(medal is wrapped in a small mesh bag, and boxed for shipping)
The Prayer Medal
Every Christmas I try to make some creative gift to give to the staff and to special people who support me in the parish. Last year I had this moment of inspiration to create a prayer medal, something that people could hold in their hands and be drawn into the mystery of Christmas. And so I took on the adventure of casting. I have a friend who is a jeweler and he showed me the process of creating a wax model, a mold, melting and pouring the medal, allowing it to harden and then breaking the cast to reveal a metal form of what I had created in wax. It became a beautiful meditation in prayer during the advent season. I decided to portray the Holy Family. I began going through numerous icons and paintings and statues and praying with the different scripture passages of the infancy narratives, always asking God the questions: “What was it like the night he was born?” “How was Mary holding him?” “How was Joseph with him?” “How was Joseph with Mary?” “Were they close?” “Were they affectionate?” Over the years one of the images of Mary that has most touched my heart is the portrait of “Kissing the face of God.” Mary is tenderly cradling the infant Jesus and pulling him up to her as she nuzzles her face up to him and kisses him on the cheek. It is such a tender and intimate image. I was also struck by some of the statues that I saw of Joseph holding Mary as she held Jesus. As I carved into the wax the images began to take shape and it became an icon for me. It was important for me that when holding the prayer medal it would rest comfortably in your hand and feel secure (Psalm 91 “Whoever clings to me I will deliver”). It was also important that as you rubbed it with your thumb your touch would be drawn to Jesus. Ultimately as you press your thumb across the image it will rest there on the face of Christ.
I know that there are times in life when we just need some sacramental to hold on to. Something to rub or squeeze when the pain is so intense or we are plagued with doubt or sadness. Something to hold when we so need to be held. And this is an image that God allowed me to rest in. Ultimately I hoped it would bring others that same sense of security. I wanted to give the medals to some of the people I visited, especially those in hospice. One of our local businesses blessed me with kindness when they offered to donate the medals that would be given to the sick and suffering.
Sometime after the Holy Family Medals were finished a young boy named Michael asked to see me. He came to my office and broke down in tears as he told me his Grandpa Joe was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My heart broke as Michael choked up before me. We talked, I let him get it out, I prayed with him and I still sensed there was such hurt when we were finished he seemed so lost. I couldn’t just let him walk away like this. And yet it seemed as if there were no words to help. And then God reminded me of the medal. “Michael, I have something very special that I would like to give to you,” I said excitedly. I took his hand and opened it and placed the medal into his palm. “Michael, I just wanted you to hold this. Keep it with you as a reminder to hold your Grandpa Joe in prayer.” He looked down at it with such gratitude and as he flipped it over in his palm he noticed the inscription on the back “God is with us.” He looked at me and said “I Know that he is.” I had a sense that Michael could now go in peace.
A few Saturdays after that I was walking along the back of the church getting ready to process down the center aisle for the Vigil Mass and an elderly man tugged at my chasuble. When I turned to greet him he simply held out the medal. I quickly scanned my mind, when did I see this man? Was it at the hospital, a nursing home, I don’t remember giving the prayer medal to him, but I must have. And then thankfully he said “Michael wanted me to have this, thank you Father.” He smiled and clasped it in his hands. Michael would later tell me that he thought his grandfather needed it more than he did so he gave the medal to him to pray with.
Some time later I received a call from one of Michael’s best friends telling me that his family needed to see a priest because their grandfather didn’t have much longer to live. I was just getting ready to head out for my day off so thankfully I was totally free. I drove over to Michael’s house where they had been caring for Grandpa Joe. Michael was in the drive pacing and he hugged me so tight as I told him I was glad he called. The whole family was in the house in the living room in the kitchen in the back bedroom where Joe was. I walked into the room and there was Joe with his wife at his side. The family gathered around and I began the prayers of the Anointing of the Sick and the Commendation of the Dying. It was a very moving experience. The children smiled and the grandchildren wept, but the most calm of all was Joe. As I looked into his eyes I could see in them the eyes of faith and with every response: “Lord Have Mercy,” Joe was the first to mouth the words “Lord have mercy.” I’ve never been with someone so near the point of death that was still able to pray in that way. The words so softly came out of his blood stained lips formed by his blackened tongue. As I laid hands on his head I motioned for his family to lay their hands on him and you could feel the peace of Christ wash through his body and his family. I anointed his forehead with oil and as I reached down to open his palm Joe opened his hand to reveal Holy Family Prayer Medal. His wife told me he wanted me to know that he was holding it and praying with it. I tucked my thumb under the medal and anointed his palm and then gently folded his hand around it once more and I noticed him firmly grabbing it. Michael’s grandpa Joe would die later that night with his family at his side. As he prayed with the medal of the Holy Family God had surrounded him with his family made holy.
When I went to the wake Michael hugged me once more and out of his pocket he pulled the medal. His said to me with such joy “My Grandpa wanted me to have it. I’ll keep this with me forever.” What a gift that God has blessed me with the priesthood, given me hands to bless with, imagination and creativity, and a heart of compassion that would help me to mold and shape a memory that Michael would hold for the rest of his life. And though we may never know exactly what it was like the night that Christ was born, one thing I know for sure is that he was held. There was touch. There was tenderness and safety as Joseph held him in the palm of his hand and Mary treasured all these things in her heart.