Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Selfless Love as a Way of Life

Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Selfless Love as a Way of Life

Selfless Love as a Way of Life

Ten years ago when I was serving in Delano, I got the chance to get to know Ambrose and Leona very well. They were an elderly couple, at the time married 72 years, their love still going strong. What a joy it was to see them every weekend, and their devotion to one another. Such is the power of selfless love that reflects the Trinity and the Eucharist that we’ve celebrated the last couple of weeks.

Susan Anthony is a mom of 3 adult sons who writes for the “Busted Halo” website, a Catholic apologetics website. She shares a story of a similar couple she got to know near New York City.

She noticed a man named George on the 5:41 train to Ronkonkoma, New York, and writes that if you see him, you might think, “Another salt-and-pepper-haired banker/accountant/lawyer heading back to the suburbs.” You might notice the gold band on his left hand and picture a three-decades-long marriage, the pair finally enjoying the quiet comfort of a roast in the oven and Jeopardy on the couch after the often chaotic kids-and-mortgage years.

You would be right, George will see his wife tonight, but not in their home, and while he will tell her about his day, she won’t be able to share about hers. Because, like just about every day for more than three years, George will be visiting his wife in a nursing home, where, at just 58, she is bedridden with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Josi was diagnosed in 2008 at age 49, and by 2010, she was told to put her affairs in order. George took four months off from work, and they spent that time enjoying life and each other. When he had to return to work, Josi was cared for during the day by family, including his sister-in-law who left her home every morning at 5:30 and returned when George got home from work. George made sure Josi was bathed and dressed before he left, including doing her hair and makeup. But in 2013, Josi lost her ability to walk, and George knew the time had come for the specialized care of a nursing facility.

When Josi had to leave their house, George brought their home to the nursing center. On the walls of her room are photographs of Josi as a vibrant woman, hiking in a Nevada canyon, exploring Italy, enjoying family gatherings. The room is softly lit with floor lamps and family photos are everywhere. A Mets pennant attests to their allegiance as Long Islanders and religious items to their faith as Catholics. Each season, George hangs different decorations from the ceiling—garlands of silk flowers, snowflakes, Valentine’s hearts. And of course, his presence is the most important reminder, as he comes “home” from work to see her each evening.

Susan first met George almost two years ago on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the only extended amount of time he spent away from Josi since her diagnosis. He had come to pray for Josi, but his faith wasn’t marred by anger towards God. As they stood in Mass at the Holy Sepulcher in front of Jesus ’tomb, tears running down their faces, Susan knew George would become a special friend. About a year after they returned, Josi’s condition declined and Susan was blessed that he gave her the opportunity to meet her on one of his nightly visits.

Susan watched George as he would sit at her bedside and hold her hand as they say their evening prayers. Prayers of thanksgiving for the gift of their marriage, the Lord’s prayer, a Hail Mary, and petitions to St. Peregrine, patron of the terminally ill. Though she sometimes has moments of agitation and grimacing, during the prayers Josi is calm, and her smooth hand grips George’s.

Theirs, Susan reflects, is a marriage seemingly frozen in time. Josi is here, but she doesn’t know her grandson arrived, that he is walking and talking and running. She can’t be part of Christmases and birthdays. There will be no retirement home in the Poconos. But, still, there is a vibrancy to George and Josi’s marriage. As Susan sat at the edge of her bed, just watching her hand in his, their intimacy is palpable. They revel in holding each other’s hand, the spiritual longing in that touch just as strong as their first longing for one another more than 30 years ago.

And in that moment, Susan thought to herself: Could I do that? Could I love my husband so much that I would go to his bedside every day, setting aside myself in such a radical way? I let our petty challenges put little stress fractures in my marriage far too often. How does George stand tall under the weight of such unimaginable pressure?  Of course, it’s because of his faith. George is living out what St. Mother Theresa called “the paradox of love”—if you love until it hurts, the hurt goes away and there is only love.

Seeing the sacrament of marriage distilled to its essence—selfless love—is a powerful witness for her as her husband and enter their fourth decade of marriage. She prays that George’s example will encourage them love each other better, to let go of their individual needs and love until it hurts. So maybe, one day, when we they holding hands as one of them prepares to leave the other, the true intimacy of their souls will mirror the love she witnessed in Josi’s room.

Indeed at every wedding Mass I celebrate, I remind the couple that through their sacrament, they will be a visible sign to the world of God’s love, revealing to others what love looks like in action. But whether married or single, all of us are called to do what that couple did, to have that complete love of God and one another. And living it out, much Ambrose caring for Leona as she got gradually more ill, or George caring for Josi, requires a special kind of selflessness, something that I imagine you have witnessed too.

The first reading for this 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) tells of Genesis’ account of Adam and Eve and the initial selfishness that develops; the apple symbolizes what belongs to God; so rather than trust God, they take something they shouldn’t. We continue to do this as humans; we redefine marriage, personhood, right and wrong; and we see the problems that arise. The challenge is to surrender to God, to trust in God, and to be a person who is selfless. So how can this be done?

First, we can have that trust in God and the key people in our lives to make us better. George and Josi in that story both had such a deep love they were there for one another to lift each other up, and when Josi couldn’t do that anymore, George was never going to leave her side. Can we trust that God will lift us up and be there for us, and has our best interests at heart? Can we trust in the Church He gave us to guide us and form us so we can become saints?

And with that, what can we do for one another? Adam at first plays the blame game – hey this woman you put here, she is the one who gave me the apple. Before this though he has that beautiful line of pure joy; Eve being bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, this happiness at his equal. May we never forget that we need one another, and people are so important, in particular family. So what can we do as George did for Josi to truly help one another through acts of love and mercy? I hear about so many at ever funeral Mass I celebrate when I meet with families. Each of us has the power to lift one another up and to be a person of hope, if only we so choose.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been so blessed with an incredible family who have taught me so much. Being with them lifts my spirits, but at a deeper level through my parents in particular, I’ve been able to truly see God in action, and more clearly the road to travel to get to the kingdom of Heaven. We can’t get there on our own – so let us truly let go and let God, something Adam and Eve realized when Jesus came to meet them, and something hopefully we realize too.

Have a blessed week!  ~Fr. Paul

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June 2024



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