Death comes in threes. I am not sure why but I have experienced it often in my ministry. Things are relatively quiet in the parish and then three deaths of people seemingly disconnected from one another occur. It happens in threes. Maybe the angel of death is a value shopper…
Loss can also come in threes it seems.
My father came from an affluent family. His father was a successful businessman who started and maintained a number of businesses with the most successful being Cummins Oil Company – which my uncle would eventually grow to Appalachian Oil Company (Appco). My grandfather made sure that my brothers and I inherited our share in the original Cummins Oil Company which was a good thing because this is what maintained my family through my father’s disability brought about by being legally blind compounded by his alcoholism which would eventually kill him. But things of this world do not last … even shares in an oil company. My uncle wanted to retire and sell out and, on paper, the company wanting to purchase vetted well and looked good but corporate capitalism can be cruel. Rather than maintaining what was bought as promised, the purchasers gutted the company and declared bankruptcy. Promissory notes carry little to no weight in a bankruptcy court and therefore, I had my inheritance stolen from me in a corporate robbery.
My mother did not come from an affluent family. Her father worked in a paper mill and he died while she was a young woman. Through the struggles of her own life and the struggle of her marriage to an alcoholic husband, my mother took comfort knowing that my brothers and I had the security of the shares in Cummins Oil. I am grateful for that also as it allowed me to financially take care of my mother in her last years. I am also grateful that she never knew what happened because while the drama of the company was unfolding in court, my mother was actively dying. I never told her about the bankruptcy and the day before she died, I told her that my brothers and I would be fine and that she could let go. This brought her comfort. She died the next night. The nurse woke me up to tell me that my mother had died while I was asleep in the chair by her bed. Just like my mom – never wanting to be a disturbance.
The morning of my mother’s funeral, I left the Catholic Center at ETSU to walk my two dogs around the neighborhood. This is the time, I believe, that someone slipped into the Center (easy to do as there was a front door code known by many) and stole my wallet. I did not realize the theft until later that evening. I have my suspicions about who it was but only God truly knows and God will judge … but talk about salt on a wound.
Three major losses all together and now, a number of years after it all, I realize how much of a gut punch it all really was. I miss my mom, sometimes terribly. I miss how I was able to help before. I supported the assignments I was in – parishes and ministries. I helped a few people attend college. I cannot do as much now financially like I used to but I do what I can.
Yet, truth is, I am fine like I told my mom and life does continue on.
This coming Sunday is the Feast of the Epiphany and in Matthew’s account of the visit of the three magi (Mt. 2:1-12) we learn that they lost sight of the star as they neared Jerusalem and it was only when they had departed the city and they neared Bethlehem and the Christ child that the star appeared again. They were, “overjoyed at seeing the star”. The machinations of this world – symbolized in the brutal power and manipulation of Herod and his court – can often seem to obscure the light of God’s promise as shown in the star. It is in these moments that we have a choice to make. Who and what will we follow? Do we follow the pain that this world can give? Do we let that settle in our hearts? Because if we do then we are following it. Do we follow our fears, our uncertainties or our own grasps for power and control? Or do we follow our faith, our trust in God and his promises?
I do not have a magic bullet to offer here. What I can offer is my own dogged persistence in believing. The hours of Holy Hours spent before the Blessed Sacrament when it seemed like nothing was going on and there was no felt presence of God. The call to serve and minister, to read – yet again – a familiar Scripture passage. To humbly ask forgiveness when I know I have sinned. This is what I have done these years and through it I have begun to learn that yes, the cruel machinations of the world might indeed seem to obscure the star of God’s promise, but they can never overcome nor extinguish it. There is a hard-won joy found in this that is perhaps similar to that deeper joy the Magi felt upon once again seeing the star after they had cleared Jerusalem and the royal court.
Life will gut punch us at times. It is in those moments that we need to choose what and who we will follow.