God is better . . .

Father Steve Mattson on Dec 15, 2020

. . . than a good dog. That’s how I began a recent homily at a funeral home service for a man who had died at the age of fifty, just over two months after being diagnosed with cancer. Beginning that way wasn’t, as you might suspect, my original plan. But the man’s dog, a wonderfully gentle golden retriever, seemed more minister than pet that morning.

Indeed, as I arrived, the family was sitting and talking, watching a slideshow of pictures of Bill. His dog, T-nine, with a command of the place, made the rounds of everyone who was there. At one point the dog sat down next to me, placing his head on my knee. No one could ignore him or believe he was somehow out of place.

I began the homily as I did because his “ministry” to the fifteen or so grieving family members and me was obvious. And important.

Of course, we all know that God is better than even the best of dogs, but I also knew from experience that this family, like all families who bury a loved one all too soon were grappling with questions: Why now? Why him? Why cancer? The answers to questions of that sort are never obvious.

His death called to mind what the theologians and philosophers call “the problem of evil.” It is, in fact, a great puzzle. How could a good, all loving, all knowing, all powerful God allow suffering like Bill’s or like countless others who deal with the results of a broken world or human sin?

Among those who have grappled with the question, I think St. Thomas Aquinas offers the best–admittedly, faith-based–answer by stating that God allows evil (moral and physical) always only to accomplish a greater good.

We can’t always see it at the time, and may not be able to see it in this life, but, filled with faith, we do well to trust that God is actually good and loving. We also know, looking hard at a crucifix, that God gets it. We worship a suffering and dying God. He meets us in our suffering, loving us.

But it was precisely because of the problem of evil that I continued the homily by stating a hard fact of human experience: “God is better than a good dog . . . but sometimes a faithful dog can seem better–more ‘faithful’, even–than God.”

Think about it. The faithful dog. Always there. Always attentive. Always (at least a good dog) ready to welcome and to love. There’s a lot to argue for a good dog. And God can seem distant, and silent. And is often thought to give us “more than we can handle.”

But, if we can draw strength and faith from the witness of others, and dare to trust–in the face of sadness, grief, and puzzlement–that God is actually loving and good, we may be able to perceive signs of God’s presence and His love for us and those we love.

In fact, in this case, T-nine, the very good dog who lost his master, was a tangible sign of God’s goodness to Bill’s family and to me. And, thanks be to God, there were other signs of God’s goodness that I was able to highlight for them and for myself.

It seems to me this is a secret of our faith. The more we look for signs of God’s presence and His love the better we are able to perceive them. In this case, the signs were obvious. Impossible to miss.

Let me share them with you. A few weeks ago, Bill’s daughter Stacie called and wondered if I’d be able to come to meet with her dad, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and had a bad prognosis. I planned on doing so, but I got a call from Stacie that her dad preferred to meet by Zoom. He was concerned about picking up Covid. So we met by Zoom, and talked about faith and his desire, spurred by Stacie’s prayers and witness and appeals, to become Catholic.

I made plans to make the trek to his home, but a few days later, Bill had to be admitted to the hospital. I kept in touch with Stacie, and she texted me to see if I could come visit him. I brought the oils and the Blessed Sacrament, and using the emergency rites given to priests for just such occasions, I baptized him, confirmed him, and gave him his first communion.

I can’t recall ever hearing such a heartfelt “I do” from a catechumen before. Then, pouring the water three times, I spoke the life-changing words: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and it was done. Bill was a son of God. He took the confirmation name William, and his daughter served as his sponsor. After I gave him communion, which would prove to be his first and last communion, his viaticum, food for the journey, he smiled broadly, and said, “I’m ready to go see Jesus.”

I rejoiced with him, but told him that I thought that the Lord had more for him here, but he said it again. He was ready to go and see Jesus. And he was ready. It was clear. When he got to the hospice house, he introduced himself as a Catholic, Stacie told me, and he was a witness to his caregivers and his family to the end.

His family saw the change. They knew that his conversion–rather, transformation–was real. They saw his inner peace, joy even, and knew it was, if any tragic, untimely death could be so-called, a happy death. I pointed to this beautiful, unexpected, fact. And, knowing her pain, I assured Bill’s mother that Mother Mary knows what it’s like to bury a son, and shared that Mary longs to enfold her, as our Blessed Mother does all mother’s who grieve the loss of a child, in her mantle of love.

My homily was basically a recounting of the grace at work through Stacie, and, ironically enough, through the unbidden, unsought, unwanted diagnosis of cancer.

The rock solid truth is that God is always at work, loving us. And that’s true even if we can’t see it. That’s the mystery.

I don’t know for sure, but, as I looked at the pictures of Bill as the “life of the party,” a vigorous and strong man, I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been open to the invitation to trust the Lord, to be baptized and confirmed, had he not been brought low by the dreaded diagnosis of cancer.

I’m not trying to put a smiley face on such a diagnosis, but I suspect that our brother in Christ, Bill, might never have known his need for a savior without the late diagnosis of a deadly cancer, with such a grim prognosis.

Providentially, God worked through that grimness, his “desperation,” the precariousness of his condition–by allowing this suffering, not causing it–to “plow deep” in the soil of his soul a preparation for his daughter’s sowing of the seed of the Gospel. And, as it happened–by grace–that seed of faith, poured out in love, bore rich fruit.

I am convinced that Bill is (or will be very soon) in heaven, and I don’t say that lightly. He was baptized shortly before he died, and lived his remaining (very few) days testifying to God’s love and his own faith. He was a witness to me. And others. He offered by his faith, his “yes,” strong evidence that God is better even than a good dog.

I was privileged to share Bill’s story at Mass this past Sunday, when, with the whole Church, we were given this powerful text from St. Paul for our second reading (I Thes 5:16-24):

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.

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