Ask and It Will Be Given to You
By Donald Tremblay of Brooklyn, New York, USA - 15 May 2016
The author is a parishioner at Saint Ephrem's Church in Brooklyn and was asked to write this essay by the church's monsignor, Theophilus Joseph, and by two parishioners, Grace and Kip Phillips. The essay is drawn from interviews with these three people, who want to share with others how the Lord has recently blessed them.
Monsignor Theophilus Joseph knew something was wrong. Doctors warned the St Lucian priest that his diabetes medication would eventually wreak havoc on his kidneys -- and that time had come. Sitting in his room at St Ephrem's Church in Brooklyn, NY on the morning of March 2011, the monsignor knew he needed a doctor. He also knew the diagnosis would not be good. Sure enough, within just hours of waking, Monsignor Theo found himself lying in a Lutheran Hospital bed fighting for his life. Eighteen days would elapse before doctors would authorize his release, and that release came with a caveat: the monsignor was to begin kidney dialysis immediately.
Traveling daily to a dialysis clinic is exhausting as well as time-consuming, so it wasn't long before the monsignor enrolled in a course on how to self-administer dialysis at home. After completing the course, the monsignor began a harsh regiment that dominated the next three years of his life. "I spent 8-10 hours per night attached to the dialysis machine. I had no life. I was invited to preach in Washington, Canada, and in my native St Lucia, but I couldn't go anywhere because of that machine. It weighed 50 pounds. so it wasn't easy to travel with it. Plus, there were all types of solutions that had to be brought along as well." To make matters worse, the treatments were not making him healthier. "My body was breaking down. My blood counts were dropping. One morning I woke up and I couldn't walk because of foot drop. My faith was really being tested at this point. It became really, really rough." Recent news from his doctor further depressed him. "My doctor told me that at the rate kidneys were becoming available from corpses, I shouldn't expect to receive a kidney for at least eight years.... Eight years.... I knew there was no way my body would hold out for that long, so I started praying because there wasn't anything else I could do. I prayed to God and I asked for intercessions from every saint there is. I went through my prayer books from cover to cover."
But nothing happened.
In fact, things got worse. Three times in 2014 Monsignor Theo was approached by people who offered to donate a kidney to him. Each time the donor was incompatible with his O-positive blood type. Feeling like the dupe in a macabre cosmic joke, the monsignor grew angrier with his circumstances -- and angrier with God. Finally, on February 26, 2015, Monsignor Theo reached his boiling point. Four times per year the monsignor holds a Healing Mass at St. Ephrem's Church. Midway through the Feb 26 service he walked to the pulpit and began reading that day's Gospel, which was from Matthew. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matt. 7: 7-8). Jesus' words nagged at him for the remainder of the Mass, so much so that after distributing the Eucharist the monsignor sat down in his altar chair and had an argument with God. "I said to God, 'You want me to ask?! Fine. Who do I ask and for how long do I ask it? Seek? Where do I seek? What direction do I seek in? What door am I supposed to knock on?'"
Seconds later as he rose from his seat to grant the final blessing, all could he hear in his mind was "Ask. Ask. Ask!!"
And so he did.
Grace Phillips was a lapsed Catholic. In fact, she was a textbook lapsed Catholic. She had not been to a Sunday Mass in forty years when her husband, Kip, confessed a need to return to the Church. "It was 2014 when Kip approached me about going to Mass again regularly. I had no interest in going. I kept saying, 'No, No, No. I'm not doing this. It's not what I do. You're crazy.'" Grace agreed to "tag along" in a show of support for her husband, but tag along was all she would do. "I wouldn't look at the missal. I wouldn't do anything. I just waited my forty-five minutes and went home." Over time, however, that intransigence would change when Monsignor Theo presided over the liturgy. "When Monsignor said Mass I would pay attention. I would listen to his sermon. The guy would actually come down from the pulpit, walk up and down the aisle and prompt people. He connected with the congregation. Something about him made me pay more attention to things, so I was more open to things."
Over the next year Grace and Kip became regular worshippers at St. Ephrem's Church, and one night while reading the parish's weekly bulletin Grace learned that Monsignor Theo would be holding a Healing Mass. Grace told Kip she wanted to attend. "I was struggling with a lot of things. I was afraid of the future. I would obsess over what was going to happen to me when I got old. I would obsess over the idea of being in a nursing home, unable to take care of myself. In all honesty there is nothing you can do about these things. Sure, you can plan and get long-term care, but the fact is unless you die young you are going to get old. That's just the way it goes. I would get to the point where I would lay there at night, afraid to go forward. So I just wanted courage -- to live." Grace and Kip attended the Healing Mass in October 2014 and made plans to attend the next one on Feb 26, 2015 -- the date that will be forever remembered by Grace, Kip, and Monsignor Theo.
