Three weeks ago, on a snowy Sunday afternoon, the phone rang. I barely recognized the voice of my seventy-eight year old mother. Crying from severe pain, she explained how her legs had swollen to the point that she could not get out of bed.
My brother and sister-in-law hurried over to her condo to see what they could do to help her. Quickly it became obvious that she needed to receive hospital care. I later received the news that she had been transported by ambulance to the Mayo Clinic.
A whole wave of emotions flooded over me. My husband and I live over six hundred miles away in Michigan. Given the COVID pandemic, it was no longer a simple decision to pack up and drive or grab the next flight. In addition, hospitals were forbidding visitors because of the threat of the virus.
Taking care of elderly parents wasn’t always so complicated. My great-grandmother lived with my grandparents in their big farmhouse. I often remember her sitting in a recliner knitting clothes for my dolls or cooking sauerkraut. My grandmother died in that same home, just as she had wanted, thanks to assistance from my mother and uncle who lived nearby.
A far different scenario today. After graduating from college, both my brother and I headed off to the “big city” — me to Detroit, he to Minneapolis. After my father passed on, my mother was alone on the farm. Because of the increasing number of health issues related to her diabetes, we determined that relocating to Minnesota would be the best option for her. In addition, my brother’s children — at that time, ranging from age five to nine years — would have the opportunity to get to know their grandmother in a way that they had not earlier due to distance.
While I don’t think any of us have regrets now about her move, I was conflicted about how to respond. As I reflected on this situation through the lens of my Catholic faith, I naturally gravitated toward Scripture.
What first popped in my mind was the commandment to honor father and mother. When I was young, honoring my mother meant obedience. As an adult, it’s much more complex.
I have tried to honor her during these past three weeks by calling her and biting my tongue when I’m tempted to chastise her for habits of the past. I’ve tried to update concerned relatives by text and phone.
I was also drawn to two examples in the Gospels of healing by distance. In John 4:46-54, a royal official approaches Jesus in the village of Cana and asks him to come and heal his son. Only this is not just a quick jaunt to the neighboring house. The son is dying in Capernaum, around 15-20 miles away. Perhaps a day’s worth of walking in ancient times. Jesus, however, does not choose to leave Cana but merely tells the official his son will live.
A similar case occurs in Matthew 8:5-13 and the corresponding narrative in Luke 7:1-10. Whether the Roman centurion begs Jesus or sends both Jewish elders and friends to Jesus as a means of intercession for his beloved servant, the response is the same. Jesus does not need to be physically present to perform the healing.
Finally, while the Book of Sirach was never on my radar as a Protestant, I was reminded of a particular section (38:1-15) which had impressed me about the vocation of the physician and the connection to illness.
Sirach bids the sick person to pray for him or herself. At the same time, one is to “give the physician his/her place” (38:12). While God is the ultimate healer, healing can be mediated by the physician (and other medical professionals). Healing is described as a “skill” or “gift” (Greek: doma). Thus, the physician is enjoined to recognize his or her own role as a mediator of healing and pray to God.
As I reflected on Scripture, I realized that I need to trust in the skills and gifts of those who have the primary responsibility of caring for my mother. Despite my occasional annoyance that I cannot always get all the information I want from my mother’s attending team or ever-changing squad of nurses, I feel blessed that my mother is in one of the best hospitals in the United States.
The power of intercessory prayer in each of these passages further undergirds our holistic understanding of caring for the human person in both body and soul during times of sickness. A 1999 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that intercessory prayers significantly improved the medical outcomes in the critically ill, even when they were unaware that those whom they had never met were praying for them.
My husband and I are thankful for our many friends who have promised to pray for my mother and regularly check in on her progress. I am both humbled and encouraged by their concern. As Catholics, we can also draw upon a great cloud of witnesses. So, in addition to my favorite saints too numerous to mention, I have asked my great-grandmother, my grandparents, and my father to intercede for my mother.
Honoring my mother from a distance doesn’t mean I have to beat myself up or nurse a ‘guilt trip’ for not being physically present. God is in charge. He loves my mother more than I do and certainly knows how to heal her. Prayer can unite and sustain us across the miles.
 Harris W.S. et al, “A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit,” Archives of Internal Medicine, October 25, 1999, Vol. 159, No. 19: 2273-8. doi: 10.1001/archinte.159.19.2273.
Tamra is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, an adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining. Her first manuscript "Pre-Evangelization and Young Adult 'Native Nones'", is available for purchase via both Wipf and Stock and Barnes & Noble.
Feature Image; Christ and the Centurion by Paolo Veronese