Not even 24 hours after returning from a wonderful trip to Montana with my family, I heard the tragic news about Johnny McClure, a member of my parish, Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, and a sophomore at Trinity School in Eagan, where I have been sending my kids for the last seven years.
Johnny died in his sleep the morning of Nov. 28, with no warning that anything was wrong. I got the news about 9:30 a.m., when someone from the school called with the news and said all students were being dismissed for the day.
Of all things, a deer sighting on Saturday evening, hours after his funeral, gave me some encouragement as I mourned the loss of Johnny and felt just a small portion of the pain his parents, Randall and Mary, and siblings were experiencing.
I had planned to attend the wake on Friday evening, but when I arrived at a little after 7 p.m., a line of greeters stretched outside the funeral home and around the corner. I didn’t think there was much chance I would get to greet the McClures before the scheduled 8 p.m. ending time, so I turned around and drove home. I talked to several people who waited in line more than two hours.
I chose to go for a walk that evening and offer prayers for Johnny and his family. I did the same thing the next night, and was greeted by several inches of fresh, powdery snow that made a distinctive crunching sound under my feet as I made my way down Hamline Avenue toward Highland Golf Course. During my 3-mile journey, an almost magical scene unfolded, with flakes falling quietly as I made new tracks in the now-snow-covered links. All of the white lit up the landscape under the soft glow of the city streetlights.
Normally, when I walk in the darkness, I cannot see very far in front of me. But, the fresh, white snow illuminated by the streetlight gave me visibility that stretched more than 100 yards. That made me optimistic that I might see a distant whitetail dining on the course’s lush green carpet. Over the past few years that I have taken walks and runs on the perimeter of the course, the deer have shown an affinity for the smorgasbord of browse contained therein.
Turns out I didn’t need such far-reaching vision to spot a deer. On the edge of the woods just past the police station near the corner of Hamline and Montreal, a doe was grazing in the snow to my left. She was beautiful, plump and completely unconcerned about my presence, even though I strode past her at only about 10 yards. Deer here are used to human presence, but almost always they still will pop their heads up and remain alert as I walk by.
Not this time. The doe looked up briefly and glanced at me, then quickly put her head down to continue feeding. During that brief time when her eyes locked onto mine, she seemed to be saying, “Look at me, see how beautiful I am and know that, in the midst of tragedies like Johnny’s death, God is still radiating his goodness to you and the whole world.”
Perhaps I had that sense because of the way the doe stood so peacefully in the falling snow, it’s beautiful, sleek coat softly glowing under the streetlight. Or, perhaps, it was because the words of Father Michael Keating’s amazing homily still were resounding in my mind. Or, perhaps it was a combination of both.
Whatever the reason, I finished my trek in the peace and comfort of God’s loving presence, which I prayed he also would give to the McClures. As Father Keating emphatically noted at the funeral Mass, “Johnny is fine.” It is the rest of us who are sad.
But, as Father Keating pointed out, such an event like Johnny’s death doesn’t go against the message or the season of Advent. Rather, it is as reminder that we are sojourners on this earth, and that our place is not here. Rather, our ultimate place is with God in heaven, a reality that Johnny McClure now knows.
As for me, I believe I saw a glimpse of Johnny’s heaven on a snowy Saturday evening in St. Paul.