Sunday, November 6, 2011

St. Steve?

I was herding my flock of little children to the door after Mass at our new parish one Sunday when a man in his fifties approached, hand out, saying, "Hi, I'm Steve. I'm a victim soul."

Being familiar with this term—"victim soul"—I didn't find this quite as bizarre as it might have been otherwise, but it still struck me as an odd way to introduce oneself. But then I'm a little odd myself. So we got to know each other a bit and chatted much longer than my restless children would have preferred. Thus began my friendship with my first official victim soul.

All Saints' Day was this past week, which is held in honor of the hosts of people who made it to heaven without their names appearing on the Church calendar. They are the ones who loved and followed the Lord and who made an impact on their little corner of the world, without having an order or followers with the knowledge, time, documentation, etc. to see them through the long canonization process.

Upon reflection, I bet many of us can think of people in our lives who fit this description. Steve is one in mine.

Steve had had rickets in childhood, which stunted his growth, leaving him with a slight limp and a torso somewhat disproportionately long in relation to his legs. Some might describe him as a plain man, not appealing from a worldly point of view, certainly not fashionable, but the joy and love and peace that shone through his eyes and smile made him captivating.

He continued to suffer chronic health problems as an adult, which prevented him from having a regular job. So whenever his health permitted, he threw himself into volunteer work for the Church instead. Both of us being church-hoppers—that is, going to daily Mass at whatever parish happened to be most convenient that day—I used to see Steve quite often at various places in the city. I'd also see him at talks and pro-life events, and of course at our parish, where he volunteered quite a bit.

After some time, however, I realized that I hadn't seen him for a while, and heard that he'd been having health problems. Then we heard that he had had major back surgery, which hadn't gone well. I don't recall now if it was that the surgery was an attempt to correct a condition and failed or that it was a botched surgery that caused the ensuing condition. At any rate, he was left paralyzed from the neck down in terms of movement, but not in terms of sensation. Instead, he was in constant pain. He had the worst of both worlds.

Before I tell you the remarkable way he lived up to his self-identification as a victim soul, I must say that he was human. His condition was not easy for him to accept. Once in a while he would cry out, "Lord, why are you letting this happen?" Like Job or the Psalmist who asked "Why?" and "How long, O Lord?" these cries of anguish did not represent any bitterness on his part, but the honest bewilderment of a son, still faithful and devoted to his Father. He also shared with my husband not only his desire to live but a normal fear of death.

The hardest cross for Steve was not the pain, nor the feeling that his nurses lacked compassion and were slow to bring him his pain medication, nor the paralysisthough all of these were difficultit was the loneliness. He was a friendly, gregarious people-person. And now he was spending day after day, week after week, month after month, and eventually year after year, mostly alone in a hospital room.

He did have a few consolations. After a little while, he regained partial use of his left hand. His family outfitted him with a phone on a cord around his neck, which he could operate with that clumsy hand. This relieved a small part of the loneliness. He also had visitors—not so many that he still didn't have many empty hoursbut family and friends who would come when they could. (It wasn't always easy to manage: for instance, I had to choose between bringing along the kids, as we did one Christmas, or go by myself in the evening to a hospital in a bad part of town.) Fortunately, Steve also had a handful of regulars, who faithfully visited him frequently. My husband was one of these.

But Steve did not waste those lonely hours, nor his pain nor his frustration. He had long seen himself as a victim soul—someone to whom God sent more suffering than to most people, knowing that they would turn that suffering into a sacrifice and offer it back to Him as a prayer for someone else. Now that perspective of viewing his suffering as a vocation was put to the greatest test. And he passed. He offered it all up. And he did it systematically and lovingly. 

He would ask us if we had any intentions for which we'd like him to pray. And unlike most people, who use "How are you?" as a greeting not a genuine question, he wanted to know the details. I remember his even telling me what time he was going to devote to our family's petitions. He had it all mapped out: he would pray for us at such-and such a time; next he'd pray for the Missionaries of Charity; then at the next time slot for some specific requests from his volunteer friends at EWTN, etc.

And he really cared. It still brings tears to my eyes to remember how this man, who was suffering so much at every hour, could have compassion on us, whose sufferings were nothing compared with his. He'd remember what our intentions had been and ask if they had been answered. At one point, my husband was unemployed, a situation that dragged on much longer than we had anticipated. And Steve would cry out on our behalf, "Lord! Why are you letting this happen? You've got to help them!"

During the four or so years that Steve was bed-ridden, there were a few occasions when he'd get sick and be at death's door. His loved ones, though we knew we'd miss him, almost hoped he would pass on to his reward—he'd suffered so much already! But he wasn't ready. He was a fighter, and again and again he'd escape death's embrace. But as time went on, he eventually came to lose his fear of death, and he peacefully accepted it when it came to him at last.

I consider it an honor to have known this holy man, and we still rely on his prayers for us from heaven.

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