Walking into a room to visit an eighty six year old priest friend who was convalescing after open-heart surgery five months ago, I asked, “Father, what are you doing?” He replied, “I’m talking to the Lord” as he focused on a large, life-like crucifix hanging on the wall next to his bed. “May I ask what you and the Lord are talking about?” “Sure, I am asking Jesus why He left me here since I nearly died several times but I’m still here!” I asked, “Did Jesus tell you anything about that?” Father replied, “He said I’m not finished yet. There is more that He asks of me— more prayer, more sacrifice, more love.”
Prayer and sacrifice is Father’s daily life now as his kidneys failed after surgery so he is hooked up to a dialysis machine three times a week. Even in his weakened physical state, he arises at 4:45 AM for dialysis appointments. He hasn’t tasted food for five months since the surgery. He’s given liquid nutrition by gastric tube. After surgery this priest spent two and a half months hospitalized in cardiac intensive care. He was very close to death; a few times he flat-lined. Once the hospital called his family to come quickly since they believed that Father would not be revived.
Father, a priest of fifty-five years, shared that during the post-operative convalescent time he experienced great combat over his soul. “The devil is terrible with his onslaughts! He tempts me, “See, priest, your God is mean and he wants you to suffer more. Suffer, suffer, suffer—that crucifix is just suffering. He has forgotten you! He doesn’t care. You are all alone now. You are mine. There is no heaven. I’ll take you now.” Father reported that he was aware of many good angels in battle against the evil ones. He suffered much in this spiritual combat.
I asked if he was able to pray or how did he respond to the demonic attacks? Father shared, “I gathered all the strength of my will and made acts of faith in Jesus Christ. I prayed repeatedly, “Jesus, I trust in You” and often I just repeated the name of Jesus. I reminded myself of the articles of faith professed in the Creed and I repeated, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, etc.” He persevered in spiritual combat that is real: “I think the evil spirits perceived I was near death, in a weak condition and they attacked—beastly cowards!” His vast priestly experience of helping people near death somewhat prepared him for the reality of the devil’s violence.
This very ill priest exercised faith, hope and love even when he felt he was losing the battle. Weeks turned into months of struggle. Presently he is in a state of peaceful surrender, a strong intercessor for the Church still. His priestly ministry continues in the gift of self-sacrifice and the offering of suffering for the conversion of souls. He tells me, “I want to embrace humanity and offer it back to the Eternal Father in union with Christ on the Cross. So many souls to save!” This, from a very tough Navy man who was surprised by God when, while in the Navy as a young man, he read, “Seven Story Mountain” by Thomas Merton. Something happened in his heart. Upon discharge from the Navy he was headed to Notre Dame University. After reading the book he felt an inspiration to visit a Trappist Monastery on his way to Notre Dame. In accordance with God’s will (forsaking his best made plan) he entered the Trappist Monastery where he remained for seventeen years before Christ called him to diocesan priesthood in the diocese near his family.
Father has had to surrender his independence because of physical infirmities but he priestly soul radiates the love of the pierced heart of Jesus even more powerfully these days. I look forward to my visits with Father as he hears my confession weekly—a profound gift!
Since I’ve journeyed with this sick priest for the past five months (along with many other people in our diocese who cherish his priesthood), I’ve been thinking of the simplicity and power of the prayer that Father offered during intense spiritual combat. There is a good lesson here.
Where does the power of prayer come from? The power of Christian prayer derives from a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man springing forth from the Holy Spirit (cf. CCC 2564). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays.
Peter Kreeft helps us to understand the power of prayer in his catechesis on “Jesus” The shortest, simplest, and most powerful prayer in the world:
The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power,” says St. Paul (1 Cor. 4:20). The reason this prayer is so powerful is that the name of Jesus is not just a set of letters or sounds. It is not a passive word but a creative word, like the word by which God created the universe. (He “is” the Word by which God created the universe!) Every time we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we are instructed by the liturgy to pray, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, “but only say the word” and my soul shall be healed.” All our energy and effort is not strong enough to heal our own souls, but God’s word of power is. That word is so powerful that by it God made the universe out of nothing, and by it he is doing the even greater deed of making saints out of sinners. That word is Jesus Christ.” (Peter Kreeft, Prayer for Beginners, Ignatius Press).
Also, the prayer that Jesus taught St. Faustina, “Jesus, I trust in You” is a simple but powerful prayer that releases faith in the face of fear. This prayer testifies to the primacy of trust over fear. Christ has given us a weapon against fear in times of spiritual combat with the profound words, “Jesus, I trust in You”. We could consider this part of the spiritual armor that St. Paul refers to in Ephesians Six, “…take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16). If ever there was a perfect expression of our faith, “Jesus, I trust in You” is one. Personally, whenever I experience the fiery darts of the evil one tempting me to discouragement, doubt, division, diversion and fear, etc., the prayer, “Jesus, I trust in You” or the name of “Jesus” never fails to divert the darts of the devil away from me. It may take some time, but the more I repeat those prayers, the more my will engages with faith against demonic temptations or vexations.
During this month of November, when the universal Church focuses on saints (All Saints Day) and the souls of the faithful departed (All Souls Day), it is good to remember that our universal vocation is to become a saint (holy) and thereby prepare ourselves for the final spiritual combat over our soul.
Soon the Church will cross the threshold of the holy door to enter the Jubilee Year of Mercy. We can anticipate a great adventure with Jesus, The Divine Mercy! Christ journeys with us on the path of merciful love toward holiness and healing. Spiritual combat may have its “hour” but Christ’s victory wins the day (a day that becomes eternal). His victory is the cause of our joy and perseverance to the end. Like the eighty six year old priest at the start of this reflection, we release the power of prayer. Father reminded me that Jesus told St. Faustina, “Fight like a knight!”
See www.foundationforpriests.org for more about prayer power, spiritual combat and priesthood.
Editor’s note: this reflection contains an excerpt from Kathleen’s new book, God’s Healing Mercy now available from Sophia Institute Press.