(On September 15, the Church celebrates the Feast of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows. Our Lady of Sorrows is the patroness of the Congregation of Holy Cross. I will be posting one of the seven sorrows each day leading up to the feast day. This is only part of a larger reflection that has not yet been published. The stories are meant to encourage your own reflection about each of the sorrows found in the gospels.)
The Fourth Sorrow: Mary meets Jesus on the road to Calvary
Luke 23: 27-30
As they led him away they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus. A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ At that time people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?” Now two others, both criminals, were led away with him to be executed.
Standing next to suffering
One of the images I use in prayer as an adult comes from my childhood. The image seems odd and even a bit crass. I remember being sick many times with stomach flu. My mother would always wake up in the nighttime and come to the bathroom and hold my forehead while I was vomiting. As I look back on my young days, that gesture stands out to me as one of the most comforting and consoling. That human, maternal touch while I felt so vulnerable and helpless still comforts me in times when I feel out of control and not sure what to do next in life.
This simple gesture from my mother speaks to me about Mary’s role in Jesus’ suffering and death. Mary stood next to Jesus’ suffering and she could not control the outcome or take his pain away. Mary could not fix her son’s destiny and change the pattern of grace in Jesus’ life. Her role was to simply stand among the threats on Jesus’ life and among those who would eventually put him to death. Mary could only reach out to his hurting body and touch his human wounds.
At the end of my sophomore year in college, I was asked to become an orderly at Holy Cross House, our retirement center and infirmary next to the seminary. I began my junior year learning my new role as an orderly for our priests and brothers who were very ill and close to death. It became my turn to make sure I held the foreheads of these men when they were sick, to change their diapers and bathe them in a shower chair.
Sue was the head nurse at the time. She ran the infirmary with great care, intention and compassion. Her reputation had filtered down to the seminarians and even those of us who were just starting our many years of formation. I reported for my first day wearing my new scrubs. I was totally out of my element and my naïveté was obvious to every one. Sue welcomed me as if I had been working with the sick all my life.
On that first Saturday afternoon, Sue invited me into the room of one of our priests who had been in bed for over twelve years. He was a victim of a hit-and-run accident. He was struck by a car while riding his bicycle along the main road into campus of the University of Notre Dame. He was wearing his long, all-black religious habit that made him invisible in the darkness. The authorities never found the driver of the car.
The daily staff schedule of Holy Cross House revolved around the care of Fr. John. Every two hours a staff member fed, turned and comforted the silent priest. Even though he had been in bed for twelve years, he had never had bedsores. He did have drop foot, the muscles in his legs and feet collapsed. He had ground his teeth down to the gums from his anxiety. He could not speak or move. His eyes could not focus on the people who cared for him.
At 2:00pm, Sue introduced me to Fr. John. We spoke to him as we would speak to any person because even the doctors were not sure if he could understand our voices. She taught me how to change his diapers, bathe him and how to oil and powder his body. Then she took a feeding tube and asked me if I would help her feed him by inserting the rubber tube into the hole in his abdomen. I felt squeamish and unsure. I told her no, that I could not help her do that.
Sue reassured me, “That’s alright, we will try again next Saturday when you are working again.” So the next Saturday came quickly. At 2:00pm, Sue took me again into Fr. John’s room. We changed his diaper, bathed him, changed his sheets, oiled and powered his body. She then took the rubber feeding tube into her hands and looked at me. “Will you help me feed Fr. John?” I looked at the tube and the hole in his abdomen and quickly responded to Sue, “No, I am not ready.”
So Sue said again, “Do not worry, we will try again next week when you come back to work with us.” The next Saturday came along quickly, we entered Fr. John’s room one more time at 2:00pm. We bathed him, changed his diapers and his bed sheets. We oiled and powered his body. We fluffed his pillows. We prepared him for the next few hours of his life. Sue then took the long, rubber tube into her hands and asked me once again to help her feed him. The thought of feeding him almost made me sick to my stomach. I said, “No”.
Sue came over to me, took my hands into her hands. She came close to my body and looked me in the eyes. She whispered to me, “Ron, you must remember just one thing. Fr. John is your brother.”
I felt the grace of those words whisk through my body. I realized my spiritual connection to this helpless man. I felt the beginning of my call to stand next to suffering. I picked up the rubber tube and we feed Fr. John together for the first time. I will never forget the patience and dedication of Sue. She waited for me to finally understand that feeding him was not just about the tube and the food. I had to come to realize, that if I was going to enter into this religious community even as a young member, I needed to know that Fr. John and all of the ill men in that building were my brothers. I needed to be in relationship with them, to care for them even when they were old and very ill. I needed to learn to stand along side of their suffering. I also prayed for the day that someone would stand by me when I was old and ill and in need.
Nurse Sue stood by the suffering of so many of our priests and brothers. She also stood next to my youth and naïveté. Sue will forever model for me how to stand next to suffering, to wait patiently for the ways healing may happen among patients and caregivers. Sue modeled for me the central mystery of my vocation, to bring hope among people who are in pain and isolated, among those who carry the cross of suffering.
What does it mean for you to stand next to someone who is suffering?
How is God calling you to offer hope and consolation to other people?