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by Matthew Kelly
Life's Greatest Lessons
by Father Bob Sherry
At the beginning of each year I encourage the team at Dynamic Catholic to plan their vacations. Even if it is going to be late in the year, get it on the calendar now. The sooner we plan it the better. Why? Anticipation is at least 50% of the joy.
There will be days when you are overwhelmed and stressed, and in those moments you can look forward to your vacation. Otherwise, you will do it like most people. Plan it at the last minute and rob yourself of that beautiful anticipation.
So, this month, plan a vacation… plan an adventure. Or maybe you need a “staycation” this year. A few days at home to do nothing or get organized or just enjoy your home. Regardless, plan it now and start enjoying the beautiful anticipation.
If you have not already seen it, check out the preview of DECISION POINT – the Dynamic Catholic Confirmation Experience.
Father Cascia had sacrificed his life to save me, and he had done it out of love.
— From “Life’s Greatest Lesson” by Allen Hunt
You learn things at funerals you would never learn anywhere else. That’s because funerals bring clarity. And few people have a funeral like Mrs. Lavish Grace’s. When her friends and family gathered at the funeral home and the church to celebrate her life, no one was more surprised by what happened than her grandson, ten- year- old Christopher Grace. On that unique funeral weekend, Christopher experienced things he never could have expected.
He also discovered life’s greatest lesson.
This is his story.
1: The Reason
Do you remember the first time you touched a dead body? I do. But you have to know more before I can tell you about it. Don’t worry. I’ll tell you in a minute.
Oh yeah—my name’s Christopher Grace, and I’m ten years old. I live in Lake Bobola, Florida, with my mom and dad and my little brother, Michael. He’s only five, but I taught him to ride his bike. That tricycle thing had to go.
I’m not the biggest kid in my class, but I am the fastest. Every time we run sprints at school, I finish first. And I am the best shortstop in Florida. I like to think so anyway. Because I made the all-star team and didn’t make an error all year.
Plus, I’m smart. Especially in math. It’s just so easy. Mom and Dad say I’m precocious, but I don’t know what that means.
By the way, Lake Bobola isn’t on the beach. Most folks think every place in Florida is on the beach. Lake Bobola is in the middle of the state. We have lots of orange groves and pastures and stuff like that. It’s Florida, but it’s not the beach.
Anyway, my grandmother was Mrs. Lavish Grace. I called her Grandma Lavish. She was kinda short with red hair. Dad said she dyed it to keep the gray out. Maybe you knew her. If you didn’t, I know you would have liked her. Everybody did.
Her life was special. I knew that way back when she told me the story about the first time she ever touched a dead body. I know that sounds weird, but it isn’t.
“Christopher,” Grandma Lavish said, “you know I have a sister. Your great-aunt, Jessica. We were just two years apart, so we were stuck together like Siamese twins growing up. We were never apart. She was the older sister, and I was the baby, the apple of her eye. Just like your little brother will be for you one day. And Jessica loved to teach me new stuff. Something inside her just liked to watch me learn how to do new things.”
Grandma Lavish paused and smiled when she told me that. I think she had a special picture in her mind of when she and Aunt Jessica were little. Old people love that stuff. They like to remember and tell you all about when they were little. Not me. I’d much rather be grown-up. And I will be, someday. And soon, I hope.
Then Grandma Lavish started again with her story. “But touching the dead body—that story involves me and your Aunt Jessica. And it happened at the lake.”
Of course, I knew all about the lake. We loved to go there. Transylvania Lake is not a huge lake like the ones tourists come to Florida to enjoy; Transylvania is just a small lake that folks in Lake Bobola like to play in on a steamy summer afternoon. Groups of cabins line the shore along with a few large homes that some lawyers in town had built to show off all their success, or at least that’s what my dad says.
But most of the activity is at the beach. Dad said a long time ago the town created a big sandy spot along a stretch of shore on the lake about as long as our football field, just a place for all of us to go and have fun. On weekdays, not many folks go there. But the beach is total insanity on a Saturday or a Sunday in July when everybody in Beverley County crowds onto the beach, or on their boats and docks, to fight the heat of the Florida sun.
We still go there all the time. I love it. Me and my friends used to build castles in the sand when we were little, but now I am learning to water-ski. And I’m really good at it too. You should see me. Anyway, Grandma Lavish kept talking. “When this story happened, Jessica was nearly eight years old and I was six, which meant I was excited about the beginning of first grade so I could go to school with all the ‘big girls.’
