Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Invisible Ones

The Mass readings lately have been focused on Jesus’ time travelling from village to village, teaching and healing the sick.  It struck me, as I reflected on the readings, that though Jesus responded to the pleas of the synagogue official and the Roman centurion, he deliberately spent the majority of his time with the poor.  He seemed to be always drawn to those in obvious need, the stigmatized, the forgotten, the outcasts, the invisible ones.  Matthew 9 says that Jesus “saw the crowds and had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” 

Why is it that we so often feel drawn to people on the other end of the spectrum?  We give our attention to the powerful, the good-looking, the rich, the talented, the confident ones who are very successful at looking after themselves.  I guess we naturally lean towards people whom we secretly strive to be – and who strives to be an outcast?  But Jesus invites us to follow in his footsteps, to walk with him down the dusty back roads, seeking the people that normally garner no one’s attention.

I was thinking about all this when I was at a mall near our house yesterday. I found myself with some time to kill as I waited for my son to finish an errand.  I plunked myself down on a bench, happy to get off my feet for a few minutes and, as is my habit, got my iPhone out of my backpack to check my email, have a peek at Facebook and maybe text a friend. But then I reflected again about the choices Jesus made as he wandered around the countryside with his disciples – about how he chose to counsel the lost, heal the sick, rescue the demon-possessed, give sight to the blind, give a voice to the voiceless.  I put away my iPhone and looked around me.  And there, sitting on the other end of the bench, was an elderly man whom I hadn’t even noticed. 

He had long greasy white hair, a stringy beard, baggy flannel pants and an old gray jacket. His glasses were dirty and askew on his wrinkled face.  He smiled at me, and I noticed he had a front tooth missing. I smiled back and thought about God’s sense of humour in this chance encounter.  I made a remark to the old man about how nice it was to sit down and take a break. We chatted about the weather, and I noticed he had a slight English accent. I took a deep breath as our conversation about the weather came to an end, and asked him if he was from England.  Well, it was like a dam suddenly burst.

The old man started telling me about his boyhood days in a little village in Kent, how he came to Canada with his wife shortly after they were married, how they never were able to have children but they had a very happy life together, how his wife died a few years ago, how a very kind neighbour was keeping an eye on him and sometimes brought him soup.  I found out that he lives close to the mall, and that it’s an almost daily destination for him and his trusty walker.  He was funny, and engaging, and sweet, and smart – and it hurt me to think that most days he has nobody to talk to.  Pretty soon I didn’t even notice his missing tooth and his funny pants.

I was almost sad when my son arrived, errand complete.  I told the old man how much I’d enjoyed our chat, and was surprised to realize that it was true.  I also told him I’d look for him next time I’m at the mall.  I want to hear more about his boyhood days in England, and I’d love to find out what brought him to Canada.  I want to know more about his wife, whom he spoke about so fondly.  I’d like to invite him to join my son and I at the mall’s Food Fair for a bite to eat.

The Responsorial Psalm in today’s Liturgy of the Word is from Psalm 102: “Seek always the face of the Lord.”  That’s what the Holy Spirit was leading me to do at the mall yesterday, I think...with St. Francis cheering me on.  And I am richer for it. 

"Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members -- the last, the least, the littlest."                                     ~Cardinal Roger Mahony

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Jacob's Ladder

I recently was very touched by a Letter to the Editor in our newspaper.  The writer was responding to the “right to die” debate that has been re-ignited in Canada in the past few weeks. A recent ruling in one of our provincial courts struck down parts of Canada’s law banning “doctor-assisted deaths”.

The letter-writer was dismayed about the ruling, and described her husband’s death as a time of sorrow, but also a time of tenderness and great love.  Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“The last year of my husband's life was the most meaningful year of our entire marriage and I considered it a great privilege to be able to care for him. When you know someone is going to pass from this life to the next, love is intensified and each word, look and touch becomes a treasure that will stay with the one, and travel to eternity with the other. I would not have changed one minute of his lingering from the prognosis of three months to his death one full year later. And neither would he. Even as he lost consciousness, he fought to remain with me; in death, as in life, he gave me everything he could. What we fail to understand is that pain and suffering born for love become joy and peace beyond all measure.”

Her words reminded me of my own mother’s last few years.  Mom died on November 27, 2010, and her last years with us were tainted by the challenges and suffering of Alzheimer’s disease.  It was not an easy time, for her or for us.  But as I reflect back on those years, my Mom became the epicentre of our affection, and that experience spilled over and filled our lives with affection for others.  The nursing home staff became our new family members.  Neighbours became treasured sources of support.  Good friends became our lifeline, giving us courage to go on. Relationships with extended family deepened profoundly.

My Dad and my siblings and I were so focused on loving Mom and caring for her that we couldn’t help but be affected emotionally and spiritually.  We all grew in important ways – learning to express our feelings more openly, to hug each other more frequently, to thank God for each new day more wholeheartedly, to forgive trivial hurts more quickly. And when Mom’s life was drawing to a close, each moment burned brightly, because each moment became very precious. 

I have some incredible memories from the week before Mom’s death, when none of us could bear to leave her side: memories like standing with my family around her bedside, holding hands and saying the Lord’s Prayer together through our tears.  Listening with fervent thankfulness and joy to a visiting chaplain as he serenaded my mom at her bedside with a lovely rendition of “Amazing Grace” in his lilting tenor voice.  Being soothed in ways beyond words by the music therapist who brought her harp into Mom’s room and played for us until her fingers hurt.  Eating cookies that the overworked nursing home staff would bake at home and bring to work for us.  Sitting around Mom’s bed for hours with my Dad and my siblings, taking turns stroking her hands while sharing funny stories from our childhood days and laughing until our faces hurt. 

The most sacred moments in life are sometimes the hardest. In grief, we can clearly see the things that make life most beautiful and most meaningful.  It’s very difficult to explain, but what I learned from my Mom’s last weeks was that the little moments of joy that we experience in seasons of sorrow can be the most intense of any we’ll ever experience. I read somewhere that Jewish scholars teach that the ladder Jacob saw in his dream represents the fortunes of life – good and bad, up and down. Some angels were ascending the ladder, while others were descending. Both the ascending angels and the descending angels are sacred. Our lives are made sacred by moments of intense joy, and also by moments of unbearable grief. 

Sometimes they are the same moments, on the same ladder.