By Sister Marcella Clancy
I am not good at making small talk and often feel awkward around those who are incapacitated. A few years ago, a sister with Alzheimer’s disease made a directed retreat with me. I came to understand the great suffering this disease caused. She felt shunned. She said to me, “They think I have a contagious disease and if they get too close to me, they will get it too.” There was great wisdom in those words. The others did not think she was contagious, but there was a tendency to avoid the confusion, the dementia, the cognitive impairment. Perhaps, like me, they felt awkward and impatient at having to answer the same question again and again and again. In her we perhaps foresee our own reality, and that frightens us.
This past April I was invited to give a retreat at Borgess Place, where 12 of our sisters live who require nursing care. It was an unexpected invitation and though I accepted, I wondered what I would do. How would I give a retreat to women who had differing levels of cognitive ability and who all had some physical impairment? To my embarrassment, I rarely visited the sisters at the nursing home even though it is on the same grounds as our Center. I was awkward. I was in unfamiliar territory. I came with some thoughts but not sure how to proceed. They taught me.
My overall theme was from Henri Nouwen’s book, You are the Beloved. Each day we focused on another Eucharistic word: Taken/Chosen; Blessed; Broken/Vulnerable; and Given. I found pictures on the Internet that represented the theme for the day and added in large print a few lines from Scripture. I spent from 9:30 to noon each day talking to them individually about the theme, showing them the picture, and then praying over them. At 1:30 we all met together. I talked a little and we sang songs. One afternoon we sang one verse of You are My Sunshine – first hearing it from God and then a second time singing it to one another. After we finished, one of the sisters who usually was non-responsive started singing clearly in perfect pitch, not just the first but the second verse. Everybody else joined in with a hushed reverence.
I learned to ask them questions and not just talk to them. What is one blessing you can name? What is your greatest suffering? Out of her deep confusion, one woman told me with absolute clarity, tears in her eyes, “I had a good priest friend.” Another, “We were poor but the riches of my family sustained me.” One told me with such deep anguish that the pain was tangible, “I have to be here for the rest of my life.” One expressed how disappointed she was that more sisters did not come to visit her and I wanted to cry. My own heart began to crack open. I began to see them not as cognitively or physically incapacitated but as they really were, the Crucified Christ, some feeling abandoned by God, some burdened by their physical inabilities, all slowly dying and waiting, waiting, waiting to go home to God. All hidden. All beautiful.
Three women did not have the capacity to respond. There was no way to know what they heard or understood. I was asked to visit them too. Knowing hearing and touch were the last senses to leave, I went in and laid hands on them and played soft, prayerful, hopeful music: “May the longtime sun shine upon you. All love surrounds you. And the pure, pure light within you guide your way home.” Then I prayed over them, asking God to take them home. One woman who continuously uttered unintelligible words, grabbed my hand. After I prayed, I kissed her forehead and said “I love you, Pauline.” And I heard so very softly but clearly, “I love you,” and she took my hand and kissed it. And I knew, no matter how incapacitated, someone dwells within these bodies. Someone who still yearns to be touched tenderly, prayed over, and loved. Pauline died a couple of weeks later. She left me with an indelible blessing and grace.
So many sisters told me they were praying for me and the retreatants. I knew without any doubt it was their prayers and the abundant grace of God that enabled me to do what I did. I feel so humbled and awed by this experience. I visited each of them when I came back a few weeks later. I asked one very serious sister, “Rosemary, your sister tells me sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days, what kind of day is it today?” Sr. Rosemary’s response, “You’re here. It’s a good day.” I wanted to fall on my knees in tears. This is the sheer grace of God. I’m visiting again next week, and I can hardly wait to see my new friends.
About the Author
Sister Marcella Clancy, CSJ, has degrees in nursing and theology. In the past she ministered in hospitals, taught nursing and theology at the college level and served in parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Currently, Sister Marcella ministers as a spiritual director, facilitates retreats and offers presentations through Transformation Spirituality Center at our Nazareth Center in Kalamazoo.