The quiet of the church rushed at me as I walked inside. A gray winter dawn had arrived without much enthusiasm. I dipped my fingers into the holy water receptacle, crossed myself and walked down a dimly lit corridor and into the darkened sanctuary where I knelt and prayed for the soul of a needy miscreant: -- me.
Prayer had not come easy. I'd slowly begun to pull from heart and form in my mind words that asked God to look after friends, family and whoever else might need some help.
Yet I had not been able to pray for my sorry soul. My friend Bob, far wiser than me in so many respects, strongly impressed the idea that God not only wants to help me, he has forgiven me and I don't have a choice in the matter.
I had come for 6:45 a.m. Mass, which is typically attended by a couple dozen people and is held in the church's small, austere chapel. The old priest who welcomed me back to Mother Church usually served as celebrant.
I found my normal seat a few minutes before Mass began and continued to pray. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I repeated the prayers I learned as a boy. Those tears served as a balm. There, in that chapel, nothing could harm me. I silently lay open my fears and vulnerabilities, knowing I would not be judged. I felt safe. I knew I did not suffer alone.
Many of the responses at this Mass are sung. I added my voice with all the enthusiasm I could muster. I needed God to hear me.
After Mass, I stopped at Bialy's for bagels. Yes, I’m talking about bagels here, but if you want perfection, it's Bialy's. Seeds from a still warm mish mash scattered across my lap as I tore off chunks and devoured them on the short drive home.
I napped a bit before I headed to the West Side to visit Aaron, a friend whom I had met from poker and the only person I ever known has has made money from a philosophy degree. Interestingly, all of his degrees came after he dropped out of high school and earned a G.E.D. He now has a couple of part-time college teaching gigs.
Aaron and his wife, Lisa, supplement their income by roasting and selling coffee. At his house on a street in a sketchy Cleveland neighborhood, I asked him to brew me a cup before we headed to my favorite Mexican joint nearby. Aaron went through an elaborate process of grinding and dripping and plunging that produced a cup of rich, dark coffee. I could never come close to duplicating that flavor at home.
Born Jewish, Aaron is an avid non-believer. Given his multiple degrees and the subjects he teaches (including medical ethics), he has spent considerable time pondering the human condition, alive and dead.
I would hardly describe our friendship as close, but I've come to trust him. Perhaps it's some of the eclectic interests that we share. I've told him things I’ve not told anyone else.
As we waited for our food at Mi Pueblo, I had my first and only conversation about an “end game” – what I would do knowing life's finish line had come into view. Do I wait and suffer, stumbling in agonizing pain like a spent marathon runner? Or do I peacefully push myself across the line?
“You'd need to know what you're doing,” Aaron replied calmly. “That's not something you'd want to screw up.”
I agreed. What was not said, but believe to be true, is that Aaron, with all of his strength and resolve, would help me make that peaceful push. I so hope it does not come to that.
The conversation turned in gentler direction when our food arrived. Aaron delivered a message that I now hold close to head and heart: No matter what or how you believe, negative thoughts only compound your troubles. The better you’re able to banish them, the better off you are.
I dropped Aaron off after lunch and headed back to the Heights, stopping to see my father on the way. The doctor had recently prescribed him a couple of new meds and he was lucid and cogent as I've seen him in awhile. I still lack the resolve to tell him about my cancer.
The last errand of the day was an appointment with the church pastor so I could mee him and officially join the church. We sat in front of his desk and talked for around 40 minutes. I found Father S. to be engaging and quite likable. He struck me as kind and quite smart, an admirable mix.
He listened patiently as I gave him the Cliffs Notes for the Life of Mark. He said he understood my lingering doubts about the church and acknowledged that it had much work to do. He suggested I pick a saint “on the other side” with whom to share my journey. Without much thought, I chose Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
Father S. smiled approvingly and explained that Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, also underwent a “foxhole conversion.” Ignatius found God after being literally being struck withi a cannonball. He then shed his armor and instruments of war and dedicated his life to God.
I then knelt on the floor of his office as he performed the “annointing of the sick,” formerly known as extreme unction. I can’t say the procedure provided much comfort in how God would view my immortal soul, but I figured it couldn't hurt.
And, interestingly, Father S. repeated what Jeannie the nurse had told me: It's time to relinquish control and let God and medicine take over.
I'm good with that. I just hope it works.