What is it about asking for help that is so hard? What more, what is it about help that is so hard to give? Father Damian Ference, recovering from knee surgery, shares some insights about what it means to help those in need—from someone who was.
My mom died a year before I was ordained. My dad is 87 and legally blind. And my only brother has a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old that keep him very busy. So when the Scientist asked me where I was going to recover from my knee surgery, I didn’t know what to tell him.
I considered recovering at the seminary, which is where I live, but the priests I live with told me that was a bad idea. There aren’t many people around here in the summer, the hallways are long, and the only way that I could receive visitors after hours would be if I made my way down to the first floor and let them in myself.
A few of my friends who are pastors invited me to recover in their rectories, which sounded like a good plan at first, but after thinking about it, I realized that all of their rectories had the guest rooms on the second or third floor. I liked the idea of living in a rectory again, but I didn’t like the thought of stairs nor did I want to be a burden to busy parish priests.
I was running out of options. I needed to find someone to take care of me. And I was getting desperate. Surgery was only a couple weeks away and I was running out of ideas. Then it hit me.
I remembered that line in the twelfth chapter of Exodus—if the family is too small for the Passover lamb, then they should join a larger family. This biblical inspiration gave me hope, and it also took away some of the fear and embarrassment that often comes with asking for help. I started thinking back to all those people from my first parish assignment that had told me, “Father, if you ever need anything, don’t be afraid to ask.”
I have a friend from my first parish who is a wife, a mother of six, and who is currently working on her MA in theology at our major seminary. I caught her between classes two Mondays before surgery and asked her if we could have a little chat. Here’s how it went:
Me: I need to talk to you and Frank about something.
Jen: What? Do you want us to have another kid?
Me: Kind of…
Jen: (gives me a look that I don’t have the words to describe)
Me: He’s 36 years old.
Me: It’s me! I was wondering if you would talk to Frank and your kids about
taking me in after surgery. My mom is gone, my dad is blind, and my brother is super-busy with his own kids. My priest friends tell me that the seminary is no place to recover from major surgery. I don’t know what else to do. Would you guys consider taking me in for a couple of weeks? Would you think about it? Would you pray about it? I don’t need an answer right now.
Jen: I’ll talk to Frank.
The next day Jen called to tell me that she and Frank called a family meeting and that they came to a unanimous decision. They not only wanted me to recover at their home, they insisted that I would. They already decided to set the sunroom up as my guest suite.
“Ask and it will be given to you.” I was relieved.
Narcotics were new to me. But since the Scientist had drilled into my bones, they were necessary. I took the pills as they were prescribed. I still felt the pain, but I didn’t care about it. Jen and Frank gave me my pills every four hours and made sure that I always took them with some food, even at two o’clock in the morning.
They also had the monumental task of making sure that I always had ice in the ICEMAN, which is a cooler that pumps ice-cold water into a pad that covered my swollen knee. Three or four times a day they would pour out the old water and give me fresh ice, and this too would happen in the middle of the night.
Because I am short and because I am pretty flexible, I was able to change clothes and wash myself, by myself. But I did need help in making food, making my bed, lifting my leg, putting on my socks and shoes, getting in and out of the car for appointments, opening windows, opening doors, and picking up things, especially after I dropped something. And after watching their parents’ care giving, all six kids soon followed their example.
Seventeen-year-old Emily helped me put on my shoes and socks. Fifteen-year-old Maddie assisted me with my exercises and made sure my water bottle was always fresh. Thirteen-year-old Sam was in charge of my Mass kit, lighting candles and refilling the cruets as needed. Caroline and Sophia, the 11-year-old twins, were diligent in assuring that I always had an extra chair to my left so that I could elevate my leg at meals. And Tommy the 6-year-old liked to keep me company with jokes and riddles.
I have known this family for nine years, ever since I was assigned to their parish as a newly ordained priest. Like all the other families at the parish, my job was to serve them, in imitation of Jesus who served his bride the Church. But for two weeks, they served me. This was a new experience. I had always prided myself on being healthy, strong and self-sufficient. I was not used to asking for help, let alone receiving it.
At the heart of the Christian life is the realization that we are all—to some degree or another—unhealthy, weak and dependent. Of course, we call this condition sin. We can’t save ourselves from it. We need a Savior. And we don’t just need him once. Jesus is the Divine Doctor who is constantly giving us care, especially through his sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. But he also makes himself present in people, especially people who celebrate those sacraments regularly and who know what they are doing and know what is being done for them.
What I am about to write will sound cliché, but I must write it because it is true. I met Christ anew in the family that cared for me those first two weeks after surgery. He disguised himself in the mom and dad and in all six children who humbly served me. He fed me when Jen made me a cup of hot tea and when Frank made me breakfast. He gave me a drink when the kids refilled my water bottle, he clothed me when they put on my socks, and he visited me when they came into the sunroom to tell me about their day at school.
Saint Paul says that our whole mission as Christians is to die to self so that Christ can live in us. When we are living the Christian life well, we truly do allow Christ to Incarnate himself in us—to make himself present in us. This is the whole point of the Sacramental life—sacraments are supposed to turn us into other Christs. We are to become what we receive.
Saint Athanasius says that God became man so that man can become God. He’s right. The reason Jesus became one of us was so that we could become Him. A good Catholic family is one that makes Christ uniquely present in their home and in the world. And if the family is small, they are not afraid to join the larger family next door. And if they are big, they make sure that others know they are always welcome—even their former parish priest.
Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.
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