Occasionally, when I return to the Abbey after visiting the sick or shut-ins, I will remark to one of the monks that I have been on a nursing home retreat.
What I mean by this is that, whether in a nursing home, a hospital, or a private home, on that occasion I have had the grace of visiting someone whose acceptance of a desperate condition is so filled with faith and peace that it affected me like the spiritual power of a retreat. Perhaps few words were exchanged and sometimes none at all, but the word of God has been proclaimed by the presence of holiness.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway introduces the fisherman Santiago with this description: “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated”. On my nursing home retreats, I have met many people with these kind of eyes.
As in any good retreat, the experience is not just inspiring but unsettling, making me look at myself. How will I be when I reach that stage in my life? Unless death intervenes while I am still up and around, I will be going there. We all will. We will have to deal with diminishment and dependence. How will I do that? Will I be a trial to those who care for me and visit me, or will I be a gift, as so many are to me?
Everyone must undergo suffering along the road of life. Some of it is our own fault, the result of our decisions and actions. If we can deal properly with suffering at all, it is this kind that we can handle. The test is in dealing with undeserved suffering, especially the kind that could have been prevented by others or, above all, the kind purposely inflicted on us by others. Does the suffering we endure become a sharing in the cross, a dying with Jesus, and therefore redemptive, or does it seethe in anger and self-pity? Whatever pattern we have established will go with us to our nursing home bed. In commenting on the parable of the house built on rock or sand, John Cassian says that “when mistreatment inflames the fire of anger in us, it is not because of the abuse received, but because our house was built on sand and gave way at the slightest push.”
Pain is an essential part of life. If we never got our fingers burned, we would not know the danger of fire. But what bothers us is the needless pain and the unreasonable suffering. This would have been there whether or not Christ came, but with redemption a whole new opportunity for dealing with suffering entered the world. Scripture tells us that the Savior himself had to walk this road: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). The author of Hebrews makes the amazing statement, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5:8-9). With Paul, we can understand that our sufferings even play a role in Christ’s work of redemption: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
It would be easier if we could choose our sufferings. We see one saint chiding another in a letter of Francis de Sales to Jane Frances de Chantal: “You’re willing to accept the cross as long as it is the one you select.” Abbot John Chapman gives us the image of God as a sculptor trying to bring our true self out of the raw block of marble we are. We do not understand the reason for the hammer blows, and we rebel. St. Teresa of Àvila says even if we can bear suffering, we want immediate results, and we suspect that nothing is happening, that God is doing nothing in our lives. “That is the kind of people we are,” she writes in the Way of Perfection. “Ready cash is the only wealth we understand.”
When we are young and climbing the hill of life, we are oblivious to the challenges that will come with aging and diminishment. We are not exactly in denial, but those things are not a reality for us; they haven’t yet come on the screen. Denial may come later on. But the time to prepare for a graceful and hopeful old age is before we get there. It isn’t accidental, the luck of the draw for the chosen. The people who preach Christ to me in the time of their physical diminishment have been suffering with Christ throughout their lives. They may not be able to make a decision to do that now, but they made the decision previously, and it still carries them now.
—excerpted from Is God in My Top Ten?, by Fr. Jerome Kodell, OSB, The Word Among Us Press, 2018. Available at wau.org/books