I am, admittedly, a ‘cradle Catholic,’ who has experienced times of great closeness to the faith, and other times when I wandered, like a dog, who suddenly finds itself outside its familiar fence, and is anxious to sniff out what the world outside might be like. I searched for something outside, but always wandered back to the Sacraments, the only place I have ever found spiritual nourishment, the place where I always found my spot at the table of plenty. I realized, eventually, that I did not need to look outside my faith, rather, I needed to know more about it. I needed to develop an intimacy with my faith, just as I had cultivated an intimacy with my God. So, I returned to graduate school for a master’s in theology, where I would begin to learn the truths of the faith, and the truths about me.
Shortly after graduation, I found myself involved in a recovery ministry, working with those who were trying to escape the abyss of addiction. As I became more and more involved, it was easy to lose myself in the dire life situations of others. So often their needs superseded my own self-care and spiritual nourishment and I would find myself depleted, in mind, body and spirit. Inevitably, at these times, God would send me a reminder, some sort of sign, which would reinvigorate me and draw me back to the well of spiritual nourishment only He can provide. My most recent ‘sign’ came only this past July, where after a period of spiritual dryness, exacerbated by the global pandemic and soaring relapse and overdose rates, I was brought back to beauty, the beauty of our faith in a suffering world. It all took place on one day, when a friend and member of our ministry, invited me to come ‘visit’ her son. It was a day to remember why I remain a Catholic.
I walked behind her, following her quick pace along the black top that separates one section of rolling tombstones from another. “He’s down here, on the right,” she called back to me, “Isn’t it a perfect place?” Perfect would not be the word I had thought of, but in the heart of this grieving mother, the perch occupied by a large black granite tombstone overlooking rolling hills, was the perfect spot for her beloved son to spend eternity. A son who had lost a nearly 15-year battle with opioid addiction, begun after being prescribed painkillers for an injury sustained in an auto accident.
“He’s buried with his grandfather,” she said. “They were so close. He was the first grandchild on both sides.” Her eyes welled up, but before the tears could start streaming, she wiped her face and said, “This is my routine. I come here every day before mass, and I visit with him. I talk to him about everything. I tell him what his brother is up to and that his sister is getting married. I know the groundskeeper very well. His son was my son’s schoolmate, and I know he pays special attention to Kyle’s grave.” Again, the tears welled, and again she caught herself before she could sob. “Then, after a conversation, I pray aloud the 23rd Psalm,” she said. “Here, do it with me.” We started to pray aloud. Her eyes were closed, and her face convicted. Her voice was strong and confident. It was obvious that I was not used to praying this prayer in its entirety and out loud, and I fumbled on nearly every word.
As the current Executive Director of this Catholic recovery ministry that helps to pull people out of the opioid crisis, I had welcomed this woman, Melanie, to our ‘team’ soon after she had lost her own son two years before. Melanie’s role in the ministry was to work with other families to help them understand the disease of addiction from a physiological, psychological and spiritual perspective, and to share her message as a bereaved parent with individuals in early recovery, so that they might understand that addiction is a ‘family disease’, where everyone is affected. She and I would bring spirituality sessions to men and women in treatment facilities, sharing the message of hope and the necessity of spirituality as a necessary dimension of wellness. The clients at these facilities would listen to her every word, which, though spoken quietly and without effect, had the power to keep them rapt in attention.
On this day, Melanie had invited me to share in her daily routine, for while I have been a consultant, speaker, and author on the subject of the interface between Catholic spirituality and addiction and recovery, I could not (Praise God) walk in the shoes of parent who had suffered this particular, devastating loss. I was humbled to be asked to accompany her, and a bit apprehensive, afraid of the unknown and of coming face to face with her grief.
We left the cemetery together and journeyed the short distance to her church for daily mass. The church itself was cavernous and beautiful, adorned with magnificent statuary and mosaics of the Holy Family, so different from the small, more contemporary church I attend near my home. We sat in her regular pew and greeted the other daily ‘massers’ who smiled and waved at Melanie and me. Mass was beautiful and I remember receiving the Eucharist in gratitude for this experience shared with Melanie, to share in both her grief and her healing.