“Our family went out to the lake for a picnic. Jessica wanted to go down to the beach. She knew that was where all the big boys and girls liked to hang out, and she wanted to be a part of that action. Of course, I also had a few friends from preschool at St. Catherine’s parish, and I hoped one or two of them might be there so we could play in the sand. We weren’t big enough to do much else.
“My parents, your great-grandparents, their names were Roy and Ruth Spears. You need to remember their names. Nobody ever remembers their great-grandparents’ names anymore. Well, they packed some sandwiches and toys, and set out with all of us toward the beach to enjoy a fun day in the sun along with the other families with kids in the town. There was an area shallow enough near the beach that my father could tie his little boat to a tree and leave it there while Jessica and I went to find the bliss of sand between our toes.
“Once they had tied off the boat, everything went according to plan. Mom and Dad put Jessica in charge of me, as usual, and planned to keep an eye on us from the boat as we waded out to head to the beach. Dad placed a cap over his face to hide the sun and lie down on the floor of the boat to snooze a bit while the gentle waves of Transylvania rocked beneath him. Mom kept watch over us girls from her seat in the boat.
“Jessica and I set up our little spot on the beach in the sea of blankets, umbrellas, and chairs. Teenagers sprinted between the sunbathers. Some boys played a halfhearted game of beach volleyball. Little girls banded together to create a princess castle in the sand, and families waded into the shallow water to seek cool relief from the heat.
“Jessica laid out her blanket, and then turned me loose to join the girls building the sand castle. What a perfect way to enjoy a late July morning.
“From the water, Haley Sneeden called out to me to come out and join her. The Sneeden family was lounging on a small boat just outside the roped-in swimming area of the lake. Haley and I had become good friends the first day of preschool at St. Catherine’s.
“So, when Haley called out to me from the boat, I never batted an eye. I just leapt up from the sand castle and ran toward Haley and the Sneeden family. I ran through the shallow swimming water and then into the deeper water before I realized that my feet were no longer touching the bottom. Jessica yelled at me from the shore, telling me to stop, but I was focused like a piece of metal on a magnet, running toward Haley and the boat that floated just a few feet in front of me. I was just six. I thought I could make it. It never occurred to me that I was about to drown. Until it was too late.
“Jessica sprinted toward the water, realizing suddenly that I was not going to stop. By this time, it was too late, and I was frantically flailing my arms, trying to stay afloat. I wanted to scream, and I made the effort, but nothing came out. Can you imagine how scared I was? My little body was consumed by the effort of trying to stay afloat, and the water was filling up my mouth and throat.
“Jessica ran through the water, yelling at the surrounding swimmers. She screamed toward the Sneedens on their boat, but Mr. and Mrs. Sneeden had their backs turned to where little Haley was calling out to me, and they were oblivious to what was unfolding behind them. There was so much noise among the teenagers as they swam that only one man heard Jessica as she cried out for help in trying to save me.
“Father Frank Cascia had been swimming alone on the edge of the roped area, occasionally watching the teenagers to be sure that the young people he had brought from his parish were under control and not disrupting the other families in the water. He heard Jessica and immediately began scanning the surroundings to find the little girl, me, that Jessica was yelling for.
“This young priest swam furiously through the water, seeing my small, bobbing head as it rose and fell in the water. Jessica was little and her body didn’t cooperate as she desperately tried to reach me, her precious baby sister. I think the combination of Jessica’s inability to get to me and the emotional shock of realizing that she was about to lose the single most significant person in her life proved too much for that little eight-year-old.
“Father Cascia, however, was strong and capable. He had only been ordained as a priest for three years and was a rugged young man of thirty-four. Lake Bobola was his first solo assignment as a priest. It was a small town where he could develop relationships with people and learn how to lead a parish. Raised on a farm, he responded first, asked questions later. Father Cascia skimmed through the water, spotted me, and reached out and scooped up my little body. Meanwhile I was turning blue from the lack of oxygen and the cold water.
“With me in hand, Father Cascia finished the short twenty-foot swim over to the Sneedens’ boat. By this time, Haley had grabbed her father, who was now anxiously watching from the edge of the boat. Father Cascia handed me up to Mr. Sneeden, and then climbed up the side of the boat himself. He laid me out on the flat surface of the boat and began to push on my little chest and breathe into my mouth.
“Jessica watched all this helplessly from the water. The desperation of the moment had paralyzed her. With every ounce of faith she could muster, my big sister prayed to God and asked that she die in place of her precious little sister, making a bargain with God in hopes of saving the one life she cared most about. Guilt washed over her. She kept asking herself how she could have not been paying attention when I ran out into the water. How could she be the one responsible for the death of her baby sister?
