I recently told this story to a friend of mine. As I was driving home afterwards, I thought that it might be worth sharing here too…
When I was living back in England, my parish had a Hospital Visiting Ministry with which I was involved, run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Every Saturday we would hand out free newspapers, identify the patients who would like to receive Holy Communion the following day and spend some time speaking with them. This would be done by two different people every week, each covering half of the hospital.
Out of all the wards we visited, the one I hated visiting the most was the ASU, where stroke victims were treated. I think I disliked visiting this ward more than any other because it was often a very frustrating experience.
I’ve always placed a very high premium on communication, and those in the ASU usually had difficulty with speaking, a common consequence of suffering a stroke. It frustrated them not being able to make themselves easily and fully understood and it frustrated me in not always being able to understand them.
One day I came into the ASU and was directed by the nurses towards a particular gentleman. He was very old and ill. He was hard of hearing so I got quite close to him and introduced myself and asked if he would like to receive the Eucharist that weekend. With a great deal of obvious effort, he nodded that he would.
On a normal day, that would have been the end of my interaction with him and I would have gone on my way. It was obvious that it required a great amount of exertion on his part to communicate with me and it would probably be better to leave him. In our training we were encouraged to spend less, rather than more time with the patients, for fear of tiring them out, or even worse, annoying them with our continued presence.
“May my prayer be rise before you like incense…”
However, that day something made me to stay. I asked him if he would like it if I quietly prayed with him for a little while (something we generally didn’t do). He nodded again. I was expecting him to simply lay there while I sat next to his bed and prayed quietly, but what happened next caught me completely off-guard…
“…and the lifting up of my hands like the evening sacrifice”
I saw his right hand rise up from the bed, touch his head, then move down towards his chest and then to each of his shoulders. I heard the faint words pass from his lips: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…”
He then lead me in prayer: an “Our Father”, a “Hail Mary” and a “Glory Be”…. It was clear that this was draining for him. It caused him physical discomfort, which was particularly evident by the time he made the sign of the cross again when we had finished. I was deeply moved.
I told him someone would visit him the next day with communion, I said my goodbye and left the ward. Outside in the hall, I found a chair and slumped down upon it. Now that had been a prayer! I had just witnessed a true sacrifice of praise to the Lord. That gentleman didn’t have much to offer the Almighty, but offered it anyway.
It made me wonder. How many times had I entered a church or started to pray and made a quick, almost flippant, sign of the cross without thinking? How many times had I rattled through the ancient prayers of the Church without giving any real attentiveness to their words? Never again, I told myself.
He is risen!
During the last few days of Holy Week, as the Church proclaimed Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, I thought many times about that Saturday afternoon in the hospital. I have recalled the image of that elderly gentleman making a slow, painful sign of the cross over his weak, failing body.
What rich symbolism there is in a simple sign of the cross! And what a powerful declaration of faith! It declares faith, hope and love in Jesus Christ, trusting that, one day, our own fragile bodies will also be raised up by God and that we will find them renewed, transformed and brought to wholeness in Him.
“Now if we die with Christ, we will also live with Him” – Romans 6:8