Friday, September 24, 2010
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5)
SOUL-SURFING – October 3, 2010
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
The “Grande Dame” of St. Joseph Center is offering vital lessons to all of us, it seems. Just like us, her body is wearing out, as evidenced by her frequent need to sit and catch her breath. And with arthritis stiffening her joints, movement is sometimes painful, her eyes suddenly widening in delivery of the message. Just like the rest of us, she remembers well the exuberance of youth, and while her mind may feign denial of the limitations of her body, those old joints just won’t allow carefree reenactment of long-ago antics. Oftentimes it just plain hurts to act young again! But now and then the old gal joyously kicks up her heels in defiance. And it’s an invitation – perhaps even a dare – for the rest of us to do the same. “It’s not over,” she seems to say. “I’m a bit creaky in the hips, but I’m alive!”
We Holy Cross Brothers and priests welcomed this petite, elegant lady into our retirement community several years ago when she became just too frail to be left alone when her caretaker, Judi, came to work at St. Joseph Center. Now we have the two of them: Judi, our Director of Food Service, and Ryleigh, Judi’s 15 year-old Shih Tzu. Each day their white Subaru wagon pulls into our parking lot and the patient prompting begins, Judi in stride toward the front door chanting “Come on, Ryleigh” as she encourages the arthritic old lady. And each day the tiny Shih Tzu makes her halting entry into St. Joseph’s, tail wagging, glad to see us, but worn out. Her eyes offer the exclamation, “It’s a long walk from our car to your front door, you know!”
Now approximately 76 years old in human equivalency, Ryleigh prompted a few raised eyebrows, including mine, when first she came to us. While I was familiar with the therapeutic value of pets and oldsters mingling, the therapy dogs at the hospital where I serve are all larger breeds. Ryleigh, on the other hand, is quite small, and with a number of St. Joseph’s residents limited by impaired eyesight and hearing, I was afraid she would get stepped on. When I suggested the attachment to her collar of a 4-foot string ending in a brightly colored helium-filled balloon as a way for the sight-impaired to locate her, the idea was met with hilarity. Either Ryleigh would strangle herself on the string, I was told, or be carried heavenward by the balloon. Indeed, she is that small, that light.
In fact, it’s now been several years since Ryleigh has become a semi-resident of St. Joseph Center. Not only has she never been stepped on, but she has become quite acclimated to her new environment. She ambles about with the Brothers, and when she tires or her arthritic hips act up, she just flops down wherever she happens to be. One is as liable to find her sprawled across the front door entryway as in her doggie bed in Judi’s office. I’ve come to admire her comfortability with the limitations of age and with her trust that none of us will inadvertently step on her. In truth, Ryleigh exhibits a level of faith both in life and in us that is enviable.
In the gospel passage we hear today, we find the apostles hungering for a faith as uncomplicated and as strong as that demonstrated by Ryleigh. “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5) And how does Jesus respond? He doesn’t give them any quick fix for their quavering faith; rather, he tells them to rely on the seemingly paltry faith they already have, to put great trust in what may seem so insignificant. And, if they can do that, their faith will surely grow. Faith increases as it is exercised.
Easier said than done, for sure! As I watch the community members with whom I live grapple in their unique ways with the encroaching limitations of age, I find myself growing anxious wondering if I’ll handle the inevitable with the grace I see in most or with the rage exhibited by a few. Will I be able to trust that this natural process of ageing is part of God’s gracious plan for my life? Will I be able to give over my hard-fought independence to the care of God and my religious community? Big questions! Scary questions!
Then it is that Ryleigh offers me another essential lesson in living. Make the most of the present, she seems to say to me as, on a bright summer morning, I spy her on our lush front lawn rolling in the coolness of the dewy grass. Her legs reach skyward as she rolls over and over, ears flopping, tongue lapping the moisture. Such joy in just being alive at this moment, in this place!
And though I know she’s the same elderly lady who pads slowly and sometimes painfully around St. Joseph Center, this singular moment is an affirmation of life. “It’s not over yet,” she seems to say. “I’m a bit creaky in the hips, but I’m alive!” And as our eyes meet for just a moment, I hear the challenge – let go of fear, take pleasure in the moment, trust God’s gracious plan for your life.
So enthralled am I watching Ryleigh trade the tyranny of age for the joy of cool, lush grass that her location escapes me. Only later, remembering the scene, do I realize that it was beneath the statue of St. Francis of Assisi on our front lawn that she had flopped, seemingly laying in the lap of this holy man all those things that limited her independence. Under the gaze of this patron saint of all creatures great and small, she joyously affirmed life, even a life hobbled by the restrictions of age.
As the universal church celebrates the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Monday, October 4th, the great prayer attributed to him invites us to focus more on the life we can yet give rather than on the life that might seem to have been taken from us:
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”
The exuberance of this present life and the sure hope of an even better one to come: Ryleigh continues to teach us how to live in gratitude, in faith.
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