My father has to be one of the strongest men I know. He barely tells us when something is wrong and has a history of refusing to go to the doctor, assuming he’s alright. I must mention that my dad was known for being badass in his younger years. As a child he helped my grandparents run a farm, as a young man fought a guerilla war in Africa. On top of this, he recalls having to escape a “job” that turned out to be a labor camp that exploited immigrants. When he entered, he grew suspicious when they asked to keep the workers’ passports. My dad refused to hand it in and months later, found himself escaping in the middle of winter under the cover of night with nothing but a suitcase and a few German words he’d picked up. To this day, he has no idea how he managed to hike across those forests in several inches of snow…but somehow he made it across Europe and back home to Portugal. THAT’S HOW BADASS MY DAD IS. Even in his 50s, my dad lifted me (170lbs) like it was nothing, carried me into and out of the car and then ran me into the hospital when I found myself hyperventilating after a series of irregular heartbeats.
Needless to say, my father had a hard time adjusting to life as an older man. We had a hard time convincing him to get his heart checked until he started experiencing the tell-tale arm pain and chest constriction. Thankfully, however, they were able to perform the bypass surgery before he had a heartattack. Still, my dad refused to accept this as a weakness. He still went at it, fixing things around the house and working in the yard as if he was still fine.
7 years ago, following my mother’s death, my father got cellucitis for the first time. I still remember the day he was hospitalized. My aunt and uncle had bought tickets to a bull fight in Portugal in an effort to cheer us up and help us escape from the reality that our mother was gone. It worked to some degree and we did get excited about seeing our first “Tourada” and the nice lunch we were planning at a restaurant near the arena. My dad hadn’t been feeling well for a few days before the big day and all of a sudden everything took a turn for the worst. My father just about collapsed and was in so much pain we forgot about bull fighting as well as the restaurant. My dad was rushed to the hospital and we had to wait in a crowded waiting room as doctors scrambled to decipher the problem and find a solution. They didn’t know if it was autoimmune, circulation, diabetes, infection, allergic reaction, or a myriad of other illnesses. Meanwhile, my dad’s condition was deteriorating to the point where my sister’s and I were starting to worry about losing him just weeks after losing my mom. The infection was so bad by the time my father was in the hospital, that he was running a very high fever and his entire leg was swollen and red. My dad was in such bad shape, but there was only so much that the hospital staff could do since they were stumped about his condition. Cellucitis didn’t come up until much later so THANK GOD the staff had enough sense to treat my father with antibiotics just in case. Several weeks passed as we tended to his health and my dad started feeling better.
The problem was, his leg was still in intense pain. He could barely stand let along walk. My aunt suggested a cane. A cane for my dad would be like a death sentence. Still, he used it.
When we got to the US, my dad saw our family doctor. By that time, the infection was no longer as pronounced and most of the skin on his leg was either gone or in the process of peeling away. By that time, there wasn’t much that could be done and my dad, due to his diabetes, took a few months to fully recover. Though my dad eventually got better, the infection returned along with the intense pain a few times over the next few years. Things weren’t as bad as they had been in Portugal since he was finally properly diagnosed and was properly medicated during the subsequent infections.
All of this took a toll on my dad in the coming years since the pain would keep returning. He feared that he would never walk without a limp or cane ever again. I could see how much this hurt him emotionally and how much of a strain it was on his pride. My dad went to a reunion with his old war buddies and came back with a DVD from the experience. We all watched it when he got back and we were all so excited to see that he made it onto the video. We all sobered up when my dad started limping in this film and I remember my dad telling with so much defeat in his voice, just how much he had wanted to walk tall on that day….of all days.
Two years ago, I went to Portugal on my own and went to visit the Shrine of St. Benedict of the Open Door. This beautiful shrine was built in the 1600s and has been visited by countless pilgrims through the years. Outside this shrine, I saw some pilgrims praying as they crawled around the church on their knees. They were completing “promesas,” sacrifices they had promised in return for an answer to some prayer. If you ever go to this shrine, take a look at the museum that’s on premise near the gift shops. You will see many objects, letters, photographs, etc. that people have dedicated to St. Benedict in thanks for his intercession. Based on what I have heard and seen through the years, this saint has a pretty long history of helping these pilgrim’s get their prayers answered by God.
As I stood outside this church, I watched these pilgrims and marveled at their humility as well as their sacrifice. I saw the pain they suffered and thought about my dad and his leg. My dad suffered so much and I had been praying for him for so long…but what else had I done? It doesn’t take much to ask God for stuff and though God had blessed me so much throughout the years, I had yet to truly sacrifice anything of myself for God. Go figure why this particular prayer hadn’t been answered! Here I was, a Catholic brat asking God for all this stuff…without every giving Him anything. I was ashamed of myself and as I filed behind all of the pilgrims to get to mass, I had a crazy idea. It seemed so far-fetched considered how western culture views things such as humiliation and sacrifice in the name of God. In fact, I was almost afraid to do it because people would think I was crazy…
And yet, I humbled myself before God for the first time in my life and truly prayed. I told God about my dad’s situation and asked God to take care of my dad’s leg. I prayed and then found myself making a deal with God, with the help of Saint Benedict. I told God that I would do as the pilgrims outside were doing. I would go around the shrine on my knees in prayer, taking my dad’s suffering on myself and actually giving God something in return for all He had ever done for me.
