We friars assist as Catholic chaplains at Tampa General. It is not my first time as a hospital chaplain. That was at Bethesda Naval Hospital. My time at Bethesda was at the beginning of the war in Iraq when the Marines were engaged in combat around Fallujah. Casualties were high. Every evening there was a chaplain assigned to the flight line to be there when marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers were medevac’d from the war zone. All of these service men and women were in grave medical conditions. I witnessed injuries that still left me amazed that the person was still alive. Alive with lives that would never be the same, never as they had planned. But the combat/trauma ICU and the flight line were not the hardest chaplain duty at Bethesda – at least not for me. For me, the hardest ward was the NICU; the neo-natal intensive care unit.
In the trauma ICU, the oncology ward, and other parts of the hospital, there is a certain understood causality in play. “We regret to inform you that Lance Corporal Jones, USMC, died last evening because of his wounds….” We are saddened that a life so young was taken, but we understand duty, honor and country – and the hard truth of war for the survivors.
“Your uncle has advanced lung cancer. There is really no treatment left. All we can do is place him on comfort measures and be with him in his final days.” Even when I was losing the last of my uncles in my dad’s generation, I understood. Uncle Louie had smoked for almost 60 years. He lived into his mid-80s. He’d lived a long life and smoking caught up to him. I understood. I was sad. But I understood.
But it is different in NICU. The young wife and mother, her husband deployed, and her 6-year old daughter diagnosed with a brain tumor that is the cause of the child’s failing vision. While we understand the causality of the tumor pressing on the optic nerve, we don’t understand cancer in one so young. That seems so random, so arbitrary…. so callous. And every mom in NICU wanted to understand, to know there was a reason.
There are moments in our lives when we think in the same patterns. Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We scrutinize our motives, our behaviors, our relationships, our beliefs. We hunt for cause and causality – all in the hope that we can stop causing it – we want control over the chaos.
In the NICU, in the quiet, the young mothers found someone, something to blame. Some blamed God; but others blamed themselves. The theme is that God is punishing them for some wrong, some sin, some failing – and the punishment is the illness of their child.
Every instinct tells you, as the pastoral minister, to jump in and tell the young mother that God is not like that…that God is love….and a host of other true and good things about God. But that is often not the question being asked, the topic in play. Often that young mother is simply searching for an answer to “why?” There had to be a reason for her daughter’s illness and too often the mom was willing to be that reason. Then and only then did she have a grip on this catastrophe – some measure of control in a chaotic universe.
We have all done the same thing in one measure or another. In the same way, the people who ask Jesus about the Galileans killed by Pilate, they want to know if that tragedy is some sign of God’s punishment for those people’s sin. They want to know the world is not simply chaotic. But Jesus assures them that neither their sins or the sins of those who died when the tower fell upon them were the cause of their deaths. But then Jesus points out that mortal death is not the problem – all eventually die. The problem is are you willing to accept the inheritance of eternal life – and all the responsibilities that entails? Jesus’ message is stark: live a life of conversion, bear fruit – the divine vineyard owner will come and search for the fruit that has flourished from your life. Don’t bear fruit from your gifts into this life? What happens? We only need look into our history of faith.
We are like the Israelites in the desert with Moses. They were given the great gift of freedom from slavery in Egypt, but never changed. They worshipped golden calves, grumbled against God, and so, that generation forfeited the promised land, their inheritance. We have been given the gift of freedom from sin in our Baptism, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and in the grace of the Eucharist – and asked to change, be converted and use the gifts we have been given: to bear fruit that we may receive of the gift of eternal life.
Along the way there will be temptations, there will be suffering, there will be some chaos, moment we can not control and do not desire. We will question ourselves and our motivations. Why do we sin? Why do we suffer? Why can’t I get it right? Why aren’t there answers? All good questions, but as the parable of fig tree points out, there are more important questions – e.g. – am I using my gifts? Am I bearing fruit in the world?
The young mom in NICU? We simply prayed before the crucifix in the chapel, before Jesus, arms open wide in patient love. Not blaming, not controlling, simply loving. And so hers was not to assign blame or find answers that day. Her gift was being mom – being that fountain fullness and overflowing of love into the life of her six-year old daughter, her other children, and her husband half-a-world away. And that day she laid aside her questions and need for control and simply loved.
The world remained somewhat chaotic, things did not go as planned, there were ups and downs, and there were still questions. But she had loved. In that moment the Divine Vineyard owner found good, holy, and true fruit borne in the world.
May we all do likewise.