Thursday, May 5, 2011

Suffer the Children, and the Elderly

cWe speak of a person’s last years as a second childhood, and we sometimes do so sadly or dismissively, as if to say the person has lost it. Whatever adulthood gave them has fallen away, and they are left with the capacities of a child. We forget that Jesus said we have to become like children, and so we may ignore the remarkable example of old and faithful people.

Once a week, on Wednesday mornings, I cross the street behind our church and say the Rosary with about a dozen residents of an elderly housing project. Then I give them communion, as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Yesterday was one of those Wednesdays when I began by thinking, what an inconvenience in the middle of my work week, and ended by thinking, what a blessing to be with these women.

Because they’re all women, average age 85. Their men have gone ahead.

First we say the Rosary, following the on-screen lead of Father Reed of Catholic TV. As we did so yesterday, I turned my gaze down the row of ladies in wheelchairs or parked behind their walkers and watched their eyes and gently moving lips. They were totally attentive to Father Reed, to the Rosary, to the Blessed Mother—more attentive, say, than I typically am at Mass or Adoration. My lady friends were absorbed in prayer.

There is a cynical thought that sometimes jumps me here: Of course, they are. They are facing death. This is foxhole prayer in another guise. Yesterday, instead, I thought of Jesus and the children and then thought, But this is what He is asking of us, that we become like this! For a moment, it turned my entire view of aging on its head. We should be honoring these old people, we should be following them, not packing them away in places where younger people cannot see them.

This insight reminded me, like most good insights, of something I already knew. In my work helping elderly people write their memoirs, which I have been doing for over twenty years, I learned long ago how nourishing it can be to sit with a person in their 80s and listen to the stories of their life. What’s refreshing about a person of this age is that pride and vanity have largely fallen away from their faces and they gaze on the world in a less defensive, more open, more childlike way. They are generous; their stories are usually more about loved ones and less about their own doings; and whatever their religious views, they are surprisingly hopeful. Unless you become like this . . .

After we share communion and close with a prayer, I usually take a few moments to chat with a few of the ladies. Almost every week, someone says Thank you, Father, and I explain that I am not a priest, that I am in fact the father of grown children and married. The married part never deters one florid-faced beauty in the front row from flirting with me.

Yesterday, I scanned the row of upturned faces and came to another, an elegant, diminutive lady I have seen in church. (Sadly, most of these women can’t get across the street.) She looked up at me and moved her lips. I couldn’t hear and asked her to repeat what she had said. She said again and smiled right through it, “Thank you, you’ve made our week.” Her eyes glimmered with gratitude. That made my day.

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