(In April of this year, in one of his homilies, Pope Francis said that we should ask for the “grace of memory”, so that we can remember our first encounter with God. This account of mine, actually written before I read Pope Francis’ homily, is a confirmation of that grace, and the memory of my first meeting with God.)
When I was around three or four years old, I had to have surgery for a hereditary condition of both eyes called strabismus. I was “cross-eyed”. I have distinct memories of this event in my life, despite my young age.
I was brought to the hospital a day or so before my surgery, and put in a crib with bars which seemed very high to me, like a jail that I couldn’t get out of. I was in, what I was later told by my mother, what was called a “ward”. There were other children there, some crying, one or more was there for burns. I don’t know how I knew this, maybe I heard the nurses talking, or my parents, or maybe I could just tell by looking at them.
One of the most traumatic things about this experience was that my parents had to leave me there. Parents weren’t allowed to stay in the hospital with their children in those days (this was in the 1960s). Things were much different then.
I must have been upset, understandably, because I recall them telling me that they would be staying “down the hall”, a little lie to settle me somewhat. I am sure I cried, since there seemed to be anguish behind my mother’s forced smile. Nevertheless, I was given a stuffed animal, along with much reassurance, and left there.
I was alone, and remember the feeling to this very day.
“Look toward me, and have pity on me, for I am alone and afflicted.” Psalm 25:16
I recall nurses coming and going, looking through those tall bars, and feeling sorry for the other children there, and when night came, I was restless. And it was in this crib, in a major city hospital, that I believe I had, for the first time in my memory, an encounter with God.
I don’t know if I can explain it adequately, spiritual things are often difficult to put into words, but I recall there being a Presence with me, and feeling loved, comforted, and peaceful. It moves me still just to think about it. I wondered if I was embellishing the memory or not, because I even had a sense of this Presence being above and to the right of my bed, and then I read this passage:
“The Lord is your guardian, the Lord is your shade; he is beside you at your right hand.”Psalm 121:5
The next morning, my mom and my dad rushed in to greet me, so anxious to see me and how I was. They seemed relieved that I wasn’t distraught. I remember them hugging, kissing, and holding me, and when I felt their faces, they were cold. Then I noticed they had coats and hats on, so I suddenly realized that they had come from outside! I knew that they had not been “down the hall”, and I think I even called them out on it! But no matter, they were with me again as they had promised.
The next thing I remember is after the surgery. I had to have bandages over my eyes for a while, a number of days I think, so when I woke up from surgery, I was “blind”. This normally would have also been traumatic for a small child, but I will tell you what I remember most, and it wasn’t fear, or discomfort, or anxiety.
I remember my father’s strong arms picking me up, and carrying me, his calming voice reassuring me, his silly antics making me laugh. I had to have help eating, dressing, bathing and all of those things of course, and I know that my mother was caring for me as much if not more, but for some reason I don’t remember her much during this time. I mainly remember my father, and I think it is because his presence gave me such a profound feeling of safety and protection and love that the impression of it is imbedded in my memory. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see, or know what was going to happen to me next. I knew without a doubt that my father was going to take care of me, and in his arms I was safe and secure.
“…even when your hair is gray I will bear you; It is I who have done this, I who will continue, and I who will carry you to safety.” Isaiah 46:4
One thing that stands out in my memory is that because I couldn’t see, perhaps, I had a different awareness of my father. It wasn’t just the way he held me, and spoke to me, or the way he smelled, but it was a different knowing of him that is hard to explain. It was more like a level of trust and closeness that I hadn’t known before had occurred.
There were a few important lessons revealed to me from this:
First, that God really does not leave us alone, ever, especially during times of trial. It may seem that we are, but He is there, going through whatever we are going through with us, and sometimes that veil which separates this world from the spiritual world is lifted a bit and we can experience His Presence. Second, I learned something of the way God is with us, always like a loving Father who “sees” what we don’t, and takes care of all our needs, even carrying us in His arms, and it’s when we trust Him in faith, that we experience a different knowing of Him that is hard to explain, a level of closeness that wasn’t there before.
“O God, you have taught me from my youth, and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds.” Psalm 71:17
You might be wondering how a very young child might have absorbed all of this, much less remembered it, and I can’t really say, but whenever I reflected on it in my adult years, this was what came to me. I later asked my mother questions about it, and she was surprised that I remembered that they had to leave me, and that there were children there with burns and such. I think God allowed me to go through that, and remember and reflect on it, so as to teach me something.
But there was one more lesson… I believe God wished that I would remember Him, my first Love, and His touch on my life at this tender age, and that I would also realize what a gift my father was to me, and how he demonstrated the love of The Father to his child, a powerful love that then brought longing to my heart for God..
“We for our part, love, because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19
“Pray and ask for the grace of memory. ‘When, Lord, was that first encounter, that first love?’ – so that we might not hear the complaint the Lord makes in Revelation: ‘I have this against you, that you have forgotten your first love’.”
Pope Francis April 24, 2015