The Burden of Friendship

I have a friend, Adrian, whom I have known for nearly thirty years. He and his family of eleven children and some grandchildren live in our state’s capital, Sydney, more than five hundred kilometers away, so we do not see as much of each other as we would like.

A few weeks back he called to tell me he had just been diagnosed with an advanced, lethal cancer.

His prognosis is bad and the best the oncologists can offer him is a chance at palliative treatment for a year or so at the best. He is a very experienced doctor and he knows the survival chances better than most. But Adrian is also a devout Catholic, so his phone call, aside from telling my wife and I about his condition was an emphatic plea for prayers. Not just a few prayers did he ask for, but for constant prayer and for acts of mortification and frequent daily Masses to be offered for a possible cure, or at least a slowing of the cancer’s inexorable grip on his body. He specifically insisted, as only a friend can, that I devote at least one Rosary a day to a cure for his condition.

I offered my heartfelt support for him and his family and promised to offer prayers and my Mass intentions for him. The call ended with an exchange of mobile phone numbers and a promise to update our email contact. Instantly my text message chimed and it was Adrian confirming that we were able to text each other directly. This was followed, almost immediately, by an email which dropped into my inbox, outlining a full account of his diagnosis, the dreadful prognosis and a heartfelt thank you for agreeing to devote a daily Rosary to him. He finished with these words:

 

Good to talk to you both, and great to have your assurance of daily prayers, especially the Rosary, which I believe to the most powerful prayer to the most potent Intercessor, our Most Holy Mother. While from a medical perspective, my prognosis is extremely grim, we know that our Lord is not bound to, nor restricted by medical statistics. He can do anything! I even say to friends and family, they don’t have to pray for a cure (even though He could easily do that) but, more importantly, that I can cope with what he decides to send me, i.e. to do His Will cheerfully and without bitterness or complaint.

The Required Spiritual Sweat
Who could not but be deeply affected by the intensity of his eloquent desire to communicate his needs and his earnest thanks?  So insistent was he with all his old Sydney acquaintances that he even had the members of a Sydney Synagogue praying for him. Surely, I thought, if he can devote such energy to communicating his spiritual needs to friends like me I had better live up to his expectations and pray and offer up mortifications for him. I was mindful of a quote from St. Augustine who suggests that if we want God to go out of his way to answer a pressing need we had better put in some genuine spiritual sweat in return.

This is the burden of friendship; the understanding that my friend needs my every effort of prayer and penance. If he is to survive by a miracle of God’s benevolent love, then his many friends must give, in full, their spiritual all. We, his cohort of friends, must enthusiastically take on a particular spiritual burden which binds us to him, and to each other, by our promises of prayer and penance. Each day, we must honor our promises.

In case we are tempted to forget, Adrian regales us with constant email entreaties; “Keep smiling and praying, thanks. You may never know what comfort, joy and consolation friends like you are at these trying times. I ask the Good Lord and His most Holy Mother to keep all of you near their hearts.”

There’s something touching about his candor; and underlying this is the knowledge that he suffers every day. His life, his troubles, his ups and downs have become our burdens too. Yet friendship with Adrian is never without its humor. My wife and I visited Sydney to see him recently. My first wry comment to him, after a warm embrace, was, “Thanks Adrian—thanks heaps for burdening us with all these extra prayers and mortifications. We always knew that friendship with you would be costly.”

For hours we laughed and exchanged that kind of catch-up information that only true friends can share. I told him how, when out cycling, I would come to a corner which faced up a steep rocky hill down which was blowing a gale of a headwind and I would wish I could take an easier route. Instead, I would ruefully turn into the wind and start pedaling, saying to myself, “I’ll offer this up for Adrian.” I told him I have him to thank for all my aching muscles and bones.

He gets it. He knows we may joke about what we are doing for him. But what underlies all the humor and good banter is the belief that only by the prayer and sacrifice of his friends and family will he prevail over his affliction, if it is to be God’s will.