“After a minute or two that must have seemed like a decade to Jessica, Father Cascia began to smile. My little body wriggled like a freshly caught fish, I coughed up some water, and Mr. Sneeden shouted, ‘Oh, thank God!’
“A young lifeguard assisted Jessica as she made her way to the boat to see me for herself. Somehow, God had answered Jessica’s desperate prayers for mercy. I was alive. Because Father Cascia had saved me.
“Jessica climbed aboard the boat with some help from the grown-ups. The Sneedens embraced her and me both. The crowd of onlookers in the water cheered. Our parents came rushing over, frantic and stunned since they had not been able to help at all. They all tell me that I looked up at my sister and smiled the sweetest smile ever seen in Florida. I don’t know about that, but I do remember being so scared at first, and then so happy to see my sister that my head was about to burst. I couldn’t contain myself.
“No one was really paying attention, though, as Father Cascia moved to the other side of the boat and sat down. Everyone simply rejoiced at his heroic behavior. A six-year-old girl had been drowning and near death; now she was alive.
“Father Cascia sat down, and then placed his hand over his chest. The few folks who saw the movement thought he was just tired and relieved. He lay down on the boat seat. He made no sound; he offered no word. It took several minutes before Mrs. Sneeden realized that Father Cascia was not asleep on the deck, but that he had actually died. Mr. Sneeden turned to say thank you to the priest but quickly discovered that it looked like Father Cascia had suffered a massive heart attack. Rather than lying down for a rest, he actually had fallen into what looked like a nap but was in fact the end of his much-too-short life.
“A roller coaster of emotions swept all over the swimming area. First, the news of my tragic near-drowning brought fear, which then turned to joy when I was saved, and then finally to horror as the crowd learned that Father Cascia had died, almost certainly as a result of the effort he had exerted to save me.
“Father Cascia lay dead right there on the boat deck, his body clothed only in a tank top, a pair of blue swim trunks, and a small bracelet on his left wrist.”
I stared at Grandma Lavish, waiting for the moment she had promised to tell me about.
She continued, “Father Cascia was wearing a little bracelet. And on it was just one word. LOVE.”
“Did you keep that bracelet?” I asked.
“No,” said Grandma Lavish, “they buried Father Cascia’s body with that bracelet still on his wrist. But I knew what he had done, and I saw that bracelet. And I put the two together. Father Cascia had sacrificed his life to save me, and he had done it out of love.
“I may have just been six years old, Christopher, but I walked over to his body there on the boat. And I lay down beside him, and I wrapped my arms around him. It didn’t seem real to me then. I was just six. But that was the first time I ever touched a dead body.
“Now you know why I’ll always remember that.”
Let’s call him James. On many weekends I take assignments around the country. I go begging to which ever parish I’m sent for funds for the poorest of the poor. During the homily I give one dollar to children who volunteer, asking for only one quarter in return to feed one child one meal. They return to the altar near the end of Mass to tell me their decision: keep the money or donate a quarter.
James did not immediately come up to the altar but waited until after Mass to talk to me in the gathering area. James asked if he could have more time to raise more money so he could feed the children. James is four years old. I still tear up about James’ innocence and generosity.
There is no better time to decide and act on becoming the best version of ourselves than Ash Wednesday. With forty-six days until Easter, until resurrection and a new life, you can do it! One day at a time. What will you work on this Lent? Prayer? Study? Generosity (like James)? Evangelization?
Apart from Ash Wednesday, do you ever think about “returning unto dust”? “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Maybe 2014 is the Lent you rise from your ashes to become your best self.
Be bold. Be Catholic. Be a James.
Let me know what you decide.
Back in the mid 90’s, I was nowhere near the church. A cradle Catholic who had fallen so very far away.
A close friend at the time asked me to come to Mass with him. I reluctantly agreed. That began the transformation.
Now, he has been struggling a bit with his faith lately, so he reached out to me. I’m humbled and grateful that he did. I told him about Dynamic Catholic and my simple involvement as a Dynamic Catholic Ambassador. Now, I am getting ready to send him The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic.
Jesus placed this right in my lap. I had planned to travel to one of Matthew’s seminars (Living Every Day with Passion and Purpose) at the end of January. Guess where my friend lives? There are no accidents. His providence and grace…pure and simple. Secured a ticket for my friend to come with me.
God is sooo good.
Want to share your story? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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