University of Notre Dame, Class of 2017
Notre Dame Vision, Mentor-in-Faith 2014
I sat next to my grandfather in the pew. He had his songbook open and was singing along in his distinctively loud voice to whatever old-fashioned hymn the choir had chosen for Mass that morning. Their voices did not fall too kindly on my ears, either; they had the kind of old, wobbly voices characteristic of perhaps too many church ensembles. I was distracted, not paying attention to my own hymn book but instead sneaking glances at my grandfather next to me, who was so absorbed in every word, singing each one with confidence and conviction. He looked concentrated, yet peaceful; exhausted, yet glad to be exactly where he was. When the song ended, he turned his full attention back to the priest, who began the opening prayers.
I tried to focus as well, but was unable. Honestly, this church had never been my favorite, with its high, echoey ceilings that made the sounds of the liturgy seem miles away. The old-fashioned music. The dryness of this priest’s homilies. At age fifteen, I was just starting to appreciate the Mass for its beauty, just beginning to take an interest in the saints and the holy lives they led then and lead now, and just starting to think that I might want to live a life of such holiness as well. But this Mass? This did not seem like holiness, despite my grandpa’s clear love of it. God, in his glory and mystery, felt far from this place.
After Mass, my grandpa and I got in the car and drove to visit my grandmother in her nursing home. It was the first time that I’d seen her since her disease (a rare combination of Alzheimer’s and Dementia) had begun to severely take its toll. Her mind and body were deteriorating quickly, and my grandpa was spending every minute that he could with her. I was nervous to see her. I didn’t know how much she’d remember of me or what this meeting would be like at all.
We arrived at the nursing home and my grandfather led me inside and to my grandmother’s room. He went in and beckoned for me to follow.
I had known that my grandma was in a wheelchair now, and I had heard some of the details of her illness, but I was not prepared for what I saw. The woman who had barely two years ago seemed to be a lively, healthy sixty-five year old woman was now incredibly weak and infirm. She looked sunken in her wheelchair, small and fragile, with tired-looking eyes and a worn countenance. She did not react when I came in, nor when my grandpa gently took her hand and explained to her who it was that had come to see her. My grandpa told me she could understand him, though how he knew, I have no idea. In my shock I did not know what to do, but my grandpa suggested we take grandma out back to the sunny garden, so I blindly followed them out.
In the garden we settled down on two little benches across from one another, and my grandfather pulled grandma’s wheelchair up right next to him. He talked to her for a bit, while all the while she remained silent and motionless, then reached into his bag. He took out a copy of the daily scriptures and, settling in, began to read them out loud to us. Again, grandma did not react, though I remembered that in years past she had loved going to church with him. When he finished reading, after a moment’s pause he reached into his bag and pulled out a gold container and opened it.
“The Body of Christ,” he said, and then he gently and patiently helped my grandmother consume the host. She had been having trouble eating on her own as of late, so he made sure she got it down.
He was so absorbed in her that I could just sit in silence and try to fit my heart around what I was witnessing.
My grandmother was so infirm as to be almost unrecognizable from the woman I had known and loved all my life. I almost didn’t know whether to love her – where were the characteristics in her that I loved? Yet my grandfather treated her the same, or even more lovingly than before her illness, even though he received no warmth or affection in return. If he loved her for her personality, for what she could give to him, then that person was gone, and in its place just the shell of a woman he once loved. But this was not so – from the beautifully tender way he looked at her, from the way he held her hand, it was perfectly clear that this person was his same “Patsy,” his wife of forty-plus years, and her very existence was precious to him.
In that moment I had a flash of intuition, and I felt a few things that later blossomed into understanding. One conviction was that my grandmother was not lost – she was right there – and that she had an untouchable dignity and holiness. There was no other way of putting it. You could sense it if you saw her through the gaze of one who loved her for her very essence – if you could see her how she deserved to be seen. The second understanding, very much related to the first, was that in that moment I had witnessed divine love right in front of me. My grandfather’s gaze at my grandma was a picture of God’s gaze at me and at anyone and everyone: a picture of lavish, unchanging love that did not expect adequate response. And the third understanding, which encapsulates all and was impressed on me the greatest, was that life itself, the very living of life itself, is undeniably and totally and irrevocably holy. And this was entirely due to the One whose very life had made all other human life holy in itself – Jesus. For some reason, I knew in that moment that my grandmother taking the Body of Christ into her was incredibly significant, and for possibly the first time in my life I felt Jesus had really lived amidst all the brokenness of real life, not some distant sort of “holy” life. He had truly lived, and would continue to live and be present within something as weak and infirm as my grandmother’s body, and perhaps in something as seemingly ordinary and messy as my own life. Did I have to strive to make my very life holy? No. I had seen that life was holy in itself. What I needed to do was recognize that and then live into the holiness – to try and magnify and increase the holiness that had already been given to me by Christ.
Later, when I reflected back on that day, I remembered the feeling I’d had at Mass – or rather, the lack of feeling, which had represented much more than my dislike of the Mass and was likely founded in my idea that holiness was something distant. I remembered that feeling of distance and I truly felt how wrong that was. God in his glory and mystery was fully present in that beautifully inadequate celebration of Him. Like my grandfather, God would keep on smiling and loving even though my response, like my grandmother’s, was often inadequate, because he could see through the weakness that I was the one he loved