Today my friend Max told me the story of a turning point in his life.
It was summer vacation and he was a seventeen-year-old teaching English in Spain at a camp for boys.
During the camp, he came across this prayer card with a short description of Venerable Montse Grases, a young woman who “knew how to find God in the loving fulfillment of her work and study duties, in the small things of each day.”
Montse had been diagnosed with bone cancer as a teenager and, “throughout her illness, she never lost her infectious cheerfulness or her capacity for friendship.”
Max was totally struck by the fact that Montse died when she was 17 – the same age he was then.
Today Facebook reminded me of this quotation I’d posted a few years ago from Brother Alois’ 2018 letter:
In privileged circles, where people are well fed, well educated, and well taken care of, joy is sometimes absent, as if some people were worn out and discouraged by the banality of their lives.
At times, paradoxically, the encounter with a destitute person communicates joy, perhaps only a spark of joy, but an authentic joy nonetheless.
This reminded me of what has been among the most joyful times of my life – the semester I lived at a homeless shelter as part of an intentional community at the Calgary Mustard Seed.
In Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, he tells this anecdote:
Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: I want to work with the elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for that task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel as if I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”
Commenting on this, Nouwen expounds, “Thus care for the elderly means, first of all, to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old.” And, in another place he asks, “How can we be fully present to the elderly when we are hiding from our own aging? How can we listen to their pains when their stories open wounds in us that we are trying to cover up?”