After mass, we walked to a chapel at the back of church. It was a chapel dedicated to Our Lady Of Sorrows, and there against the wall, was a beautiful version of the Pieta’, with Our Lady holding the dead body of Jesus, the agony in His face matched by the agony of His mother. The statue was surrounded by candles and a kneeler, and although the day was bright and sunny outside, the only light in the chapel was provided by the flickering of the candles that had been lit by the faithful in honor of their prayerful intentions. In the front of the candles were those that were offered permanently to the memory of a deceased loved one. There at the end was a candle that bore Kyle’s name, which Melanie lit daily.
“This is where I pray the Sorrowful Mysteries every day,” she said, as she extended her hand so that I might share the kneeler with her. I reached into my bag and grabbed the first beads I laid hands on, as I always carry a few. You never know who might need them. We knelt before the statue and began again to pray out loud, the Sorrowful Mysteries. This time, as we prayed together, I, too, could pray with a steady voice and great conviction, as I prayed the Rosary daily and had for many years. However, this time, praying the Rosary on my knees with a grieving mother in front of a statue of Our Sorrowful Mother holding her dead son, I was moved so deeply. Suddenly the words of St. John Paul II flooded my head, “Turn your eyes incessantly to the Blessed Virgin; She, who is the Mother of Sorrows and also the Mother of Consolation, can understand you completely and help you.”
I was witnessing this help and consolation through the eyes of Melanie. Just as they had hanged Mary’s Son on a Cross, they had tossed Kyle out of a car when he overdosed and left him to die on the street in Newark, New Jersey. Just as Jesus was maligned, reviled, and misunderstood, so too, Kyle had been as a young man addicted to opioids, prescribed by doctors who had no answers when he became addicted and took to street drugs. Derided as just a ‘junkie’, Kyle had become powerless over the heroin, developing an unnatural attachment to a substance which distorted his reality and changed his actual brain chemistry, keeping him enslaved and isolated from the things in his life which truly mattered. Now, I watched as Melanie and Mary grieved together, and it was beautiful.
St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the Virgin Mary, “Redemptoris Mater” included these words, “Through faith the Mother shares in the death of her Son, in his redeeming death; but in contrast with the faith of the disciples who fled, hers was far more enlightened.” I realized that day, that Melanie, like Our Lady, shared in the death of her son, Kyle, who also had a redeeming death. For in his death, Kyle was unchained from the slavery of addiction and born to eternal life in Christ. Kyle’s mother’s faith was also ‘enlightened’ , for in her own grief she rose as a warrior to help bring the love, grace and healing of Christ to others afflicted by the disease and their families, demonstrating her own ‘spiritual maternity’ to those who suffered.
We finished our Rosary and slowly exited the church. There was a serenity, a peace, that could only be accredited to Our Lady’s mantel, wrapped around us. After exchanging pleasantries and expressing gratitude for the invitation, Melanie and I parted ways. I watched her pull away, but I remained in the parking lot, sitting in my car, and thinking about what I had experienced this day. I had shared in a mother’s grief and healing and had shared in the graces poured out by Mary, Mediatrix of all graces, who as Mother of the Church, had bestowed her maternal consolation on her grieving daughter, Melanie. I sat in awe and gratitude, at this gift that I had been given – to see how beautiful our faith could be amid a suffering world. This was the sign that God had given me to reaffirm my love for Him and our faith, which stirred me to remember why I remain fervently, decidedly, and unabashedly Catholic.
This guest post was written by Keaton Douglas. Keaton is the Executive Director of the I THIRST Initiative, a Mission of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, is a consultant, educator, counselor and frequent guest speaker in the field of addiction and recovery, particularly as it pertains to the interface of Catholic spirituality and recovery. She is the creator of the I THIRST Initiative – (The Healing Initiative – Recovery, Spirituality, Twelve step), a comprehensive program which focuses on spirituality in the prevention, treatment and aftercare of those suffering from substance use disorders and their families. The I THIRST curriculum has been taught in the Archdiocese of Boston at the behest of Cardinal O’Malley’s Opioid Task Force, to seminarians in Heredia, Costa Rica, and at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling. Keaton is a founding member of NJ-DART, the New Jersey Diocesan Addiction and Recovery Taskforce. Having served as the Program Coordinator for the Recovery Ministry at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling, New Jersey since December 2016, part of her work has involved teaching Sacred Scripture and 12 Step programs, overseeing the Retreat Program, and the working with and training of volunteers. She had previously been a member of the Recovery Team there at The Shrine since 2014. Speaking several times a week at Straight and Narrow and at Turning Point, both treatment facilities in Paterson, New Jersey, Keaton is on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, helping others in their personal spiritual development.