Have you ever received an unexpected message from a friend, maybe a text message or a voicemail that made your day, or even led you to change your outlook on life? This happened to me last month, in the middle of SEEK 2019, the annual conference of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
In his homily at Mass one day, Archbishop Samuel Aquila spoke about bringing the light of Christ into the world’s darkness. He encouraged us to recapture the “sense of eternity,” which, he said, society has lost. These words echoed in my heart — “sense of eternity” — and then just as I was about to receive Communion, I heard Jesus saying to me, “The elderly … let them teach you.”
As I made my thanksgiving after Communion, I was overcome with joy and gratitude for my vocation, which puts me in daily contact with the elderly. But at the same time I realized how often I take them for granted. I returned home more aware of all the wisdom and experience our residents have to share, and more intent on learning from them.
I began to ask our residents questions — “What does heaven mean to you?” “What’s the secret to a good life?” “How have you faced life’s inevitable difficulties?” Their answers left me in admiration.
Mary told me that for her, heaven is everything — her true home and her reason to go on living. “If I didn’t believe in heaven,” she said, “I would be tempted to end my life, because there would be no reason to go on living in my condition if it weren’t for the hope of seeing God and my family in heaven.”
Maude, a retired social worker, told me, “Heaven is God’s work in us.” When I asked her what that looks like, she smiled and responded, “I just told you! It looks like us!”
Carl, who has dealt with a physical disability his whole life, gave me a pep talk about perseverance and told me that the secret to a good life is to be resolutely joyful, no matter what happens, because “God is always with us!”
It seems to me that these seniors live what Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the pope’s own preacher, teaches about the sense of eternity.
“For the believer, eternity is not only a hope, it is also a presence. We have this experience every time that we make a real act of faith in Christ, because ‘you have eternal life, you believe in the name of the Son of God’; every time we receive Communion, in which ‘we are given the pledge of future glory’; every time we hear the words of the Gospel which are ‘words of eternal life.’ … Between the life of faith in time and eternal life there is a relationship similar to that which exists between the life of an embryo in the maternal womb and that of the baby, once he has come to the light.”
The elderly in our homes have battled through dark times — both personal and historical — and they have persevered. They really do live on the Bread and the Word of Life as their pledge of future glory.
But they don’t only hope for eternity as a future reality; I believe they experience it as a presence brightening their days and lightening the burdens of old age in a mysterious but very real way.
They personify the words of St. Paul: “We are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.”
In the midst of our frenetic, polarized and materialistic world the elderly remind me of eternal values which are often unseen, but which alone give life beauty and true meaning.
Earlier this month in the liturgy for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we encountered the elderly prophets Simeon and Anna, who greet Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Temple and confirm Jesus’ identity as the long-awaited Messiah.
Perhaps we could all make an effort to reach out to the seniors we know so that they will feel like a living part of the community — and so that we may be enriched by their unique gifts and their “sense of eternity”!
Sister Constance Veit is communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor.