“Relentlessly seek your purpose,” Steve Gleason emotionally told a crowd June 18 at St. Mary’s Dominican High School as he spoke about his faith and life with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Gleason played for the New Orleans Saints from 2000-08 and is most famously known for blocking an Atlanta Falcons punt for a touchdown during the first football game in the restored Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.
The prayer service, “Steve Gleason: A Witness to Faith,” was sponsored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and allowed Gleason to convey his ideas on religion and how he has dealt with his disease.
“In the beginning stages, I certainly prayed to be healed,” Gleason said. “I also saw healing on nearly every level. … I rarely pray to be healed these days. While I would love to walk and talk again, the Creator can choose to heal me or not.
“Most importantly, I enjoy my life. I have less faith in a gnarly bearded, white male God to come intervene by bending or breaking the physical laws of the universe to rescue a single person. I pray for my daily bread, my strength, ingenuity to continue living the life I love – my life with purpose.”
Opportunity to share
Gleason said ALS has given him and his family – his wife Michel and son Rivers, with whom Gleason was baptized Catholic in 2012 – “an opportunity to share our strength, our example, our love with whomever needs to hear it.”
Gleason said his high school years at the Jesuit-run Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Washington, shaped who he is today.
“I was taught perseverance when faced with adversity, and also I learned how to be resilient after defeat,” he said. “I learned that by giving yourself to others, far more will come to you. … Most importantly, I learned to love my neighbor as myself. When I looked at my life, in its entirety, I suppose my blood flows naturally and instinctively with faith.”
He said “the homilies that fuel my blood” come from his communion with nature.
“The Creator has never spoken to my soul more clearly than on the edge of the river,” Gleason said. “Our son’s name gives praise to the sacrament.”
Gleason said he finds “the Creator’s voice in me on the youngest branches of the oldest, most mysterious oak trees in the neighborhoods of this wonderful city.”
He implored attendees to relentlessly explore faith with childlike curiosity.
“Exploration requires two simultaneous elements – a curiosity to gain knowledge and the admission of ignorance, which to my ears sounds like when Jesus said, ‘I tell you unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
“By definition, faith is believing in something you cannot believe in,” Gleason said. “So, if this word ‘faith’ cannot be rationalized, there is an endless amount of exploring to do for us as the faithful. So, if you walk in here, questioning your faith, join the club. I think you are on the right track.”
Gleason gave personal observations about faith: Wrap yourself in new faith at least once. The best place to seek heaven, he said, is within yourself by loving your neighbor.
As a lover of words, Gleason observed that “the word ‘religion’ has given humans to not only love others, but also a reason to exclude and hate others. The word ‘religion’ can separate us as a people.”
The most powerful word in his vocabulary is purpose.
“When I feel purposeful, I feel relevant, I feel energized,” he said. “I feel excited to get up every day, conquer my obstacles and fulfill my purpose. Like those faithful explorers, I think living with purpose requires a commitment to exploration.”
Lives a purposeful life
Seated in wheelchair and communicating through a speech generating device (SGD), Gleason exemplified perseverance. He founded Team Gleason in 2011 to increase the awareness of ALS and to support others with the disease.
Father Joe Palermo, director of the Men’s Spirituality Committee who coordinated Gleason’s appearance, called Gleason, “a symbol of faith and hope and courage and purpose in the face of life’s greatest trials and sufferings.”
He surmised while some facing challenges could become bitter, unfaithful and lose faith, others like Gleason use trials as opportunity to draw closer to God.
Father Palermo said Gleason’s blocked punt on Sept. 25, 2006, gave the people of New Orleans a lift from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
He is “an icon for the resiliency of the people of New Orleans. And now, no longer because of a blocked punt … but the way he has dealt with the disease ALS. He has shown faith, courage and great purpose in the face of adversity.”
Dr. Cynthia Thomas, president of St. Mary’s Dominican, strengthened the notion of faith in suffering, by reading this Scripture passage from Romans: “Suffering produces endurance; and endurance produces character; character produces hope; and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us.”
Anointing of the sick
While attendees raised their hand in solidarity, Archbishop Gregory Aymond offered Gleason the “anointing of the sick” sacrament. He asked the Lord to bless Gleason and his family “that he always knows the Lord’s compassion and love. … We thank you for his life, for he is a light to us and a witness to our faith.”
Archbishop Aymond said the Catholic Church continues Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick physically, spiritually or emotionally through the sacraments. People “feel through the sacrament a deeper sense of God’s comfort.”
Gleason’s heartfelt words were powerful, Archbishop Aymond said. He considers Gleason a sign of faith and a true witness for all.
“He has a great faith in God,” Archbishop Aymond said. “He sees purpose in his life. ALS has given him a purpose. Not everybody will be able to say that.”
A documentary film on Gleason’s life “Gleason” premiered recently at Sundance Film Festival and was shown June 14 at The Orpheum in New Orleans.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .