Almost 50 years ago, when Father Thomas Lynch began his life as a priest, his first assignment was to visit an elderly parishioner who was dying—a man who was angry with God, angry with life … and angry with the priest.
He had several days of stubble on his face when he hobbled to the door to meet Father and grumbled, “If you’ve come here to give me any of your pious c—, don’t waste your breath.” And their meeting seemed to go downhill from there. He was bitter because his prayers hadn’t been answered, and there was no time left. Father Lynch realized it would be unproductive to tell him about God’s inscrutable will and the redemptive power of suffering.
“But he clearly wanted something from me,” he recalled. “It wasn’t theology. It wasn’t sympathy or false optimism. And it wasn’t formal prayer. He needed to know where God was in all of this.”
Father Lynch listened to his story, anointed him and said he would pray for him, but left feeling that he hadn’t done enough. The man died shortly afterward, and only later did Father Lynch realize what he wanted was “someone to be able to walk in his shoes and to understand what his difficult journey was like.” He needed to talk about what death meant and find meaning in his suffering … and his life.
It was a lesson that would change how Father Lynch ministered to the suffering and dying throughout his priesthood. Since that time, the longtime pastor of St. James Parish in Stratford has helped several thousand people who were sick and dying and confused. He has officiated at more than 1,500 funerals and counseled not only the dying, but also the grief-stricken and caregivers. And he has captured the wisdom and spiritual insights he gained over the past 46 years in a book titled After the Diagnosis: A Guide for Living, which he and award-winning author Barbara Mariconda co-wrote.
“I realized that in order to minister in a meaningful way to the sick and dying, I needed to enter into and really strive to understand their world, so I took every opportunity to spend time, talk and be real with them,” he said. “As I walked with parishioners, family members and friends, this Path of Suffering became more and more familiar to me.”
His experiences led to an understanding of the transformative power of love, especially during sickness and dying.
Mariconda, who has written many books for adults, young adults and children, said, “In the 21st century, dying is more often than not an elongated process that may stretch out for many years. Since all of us will eventually die, the question is how do we live well while dying? How can we avoid being bullied by the obsessive inner voices of anxiety and fear that leave us self-absorbed and disconnected from the very life we hope to save?”
The book, which took seven years to write, includes cases of men and women who were transformed by love during the process of dying, and it offers practical and spiritual advice for patients, families, friends and caregivers. Most importantly, it centers on the fundamental promise—so contrary to what our society believes—that a person can live joyfully and lovingly despite challenges like sickness, dying and death.
“In a culture where death is seen as the ultimate failure, where suffering is to be avoided at all costs and assisted suicide is increasingly the answer, what is there left to say about end of life issues? And what’s love got to do with it?” Mariconda asks. “Once we recognize that love, suffering, forgiveness and dying emerge from the same inner place, a place of radical surrendering of self, we can begin to view end of life issues differently. If we learn to suffer well, we’ll learn to love well, to forgive others and live. And when we do these things well, we’ll die a joyful death.”
For too many people, the process of dying starts with denial and ends with resignation, when it should continue through to acceptance—and transformation.
Father Lynch says that a “slice of heaven” can be found on this side of the grave and there’s “a place beyond acceptance. A place of transformation in which we can realize in the fullest, purest way what our life’s purpose has been and what an amazing gift we can entrust to those we’ll leave behind. We can learn to embrace mystery, to understand that our suffering can be transformative. Our legacy can become one of love—pure, powerful and eternal.”
The book goes beyond a discussion of sickness and dying. “It’s really about living and loving along the entire journey,” he said. “Most importantly, it’s about realizing that we can choose the way we live and the way we love through every stage of living, sickness, dying and death.”
Father Lynch, who is a family and marriage counselor, told the story of Phil, a middle-age man diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, which spread to his liver. In four months, his life changed drastically and he was spending his final weeks at Memorial Sloan Kettering in a hospital bed.
Father Lynch would visit him, and on one occasion even brought him a porterhouse steak and gave him a taste of scotch to lift his spirits. Despite his suffering and seemingly hopeless case, Phil was an inspiration to so many others.
“He made it a point to reach out to everyone in the spirit of love,” Father Lynch recalled. “When his nurses, doctors and caregivers entered the room, Phil would smile, engage them in conversation, ask how their day was going, learn their names and inquire about their families.”
When there was nothing more that could be done, he was released from the hospital and a crowd gathered to say goodbye for the last time. His was an example of a person who can transcend pain and suffering, illness and dying and touch countless lives in the process.
“In many ways, Phil had tilled the fertile field of God’s boundless love,” Father Lynch said. “He was able to access the living and loving presence of God that was in the field of his heart during his final ordeal.”
When the ambulance arrived at his home, the driver said to his wife, “Your husband must be a famous man—I’ve never seen that kind of send-off.”
Father Lynch said that so many people who are suffering and dying are looking for God … even though God is always with them. They have to be given the opportunity to surrender and be transformed by his divine presence and saving love.
“The greatest lesson is that God is with you and will never abandon you,” he said, “and that he wants to help you stand in the brokenness and frailty of life.” (For more information, to order the book or to download a free sample, visit journeyofthesoulbooks.com.)