How did you get out?”
”A strange thing happened. ‘God help me, God help me’ I whispered over, and over. Then all of a sudden, images came to mind of some cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid on Saturday mornings. The next thing I knew, I was running through the flames that blocked my way out, just like the character did in the cartoon. I don’t know how I got out without being burned.”
“That’s a good story. Do you mind if I use it in a homily some time?” asked Father Tom.
“Why? Don’t you think it’s weird?”
“…Not at all. God works in mysterious ways,” Father Tom advised.
“I guess so. Sure, you can use it,” Frank confirmed.
“I’ve told you guys this before, but let me say it again,” Father Tom said with a lump in his throat. “You are my heroes. God has truly blessed you so that you can put your life on the line again and again for people you don’t even know – ‘For there is no greater love than to give one’s life for someone else.’”
“Father, can I ask you something?” whispered Steve, another firefighter.
“Certainly…anything,” Father Tom encouraged.
“Does God determine when we all die?” he asked as if he were a child.
After a brief pause to collect his thoughts, Father Tom responds, “Let me first ask you this before I answer your question. Does God determine when we are born?”
“My mother and father had a lot to do with it,” Steve offered.
“Ha, quite right… just as their mothers and fathers had a lot to do with their entrances into this world, and so on to the beginning of life on Earth,” Father Tom continued.
“I don’t get it. Did you answer my question?” Steve asked with a puzzled face.
“No. No. But now I can,” Father Tom said. “You see, God created all life and everything in our physical world. The natural forces that God created continuously reshape this world. You know... the weather, the ocean tides, and earthquakes. So when someone dies in a natural disaster, God did determine to a degree that death. It’s not that God willed that untimely death. He just lets nature take its course.”
“What about death by disease, accidents, murder, war? You know... things that come out of nowhere that take some lives and not others? It seems like God saves some and not others,” Steve explained.
“Wait a minute,” Father Tom interjected. “You’re getting ahead of me. As I was saying, God lets natural disasters, like tornadoes take lives. Why God set up this world to have all kinds of life and health threatening risks is a question only God can answer. I’ll include sickness and disease in this category. Then, there are those other risks that you mention, ‘accidents, murder, and war,’ that have more to do with the human condition. We have some control over these things. I say ‘we’ in that they are tied to human activity and our free will. These wouldn’t be risks if God didn’t make our bodies so fragile and he didn’t let us decide how we use our bodies.
“Again, you’ll have to get the answers about why this is so from God,” Father Tom reiterated. “We just need to understand and accept that this is life. It’s up to each of us how we respond to it. Oh, almost forgot to mention ‘evil’ and how it can influence the choices we make. So for reasons known only to God, we have natural disasters, all kinds of diseases, a body and a mind that bruise easily, and evil at work all around us that is responsible for lots of bad choices, including the taking of another’s life. The good news is that God helps us make choices when we listen to what he whispers to us.”
“So, God doesn’t determine exactly when we will die, he’s just involved in the bigger picture?” Frank asked.
“That’s the way I see it. And, the bigger picture includes our eternal life with God. Life on Earth is like a school where we learn lots of things to grow our spirits. And, upon graduation, we go to one of two places – Heaven or Hell. Not all suffering is bad. For some reason, often it helps us to graduate with honors if we let it.”
Father Tom’s gift from God is his ability to empathize with others, to help ease their sufferings. He listened, really listened to what they had to say about what was troubling them, and how they expressed themselves. That’s why his responses were always so effective in helping others. Father Tom’s gift was realized later in life. It wasn’t apparent in his childhood.
Something happened that shifted his view of the world. That something was very complicated in ways, but very simple in another. Father Tom told anyone who asked about the change in him this way, “I found God and then He found me when I was drawn to the priesthood.”
One thing that didn’t change from his childhood was his tendency to overstate any health concern. He was and is today a full-fledged hypochondriac. Those who know him have fun with it. “Looking a little under the weather Tom,” his fellow priests would say whenever they wanted to engage him in conversation. Father Tom accepted this character trait just as he accepted his prominent nose. It wasn’t one of his better attributes, but that’s who he was. In his later life, he came to see his hypochondria in a more positive light. In those times of concern, he found himself turning to God in prayer, and that he thought to himself is a good thing. Anything that brought him closer to God couldn’t be all bad.