We discussed the Church which is so dear to our hearts; we rejoiced in our new Pope and assured each other that he would prove to be God’s answer to today’s problems. Despite Adrian’s situation we still ribbed each other affectionately and gales of laughter accompanied almost ever comment.

Afterwards he couldn’t wait to email to announce, in humility and joy, one more of the many graces which have flowed from his illness.

You guessed how thrilled we were to have you here this morning!  But, how much more thrilling to see the response of our daughter. She just was overwhelmed and exclaimed, “Where have these people been all my life?” She has been away from the Faith for many years, often put off by “overly pious Catholics, rigid, humorless etc ” … I am sure you know what type I mean, even within our own family circle. Perhaps even dear old Dad has been a bit so, to some extent … when, whammo! Here you come to our rescue and to help us yet again, thanks.

Similar spiritual blessing have flowed through his entire family and friends; among those who have remained steadfast in their faith and those who have returned to the Faith and devotion to the Rosary.

Prayers of desperation
Neither Adrian’s family nor mine are strangers to prayers of anguish—those “from the core” gut-wrenching cries of desperation that only God can answer. They are prayers, not for oneself, but for another; for a helpless child, a friend, a colleague. These are the kind of prayers which are the only recourse when the outlook is so bleak that only an act of God can possibly make things right. These prayers are a necessary prelude to the miracles wrought by the prayer of desperation; when things have reached a point where only a direct intervention from God can save a life.

It was just such a situation that had bound our two families together more than twenty years earlier.

Some twenty three years ago our oldest son had been injured in a near-fatal car crash. Ironically, we had been on the way home from weekday Mass which we traditionally celebrated with each child on the Monday after their First Holy Communion. As a boy of seven, his vulnerable body had borne the full impact of a car hurtling into his side of the car at an uncontrolled intersection. He suffered a cardiac arrest at the scene—his lifeless body still strapped into his seat.

Miraculously, a witness asked how she could help. I begged her to call a priest. Such was the pastoral dedication of our parish priest of the time that even she, a non-Catholic, knew exactly who to call—dear old Father Plunkett. He was at the scene in minutes to administer the Sacrament of the Sick and anoint my dead son. At the same time a quick-thinking off-duty paramedic appeared and attempted to revive him. Mercifully, a faint heart beat began to flicker and he began to breathe again; ever so shallowly. He was clinging to life by the grace of a sacrament.

Our child’s massive head injury had resulted in the severing of all the links between the two hemispheres of the brain. Until that time no one had ever survived such an injury. He remained deeply comatose and near to death and had to be airlifted urgently to the Sydney’s Children’s Hospital.

We had known Adrian and his wife casually through previous visits to Sydney for various Catholic association meetings. So, being very alone in the big city hospital with our dying child, we contacted them to tell them the dreadful news of his injury. He and his wife reached out to us with prayers and concern and visited us in the Intensive Care Unit frequently. Without hesitation Adrian’s entire family took up the burden of friendship. They made our children welcome in their home when they made the long drive to Sydney to visit the hospital; they drove us around in their car, provided countless meals and provided unrelenting and enthusiastic support. Their prayers and concern exceeded any ordinary bond of friendship. They held us close and prayed with us in our pain. They experienced with us the lows and highs which every parent experiences when a child is near death. Like us, they would cling to any vestige of hope, no matter how frail and plunge towards despondency when the doctors delivered even more bad news.

As a doctor, Adrian knew full well that our child was in imminent danger of death. Yet he would reassure us on many occasions, “Don’t believe everything the doctors are telling you. They don’t know everything; they have been wrong in their diagnosis before, and they will be again.” His unshakeable faith seemed like the only pillar of certainty we could cling too as our hearts sank with every bit of bad news the doctors brought us. They were convinced our son would die as the massive pressures building inside his skull began to strangle the blood supply to his brain.

