He Does Not Forget

Old Man Praying (detail), drawing by Vincent van Gogh, 1882

Now that I am no longer capable of the kind of manual labor I used to do for a living, I have fallen back on translating and proofreading work as an excuse to justify my existence. A while back I was translating some French newsletters from the Little Brothers of Jesus and came across one that hit very close to home. It was from an elderly brother in Africa who had done hard physical work all of his life. Now, in his old age, he was unable to do that kind of work. He took this to be a call to focus more on prayer and, above all, to intercede for all the people he had known and loved. But there, too, he had problems. There were so many whose names he had forgotten; his memories of past events and interactions had become muddled and confused. He felt ungrateful and even guilty for relations he had not fostered.

I recognized myself all too well in what he wrote. I have lost contact with so many people who meant a lot to me at different stages of my life, people I loved dearly and really cared for and who had given me so much and made me what I am. But this brother in Africa went on, adding a reflection that was, he said, the source of his peace and that opened a door to mine. We might forget these people from our past, but God does not. He does not forget that we once loved them and prayed for them, and his memory of that is eternal, as is the reality of our prayer.

I think it was Raïssa Maritain who, in her book We Have Been Friends Together, looks back at all the projects she and her friends had that never came to anything. She does so with gratitude, for, as she notes, the Holy Spirit is at work not only in the works that last for centuries but also in all our little failures, which appear to have no tomorrow. These too, in whatever they had of purity and love, will live forever, discreetly, and will, in their own way, shape the church.

We might forget these people from our past, but God does not.

Another newsletter, another brother—this one writing from a nursing home in Chile, which he had entered a few months earlier. He had suffered a debilitating stroke nearly twenty years ago. Since then, two other Little Brothers of Jesus in Chile looked after him. Now they too were growing old, and he realized that he was becoming too much of a burden for them. It was his decision to enter the nursing home. He was very touched by the people who work there and the volunteers who simply try to support the elderly. For, as he goes on to say, “the world of the elderly holds no special attraction. The elderly show humanity in its poorest state, having lost all power of seduction, seemingly reduced to waiting for whatever will happen, with little interest, a silent and somewhat drowsy wait.”

When he chose these elderly as his companions for the rest of his life, he thought it was essential to feel some of the affection Jesus has for them and not just “get along” with them. He cites the gospel passage where we are told that Jesus gave thanks to his Father for having taught him how to enrich us with his poverty, for the way in which the Kingdom of God is established by the poor and the humble. “The people in this nursing home are the bearers of humanity’s profound poverty and they are the living guardians of theological hope. These are the places from which the prayers of the poor rise up to the Father because they are accompanied by their lives, their tiredness, their drudgery, their helplessness, their poverty.” The brother concludes that God wants him to join them, to receive from them, to learn from them. Christ, the Power and Wisdom of God, chose what was common and contemptible in this world, including the apparent tedium of old age, to reduce to nothing all that seems so important to us, including youth and physical beauty. This brother sees himself as another old man who can share with these people their hope in God’s revelation, waiting, patiently and prayerfully, for “whatever will happen” in the fullness of time.

Published in the May 4, 2018 issue: 

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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