Selfless…to a Fault

  • Oct 28, 2016 -
  • Tom Neal PhD
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My wife and I were friends with a Catholic priest in Iowa.  He was a brilliant man, very practical and personable, and had that rugged “heartland” work ethic that drove him to exhaustion every day.  Then he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and faced the prospect of a grueling journey through chemotherapy.  Suddenly he faced the prospect of losing those things he had built so much of his identity on:  intelligence, high energy and productivity in his pastoral work.  For months he refused to even acknowledge the possibility that his chemotherapy might leave him a changed and weakened man; or the possibility that he might die.  It was heartbreaking to watch.

One evening, I visited him in the nursing home.  After we finished superficial chatter about the weather and such, he admitted to me that he was losing his hold on life.  He knew that even if he defeated the cancer, he would never be the same.  He said, “The hardest part is that I know I have forgotten a lot of what I knew, but now I don’t even know what it is I’ve forgotten.  Like I’m a room away from who I was.  And here is my prayer book next to me, and I can’t even remember how to use it.” I fought back tears.  Then he said something so beautiful.  He said, “But I can offer you a blessing.”  He blessed me and I quietly left the room.  Together we discovered in that personal, intimate moment what remains, even as other things fall away:  Faith, love and the ability to be a vehicle of God’s blessing kept hope alive in his dimply lit room that night.  As the bible teaches, “For when I am weak, it is then that I am strong.”

Though this priest had prepared countless people for their own death, and was known for his deep compassion and sensitivity, he seemed to have forgotten about himself.  His siblings admitted he never wished to talk about his own future prospect of illness or death – only about others’ future.  He had a pastor’s heart, but forgot to attend to his own need to prepare himself, and his family, for the eventuality of his own decline and death.  It was only when he faced a steep decline in health that he was able to begin to talk about how he would face the future.  Sadly, by the time he was ready for those conversations, he fell into a coma and died.  His sister said to me later, “He’s so stubborn.  He was selfless to a fault.”

Though we may avoid these conversations to protect ourselves or others from the pain of considering life’s end, in the end the silence only hurts them and ourselves.  Have these important conversations while you can.

Tom Neal, PhD is Academic Dean and professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and author of the popular blog Neal Obstat.