A few Fridays ago I was feeling especially discouraged. I realize that I am not alone in thinking that life often seems to present challenge after challenge after challenge. I think many of us feel that way. But on this particular evening, I was struggling with something even more perplexing than suffering itself. I was struggling with a disturbing sense of meaninglessness.

Now I have to admit up front that one of my great weaknesses is that I’m easily discouraged. It’s easy for me to believe the little voice that whispers, “You are nothing. Your life has amounted to very little. You have talents and advantages that most people do not have and you haven’t utilized them well. You’re a classic underachiever. Worse still, you are a fraud. You espouse virtues and principals that you yourself lack.”

It’s not that I really believe these things or that these whispers are frequent. They’re not. When they do surface, I can rationally evaluate these statements and to a large extent refute them. Nevertheless, it’s very easy for me to feel this way. I am often plagued with a tinge of doubt. Emotions and rationality do not always align perfectly. I suspect that this is not unusual. I suspect that I’m just saying out loud what many people feel but do not say (and I don’t blame them one bit). I’m only sharing this because it might help some others.

On that Friday, May 7th, I was walking around with that kind of inner narrative. It brought me to the brink of despair. My doctor had just ordered CT scan of my brain to look for a tumor and I began to wallow in self-pity. Would this be the last straw? Would my health battles finally get the best of me? No matter how much I tried to change the subject, this little voice kept asking, “Why do your successes feel so hollow? Why does life not seem to make any sense? Why do the inner longings of your heart never seem to come to anything? Why do you often feel so restless and frustrated?”

That evening, I went to Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame for 5:15 p.m. Mass. When the students are on campus, this is something that usually buoys my faith. Seeing so many Notre Dame students so in love with Jesus in the Eucharist usually is enough to quiet the voices. The long lines for Confession I see winding down the aisles of the Basilica usually jolt me back into a mentality of hope. But, despite a pretty full church – not on this day. I kept dwelling on the fact that I couldn’t make sense of my life.

After Mass, as is my custom, I decided to stop at the Grotto before I walked around one of the lakes and then headed home. It was a sunny day. Cold and windy, but sunny nonetheless. As I descended the stone stairs next to the new Corby Hall, my heart was heavy. I was filled with sadness and self-pity.

Self-pity is something I’ve written about before. I believe it is a poison, a deadly deadly poison. When I become absorbed in self-pity, it is virtually impossible for anyone to comfort me. I simply won’t hear it. In a way, my self-pity becomes a big middle finger to those who wish to love me. By self-pity, I REFUSE to let them love me. It’s ugly. It’s almost like I enjoy thinking of myself as the greatest sufferer in the world. Intellectually, I understand the ridiculousness of such a thought, but it’s like my pettiness wants to be good at something, so I think to myself, “Well, you’re good at getting screwed!”

There are so many reasons why this is NOT true, so many that I’m embarrassed even to share this glimpse into my inner thoughts. But my poor pathetic pride kicks in and I throw myself what my 8th grade teacher, Sr. Gerald Francis, CSC, used to call a “pity party.” At first my “pity party” makes me feel significant. In “getting screwed” at least I am the center of attention. But then it becomes so ludicrous – and believe me I realize this profoundly – that I walk around actually embarrassed for even thinking such thoughts. My thoughts seem so loud and obnoxious, and stupid that I worry that someone passing me might even be able to sense them. Ugh!

When I arrived at the Grotto, I noticed a crowd. St. Joe High School was holding their prom that night and all the high schoolers and their parents were there to take photos with this lovely backdrop. For some unknown reason, seeing all these people wholeheartedly enjoying themselves made me feel even worse. My pride was getting the best of me.

But then I saw someone I knew. It was my cousin, Liz, and her husband, Kevin. These are two of the finest human beings I know. When our eyes met, theirs lit up like they were actually happy to see me. Given my mental state, that was surprising to me. How could they smile at me when my thoughts were so dark and warped?

We approached each other and began to chat.

Now let me tell you something about Liz. If I were to create a “pantheon of heroes” Liz Kearney would qualify for that group. Liz is a nurse. A really good one. Her son, Kevin, was confined to a wheelchair much of his life with Muscular Dystrophy. When I was teaching philosophy at Holy Cross College, Kevin was in my class. Liz would go home after working a late night / early morning shift at the hospital, get him ready for school and then drive him to campus. When I had Kevin in my class, he couldn’t write anymore. So there sat Liz at his side, bags under her eyes, taking notes for him, wearing her grubby nursing clothes and drinking from a huge metal container of coffee, fighting to stay awake with all her might. Even typing this description makes me get choked up. It was indescribably beautiful. Her love was unconditional, absolutely heroic. The beauty of that sight every Tuesday and Thursday morning made a big impression on me. Liz is a giant in my book. Almost superhuman.

In their characteristic fashion, Liz and Kevin Sr. approached me and made great conversation. They had no idea of my inner turmoil. I’m sure they won’t think of this encounter as anything special, but when I walked away, I felt better about the world. They both have a way of doing that. They both are really special people.

When we were done speaking, I then withdrew a bit and watched the beautiful scene at the Grotto. Fairly quickly, I began to dwell on the question of why my life seemed to make no sense. Suffering is okay for me, but why has my life unfolded like it has? It makes no sense. Why would God impress into my soul such a fervent desire for love and meaning only to frustrate me at seemingly every single turn? I’m not even that good at loving the people I love the most.

At this point, I wanted to get out of there. It felt like everyone could see my awful thoughts. So I then started down the lilac strewn path towards St. Mary’s Lake. It was then I that I had another unlikely encounter. I ran into another person who is special to me.

