“A young mother was hurrying about pouring coffee and juice and spreading jam on toast. Her husband was playing with their baby. The other children were chattering away. Suddenly, the mother was so overwhelmed with the love she had for her husband and children that she had to fight back the tears.”
The book of meditations, which calls this story “a remarkable episode”, goes on to ask: “When was a time that I was so overwhelmed with joy that I had to fight back tears?” Very quickly, an ancient, but unforgettable, experience comes to mind.
I am sixteen, in my last year at secondary school. My Religion teacher has arranged for our class to visit a home run by nuns for old, poor people. Some of my classmates and I enjoy the visit so much we ask the Sisters to let us go again the following Sunday afternoon. Soon after we arrive, we are set our tasks.
In the very large refectory, where the old are gathered for tea, I suddenly find myself in a world totally different from the one I am accustomed to. I find it rather daunting, somewhat weird: I have yet to learn to appreciate the struggles, the strength, dignity, courage and endurance of the old. At the moment, I can only see their withered faces, their diminishments and dependence. The unfamiliar atmosphere gets to me: as I try to pour tea into cups and thermos flasks, my nervous hand trembles; my smile is forced; my words, too few, and lack warmth.
One of the Sisters approaches. Her sweet, melodious voice as she talks to the old instantly reassures me: my hand trembles less, and I smile and talk more confidently. As I go from one table to the next, I have a full sense of the benign presence of the other Sisters. The way they behave with these inmates is incredibly kind: calling them by name, speaking very gently to everyone, in soft, pleasant tones, encouraging all. And I wonder how one manages to acquire such virtue, and wish I had a religious vocation.
Tea-time is over, but my classmates and I wish to stay a little longer. Sister now asks me if I would be willing to accompany a young lady volunteer, who is on her way to nurse a bed-ridden inmate. Psychologically steadied by the end-part of the refectory experience, I accept. Here I am again impressed by the efficiency, gentleness and sensitivity shown by this “nurse”, who, in this sick-room, is giving such delicate service, not for money or prestige, but for the love of God and neighbour. As I watch her carefully tending the patient’s sore body, I feel so privileged to be able to witness such selflessness, such great care bestowed so lavishly and lovingly.
It is now getting late, and my friends and I decide to call it a day. It has been for me a unique experience, which I will not forget. I have seen love ministering to suffering, and the outcome for all has been joy. On our way out, as we cross the large courtyard, accompanied by one of the Sisters, my heart is full of joy, for I feel so thankful for the immense privilege of having lived, though for only two hours, in a world where the needs of others take precedence over one’s own. My heart is indeed overwhelmed. I try to fight back my tears, but . . . to no avail.
Published: May 2018