I once had a parishioner named Jim McNulty, who had been blind and deaf since childhood. Jim was an extraordinary man.
Bright and widely read, he had been a radio announcer in college and excelled at the piano. He was also a man of profound faith, not in the least embarrassed to live and share it with others. At the parish he was both lector and eucharistic minister. When he read the Scripture from his Braille lectionary and offered the blood of the Lord to parishioners at Communion, I marveled at how real the word of God was to him — so real that he could feel it with his fingers; and how precious the blood of the Lord — he handled the chalice with the delicacy of an artist.
Passing through the church vestibule one day, I saw Jim standing before a new sculpture depicting our patron saint. He was touching every nook and cranny, studying it with careful attention. I tapped his shoulder and signaled that it was I, and he said, “Isn’t this beautiful?” He then began to tell me in great detail what was portrayed in the sculpture, including some details I had never noticed but from then on could not forget.
Another incident remains vividly in my memory. After daily Mass, Jim often joined other parishioners in the front pews to pray the rosary, and he took his turn leading and offering brief meditations. One morning, he said: “The first Glorious Mystery, the resurrection of our Lord from the dead. Even in this life we can experience what it means to rise from the dead.” Jim knew what he was talking about. Better still, Jim lived what he was talking about.
It wasn’t just that Jim had a remarkable attitude about the crosses he had carried most of his life — he did. He was intensely attuned to the pains and frustrating inconveniences of his crosses, and he spoke about them with poignant honesty. But much more than conquering the hand which life had dealt him, he knew himself to be a man in need of God’s mercy, a man in need of salvation. He wanted with all his heart to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. He wanted to be born anew in Jesus, so that he would be a new man, a healed man, a forgiven man, a man joined to Jesus in this life and for eternity.
St. Paul wrote to the Christian community at Rome:
“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
These were not casual words, because Paul himself had been yanked from a world of sin by a pure and unexpected act of God. He discovered that the One whose followers he had been persecuting was the One for whom he had been waiting as an observant Jew — that Jesus was truly God’s Son who had come into this world in the flesh, had suffered, died on a cross and risen bodily from the dead. He knew these things to the depths of his soul, and he knew his life could no longer be the same.
Less than 300 years after St. Paul, St. Basil the Great penned these beautiful words:
“We imitate Christ’s death by being buried with him in baptism. If we ask what this kind of burial means and what benefit we may hope to derive from it, it means first of all making a complete break with our former way of life, and our Lord himself said that this cannot be done unless a man is born again. In other words, we have to begin a new life, and we cannot do so until our previous life has been brought to an end. When runners reach the turning point on a racecourse, they have to pause briefly before they can go back in the opposite direction. So also when we wish to reverse the direction of our lives there must be a pause, or a death, to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.”
Jim McNulty knew that Christ was his life, his light, his saving word. With his acute sense of touch, he made beautiful music and “saw” things the rest of us could not see. With his striking, deep voice, he spoke of things the rest of us had yet to learn. He had been through many “pauses” in life, and every day he depended on the Lord’s love for him and the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
This Holy Week, we might ask ourselves: Can I start again, when my response to Christ has often been puny? An answer comes from Abba Sylvanus, a monk of the early Church. One day he was asked, “Father, can a man lay a new foundation every day?” Abba Sylvanus replied, “If he works very hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment.”
Sylvanus knew that every one of us, because of the grace and mercy of God, can begin again, even at every moment, and God will receive us.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - April 2017