You know the kind of splinter I mean. You are hammering together a homemade bunk-bed or carrying firewood, and it somehow drives itself deep beneath the surface of the skin. It’s a tiny black dot. By contrast, big splinters look like splinters, mean and ugly, but tweezers usually make short work of them. Not so with these little invaders.
They are too small to extract, and too subtle to stop a project in mid-stride. “Later,” you think, “I’ll get it out later.”
But they have a curious way of being forgotten until you wake in the middle of the night with a throbbing, swollen finger, infected and useless. Just a tiny thing, but it can ruin a whole night and the following day into the bargain.
Certain sins are like that. “It’s just a little thing,” you say to yourself, “Later, I’ll deal with it later.”
“It’s just a venial sin,” you think, forgetting that even a venial sin darkens the mind and weakens the will. “It’s really harmless,” you think, “I’m not hurting anybody by it!” It took the death of a friend to teach me just how wrong I was.
Paul and Marie were members of our parish and they were the kind of people who are the heart of any faith community. In their late 30’s, they had five bright and beautiful children and worked hard to make a living on their small dairy farm. The family radiated warmth and strong faith. Quiet people, humble, very much in love with each other after ten years of marriage. They had recently suffered the loss of their only son, the eldest child, Dominic, an exceptional boy who had been a champion swimmer, good student, and devout altar boy. He had died after an excruciating battle against Leukemia. But Paul and Marie possessed the kind of faith that survives such fiery tests.
Marie was a fervent Catholic who since early childhood had prayed the rosary every day of her life. The family rosary was a cornerstone of their daily prayers. Paul was a convert who had embraced the Faith wholeheartedly. “We must praise God in good times and praise God in hard times!” he would often say. Their hearts had been broken by Dominic’s death, but now were mending. The Lord had blessed them not long after with the birth of a baby boy, David.
I admired Paul very much. I think most of the other husbands and fathers in the parish felt as I did, for he was a truly fine man. He was usually a silent person but when he spoke his words were the fruit of some deep perception and oftentimes wisdom. There was something in him that we all loved, though it escaped definition.
It wasn’t exactly that integrity and quiet dignity of his which he never seemed to betray. Nor was it just the fact that he worked very hard to provide for his large and growing family. Nor was it because he was handsome and carried his looks without vanity. No one could describe it really. Perhaps it was his constancy and a solitude of soul which he radiated even in crowds. There was, you felt, a great physical and moral strength. This strength was respected but not feared. His power, exercised gently, contained a mystery. Above all, there was an atmosphere of virtue about him. Paul was good. Of the many good men I have known in my life, it seemed to me that Paul was most like St. Joseph.
I have no doubt that, being human, he had some faults. But they weren’t very visible. I do not wish to idealize him, but for many of us he was an image of Christian manhood, the ideal that we hold up within ourselves of what we should be. Without such ideals we would soon falter and lose hope.
The last time I saw him his children and mine were playing together in the swimming pool at the local recreation center. Paul and I stood neck deep in water making silly conversation about some day “rubber-tubing” across the ocean together. We joked about the dangers. In my last memory of him I can still see him laughing heartily at death.
The following Wednesday was catechism night. There was no Catholic school in our area, and the church building was small, so we rented classrooms at the local high school one evening a week. I don’t know why I felt so “low” that night, but maybe it was because just too many things had gone wrong during the past few weeks. There was an infestation of rats in our house, the foundation was rotting, the basement was flooded and we were broke. I was taking it all rather badly. Most of all I was upset that I was taking it badly. In addition, I had one of those nasty little splinters in a finger of my right hand (my working hand no less) and it was infected. To put it simply, I was resenting my lot in life mightily.
As I drove my children through the school parking lot to drop them off for catechism we passed Paul’s parked car. A flash of resentment boiled through me.
“It’s easy for you, Paul,” I thought angrily, “It’s easy for you to be noble and virtuous! Nothing ever goes wrong for you!”
The reader will note, perhaps, that in my selfish self-pity I had momentarily forgotten the recent death of his son.
It was just a small thing, a mean moment quickly come and quickly gone. A little resentment. “A bad habit, really. Not actually a sin,” I said to myself. I shook off the mood and went about my business.
Later, in the middle of the night I awoke from a dream about death. A strange dream, for I am not morbid by nature nor am I troubled by fear of death. I wondered if someone could be dying at that moment. So I got up and gazed out the window into a completely black night. I prayed for the soul of someone who might be dying out there. As I watched the dawn turn grey, the phone rang.
“Have you heard?” the voice said, “It’s unbelievable. Paul is dead.”
