Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Holy Grace


Giovanni, 2 years old

*Edited. Thanks to Facebook sharing memories, I realized I had some of the timing wrong. I've fixed the post to reflect the right timing.

It was a beautiful day in June 2009. Knowing that within a month we'd be dreading the Texas sun, the kids and I whiled away time outdoors. Less than four weeks before, two year old Giovanni had been given a clean bill of health from his virulent pneumonia. So we didn't see it coming, though we were warned it was possible: He started coughing again. Then he came down with a fever.

I called the doctor, and he worked my son into his schedule. I traipsed in with all four kids, my heart pounding, as I begged God to help me not to worry. The nurse quickly drew blood to check Giovanni's white blood cell count. I held my breath as the doctor listened to his lungs. They were clear, though he had upper respiratory congestion. The blood work took little time, and the nurse showed the results to the doctor. He bit his lip as he considered what to say.

"His blood cell count is up, but it's in the gray area. It could be a virus; it could be bacterial. I don't want to treat with antibiotics unless we absolutely have to, considering all the intravenous meds and his allergic reaction at the end of treatment. The same goes for an x-ray. He's had so much radiation this year, he shouldn't have another x-ray unless it's completely necessary." The doctor was grave. I was allowed to treat Giovanni's fever with Motrin to keep him comfortable, but I had to call if the fever defied the Motrin and  reached over 100.5 degrees. For any other child, a fever of that temperature is not considered threatening, but if Giovanni was getting pneumonia again, we needed to catch it as soon as possible. All this happened on a Thursday.

We went home and snuggled down. As soon as my husband got back from work, I went to the store to stock up on food and medicine, my mind whirling with what might happen. By this time, my faith was worn out. I thought about fasting, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I felt so spiritually dry, yet I still felt this urgent need to pray. So I prayed the Psalms as I had done before while Giovanni needed home health care.

Friday saw little improvement. Giovanni's fever would break only to come back an hour later. I checked his temperature like an automaton. My older kids were worried, so I did all I could to be upbeat without insulting their intelligence. We prayed together and talked about trusting God. Every time I encouraged them to not give up hope, that God would help us through even if Giovanni had to go back to the hospital, I felt convicted. I escaped to my little corner to pray a Psalm whenever there was a lull. Praying them was like holding onto a security blanket in a storm. I slept fitfully through the night, constantly checking on my son, hoping the morning would bring an end to the fever.

The night left. The fever stayed. Then around 10 AM that Saturday morning, it grew worse. It shot up to 103. I called the doctor. The doctor-on-call said to give him Motrin. I could wait an hour to see if the fever went down under 100.5, but if it didn't , I needed to take Giovanni to the ER of the children's hospital. I posted on Facebook and asked for prayer. Forty-five minutes later the fever was down to 100.2.

On Sunday, the fever hovered just over 100 degrees. On Monday morning, it was much the same. I called the doctor. He said if it wasn't gone by tomorrow morning, we had to take him in for xrays. It was looking more and more as if pneumonia may be making a come back. On top of it all, our oldest son, Pietro, came down with the fever. It was our 13th wedding anniversary, and I didn't feel like celebrating anything. I finally felt completely defeated. I was tired of asking friends for prayer, but I put a simple Facebook post up anyway, letting friends know the update. I gave my son over to God, again, confessing I didn't have the strength to fight. I needed grace.

I sat on our sofa holding my sleepy two year old, listening to the laughs of my older kids outside. Pietro's fever broke quickly with Motrin, and nothing could keep him from going outside. They were climbing trees in the sunshine, lost in a world of heroes and dragons. Then mud came to mind. I thought of mud and how Jesus put mud on the blind man's eyes, then told him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. Holy Water.

I shook the idea from my head. Go and wash in the pool. The Biblical command loomed in my mind. I thought of the holy water font at St. Margaret Mary's Church down the street. "No," I said in my heart. The fever had been edging up. It was nearing 102. I gave him Motrin, knowing that if it didn't come down, I'd have to call the doctor, again. If it stayed high, he'd have to go to the ER of the children's hospital.

Go and wash. The phrase came back to mind. 'This is silly,' I thought, but then for the first time since Thursday I had a faint glimmer of hope. I had been to St. Margaret Mary's a couple of times before to pray, but I was never sure when the church doors were unlocked. I fretted as I thought of reasons not to go. Wouldn't it be superstitious to bless my son with holy water to break the fever? Then I thought of all the stories in the Bible that involved God using things as a conduit for a miracle instead of just doing the miracle directly.

I bounced the idea off my husband. He sighed, "Look, hon. If you really want to go and take the kids to the Catholic Church to bless him with holy water. Go ahead. But God is going to do what God is going to do." I wavered. It did seem silly. Who was I to try and thwart the Providence of God? But it came back to interrupt my thoughts, Go and wash.