Joey Thomas and I worked at Elcona Country Club back when I was a young man. He was the son of the head pro (my big boss) and we worked together for 10 full years. His dad was like another dad to me. His brother married my sister. His sister was my first “girlfriend” back in junior high. I rarely see Joey these days, so running into him was a treat. Some people, like Joey, just make you smile and remind you of who you are. As we watched his wife, Cindy, take photos of their youngest son, I thought back to the day when he had spied her cutting the green on the 18th hole as part of the golf course “grounds crew” Peering through the Pro Shop window, he confided to me that he liked her. That was 35 years ago!

Like Liz, it was a great comfort to see Joey Thomas.

As I walked home, despite these two wonderful encounters, my thoughts defaulted back to my own self-pity and the fact that I couldn’t make sense of my life. On top of all my treatments for cancer, viruses, blood conditions, chemo side effects, a broken kneecap and a recent heart attack, I was now thinking about my upcoming brain scan to look for a tumor. What is God doing here? Am I dying? What is the purpose of it all? I’m okay with suffering, but why won’t He help me understand WHY?!?!

As I approached the intersection of Angela Blvd and Eddy Street on the edge of campus, I had already forgotten about both of these encounters with Liz and Joey. I was back inside my head, drowning in my self-pity. Physically, even my legs felt heavy and tired.

Just before I pushed the button to summon the “Walk” signal to cross the street, something happened that I will never forget: I was scolded by Our Lady. Yes, I mean the Mother of Jesus. All the way from the Grotto to this point, I had been praying the rosary. In all honesty, it wasn’t the most attentive prayer. My mind had been wandering. But now, very clearly inside my head, I hear HER voice saying to me, “STOP IT! You have asked me for comfort. I sent you TWO of my best people: one to inspire you and one to make you smile. TWO people perfectly positioned to bring you comfort, and how did you receive them? You totally BLEW IT OFF! How can I help you if you IGNORE the people I send you to bring you comfort and hope? STOP the self-pity!”

I immediately recognized the truth of this message. There was no arguing. I acknowledged this fact almost immediately and thanked HER for her chastisement. Her scolding actually made me feel better.

A brief moment later, I heard an astonishing sound. Muffled through the driving wind, it sounded like music of angels. Instead of crossing the street, I turned back and instinctively walked towards it. Not far from this intersection is a large lawn just south of DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Completely unbeknownst to me on this cool and blustery Spring day, the Notre Dame Glee Club was holding their final campus concert before graduation.

To understand the magnitude of this moment, you have to understand the importance of the Glee Club in my life. It is my favorite musical group. I love it even more than Led Zeppelin or the Beatles or Run DMC. 😉 I became mesmerized with their music as an undergraduate in the 1980s when they would sing Notre Dame football songs on Friday evenings before home games in South Dining Hall. In February of 1995 when I asked Margy to marry me, I paid a dozen members of the Notre Dame Glee Club to come and sing to us at the Grotto. There is no other music on earth that speaks to me of the transcendence of God into my life like the ND Glee Club.

As I approached them, they were finishing a song. I pulled out my cell phone and decided to capture the next one they sang, whatever it would be. It is mind-blowing what happened next. I had just been chastised by the Mother of Jesus. I wander towards the concert and this is what I hear…

Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria

I wish each and every one of you had access to my soul at this moment. It was like freight train hit me. I got choked up but kept recording. (Eventually, off camera, I sobbed like a baby.) But then, as if this weren’t enough of an intervention into my mental crises, the most extraordinary thing happened. The next song the Glee Club sang was a Ben Harper song that almost perfectly responded to all the thoughts that had been playing in my head for the past hour. It’s called, “I Shall Not Walk Alone.” Here’s a snippet of what I heard…

Ben Harper’s “I Shall Not Walk Alone”

Please read slowly these lyrics. They are so profound to me that I can hardly type them without crying:

Battered and torn
Still I can see the light
Tattered and worn
But I must kneel to fight

Friend of mine
What can’t you spare
I know some times
It gets cold in there

When my legs no longer carry
And the warm wind chills my bones
I reach for Mother Mary
And I shall not walk alone

Hope is alive while we’re apart
Only tears speak from my heart
Break the chains that hold us down
And we shall be forever bound

When I’m tired and weary
And a long way from home
I reach for Mother Mary
And I shall not walk alone

Beauty that we left behind
How shall we tomorrow find

Set aside our weight in sin
So that we can live again

When my legs no longer carry
And the warm wind chills my bones
I reach for Mother Mary
And I shall not walk alone

I realize that the audio quality of this song is not optimal. So if you’d like to hear the song like it’s meant to be heard, click here to hear the rendition from The Blind Boys of Alabama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JffEKhqJXVo

In the same way, here is the Notre Dame Glee Club’s rendition of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” like is should be heard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0TMvoi4bHo

Or if you’d like to hear the rest of it like I hear it a few Fridays ago, here is the windy, imperfect recording of verses 2+ from that unforgettable moment:

A longer version of Biebl’s “Ave Maria”

I realize that this blog post is long. I’m very frustrated in thinking that there is no way to share with you how beautiful and profound all this was on that unforgettable Friday evening. This post seems so inelegant and inadequate. If you’ve been able to perceive a glimpse of the awe and wonder of my experience, please help me by sharing this message far and wide. I just know that if every person understood the PERSONAL care and concern of Our Lady for you – the way that SHE wants to take care of YOU like she took care of her DIVINE SON, Jesus Christ – everyone would commit themselves more wholeheartedly to Christ. Jesus is Lord! His mother is here to help us. Everything is going to be alright.