Dear friends and family,
About two weeks ago, I received a phone call from two vintage friends, friends of 35 years, who called to ask me if I was dead.
They had heard a rumor, from a priest in Baltimore (my first assignment as a baby priest, back in 1979), that I had died in Haiti.
Maybe that priest heard about the priest that was killed in Port au Prince in December, and thought it was me.
In any case, my friends were somewhat panicked.
When I saw the international number ringing on my phone, I did not want to answer it. Too often, long distance calls are bad news. I was panicked too.
Little did I know that the the bad news I would hear on the phone was about me and my demise.
Did anyone ever ask you if you were dead? It's a very strange feeling.
I wanted to say "let me check and get back to you right away."
"Don't worry about rumors. When I am dead, you will be the first one I will call."
Suddenly, the rest of the day before me seemed like a reprieve, like a grace.
I could be dead, but I am not.
The question, "are you dead?", led to a second, better question:
If I am alive, am I fully alive?
Last week, as I worked with the Sisters of Mother Theresa at Sans Fils, a 17 year old boy was brought to me in a wheelchair. His name is Sanon.
Sanon is making his own way though high school, and had just raised enough money, through small jobs, to pay this semesters tuition.
As he approached the school on Delmas 48 to pay his tuition, he was attacked by bandits.
They beat him, they stole the school money, and for good measure, they stabbed him (literally) in the back, just above his waist line, to the right of his spinal column.
Now he is paralyzed from the waist down.
If I were to allow myself to become dulled, and deadened, to so many such tragedies in the human family, I would not see "Sanon" before me, but just another victim of crime.
I would just see "the 5th victim of bandits so far this month."
If I were to become dulled and deadened, my eyes would be scanning the wards looking at the other sick people whose suffering has fallen, at least partly, within my responsibility, and only occasionally glancing at Sanon.
A deadened me would start thinking, "Maybe there is more to the story. Maybe he is also in a gang."
(This is the approach of the pitiful friends of Job, in the biblical story: talking heads who represent a deep human tendency to blame the victim.)
A deadened me would start asking, "How am I supposed to pay for his care? How can I manage to get the wheelchairs, walkers, therapy, and specialist evaluations?"
This is the approach whereby the healthy one becomes the hero of the story, complaining about the burden of the one who is sick.
Seeing rightly, instead of wrongly, one would better ask,
"How is Sanon supposed to manage this tragic assault, this emotional shock?
How is Sanon supposed to manage the rest of his life?"
Am I deadened by Sanon's tragedy?
Or quickened by him?
Am I fully alive?
How do I know?
For a Christian, when our reflexes and instincts mirror those of Jesus, that's how we know we are fully alive.
Jesus would not look at Sanon, counting all the while how many such cases he has seen his month.
His eyes would not wander around the room and the wards, taking inventory of how many others there were to see that day.
He would not start supposing that Sanon somehow provoked and deserved this disaster.
He would not start seeing Sanon as a cost center, or himself as the hero-bearer of the burden.
Jesus would look deeply into Sanon's eyes, and deeply into his heart.
He would see a teenager - just a teenager - whose dreams were severed, literally cut short,
by a knife in the hands of thieves.
Jesus would see how sad he is, how confused he is, and his hopelessness about his life and future.
Yes, we need to evolve, to to grow to have the same heart as Jesus.
But even when we do pretty well at mirroring His heart, Jesus still has the advantage.
Jesus can say "Sanon, be healed."
We have to say, "Sanon, you will be taking these steroids, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medicines.
We will hope and pray that you have some of your feeling and movement restored."
Jesus can say, "Sanon, stand up and walk."
That doesn't work for us.
And we know how fast Sanon will have atrophy of his upper body, how soon he will develop severe ulcers on his buttocks, heels, and legs, if we don't get him moving very soon.
Sanon needs frequent physical therapy, and yet we have no imaging means (MRI) to define the extent of the injury, and so to know if we will harm him more by moving him.
My mind wanders to another victim of the bandits, Larry.
It is 18 months since Larry was shot in front our our gate, and he is still hospitalized.
His dead legs keep him nailed to his bed. Therapy was delayed too long for fear of hurting him, now his two legs are steadfast anchors.
Recently, I have asked Larry to let us remove his legs, long dead, showing him youtube videos of double amputee war veterans playing basketball in their wheel chairs.
He looked at me like I am crazy, incredulous. It was unbelievable to him that we would even suggest that he remove his legs, even though they keep him a prisoner to a bed, in solitary confinement.
"Larry, think of it. You could be free and independent. You could work. You could bathe yourself and avoid bedsores.
You could get around the city and the country.
Larry, your children need you, your wife needs you, your friends need you.
Larry, we will give you a job."
He holds his ground. His legs are his. He cannot give them up.
This is why we need to get Sanon moving, and toward independence as fast as he can, before he is also in a bed for life.
For Catholics, as we begin Lent this week on Ash Wednesday, the priests and lay ministers will dust our heads with ashes and say
"Remember that you were dust, and unto dust you will return."
How much easier to live this ritual symbolically, rather than to live it out on the battlefields of life, where sometimes the best possible choice is to send your legs to the cemetery (to dust), many years ahead of you.
Yes, the ashes this week are a stark reminder.
The ritual is somber, and meant to make our mortality real to us, for the sole purpose (and soul purpose) of having us ask ourselves how alive we are.
Jesus' formula is simple:
I become more alive when I help you become more alive.
I am diminished when you are diminished.
That's it. The gospel as a golden nugget.
We are still trying to see how to make Larry more alive. Larry and six others.
No easy task. Many of you know this, from your own families.
But here is the story with Sanon:
His Lent started with a knife.
His ashes are his legs and his dreams.
Norma and her archangels are giving him the best therapy and attention.
I have paid a weight trainer for his upper body, and classes in how to use a laptop.
Soon we will rent a small house for him, very near the school, with no stairs or steps.
We will repay his school tuition.
Sanon will restart his life, continue to come for therapy, and mother nature (with a little help from medicine) will reduce his inflammation and heal some of the damage.
And we will hope and certainly pray for a miracle.
(Without withholding action, without holding our breaths)
This is how we live out the Christian calling, to rise together from ashes.
Jesus could surely do better than what I outline, but all the same, I am sure He will bless us mere mortals, for doing our absolute best with the absolute limits that we have.
As we begin the Holy Season of Lent, let's commit ourselves to be fully alive, for as long and we are alive, and let's commit even more profoundly to helping anyone we know, whose lives have turned to ash.
As we make our spiritual journey towards Easter, let's be sure to leave real and practical footprints in the ashes under our feet, footprints heavy from bearing each others burdens, footprints aimed towards heaven.
Thank your for your ongoing support, which keeps us ongoing in our essential mission.
God's blessing for you and your families throughout these fourty days of Lent!
Fr Rick Frechette CP DO
Port au Prince
February 11, 2018