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.
What a day! Bus late, no breakfast, missed deadline, headaches, depression and post-nasal drip. And when I got home my kids were whiney, my wife mentally quick-fried to a crackly crunch and I was as prickly as a porcupine.
Summoning fatherly concern to its height, I brushed past my weepy child and made for a darkened bedroom (stopping briefly to peck my wife Janet on the cheek). She asked for some kind of help--something about setting the table--but "Urk," was all I mumbled in reply. I just wanted to go blotto with a pillow over my head till dinner. Maybe with luck an asteroid would strike the earth, annihilate civilization and I could rest.
Jan relented with a sigh and returned to courageously referee the whines and chaos. I, with typical selflessness, passed on to the safety of my bedroom where I could crash face forward on the bed for some nice oblivion.
Or at least so I thought until, when the door closed, my guardian angel suddenly materialized in a blaze of divine splendor that outshone the sun. His massive golden head nearly touched the ceiling as he sat on the edge of my bed. His clothes were like lightening and his voice like the sound of many waters. In the brilliance of his presence I could see every nuance of character and choice etched in the crabby, sullen lines of my face as I averted my shocked eyes and glimpsed myself in the bedroom mirror.
My headache suddenly got a lot worse.
"Listen, Mark," he said briskly, "I'll make this short and sweet because you don't have much time."
My mind flashed to the asteroid. "Oh no!" I said, "it's the Big One, isn't it?" My voice choked to a whisper, "Oh NO!" I fell to my knees and said I was reallyreallyreally heartily sorry for offending God and that I would do better next time .... "Well, of course there isn't going to be a next time," I jabbered, "but if there were, well, I ... uh.... o pleez o pleez." My voice trailed off into an inaudible blither, something about praying more and thinking purer thoughts.
My angel sat for a moment, waiting for my little cascade of babble to subside. "Actually, Mark," he said, "it's not quite as bad as all that, but time is of the essence." I looked up tentatively from the carpet at his sandaled foot, reluctant to meet his eyes.
"Yeah?" I said.
"Yes," he said. "You see, God sent me to reveal to you the next step in His plan for you."
"His plan for Me?" I said, brightening considerably. "Wow," I thought, "God's plan for ME!" I glanced up at the angel, feeling suddenly more confident as fear was blown away by a gust of pride. After all, I'd heard of this Visitation stuff. Mary, Gideon, Joshua, Moses. Holy moly! I thought. Angels don't come to just any old nudnik. I must occupy some big important slot on the Destiny Roster! Man, if those girls who wouldn't go out with me in high school could see me now. Whoa! Put that in your yearbook, you yokels!
But, of course, what I said to the angel was, "But who am I that the Lord should visit me?" I lowered my chin and tried to look extra humble and meek. My glance fell on our red bedroom carpet ("The Holy Rug of the Visitation of St. Mark of Seattle," I thought. Sounds good!)
"Who are you?" said the angel. "A sinner bought with my Master's blood! Nothing less--or more." He reached down and gently lifted my chin till my eyes were forced to look into his. "A sinner, Mark, who is in my charge and who I am to serve till the Last Day."
My Adam's apple bobbed up and down while my eyes sought a way to escape the probing light of his gaze.
"So!" I said, "what about this Next Step? It must be pretty important or you wouldn't be here, right?"
"It is All-Important. The most important thing you could do at this point in the time-space continuum," said the angel. "Everything hinges on it!"
My head reeled. All at once the gravity of the situation hit me. I looked at the angel for a split second. "Are you going to give me... er... Secrets?" I asked, licking my lips nervously.
"Secrets?" said the angel thoughtfully, "Indeed, something deeper than all Secrets."
My stomach flip-flopped. I wondered (with a sudden sickening thrill of fear) what monumental task was about to be required of me. I tried to somehow steel myself for the cosmic Truth he was to unveil to my poor mortal flesh.
The angel, who perceived my sobered thought, waited a moment until I had somewhat composed myself to listen. Then he again bent down and said gently:
"This is what the Lord says: 'Rise..."
"And set the table."
The clock on the dresser ticked.
"That's it. Go set the table," said the angel.
"That's it?" I exclaimed. "Go set the table?"
"Yes, Mark. Go."
"But what about 'everything hinging on this?' What about 'the time is short?'" I blurted.
"Everything does hinge on this and time is short," said the angel. "If you don't hustle, Jan will set the table herself and you'll miss the chance to help."
"But I thought I was going to do something great for Humanity or something... You know... receive some Great Revelation." I protested.
"And your family?" said the angel, "the people who love you and need you most in the whole universe--they aren't human? Mark," he chuckled and grew even brighter than before, "If you knew every human language and could speak to me in my native tongue; if you had the gift of prophecy, had all knowledge, understood all mysteries, and had the faith to plunge the Himalayas into the sea--if you had all these things but you don't love the real people around you in real ways, then you are stone blind to every revelation that can ever come your way. For if you don't love the wife and kids you have seen, you can love neither God nor 'Humanity' whom you haven't seen. So go set the table, Mark," he said, and vanished away, leaving the room suddenly dark and me blinking and blind.
"And when you finish setting the table, go tell your boys a story," came a voice. "After that, do the next practical thing." I felt for the door, opened it, and the kitchen light flooded me.