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Discovering the Beautiful Hidden

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Marcella Clancy.LoResSister 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.

32 thoughts on “Discovering the Beautiful Hidden

  1. I had a Mother that had alzheimers and I know it’s not a happy thing to have but we still had good times together. My one sister just died and she forgot alot as well. and my other sister is in a Nursing home now. You just learn to live with it. My family doesn’t go to see anyone in Nursing Homes as they can’t handle it. It really hurts me.

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    • Marcella Clancy says:

      Dear Veronica,

      Thank you for sharing your own experience. I am touched that you were still able to have good times with your mother even as she suffered from alzheimer disease. It is a witness to your heart to heart contact with your mother. I am not sure if one learns to live with it but I do believe that one can find the grace, beauty, and love in those moments amidst the suffering. I am sorry other members of your family do not feel they can go to nursing homes. I am sure it does hurt. Yet perhaps they do not have your courage, feel helpless, or don’t know what to do. I am just grateful that you are able to visit your family in nursing homes. May you also find the hidden beauty. Peace and Prayers, Sr. Marcella

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  2. Maria Hill says:

    Marcella, thank you for sharing your experience of giving a retreat to our sisters at Borgess Place. I was moved to tears and then to prayer. I hope to learn from your experience.

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  3. MARILYN LOMBARDO says:

    Sister Marcella we never got a chance to get to know each other well when you were in Cleveland but I knew there was a person in you that kept too much to oneself . I very frequently saw you walking alone along Mastick Woods or Valley Parkway wondering if you parked a car and walked or had come all the way down Rocky River Dr from the Village . So envious that I couldn’t do exactly that in this time in my life! Walking …
    Your comments above have entered and broken my heart .As my Mom resides in a nursing facility that can’t keep up with her elderlyness ! She will be 100 next month and comes in and out of reality too frequently, and there’s nothing I can do about this facility !
    I see several people like your Sisters in your retreat and I try to reach out to many of them, when I go there!
    Lives filled with memories they can’t share because they can’t speak quickly enough . Thank you for such a poignant expression of your experience. I too shall pray for you on your journey in Nazareth and cherish the words you shared with us. Hopefully it will make me a better listener and not always the “incapacitated” you mentioned!

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  4. Anne LaPlante says:

    Marcella, your reflection moved me to tears and then to prayer as I thought of our dear Sisters here in Wichita in Marian Hall, whom I have the privilege of being a part of their lives. I too feel that I am not sufficiently present to them. What you have written is very helpful. Blessings on all your endeavors. Anne Dolores

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  5. Diana says:

    I was in a religious community for 19 years. I developed some very close friendships. A lot of the sisters are in their final years. I visit occasionally but stay away from the infirmary. Thank you for this touching article. It’s time I reconnect with these amazing women.
    Diana

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  6. Chris Gretka says:

    Thank you, Marcella for sharing this beautiful retreat experience. It touched me deeply. What wondrous things God is able to do through us and through those whom we may least expect it when we are open to God’s grace! What a spiritually enriching experience this retreat was for all of you! Thank you for giving me a deeper glimpse into the beauty of our sisters. Blessings! Chris

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  7. Susan Kavanaugh says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the detail of this experience …your initial feelings, your actions with the participants and responses. What insights you experienced and shared so powerfully!! I will carry this in me . Thank you!!!

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  8. Monica Miller says:

    Thank you Sister Marcella! My Aunt lives at Borgess and I try to call her every day. She has memory problems, gets confused easily and sometimes gets frustrated because she can’t say the words her mind want to tell me. One day she told me she was on a retreat. At first, I thought she was confused, but she told me how it was being done and how wonderful it was for her. I just wanted you to know you brought joy to these women and I am so thankful for you! I will continue to pray for you and all the sisters! May God bless you!

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  9. Mary Schaefer says:

    Marcella, thank you for sharing your story, your willingness to be vulnerable, and your open and loving heart. You formed sacred relationships that will never be broken even if there comes a time when there is no response except unspoken love.

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  10. Marcella , your words convey the beautiful gift our sisters were to you as well as the gift you were to them. Thank you for your vulnerability as well as the respect and love that was so evident.

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  11. Marge Freundl RN says:

    Sister Marcella, I loved this article. I hope it moves others to visit the Sisters and others at Borgess Place and other facilities. God bless!

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  12. Jeanne says:

    Thank you so much, Marcella! Your transparency and that of our Burgess Place sisters has touched me deeply. It is reminding me of my hospice patients who lead me and teach me…and I give thanks!

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  13. Brigetta Slinger says:

    What a beautiful gift of self you are to others, dear Marcella. As you well know, I treasure your homilies. How wonderful you met with each of our dear sisters. You have such beautiful gifts of love, compassion and deep spirituality. Your sharing makes me want, more than ever, to continue visiting with our sisters when in Michigan next. Thanks

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