The Feb 26 Healing Mass proceeded uneventfully until the final moments of the liturgy when the monsignor rose from his seat to grant the final blessing. But instead of giving the blessing he announced to the stunned congregation, "In today's Gospel reading our Lord instructs us to 'ask and it will be given to you.' Well, I'm asking. I need a kidney. Desperately. Please, if anyone has one they can spare or who knows of someone who can spare one, I need it. I don't care if I have to buy it from you. I just need a kidney." Sitting in his pew listening to the monsignor's plea, Kip was struck by a single thought that overwhelmed him instantly: "I can do this."
Minutes later as he exited the church, Kip handed the monsignor a note with instructions to call the number below. Monsignor wanted to leap for joy, but continued disappointments had left him understandably skeptical. "I was afraid of being disappointed again. Three times I had already been let down. Three times people offered me their kidneys only to discover that they did not match my blood type. I didn't want it to happen again." Sadly, Monsignor Theo's cynicism proved warranted as Kip was rejected as a donor because of radiation treatments for prostate cancer he underwent in 2013. Unbeknownst to Kip, radiation recipients are prohibited from donating organs for at least 10 years. Kip's heart was broken, and so was the monsignor's.
However, all was not lost thanks to Grace, who lived up to her name.
"On the night of the healing mass," said Grace, "when Monsignor made his plea, I never told Kip that I also felt like I could provide the kidney that the monsignor needed. Kip said he wanted to donate his kidney so there was no reason to say anything." After learning that she also had O-positive blood like the monsignor, Grace knew she was being asked to help. "I felt it was what I needed to do, and I felt I could do it. I started tearing up because I was extremely happy." Grace is adamant that God moved her towards this decision. She insists this was not a case of altruism; it was an intercession by God to heal Monsignor Theo. "I know there are a lot of people who need kidneys. The list is long. I had no intention of getting on a list of donors to just give my kidney away. I had never thought of that and it's not something that I would do. In a way I admire those people who can do that. I'm not that nice. I'm someone who is afraid to get blood tests. I get pale. I start to shake and sweat. But I wasn't afraid with this. I knew it was serious surgery and I knew that the recuperation was usually very painful, but for some reason it didn't trouble me. I honestly wasn't scared."
Monsignor Theo's Job-like trial was finally coming to an end -- and none too soon. Each passing day his body grew closer to permanently shutting down. On June 20, 2015, just 10 days before his surgery, the monsignor collapsed in his room at St. Ephrem's rectory and lay there for 18 hours before residents realized that they hadn't seen him all day. Monsignor Theo was found unconscious and frothing at the mouth. He was taken to the hospital and stabilized, but for several hours afterward he could not remember who he was or what had happened. The clock was ticking and zero-hour was approaching.
Thanks to the prayers of the St. Ephrem community and the people of St Lucia, and all of the Masses being said in his name throughout the Brooklyn-Queens diocese and beyond, Monsignor Theo successfully battled his way to June 30 and received Grace's kidney. Within hours of the operation both donee and donor emerged from Mount Sinai's operating room healthy and alert. Even more unusual than the lack of complications during the surgery was that neither the monsignor nor Grace felt any pain during the recovery. "The doctors tell you upfront," said Grace, "to expect to hurt for six weeks. There is even a pump by your hospital bed for you to press when you feel pain. I didn't use it once. I remember the surgeon coming into the room and saying, 'You know, you haven't pressed the button. Are you afraid to?' So I said, 'No. I haven't needed to press it.' He just looked at me with a confused expression on his face. When I spoke with the monsignor later, he also said he had no pain."
It is now nine months since the operation and both Monsignor Theo and Grace are in excellent health. And both make it clear who is responsible for the happy ending.
"God makes everything right," says Monsignor Theo. "Our God is an interesting God. As scripture says, 'Whatever God wills, He does.' He gave me a rough time and tested my faith, but in the end He came through. Too often we expect God to answer our prayers when we want them answered and how we want them answered. I have learned to walk by faith and not by sight; to leave everything in His hands. I am still freaked out by this whole thing. Grace and I never spoke before, never even had a conversation. I didn't even meet her for the first time until four days before the surgery. And yet, here she does something completely selfless, giving a total stranger a part of her. It was an act of total faith and I couldn't be more grateful. I am truly blessed. Miracles do come in many ways."
Was it a miracle? There's no doubt in Grace's mind. "Something sure nudged me along in that direction, especially considering how out of character it was for me. I look at things logically, and clearly God had this plan in the works for a long time. Think of all the things that had to happen to arrive at this point. The monsignor had to be stationed at St. Ephrem's. Kip had to want to return to Church for me to even know Monsignor Theo existed. Kip and I had to attend the healing service on the night when Monsignor made his plea. I had to have the proper blood-type. Even the kidney I donated defies the norm. Doctors always select the smaller kidney for the donation. Usually they try and remove the left kidney because it is easier to reach and because the vein in the right side kidney is usually short. During one of my last visits with the surgeon he explained to me that my right kidney was smaller, but that unlike most people, my right kidney vein was 'extraordinarily long'. He looked at me, smiled, and said, 'It would seem your right kidney was made to be donated.' How can anyone believe all of those things were just coincidence?"
Ask and it will be given to you.