On catechism nights Marie usually piled all the children into their car for the ride to town. Once in a while, if baby David was sleeping, she would leave him in the crib upstairs, knowing that Paul was only a few dozen yards away in the barn. He was finishing up the milking and would return to the house shortly. That night it looked like they were going to be late for catechism, and everyone was rushing around looking for books, coats, and boots. David was awake and Marie bundled him into his car seat to accompany them on the ride to town. There wasn’t a spare minute to go to the barn to tell Paul she had taken the baby with her. Some time after their departure Paul looked out the barn window to see their old wooden farmhouse going up in flames. Realizing there was a chance David was still asleep in his crib, in a split-second of decision Paul bolted into the house and up the staircase. Overcome with invisible, deadly fumes, he collapsed in the hallway by David’s bedroom door. There
The entire parish reeled in horror and disbelief: No! Impossible! How could this happen? How can Marie bear it? First Dominic, now Paul!?
People were stunned, angry, dismayed.
“How could God allow this?” they said. “There are too few good men as it is!”
“Maybe God wants to make Marie a saint,” someone else suggested.
“Why, why, why?” said others. “Maybe there is no God. Maybe we’re just blind worthless creatures ground down by fate.”
Our pastor, Father John, spoke of the anguish of Job and of the hurt cries of the Psalmist in the face of the unjust blows that life does deliver. That we cry out our human feelings to God, he said, reveals that we are people of faith, not of unbelief. God permitted His own son to die, he told us, and we should think about why He did that.
The grace given to many at the funeral Mass was a deep peace, even a light, beneath the roaring waves of the ocean of our grief. The grief of Marie and her children was of a different order, a very great cross. Yet Marie moved as if in a river of grace, filled with grace and carried by grace. Moreover, she showed us how to spread grace in the midst of disaster. Throughout the events of those dark days she carried a rosary in her hands, and constantly prayed it whenever she could. She spread her peace and grace to the rest of us.
Not long after, my wife and I had supper with Marie and the children. We had brought a gift for them, a small painting of St Joseph and the Christ Child which I had made years before as a gift for my wife. It was one of the most treasured possessions among our few belongings, but we were happy to part with it. Marie received it with joy, and remarked that St. Joseph and the boy Jesus in the picture looked just like Paul and Dominic. Though I had painted it long before we first met their family, it was quite true, the resemblance was uncanny.
“They’re looking after us,” she said, and I knew she meant both St. Joseph and Jesus and her husband and son.
As we talked on, it became clear that the harsh reality of raising a family without a father had set in, and she was struggling. But she kept that rosary wrapped around her hand, and whenever there was a gap in the conversation, her lips would move in silent prayer. Her faith remained unshaken. She told us that only a week before his death Paul had given her and the children miraculous medals of Our Lady, and that they all had been wearing them the night of the fire.
My wife then asked the question that was, perhaps, on everyone’s minds: Why had God permitted it to happen? Why had they not been warned?
Marie looked up at a crucifix on the wall and said quietly, “We were warned. When Paul gave us the medals, I remember putting the chain over my head, and something came over me at that moment. I had a strong sense that Our Lady wanted us to leave the house, to move out of it for a while until we could build a safer house.”
She paused and looked at us, a well of sadness in her eyes. “I shook it off,” she whispered. “I dismissed it as irrational.”
There was another pause. “We were praying,” she said. “We never stopped praying. But I think maybe we weren’t listening.”
I was moved not only by her insight, but by the peace in her eyes and her voice as she said it. She was showing us that the important thing is not so much that we make mistakes in life, but that we learn from our mistakes. It was not God’s primary will that Paul should die, but when he did die the Lord brought a different good from it.
For years afterward I wondered what good God could possibly bring from such a tragedy. It took time to see it. For Marie it was a long and often lonely path of deeper union with Christ crucified. Now, almost twenty years later, she remains a person of profound faith and wisdom who is a blessing to everyone who knows her. Her children are grown and making their way in life very well. David, her baby son, is now a strong young man studying for the priesthood.
And for those of us who knew him, Paul’s death was also a powerful instrument of growth. The hearts of many fathers in our parish and throughout the whole valley were shaken, and turned towards their own children. The hearts of all were reminded of the shortness and uncertainty of life. And for one person there was a hard lesson: Paul died at the very moment I was resenting him.
For the rest of my life I will wonder what might have happened if I had turned the temptation into a prayer for him. This is the only way for a Christian. It helps little to thrust the dark suggestions and impulses of our fallen natures back below the surface. It is even worse, of course, to give in to them. What, then, is to be done with them?
The answer is once again, prayer, prayer, prayer! What would the world be like if we were to turn every temptation into an opportunity to receive grace and to spread grace. If every invitation to sin were converted into a prayer, the darkness would quickly lose its power. The Resurrection would penetrate to every nook and cranny, every dark corner, every splinter in our souls.
O Mary, Queen of the family, teach us to pray, teach us to listen!
Michael O’Brien, father of six, is a painter and writer. He is the author of several books, notably the best-selling novel Father Elijah and his examination of the paganization of contemporary children’s culture, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for Your Child’s Mind. You may visit him at his website www.studiobrien.com.