Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
...and if you promise you won’t laugh at me, I’ll tell you about it . . .
As I said previously in this space, I think most people have stories of private revelation to tell and, for what it’s worth, I’d like to tell you mine, since it involves the Blessed Virgin and constituted an important moment for me in learning to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd and trust that Jesus not only approves of, but acts upon, prayers to the saints.
It was early December 1987. A friend of our family’s named Sherry and I were both in the final throes of entering the Catholic Church. One day, Sherry called me from her job at a local hospital to request prayer for an eighteen-month-old girl. A month earlier the little girl, named Sarah, had come to the hospital with third degree burns over 90% of her body. She had been flown in from another state because this hospital had one of the finest burn units in the country. She was hovering on the brink of death, a mass of scalds from her neck to the bottoms of her feet—a victim, the staff strongly suspected, of child abuse. (She had been immersed in scalding water.)
Sherry had started working at the hospital about a month after Sarah’s arrival. During that time, Sarah’s condition had steadily deteriorated. Death was more likely with each passing hour. Her skin, killed by the burns, would not regenerate; skin grafts from the small amount of living skin she had left would take an excruciatingly long time to cover her whole body. Worse still, her little body had nearly exhausted its ability to fight infection as her own dead tissues provided a breeding ground for deadly bacteria. Fed only through a naso-gastric tube, Sarah was on a cranial morphine drip to stave off the agony. The doctors were, of course, doing everything in their power to save her, but death was expected by week’s end.
I wish I could say that when I first heard all this my reaction was one of Godly and compassionate prayer. But when I looked at the picture on my desk of my own son (then an infant six months younger than Sarah) I flushed not with sympathy but rage. Instead of love, hatred—pure hatred for the parents—welled up inside me. My first thought was not for Sarah’s welfare, but a bitter desire for her parents’ punishment.
Yet at the same time I felt a deep sense of urgency. The thought, “Pray for Sarah!” banged against the inside of my skull and heart. “This is a matter of life and death!” I thought again about Sherry’s phone call. I had known her for years. She was no spiritual loony of the sort who always “knows God’s will” about everything down to the sort of car you should buy. She was a deeply prayerful and intelligent woman who had learned very quietly and at great cost the power of listening in obedience to the “still small voice” of the Spirit. Again and again I had seen her gift of discernment proven trustworthy, and I had made it a mental habit (even when I could not explain why) to give her a lot of credence in such matters. She had told me she felt very strongly an inner command to pray that God’s intention in creating Sarah be fulfilled; that God’s love, not the cruelty committed against her, have the final word in Sarah’s life.
So on the strength of Sherry’s conviction, I resolved at least to try to join in her intercession for Sarah. As soon as I could get away, I sought out the top of a lonely stairwell in the building where I worked and began to pray. I felt helpless and inarticulate, muttering aimlessly before lapsing into frustrated muteness. A deep sense of grief, rage, and futility washed over me—grief for the little girl, rage at her parents, and futility as I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to do or say.
“God,” I pleaded, “how can such things happen? It makes me want to throw up, or kill the people who did this. I know vengeance isn’t your way, but what is?” My eyes clouded with tears as I ran out of the few words I could think to say to him. That was it. I had nothing to offer at all but grief and more anger. Yet I still felt urged to pray. “But pray what?” I thought as words dissolved into groans. The whole thing felt hopeless.
Then I suddenly remembered (or was reminded of) St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26–27).
I pondered these words for a moment. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt: God was in my grief and anger! He was not standing at the top of the stairs with arms folded, refusing to help until I uttered the perfect words; he was in me, groaning through me by the Spirit in prayer for Sarah. And the Father to whom the Spirit prays was directing the Spirit’s prayer. He was on our side—on Sarah’s side—grieving and praying with us for her! Heartened by this, I decided to try to seek the Spirit’s guidance, only this time with expectancy rather than despair.
