One day shortly after my father passed away, I had lunch with a trusted spiritual friend, a deacon of the Church in fact. This deacon’s father had also passed away at about the same age I was then, and the deacon was a great resource during my time of grief. During our lunch, I made an off-handed comment about how comforting it was to think about my dad resting well in Heaven — à la Mercy Me I Can Only Imagine style. The deacon stopped me. “How do you know he’s in Heaven?” The conversation then went a little like this (paraphrased a bit as it’s been five years):
Me: Well, I guess I don’t know. I have faith that he’s home with Jesus now.
Deacon: Don’t assume. You don’t know. And what if he’s not there? You must pray for your dad everyday and help him get to Heaven.
At this point in our conversation, the deacon rightly brought up the Church’s beautiful teaching on purgatory. I listened carefully and pondered greatly. And then I asked the following.
Me: How will I know when he’s in Heaven?
Deacon: Pray about it, and you’ll know in due time. The Holy Spirit will send you confirmation.
Now I really don’t like starting a blog post on such a heavy topic, but that exchange with my deacon friend is good to keep in mind as the rest of this story unfolds. Aha, yes. A story! This is the one about the day the cardinal paid a visit to our home.
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My kids are loud. I’m sure it’s a learned behavior from their father. Their collective loudness often makes it difficult for the baby of the house to find some peace and quiet so that she can catch some much needed shut-eye. Such was the case one recent afternoon, a day that had been particularly full of activity resulting in one tired baby. So I snuck her into the master bedroom in hopes of quietly nursing her to sleep.
As I laid her down to rest, I heard screams from the level below.
“Mom there’s a bird in our house! THERE’S A BIRD IN THE HOUSE! There’s a red cardinal in our house!” screamed my freaked-out five (AND A HALF!) year-old daughter.
For a moment, I was rather impressed she knew her bird species. Then quickly back to reality. There’s a bird in my house?!?! The hair on the back of neck stood straight up, and I started doing that heebie-jeebies wiggly thing with my body.
I grabbed the baby, who by now was no longer snuggling in for her nap, and yelled to the five-year-old as I raced downstairs, “Grab your brother and meet me outside.”
Let’s stop right there. What kind of mother sends a five-year-old in to rescue a two-year-old to safety? Well, this mother did. I just couldn’t expose the baby to the bird, right? And this whole thing happened because the older two left the patio door wide open, so the punishment fits the crime, right?
By this point my son was also freaking out, wailing in fact, with tears streaming down his face. We all barreled out of the house doing a choreographed heebie-jeebies wiggly dance number and took refuge in the front yard. It was late in the afternoon, so Joel would be home soon. The kids and I would hang outside while the red bird enjoyed his joyride around our house. Joel could tackle the bird (not literally) when he got home.
So we waited and waited and waited for Joel to come home and save us from that bird. I didn’t have my phone with me, and I had no way to get in touch with him to tell him his damsel was in distress. And no way was I going to step foot inside that house to get anything. Let me add here that my son, the one who ran out of the house wailing, ran back into the house to rescue the iPad. He acted as if the house was on fire and needed to run back in and rescue a trapped child. No, just the iPad. Time for a technology detox, I do believe.
So with no phone to distract me, I was now a hands-free mama who could enjoy an impromptu playdate with my kids in the front yard. I also started to think about cardinals. Several years ago when I was going through a difficult time in my life, my dad and I sat together at his kitchen table while enjoying our morning cup of coffee. A winter storm had just rolled through, and their backyard was beautifully covered with a white blanket of snow. Dad, knowing I was in an emotional black hole, asked me to look out the window and describe the scenery. He asked something like, “Do you see pure white snow, the red cardinal singing, the unique formation of icicles hanging? Or is all you see the bitter cold, dreary sky, and lifeless trees?” At the time I probably rolled my eyes and smugly responded to his question, but his point stung. I hope I remember that teachable moment forever. My troubles were blinding me from seeing His beauty.
I now associate cardinals with my dad; when I see a cardinal, I think of him. What a blessing that our backyard is often visited by one or two. And now our family room, too. As I sat in the front yard that day, freaking out about the cardinal inside my home, memories of my late father interceded, calming my nerves and filling my heart. Then a divine thought popped into my mind that maybe, just maybe, this was the sign that the deacon told me to pray for. A cardinal in my home. Could it be that the cardinal in my home was some sort of confirmation from the Holy Spirit that my dad was finally home. Home as in Heaven?
When Joel arrived home, the kids excitedly told him about the bird in the house (or was that me?), and my knight in shining armor ran into the house to save us all from the bird. After a few battle rounds with the cardinal, Joel was able to shoo it out a window. Rumor has it there was tackling involved after all. Maybe Joel will one day write the unedited, uncensored version about his experiences with the bird.
Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe not. Was is providential or coincidental? I have absolutely no certainty. But I can choose to see God’s handiwork in that moment. There were several positive things that happened that day, from meeting a new neighbor walking by while we were held hostage, to hearing my daughter offer a spontaneous prayer, “Dear God, please give my dad courage so he can get the bird out of our house so we can go back inside to eat dinner which gives us strength,” to pausing and reflecting on all the wonderful memories I had with my dad.
What I do know is that praying for the dead is one of the greatest acts of charity we can perform. Our prayers help them during their time in Purgatory, to help them enter more quickly into the fullness of Heaven. While our first responsibility is to pray for those we have known, it is important to remember those souls who are most forsaken and who have no one to pray for them. I must continue to pray for my father, friends and family, and other unknown souls in Purgatory who have gone before me.
And get this. I’m not making this up! As I type this, a vibrant red cardinal sitting in the tree outside my window is sweetly serenading me. I grabbed the camera and tried snapping a photo of it, but it flew away when I opened the patio door. He probably saw enough of our house for one bird’s lifetime and is staying as far away as possible from that open patio door. The photo above is not of THE visitor, but my daughter assures me he looked just like it!
Allow me to sign off with a prayer for the dearly departed.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.