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 “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt 22:32)

Dear family and friends,

I’ve got some good news, and I’m going to spend some time on a faith-related topic that’s been important to me throughout Cancer 2.0 and which I haven’t spent much time explaining – praying to saints.  

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs,” Fra Angelico, 1420s, tempera on poplar wood, National Gallery, London

As I mentioned about 3 years ago, I’ve decided that because this blog is my little corner of the internet, I’m going to say what I want, even if it’s a deep papist dive.  And it’s not about trying to make this blog into a theology lesson.  There’s no way for me to separate this cancer journey from my own life of faith, so sometimes I feel the need to explain the life of faith in detail. 

Praying to saints is a practice of Catholics which is misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Here’s the summary: I ask my friends and family here on earth (you) to pray for me and my healing.  If that’s your jam, you send prayers up to heaven on my behalf.  In line with Catholic teaching, I believe there is great effectiveness in this.  There is also some untold number of people who used to be on this earth and for whom praying to God for their friends’ needs was a basic part of life.  Among those people, many lived an observable, verifiable holy life.  We Catholics believe we can have a high level of confidence that the souls of those holy people made it to heaven and live there with God, enjoying their eternal reward.  We believe this is possible because the soul lives on after death, as referenced in the scripture quote at the beginning of this post.  If I can ask a currently alive, yet earth-bound friend to pray for me, it stands to reason that I can likewise ask for the prayers of a holy person who has made it to heaven and is probably looking for opportunities to talk to God about important matters.  So we Catholics ask the saints (the holy diseased – the faithful departed) to pray for us, too.  This is not “saint worship,” which Catholics have been accused of.  It’s asking a friend to pray for me.  If that friend is in heaven, his prayers might very well be even more effective than the prayers of “the living.”

I’ve been focused on the prayers of two of the faithful departed in particular these last 4 years: those of Alvaro del Portillo and Mary, the mother of Jesus. 

 Alvaro del Portillo was a 20th century Catholic priest and bishop of Spanish and Mexican descent.

He lived a very holy life, and since his death in 1994, a great many people have asked him to pray to God for them, especially for health issues.  

A priest I know in my home town of Chicago is friends with a woman in Chicago who prayed fervently to Alvaro del Portillo that he would intercede with God on her behalf because she had 100 melanoma tumors in her lungs, melanoma being the same cancer I have.  At some point during her illness, it was discovered that the tumors had all gone away.  I, too, am a guy who wants to get rid of a bunch of tumors.  Count me in the long list of those who need healing who have turned to Alvaro del Portillo in prayer.

Next, Mary the Mother of Jesus.  Catholics are often chastised by other Christians for worshiping Mary.  Here, too, it’s a case of misunderstanding.  To my fellow Christians who are not Catholic I explain our turning to Mary is a sort-of repeat of the Wedding Feast at Cana from John 2.  in this episode, Mary turns to Jesus and asks him to help people who need his help, and she overcomes his initial resistance to do so.  We Catholics see ourselves in the place of the embarrassed newlyweds in this Gospel passage.  Only whereas Mary offered her service apparently without being asked in the Gospel, ever since this episode was reported in the Gospels in the 1st Century, Catholics have made it a habit to simply ask Mary for our needs in prayer.  We assume that if our request is appropriate and if God’s granting it would be for our good, Mary will forward that prayer on to her Son for us.

This Friday (yesterday, February 11) was a significant feast day to ask Mary for prayers.  February 11 is the feast of Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes.  This day commemorates the anniversary of 2/11/1858, when we believe God sent Mary to appear to the poor shepherd girl Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France.

Representation of Mary appearing to Bernadette in Lourdes in 1858

  Bernadette’s earnest accounts of the event and 17 subsequent meetings with Mary are so detailed and compelling that I and most devout Catholics believe them to be authentic historical events.  

The town of Lourdes became the destination of many healing pilgrimages by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Thousands of people have reported praying to Our Lady of Lourdes and then experiencing profound and otherwise inexplicable healings because of Mary’s prayers on their behalf.  When I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2007, a friend recommended I start praying to Our Lady of Lourdes for a cure.  I looked up the history, was quickly convinced of the merit of that approach, and I’ve prayed to her ever since.  I believe that those prayers had a lot to do with the first ten-year recession in my cancer and that the return of cancer has to do with what God wants of me, not that Mary wasn’t able to obtain a cure with her prayers.  I still believe she can help me, and I keep praying to her every day.  By the way, I pray directly to God a lot every day, too, mostly God the Father and Jesus.

I had a brain MRI last week, and this Friday, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, I had an appointment to do over the results.  If the left side tumor was stable or smaller, I’d still be sticking to the plan to avoid surgery.  So I felt like Friday was a day to “double team” cancer with a lot of prayers to Alvaro del Portillo and Our Lady of Lourdes.  Mission accomplished!  As the title of this post suggests, cancer was outmatched, apparently having made the classic tactical error of being underequipped for a serious battle.  

Like the guy who thought he could take down super hero archaeologist Indiana Jones, I think cancer made the tactical error of “bringing a knife to a gunfight,” what with the power of prayer I was packing on Friday. 

My good news: The tumor remains stable in size, has not grown, and the “pause button” is still pressed on surgery.

I want to share a few family stories from the last week that feel like much more important aspects of my life and which are certainly more enjoyable to talk about than cancer.  Both are about our 4 year-old George.

Our kids usually have theme birthday parties which they are involved in planning for themselves.  Even though his birthday is in July, George woke up one day recently and was pretty fixated on picking his theme and beginning the planning phase, including writing the grocery store shopping list on a piece of paper he is holding onto for safe keeping.  Anyway, he has birthday party themes on his mind right now.  Our daughter Betty turned 18 on Sunday and had a party at our house with her friends on Saturday night.  George is a social guy and posted himself among the group of the birthday girl and guests for as long as he could handle it.  At some point, he walked away and went to find Kendra so that he could ask, “Is the theme of this party, ‘Girls talking’?”

The second George story involved our rooster.

The kids named him Einstein because of the mop of white feathers on top of his head

If you know anything about raising chickens, you might know that roosters can be a pain in the neck.  For one thing, our experience is that the rooster crow at 6:30 am is a myth that seems to happen only in cartoons.  Real rosters crow all day long, nonstop.  They also crow at mindnight, 3am, almost any time, day or night.  Roosters can also turn to “bite the hand that feeds them” eventually, and most of the roosters we’ve had eventually got aggressive with Kendra or one of the kids, charging at them and pecking them.  

This past weekend, our jerk rooster Einstein charged and pecked at our 6 year-old Mary Jane for the second time in a month.  I was away for the weekend on a silent retreat.  Kendra’s parents were staying at our house to visit and offer some extra support.  So after the attack on Mary Jane, my father in law promptly dispatched the offending foul.  Once they turn on you and get aggressive, they have to go.  They’ll start clawing with talons and really upping the stakes, for example.  I got the update when I returned from the retreat.  I was interested to hear George’s take on “Roostergate,” so at dinner I asked him, “George, what happened with Einstein?”  After thinking for a moment he replied with some solemnity, “I was there at his axe murder.”  It was too funny for me to want to bog us down in the definition of “murder,” so I’m leaving that for another conversation.

Anyway, life is a joy, and I’m grateful for every day and every conversation with these hilarious kids.

With fortitude and prayers for you,