As I made this stab at “listening,” two things happened. First, I found myself quieting inside. Not quiet as in “muzzled” or as in “you can’t do anything so forget it and cool off.” Instead, it was a quiet of not needing to think of everything; of releasing the fear of failure into God’s hands and not having to pray the “perfect prayer.” Second, I began to notice four different ideas bubbling up from somewhere, four “prayer paths” that asserted themselves in my heart:
1. Pray for forgiveness and healing for Sarah’s parents.
2. Pray that God the Father and Our Lady would be her true parents, present to her in the depths of her pain and calling her into their life and love.
3. Ask the intercession both of her heavenly family (particularly St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive) and of the Church on earth.
4. Gather all those intercessions together and offer them through Christ’s perfect offering in the Eucharist.
There seemed to be nothing further for me to do. It was a curious feeling. I knew someone should pray for the doctors, nurses, and others. I knew someone should specifically ask for Sarah’s physical and emotional healing from this trauma. But I also knew I was not that someone. I had my portion of the work to do and with it came the very strong sense that I had better be about it and not go sticking my nose into someone else’s job. It was as if I were part of a choir of prayer for Sarah and I had only to sing the tenor part as best I could. Others would worry about handling the baritone and soprano notes.
Armed with these clues I set to work. Being the sort who can easily make himself feel guilty, I decided to make set times for “Sarah prayers” rather than pursuing a vague “I’ll pray constantly” policy. When I try to “pray constantly” the net result is that I never think I’ve prayed “enough” and, when I do pray, I waste half my time feeling bad for not having prayed enough. So I set aside my bus rides to and from work and a piece of my lunch time as specific, limited moments when I could focus and not be distracted by other concerns. Sherry and I also sought the intercession of several prayer groups as well as the prayers at Mass. (We did a tally later and realized there were hundreds of people praying for Sarah—not to mention several guardian angels, at least one apostle, and the Blessed Mother, too.)
And, of course, Sherry prayed, sitting amid the beeping and humming noise of the machinery arrayed around Sarah’s bed and listening to the Spirit as best she could. She felt a special (and scary) sense of responsibility as the sole human point of contact between Sarah and all those prayers—as if she were the fingertip of the Body of Christ. Particularly since all she could do was touch Sarah’s forehead with her fingertip. She tried her best to be an open door to all that love for Sarah.
That included what was, for Sherry, the difficult task of asking the Blessed Virgin to help. She found herself in the Mary shrine at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral—a self-described former Mississippi Fightin’ Fundy Blue-Eyed Baptist Babe—asking, “Lord, your Church says this is okay and, if I’m offending your glory in any way please make it clear to me but, well, er, Mary, could you please intercede for Sarah?” Then she would hurry away before the lightning bolt struck. She did this several times over a few days and slowly got used to asking Mary’s help. At the same time she, like me, still felt weird.
By this gradual process, our awareness continued to deepen that, far from praying alone, we were indeed voices in the choir. God was not merely the audience; he was the conductor, the score and the very music as well. Indeed, he was the prayer for Sarah.
“So what happened?” you ask. The gospel truth is this: Two weeks later (a week after the hospital staff had expected her to die), Sarah was not only out of intensive care, she was off her medication, out of bed, and on the floor playing with her toys.
And that without a single skin graft.
Inexplicably, her skin had simply regenerated itself! A nurse who worked with Sherry spoke for the whole staff when she shook her head in amazement and said, “I’ve seen second-degree burns become third-degree burns, but I have never seen third-degree burns turn into second-degree burns. It just doesn’t happen!”
No, it doesn’t. And yet, by the grace of God, the prayers of Mary and of all the saints of Jesus Christ, both on earth and in heaven, it did! The Church will never investigate that little miracle, nor is anybody who was not there bound to believe it was a miracle. But I trust you will understand why my views on private revelation, the intercession of the saints, and all that sort of thing came into sudden and sharp conformity with the catechism on that day. For God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. That’s not theory. It’s the real deal, thanks be to God.
If you have your own ooky story to share, feel free to do so in the combox!