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The ringing of the Mass bell just before the Consecration calls our attention to the momentous event about to occur. This bell is one among numerous vehicles that can bring us to a moment of grace.
How a vehicle is used matters, and this is where the person ringing the bell makes all the difference. Helen Hodson used a particular vehicle, the Ignatian Exercises, to beautifully lead people to the living God.
Though she was not literally an altar server, I do know that her listening heart and vigilant spirit made her an ideal “bell ringer”.
Last year, the Holy Spirit was pushing me to make a retreat. When I explored a few options available to me, I found that my heart sought out Helen, who had given me two retreats when I was an applicant (in formation) at Madonna House.
This time, on approaching her with my request, I was met with a response that was rooted in God’s will and the reality of her advancing cancer.
She said that if she was still alive in October, my time-frame for making a retreat, and the cancer had not sapped all her capacities, she would delight in giving me a retreat.
Unknown to both of us at the time, I would be the last retreatant whom she would direct.
I would like to share with you two beautiful graces that book-ended my final retreat with Helen.
At the very first one-to-one conference, Helen encouraged me to pray for the grace of “a memory of healings”. These memories are particular points of grace that God gives us each day, points of grace where we can, if we look, see his love at work within and around us. These moments of grace occur regardless of how well we think our day turned out.
Helen received this idea of a “memory of healings” from one of our Madonna House priests, Fr. Pat McNulty. Moreover, she and I were both close to another Madonna House priest, Fr. Paul Béchard, and he had taught us both the same thing in another way: He said to “catch God smiling at you.”
Helen told me that looking for these graces had made a great difference in her life, and that she desired that I experience this same difference in mine.
So on retreat I developed a new habit—a daily habit of looking for God’s love and his grace working in my ordinary life. This reservoir of memories of healings is really a reservoir of tender smiles by the living God.
This word “smile” brings me to the second grace, the one that capped off the retreat.
Because of her weakened physical condition, Helen had permission to direct retreats from her bed. And at the foot of her bed was a large print of the face of the Smiling Christ.
On the last day of our one-on-one conferences, Helen told me about this picture and her devotion to the “Smiling Christ”.
The picture was of a detail of a 13th century crucifix that St. Francis Xavier prayed before as a child in his home, the Javier castle in Spain. In this life-size crucifix depicting Jesus’ final surrender on the cross, the sculptor portrayed him gently smiling.
Helen had gone on pilgrimage to the Javier castle and was deeply touched by this crucifix. In addition to the large print, she also had a small decoupage of the same picture on her bed stand. (Helen was later buried with this decoupage.)
As Helen spoke to me about the Smiling Christ and her love for this image, I received the grace to see the source of the graces I received during my retreat.
It struck me that this image was the first thing that she awoke to each day and the last thing that she saw before she went to sleep. Because of her contemplation and love of this image, Helen had in some mysterious sense become, in the words of Archbishop Raya, “Him whom she contemplated.”
So this retreat was deeply blessed not only because of Helen’s gifts as a retreat director but also because of him Whom I could perceive in her—Christ on the Cross.
Suddenly, this all came together in me, and I was given the final grace of my retreat: the inner knowledge that, through his beloved Helen, it was the “Smiling Christ” who had led my retreat.
These were only two of my graces. At the last conference, Helen and I reviewed my Emmaus walk with the Lord, and we both found ourselves marvelling at the sheer abundance of graces Christ had bestowed on me.
Helen had been a marvellous bell-ringer; she prepared me well for all that the Lord was to give me.