Sunday, January 2, 2011

Messenger -- A Book Review

I was listening to Raymond Arroyo on the radio as he interviewed a woman named Jeni Stepanek about the book she finally wrote about her son, Mattie. As I listened to her story I turned up the volume and wondered: What was so special about her boy, that at age ten he was welcomed by Larry King and Jerry Lewis on their shows, and in 2004 at the age of thirteen had Oprah Winfrey and Jimmy Carter describe him as one of their very best friends --- as they spoke at his funeral? How had I not heard of this woman and her son, known world-wide, before? All I can think of is that their story was like a book I did not need to read then, but through Arroyo’s show God has taken it off the shelf now and handed it to me. There is something I need to gain from it now. And so I read.

Jeni Stepanek had four children, but only Mattie survived beyond age four. At age three he watched Jamie, the only sibling who he ever knew, die. It wasn’t until after Mattie was born that doctors finally isolated the strange and rare disease which had affected them all --- and their mother, Jeni. With Mattie, the disease and its prognosis were known: Mattie would likely die very young, as his siblings did. As Mattie continued to live however, often more in the hospital than out, he and his seriously ill mother were both faced with the daily question: who would die first?

Messenger was a difficult book to read; by page seven I had to put it down to clear my tears. I put it down often as I read it; the words had such an impact. But it wasn’t Jeni’s words, it was Mattie’s words that struck me most. You see at age four, shortly after Jamie died, Mattie began to have conversations with God, and he began to write poetry to describe what God had said to him. He called it his Heartsongs.

Matties like to touch
Pumpkins and toys.
So, Matties touch them …
But Matties can’t touch
Jamies anymore,
Even if they want to.
So Matties touch their tears instead.

Mattie received his First Holy Communion at age 7, and a week later was waving his hand frantically at the back of the church to answer questions asked by Cardinal Hickey to the Confirmation class. Later the Cardinal came over and spoke to Mattie, and then told his mother “I would like to confirm your son today.” Jeni insisted he study further and wait a year, despite his illness, and the Cardinal finally agreed, but then he said: “Do you know who your son is? He is a messenger.” “I am so sorry,” Jeni replied. “He’s been saying that since he was four years old. I told him he’s free to be a messenger, but not free to go around telling that to people.” “He did not say it to me,” the Cardinal replied. “I’m saying it.” At age 8 Mattie was teaching religion classes from his wheelchair to older children, who “hung on Mattie’s every word. It was like watching Jesus with the children around His feet.”

At age ten, Mattie was involved in writing a book with Jimmy Carter on World Peace, and he exchanged letters with Bill Clinton to get his thoughts. By then he had Oprah’s personal phone number and email address. At age 11 he received his home-schooled high school diploma, and he audited Jeni’s Ph.D.-program classes. He published five best-selling books of his poetry. And throughout all this, and all the television shows and appearances around the country, he was often back in the hospital, sometimes in lengthy comas with major life-threatening tissue degeneration, and doctors telling Jeni to give up and let him die. Mattie was disappointed he missed the presentation he was scheduled to give at the United Nations, but he was thrilled the video he made for the meeting of Nobel Peace laureates was met with a standing ovation. Jeni didn’t give up, and Mattie didn’t either.

Mattie celebrated each new year as a miracle. But in 2003 he noted that “God doesn’t speak into my heart anymore. He’s still present, and even His silence gives me strength. But He’s not giving me answers, and He’s not asking anything else of me. I’ve shared the messages.”

Messenger was a serious book with many sad points, but much uplifting spiritual guidance also. And there were fun times there too, where the young Mattie behaved as the kid he was, pulling practical jokes on doctors, nurses, and his many important friends. And at his request, one of his firemen friends pushed the button on his fart machine, and a sound came from his coffin. Mattie wanted to have the last laugh.

As Christians we are all called to carry our crosses, and to partake of the cross of Christ. Difficult times will come to all of our lives, and death will come, too. But throughout our lives we can see happiness and joy on the horizon, and even in the dark times have faith that happiness will appear again. We go through our lives living like Simon, sometimes helping Jesus carry his cross, but usually reluctantly so. But Mattie Stepanek lived a life much more like Jesus Christ Himself. He had some glory, he saw some recognition as on Palm Sunday, but he always saw the cross and death before him, and it was very near. And he knew the pains that were, constantly, and would be. At age ten they had to put a hole in his neck and insert a trach tube, and Jeni saw her son’s face without an oxygen mask for the first time since age 2, and thought: “Wow, he’s beautiful.” He truly was.

Most people live their lives focused on themselves. I very much enjoyed the book on JPII, Witness to Hope, and Fr. Jack Spaulding’s book Hope for the Journey. Those books described how to live our lives so that our journey ends well. Mattie, despite his youth, was not so concerned for himself, but very concerned for others and for the world. He wanted them to learn to care about others, as he did. He viewed his major role in life as to bring God’s message of love, and to live it. He yearned to help with world peace; he wanted everyone to love their neighbor. Mattie could have lived out his days with pity for his struggles and for being sick: trips to Disneyworld, donations to help pay the doctors, and adulation for being such a “little warrior.” But he would have none of that. His interviews were not about himself and how he lived, but about others and how they should live. He worried about them. He prayed for them. He was not so much worried about his journey, but was trying to be a porter for others’ journies. He wanted to help them carry their loads. He didn’t want recognition for himself, but for what he was passing along, God’s Heartsongs.

Let our breath be gentle wind,
Let our ears be of those who listen,
Let our hearts be not ones
That rage so quickly and
Thus blow dramatically,
And uselessly.
Let our spirits attend and be
Most diligent to the soft
Yet desperate whisper of
Hope and peace for our world …

“I traveled around the world. In fact, since I left the White House, my wife and I have been to more than 120 nations. And we have known kings and queens, and we’ve known presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person whom I have ever known in my life is Mattie Stepanek.”
---- Jimmy Carter

You should read this book. There is much you can gain from it. Being a porter is a good thing.


  1. Wow! Great review! I'd heard of Mattie Stepanek before, but not in such detail as you provide here. The book sounds great! I wonder, if his mom has the same disease, how did she live so long, and what is the disease?

  2. Thank you for this excellent review Tom! I will indeed put this put on my 'to-read' list! God bless you for bringing it to our attention and -- as Anne said -- giving such a detailed and fascinating review.

  3. Thank you for the book review! I'm always looking for good books to read and this one sounds wonderful.

  4. Well, I'm glad you liked it. It seems not so much a review as giving you some snippets of the many interesting stories and lessons it contains.

    I read many books, and the best each year are my Christmas presents to my friends. Perhaps I shall make a greater effort to do some deliberate posting here, reviews of the better of my readings, vs just waiting for the wind to tell me what to write next.