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Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, often jokes that God is always tweeting His wisdom at us through his favorite messengers, the elderly. I encountered this truth first hand while working with the Little Sisters of the Poor in one of their nursing homes. At the time, I was discerning a vocation to the priesthood, and the residents were a constant source of love and encouragement. Their prayers and bits of wisdom are among the greatest gifts I’ve ever received, but one resident in particular gave me something beyond wisdom. She gave me an encounter with Christ.
This resident, we’ll call her Doris, was about 80 years old and was suffering from severe dementia. She had lived with the Little Sisters for a number of years and was the most elegant resident in the building. Often sporting the finest attire and accessories, Doris always looked like she was headed to a Broadway show. Whenever she departed from her room she made sure her hair and makeup were suitable for a woman of her sensibilities. Whether she was headed to dinner or to Mass, Doris always looked her best. However, despite her youthful exterior, Doris’ health was failing. She never let go of her sense of fashion, but her mind had left her many years before.
Doris was active in the community, always in attendance at daily Mass, and occasionally she would roll herself into the chapel for Evening Prayer with the sisters. Although Doris’ mind was not as sharp as it had once been, she placed herself in the presence of the Lord on a daily basis.
As often happens with people in her condition, Doris continuously repeated the same stock phrases. Confined to her wheelchair, she would roll out into the hall and begin reciting her lines to whomever would listen. Over and over again she repeated “Stay with me” to anyone who was with her. When her companion would have to leave despite Doris’ pleading, she would always say, “I love you.”
These gentle words seemed to embody the personality of Doris. Everyone who knew her before she became ill affirmed that she was kind, generous, and loving. Even affected by dementia she still conveyed her love for the people around her.
It was in hearing these stock phrases, “Stay with me” and “I love you,” that I one day had an experience of encountering Christ.
After daily Mass, as I was leaving the chapel with the sisters and the other residents of the home, I spotted Doris situated just outside the entry way. Her head was bowed low, and I could hear her uttering her famous lines to everyone who passed by. As I approached her, I said, “Hi, Doris.” Without lifting her head, Doris greeted me as she did everyone else – “Stay with me” and “I love you.”
Her response was not surprising; she always said the same thing. But for some reason her words carried with them a power they hadn’t before. At that moment it dawned upon me that I was in the presence of Christ. He was dwelling in Doris and it was His voice speaking her words to me – “Stay with me” and “I love you.”
Through Doris, Jesus was inviting me to draw closer to Him and affirming me in His love. When I looked at Doris, I saw Jesus in His suffering, and I heard Him through her words. Jesus manifested His presence in a frail elderly woman and spoke encouragement through her. He showed me how imminently close He is to us and how much He loves us, a truth I will never forget.
Doris may have been weak and infirm, but in that way she became an icon of Christ. She embodied His sufferings, and in an even more profound way, spoke His message of love. The simple phrases that she constantly uttered, “Stay with me” and “I love you,” helped me encounter Christ.