As with most head injuries, the danger days are the ones that follow the accident, as the bruised brain begins to swell inside its bony cavity. This creates cripplingly high brain pressures which are recorded on an ever-climbing graph on the ICU monitors. Ultimately, if unchecked, these pressures bear down on the brain stem, cutting off all vital blood and oxygen supply, resulting in death. The pressures being recorded were so high that the specialists believed there was no brain activity at all.

I can remember asking my wife, “Is it possible that God has already decided to cure our son and that right now He is testing our faith and resolve?”

A Once-only Deal with God
It was at this moment that I formulated a plan to enter into a deal with God which can only ever be made once. In my misery I begged God to cure my son. I pleaded that if He cured my son I would commit every unattended prayer of my life—past and future—to that one intention; of begging Him for the miracle needed to save my son, and of thanking Him if He answered my prayer.

By unattended prayer I was thinking specifically about all those prayers that I have said or was yet to say in my life that might not have any particular purpose or intention—those decades of the Rosary said whilst out jogging, or during long trips—all those prayers that were not specifically dedicated to some intention or other.

I don’t know if you are like me, but often I find myself praying—just because I can. I suspect that many of us pray this way at times. Whilst these prayers may have no specific object, they are nonetheless efficacious in that they give God the glory He is due and they serve to nourish the personal relationship we have with Jesus Christ. These prayers are not mere time-fillers, yet, paradoxically, they are nevertheless almost autonomic. They are said with a trusting heart, but they do not focus on any one particular need or intention. They sustain the daily conversation with God. These unattended prayers are simple, unadorned expressions of our need to communicate with our Maker. We say them because we can—and because we feel we should—yet they have no more specific purpose or intention attached to them. As such, I believe these prayers are latent with untapped potency. If they have not been dedicated to a particular cause then their full potential is yet to be released.

It is these prayers that I have irrevocably given to God for my entire life, for one intention only—my child’s life. My promise to God, made twenty three years ago does not mean that future prayers are all directed to this end—only the unattended ones. Accordingly, I am always cognizant of the gravity of the deal I made with God on that fateful day. I will never underrate the power or the efficacy of the covenant I entered into with my Maker. Neither one of the parties to that deal has, or will ever, let the other one off the hook; nor would we want to.

The best prognosis for our son had been that he would remain comatose on a ventilator and would inevitably die. We had seen other children with lesser injuries die in the ICU, so we had no earthly reason to believe that our son would be any different.

Yet, God kept His end of the deal. He wrought a miracle that even an agnostic neurosurgeon and medical staff had to acknowledge. Over the next three months our son began to recover – ever so slowly. By God’s miraculous help he conquered milestones that had previously been insurmountable barriers to survival. His eyes opened (even though it seemed for a while that the curtains were open but no-one was home). He began to respond to stimuli, to smile, and to begin to breathe for himself. Miracle of miracles, he began to speak in a slurred whisper, to answer, even to joke.

The long road ahead, over many more months and years, involved intensive physiotherapy to re-learn to hold things, to write, to eat and finally, to walk. Today he lives a completely normal life, with but a few permanent reminders of his injury. He lives with us, works in the family business and is devoted to his brothers and sisters.

They were not my prayers alone that prevailed, but the prayers of so many family and friends also. Their number and intensity are known only to God, but for them we are eternally grateful.

All these years later, Adrian’s illness has forced me to re live those prayers of desolation and to write for the first time about my once-only promise to God. Again I am reminded of the immense, incalculable power of prayer.

Each day, as I slide behind the steering wheel, there are my Rosary beads, lying loosely beside me on the passenger’s seat; a silent reminder of Adrian’s need and of the sweet burden of friendship.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Raising of Lazarus” was painted by Luca Giordano in 1675.

Gerard Gaskin

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Gerard Gaskin, a father of seven, was for many years a Catholic school principal; then Director of Religious Education in the Australian Diocese of Wagga Wagga. His Masters thesis examined the catechetical theory of St Thomas Aquinas. He is currently writing his Ph.D. thesis on Catholic educational leadership and lectures in catechesis at the diocesan seminary, Vianney College.

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