Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Story of Garvan Byrne

Garvan Byrne was a 12 year old Irish boy who died in 1985 of a rare leukemia.  In this video that has been circulated widely on the internet, he talks to a nun about his faith in life after death.  He believes Jesus will look after him and his family.  He speaks with conviction and confidence and without the slightest trace of doubt in his voice.

There have been quarters in the RC church that are asking for Garvan to be considered for sainthood.  See this blog, for an example.  That's of course an indication of the sort of inspiration he has been to lots of people.

It's impossible not to be inspired by this boy who knew perfectly well that he would be dying.  It's only in a religious context that a boy this age can speak of his impending death with eagerness.   Garvan spoke cheerfully of the people he would be meeting in heaven, a grandma he had not seen, a favourite uncle and so on.  When asked if he would miss his family, he looked mildly troubled for a moment but his furrowed brow was smoothed instantly when he spoke about how he would be there in their midst.

This is what Garvan said and I quote verbatim:  "Where two or more are gathered, there I am in the midst of them.  And I will be there in the midst of my family.  They might not see me but I'll be there watching them, looking after them all the time".

Garvan was of course borrowing the words of Jesus in Matt 18:20. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."  Only a heartless pedant would say that Garvan was theologically incorrect in appropriating the words of Jesus in that way.

But while the story of Garvan illustrates the beauty of religion and the comforting image of Jesus standing with his outstretched hands towards us, his sheep, it does not address the question why Jesus didn't do a thing to heal Garvan in the first place.   Many will say the question is irrelevant for none of the faithful will allow that minor fact to stumble him in his faith.  It doesn't even matter that Jesus didn't do a thing to lessen the pain that Garvan had to go through but no doubt the doctors would have given him a painkiller.  It doesn't matter too that Jesus in his sovereign goodness, mercy and compassion would only guide the hands of surgeons, doctors and nurses in the healing process but only in places where the slow progress of human knowledge and medical advancement have reached.

When I was a boy, I used to wonder why everyone in Pride and Prejudice treated Elizabeth Bennett's common cold with so much concern and fear.  That was only less than 200 years ago but at that time, doctors couldn't even treat a cold effectively and many people died from something as mild as a cold.   Presumably, God could heal the common cold but he must have, in his infinite mercy and love, chosen not to.  God's miracles are strangely always kept in pace with the state of medical progress and when doctors heal the patient, we thank God for guiding the doctor's hands or for breathing efficacy into the medication prescribed.

But there's one thing religion can do that no amount of rational thinking can.  It gives us hope even in the face of utter hopelessness and the story of Garvan demonstrates that.  Highly rational people can be insensitive when they say it's all wishful thinking.  But what is wrong with wishful thinking?  I don't know about you but when my time comes and I'm down on my deathbed with multi-organ cancer and I'm about the breathe my last, I will cling to the hope that is in Christ Jesus and I will think of the love of Christ and the beauty of heaven and I will die with Kyrie Eleison on my lips and a smile on my face.

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