“The name is strange. It startles one at first. It is so bold, so new, so fearless. It does not attract, rather the reverse. But when one reads the poem this strangeness disappears. The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.” – J.F.X. O’Conor, S.J
When I graduated from Catholic school in 1979, I thought I had graduated from the Catholic Church. I was free from the Catholic school and on to public school. Gradually, I stopped going to Mass, then only on holidays, and then not at all.
During the summer before I entered college, I began to have a thirst in my soul for prayer. Sure I knew the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Gloria but I didn’t know how to talk with God. I voraciously read the bible and my mother’s St. Joseph Missal, which had the Latin on one side and the English on the other. But something was lacking. I felt that thirst for God, for prayer and for that spiritual connectedness. I was being pursued by the Hound of Heaven.
In retrospect, I realize my voracious reading of Scripture prior entering into the unhallowed halls of Academia prepared me to do battle with a very anti-Catholic professor who relentlessly attacked the Church. With fact, I countered every lie he told the class. As I stood strong, slowly the other kids in class who were initially cowed by this professor, began to stand strong and profess their faith. The professor gave me a lower grade than I had earned, but I was happy to take it on the chin for the Lord and the Church.
The Hound of Heaven continued to pursue me through college and into the start of my “adult” life.
While I was dating my wife Sue, we spent many days with her maternal Grandma from Italy, who had a great love for the Lord. Sue and I love gardening; we would plant a tomato garden for grandma the way grandpa used to do it when he was alive. We would kick off the spring cleaning of the garden every year on June 23rd, grandma’s birthday. We would bring a little cake, some gifts and seedlings.
In 1986, I painted a ceramic crucifix as a birthday gift for her grandma, which she asked me to have blessed. I wasn’t going to Mass regularly, so I told her to have it blessed when she went to Mass, but she insisted in a kind way that I get it blessed. I smiled and said “OK” with no intention of having it blessed. While I was disposing of gardening trash in the can out front, a priest walked by. I ran after him and asked him if he would bless grandmas’ birthday gift. He gladly said “yes” and entered the house. His name was Father Nasser, an Egyptian priest assigned to St. Francis Xavier Parish. He inquired about our prayer life, chided us for not going to Mass faithfully, sat us around the table and prayed with us. He blessed the Crucifix, blessed us and left.
Like that rabbit in the Hound of Heaven Poem, I was still running and not back home at Mass yet.
I landed a part time job as a paralegal in Downtown Brooklyn. One afternoon, Sue called to remind me to get my throat blessed for the feast of St. Blaise February 3, 1987. On my lunch break, I set off to find a church and found myself in an Italian neighborhood known as Carol Gardens. A flock of old Italian widows directed me to to St. Stephens/Sacred Heart Church. As I was waiting, the Italian Sacristan came over and asked me about my prayer life. I said that I didn’t go to Mass regularly and that I didn’t believe in Confession. I prayed the three prayers I knew by heart and continued to wait.
Suddenly, this tall Italian priest in the whitest alb I had ever seen, emerged from the confessionals in the back. The sacristan motioned me to get up and announced to the priest in broken English that I wanted to go to confession but needed a little encouragement. He pushed me forward. This large Italian priest looked down at me (I’m short) and asked me if I wanted to go to confession. I mumbled “yes father.” When I left that church, I felt great. I went back to work praising God and asking for forgiveness for separating myself from His Church for so long, but I still didn’t go back regularly.
But the Hound of Heaven is relentless.
Sue and I got engaged and decided that we would once again become involved in the life of the Church and so we began going to Mass regularly and to confession. Shortly after we were married, I got a job in Manhattan and attended daily Mass at lunch hour. I became an Extraordinary Minister of the Blessed Sacrament, a lector at my ‘work” parish, a Third Order Franciscan and I joined the Saint Vincent De Paul group, feeding the needy. The Hound of Heaven captured me; I was His.
My brother Adam worked with an Egyptian guy whose cousin was a priest. My brother, knowing how involved I became in the Church, told his co-worker that I probably knew his cousin, Father Nasser, and he called me at work to ask me. Sure enough, this was the same Father Nasser that blessed the Crucifix. My brother told me that Father Nasser was dying in Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. I immediately left the office and headed straight for the hospital. Sunlight was streaming in Father Nasser’s empty room; it was very peaceful. I grasped his hand and asked if he remembered me. He nodded. I thanked him for his prayers and told him that I knew it was because of his prayers that we were back at Church. Tears streamed from his face. Shortly afterward, he died.
Faith is a gift. My mother prayed while she was pregnant with me that I would serve God as a priest. My parents brought me up in the faith and nurtured that faith. There were so many people in my life that contributed to helping that faith flourish even amongst the thorns of the world, the flesh and the devil. It continues to thrive because of constant prayer, the prayers of family and friends, priests and nuns and through the intercessions of the angels and saints as well as the poor souls in purgatory, to whom I have a great devotion. That is the beauty, power and gift of the Communion of the Saints.
The parable of the lost coin is truly apropos and the Hound of Heaven unwearyingly follows. God will relentlessly seek our redemption, our coming home. He pursues us to the ends of the earth. He uses people, places and things. All we have to do is say yes.
Thank You, Lord.
“I rejoiced when I heard them say let us go into the House of the Lord”.
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