I sat on the sofa and checked my son's temperature. The Motrin had not broken the fever yet. I listened through the window to the trees waving in a burst of wind. I closed my eyes and thought of the blind man with spitty mud on his eyelids going to the Pool of Siloam. What went through his head as a friend led him there? Did he have doubts? Did he think it was stupid, but God healed him anyway? Or was he completely confident? Suddenly I thought of obedience, Obedience is better than sacrifice. Maybe it was enough that the blind man was obedient, no matter his attitude or faith. I didn't know for sure whether it was God telling me to take my son to the holy water font or if it was just the desperation of my mommy's heart, but I got up from the sofa with my son.

I called all the kids into the house and told them we were going to go to the Catholic Church and pray for Giovanni. They never questioned it. Not a whine. Not a retort. They were even excited. We scrambled into the minivan, though I couldn't believe I was actually doing this. Doubts swirled about me the whole way. I settled my mind that if I was wrong, God in His mercy would correct me. If it was really Him urging me to the church, then at least I was being obedient.

Going to the Catholic Church to pray when life was chaotic or dark, was nothing new to me. When I was 16 and living in a small town in Kansas, I would walk 3 miles from our house to the Catholic Church to sit in His Presence and pray. From then on, I would visit churches as often as I could, hoping the doors would be unlocked and no one would stop me from praying, since I wasn't Catholic. My husband would tease me about my affinity for making the Church my refuge, but he accepted it as a part of who I was. On the one hand, it seemed natural to go to my usual escape during trouble. On the other, I had never taken my children to pray at the Catholic Church before.

The parking lot of St. Margaret Mary's only had a few cars in it, and I was relieved. I begged God to pretty, pretty please not let anyone see us or stop us if this crazy scheme was really Him. I thought the doors would be locked, proving these promptings to be a type of ruse. Instead, the church doors swung wide open. Hope rose within me. I carried Giovanni, while the older three kids marched behind me, quiet as mice. We reached the font, and we prayed a simple prayer asking God to heal Giovanni and to help us if instead he'd have to go to the hospital. Then I blessed not only Giovanni, but all the kids with holy water in the sign of the cross. Lastly, I blessed myself. A door creaked open somewhere and made me jump. We scurried out as quietly as we could.

Peace. I finally had peace as all my kids got buckled into the minivan. I didn't know what would happen, but I felt ready. I felt His grace.

When we got home, the kids immediately went back to their play. Giovanni went back to sleep on the sofa. I checked his temperature. It was 98.6. Normal. Not long after, he got up to play. I checked again an hour later, and it was still normal. He was laughing and running around the house. Despite this, I had worried a bit at night that the fever might come back, so I gave him a dose of Motrin. However, it wasn't necessary. For the first time in days, he had a good night's sleep, and he woke up without any fever at all. My sweet boy never had to go back to the hospital.

Of course, it could be that Giovanni just had a virus that ran its course, and it happened to peter out at the same time that we went to the church. Later in the week, the other kids would get sick, but the illness didn't hit them as hard. They all caught a stomach bug, too. (It was a week I prefer not to remember . . .) It could be that the Motrin finally had a lasting effect on Giovanni. Or it could be that for whatever His reasons, God really wanted me to go to the holy water font at St. Margaret Mary's and pray because He wanted me to obey. It could be that, and this is beyond anything I can comprehend though I've turned it over in my mind a million times, God chose to do a miracle and heal my son in that way.


The first time I went to a Catholic homeschool meeting in Austin was in 2011, on the Feast of the Annunciation. It was also my mother's birthday. It was over two years since her death and Giovanni's bacterial pneumonia. I went because a friend at our Episcopal Church, who taught at St. Edward's University, suggested that I might fit in well with the Catholic homeschool group. I was hesitant at first, but to my surprise, they warmly welcomed me. At the picnic after Mass, I couldn't wait to tell a mother, or anybody Catholic really, about the holy water incident. I knew Protestants wouldn't like the story, and I wondered what a Catholic's perspective would be. Would Catholics see it as just a coincidence? Would they think I was foolish to bless my son with holy water in hopes that he would be healed? Would I find that I had committed some sacrilege? As soon as an opportunity came up in a conversation, I told a mother a truncated version of the story. She looked at me wide-eyed and almost cried, "There really is a grace in the sacramentals, isn't there? That's amazing!" A mixture of awe and confusion weighed in on me. Why would God use the Catholic Church to bless my family so much if Catholicism is in error?

That whole afternoon of talking to the Catholic mothers, I found my faith bolstered, though I drove home with my mind full of questions. I didn't know it, but I had reached another turning point that would bring me closer to the Church.



©2016 Emily Woodham






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