Call me when my life shall fail me ...
What prayer springs to your lips when words fail you but you need all the help your faith can give?
For my grandmother, centenarian Annabelle Black, that favorite prayer is the Anima Christi, which she learned for her First Communion.
The Anima Christi, an ancient prayer, is attributed to Pope John XXII (1316-1334) but St. Ignatius of Loyola popularized it. Annabelle prefers the translation written by John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1913. Its beautiful, effortless rhyme is easy to memorize. Annabelle Black believes that by praying the Anima Christi, we can train our souls to articulate everything we could ever need to ask of Christ, even in times of great trial.
In early August 2017, my grandmother, whom we affectionately call Nanabelle, took a bad fall, fracturing her hip and breaking her shoulder. At the hospital, the doctor described the risks she would be facing in surgery. By the time we were told, “We are taking Annabelle to the O.R. now. You can all follow,” my wise and charming grandmother had already won the hearts of every nurse on the floor. As she was wheeled toward the elevator, each of them stopped to speak to her.
I walked at the back of the line, watching the bowed heads of my mother, aunts and uncles, the faith-filled children she’d raised — as they followed their mother. I realized today was the Feast of the Transfiguration and that however it ended up, Nanabelle was going to be transfigured and the seven of us were blessed to be there as her witnesses.
As we crowded into the elevator, her words broke the quiet tension. “Well, this could be fun,” she joked, as the doors closed. We all laughed with bleary eyes.
We who had followed her up the mountain, ascending floors to the O.R., now gathered around her bed in a semi-circle like a crescent moon, while doctors explained the surgery. We told her of our love, spoke of the procedure, shifted nervously. It was then that my grandmother said she would like us to pray the Anima Christi together. Tears dropped to the floor as voices melded:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains,
Passion of Christ, my comfort be,
O good Jesus, listen to me
In Thy wounds I fain would hide
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me.
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy Saints to sing Thy love,
World without end. Amen.
Even the doctors and interns in this public hospital paused, bowing their heads in silence as she made this entreaty to Christ her potential goodbye to this world and her certain legacy to us. For the words of the Anima Christi she spoke were not only pleas for her own soul. They were the richest inheritance she could bequeath.
Nanabelle came through the surgery formidably, and proceeded to survive months at two very challenging rehabilitation centers where she faced pain and fear with grace. She could barely lift spoon to mouth unassisted, she had to learn to walk again, but she kept teaching all she met how to follow her, taking trembling steps each day across a stormy but sure path. Despite the frightening sea below her feet, she kept her eyes fixed on Christ. At the end of every visit, she would lead us in the Anima Christi. She returned to her home with family in time for the holidays, leading us in that prayer at the Thanksgiving table.
My grandmother has proven all along the way that you are never too old, too frail, or too ill to change hearts and inspire souls. On the other side of 100, Annabelle is still looking forward to what Christ has in store for her. Though she used to wonder why He has kept her on this side of heaven for so long, she now trusts that her earthly work is never over until the day He calls her home.
But what will we do someday without such a presence as my grandmother? I know many of us have secretly asked that question about one we love. This is what we will do. We will miss her every day, and it will hurt. But we will not let our grief blur our duty. And so we ask that we will be close to her always through the Messenger in the Tabernacle, and through the Anima Christi, prayed after Eucharist. “Do this in memory of me,” Christ beseeched. And, thanks to her passionate teachings of the love of the Anima Christi, we know how my grandmother would want us to honor her memory: through our adoration and praise of the Body of Christ.
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