Two years passed between this desperate prayer and my return to Portugal this summer. During this time, I did not tell a soul about my “promesa.” I wore the cross of St. Benedict around my neck as a reminder and continued to pray. During this time, my dad was healed. He never again suffered that intense leg pain and he even returned the cane. I’m not going to lie. My dad has had health issues on and off since then…but nothing as severe or persistent as this leg pain. The tissue on his leg looks normal again and not like a large scab…and his circulation is much better. What more could I need to prove that God had listened.
My trip to Europe this summer was great. I got to see Paris, eat Belgian chocolate in Brussels, and drink some of the worst beer I will ever drink in my entire life (in Germany, surprisingly enough). I got to see most of my family on both sides and across many countries. I had the best time…especially considering how much time I had spent in the laboratory for the past two years…
During my last week or so in Portugal I stayed with my dad’s sister, Tia Julia. I told her about my promise and she agreed to take me. Time went by quickly. One day, my aunt took my older sister and I shopping as she ran some errands. She asked if we wanted to join her and I did, because I didn’t really feel like hanging out with my older sister as she shopped (she takes FOREVER when it comes to picking out jewelry and I don’t really wear jewelry….). I had no idea where my aunt was going, but I ended up following her and even my older sister came along. My aunt ended up going to a church that was literally hidden within some sort of shopping mall-like place littered with cafes and all sorts of curiosities. I went in with her, though my sister stayed outside. My aunt was going to confession and I decided to join her so that I could say a few prayers. I barely ever go to confession. That’s no excuse, I know. However, it’s the truth and the longer it’s been since my last confession, the more discomfort I feel. As I prayed I got the urge to go to confession and it ended up turning out to be a great confession. I remembered sins I had committed years ago and had since forgotten. I talked to a very sympathetic and knowledgeable priest who had a lot of mercy as well as great advice. I felt great walking out of that church. I felt at peace.
The next day as my older sister and aunt went out shopping for different things, I got a chance to hang out with one of my favorite cousins of all time…Bete (nickname for French version of Elizabeth). She asked me if I wanted to go on an adventure. I said yes and soon found myself having a great heart to heart conversation as she drove me through some pretty scenic roads that wound around mountains and offered the occasional view of a crystalline river or well tended vineyard. It was a great ride and one that I will certainly remember for the rest of my life.
At one point as we are driving up a somewhat familiar road, she asked me if I knew where we were going. I told her I had no idea and next thing I know, we were at the Shrine of Saint Benedict! My cousin then told me that she had started going to the shrine every week to pray and deal with a lot of the stress life tended to throw in her way. The Portuguese believe that St. Benedict had a wry sense of humor and I came to believe it that day as we looked for parking (very scarce at that point of the summer when all of Europe is on vacation in Portugal). I had brought a raggedy pair of jeans with me to Portugal specifically for my “promesa.” I had also set up a date to visit the shrine with my aunt. However, I had a feeling that it would be “promesa” day or bust even though I was wearing shorts, flipflops, a large hippie bag, and a very large U2 shirt. This was not the garb of a pilgrim. Looking down at my shorts, I remember thinking…”Really, Saint Benedict? Really? Are you serious?” Of all days for me to fulfill my "promesa," it had to be one of the few days in this entire trip that I wore shorts!
I bought a small, simple rosary with wooden beads since I had left my rosary at home. My cousin offered to carry my bag as she walked alongside me. The first few steps on my knees weren’t bad, but I soon found myself focusing on my prayers because it hurt so much. I thought about Christ’s suffering for me as well as the pain our Blessed Mother must have felt when she watched her son die for us on the cross. Yet, I also felt temptation. In the dark recesses of my mind came the idea to pray faster so that I would finish my rosary faster and be done with the pain. Instant shame flooded me after I tried praying quickly for a brief moment. Disgusted, I slowed down and continued to pray as I normally do. As smooth as the walkway was, I the pain became unbearable. I constantly wiped away what felt like small pebbles digging into my knees. The skin on my knees started scraping off. My scientific mind worried about infection and all sorts of communicable diseases that I could get if someone else had bled all over the stone walkway. I somehow KNEW, however, that I would be fine save for a few scabs.
I finished praying the rosary and got up. Initially, I had intended to finish the entire circumference around the church. However, I felt that this part of my “promesa” was over. I found myself walking into the church and making it on time for mass. I looked like crap and certainly did not blend in with other pilgrims considering my U2 shirt and huge hippy bag. My knees probably hurt, but my focus was on Christ at this point. My focus was on the Eucharist and the padre as he celebrated mass. Then came Communion.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Then it hit me…I COULD RECEIVE. God had called me! In fact, God had been calling me for a while! I had gone to confession the day before and not messed up (committed some sort of mortal sin) since…so I was good to go! I prayed the act of contrition over and over in my mind (just in case) as I slowly made my way up to the front of the church behind a massive throng of people. The whole experience was beautiful. When my turn came up to receive, I did the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. (Thank God I went that day too because before we knew it the trip was over and my aunt was never able to take me to the shrine after that!!!)
I got on my knees, ignoring all pain and any potential stares, looked up and received the Body of Christ the old school way. By old school, I mean on my knees with complete reverence as I received the body of Christ by mouth. I am sure there were some in the younger crowd that had never seen that before…so, in hindsight, I am sure there were stares.
However, it felt like the only right way to receive…with complete humility, complete selflessness, and complete reverence.