What If Jesus Knocked On The Door?
Published: January 7, 2010
It’s the brightness that astonishes me as I step across the threshold. Outside it’s a gray and chilly day, but inside generous ribbons of light cascade through the big windows creating a cheerful effect.
I peek into the chapel, where I see sisters kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and then venture down a hallway where volunteer musicians are providing an impromptu concert for the patients.
Almost immediately, I realize that what I’ve heard about Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home is quite true: This is a surprisingly upbeat environment.
So why have I avoided making this visit?
For the past few years, I’ve written to some of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne who run this home for cancer patients. While I was writing my book on Flannery O’Connor, I read letters she had written to Dominican sisters living at the home in the 1950s—and this deepened my connection with them.
In fact, my admiration for the sisters grew so much that I dedicated my book to them, but every time I would think of visiting the home “in the flesh,” I would come up with excuses.
Too busy, too tired, and besides, with my sense of direction, I’d never find the place!
And then finally I admitted the truth: I very much dreaded seeing the suffering patients.
You see, I all too vividly remember my mother’s slow and agonizing decline as she died from cancer many years ago. Then, more recently, I watched in anguish as the same disease felled my brother-in-law.
Jesus in his final days was stripped, beaten and imprisoned. He was pierced with nails and left to die, thirsty, bleeding and helpless on that cruel cross. Many of his friends abandoned him, terrified of suffering the same fate.
And maybe this explains why many people like me studiously avoid nursing homes and hospices. They dread looking at the helpless, suffering people and seeing a future version of themselves lying there. Like Jesus’ friends, they are scared.
When I finally visited Our Lady of Perpetual Help, I was surprised at what I found there. Yes, it was agonizing to look at folks who were so terribly thin and clearly in the final days of life. But some patients smiled at me, and some took my hand, ever so gently.
And I saw that this is no ordinary place, because the sisters are not ordinary people. True, they act as good nurses by doling out medications and patiently feeding those who no longer can feed themselves. They also bring to the bedsides shining smiles and senses of humor that don’t quit.
But most of all, they pour out on patients the astonishing love of Jesus Christ.
The sisters have taken to heart the words that Jesus spoke: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, ill and you cared for me ….”Although Jesus didn’t say it at the time, he could have added, “I was on the cross and you didn’t abandon me.”
Some of the patients led very harsh lives before coming to the sisters. Some were outcasts of society, bereft of family and friends. Some are very familiar with the cross.
The day I visited, I heard about a patient who described the home as heaven. This might seem odd indeed for someone dying of a dread disease. But the sisters do the little things that loving mothers do each day for their children: combing hair, bathing, listening and praying. Especially for people whom society has turned its back on, these gestures would be heavenly indeed.
In the home, there is a sign attributed to Mother Alphonsa, who was known as Rose Hawthorne before founding the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne: “If our Lord knocked at the door we would not be ashamed to show what we have done.”
I picture Jesus knocking on the door of the sisters’ home. I picture him as broken and bloody: Our Lord on the cross. And I envision the sisters taking him in, bandaging his wounds, giving him a drink and a meal.
I know he would see the love that abides here, and the faith that thrives here. The sisters have taken to heart his words, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The Lord would be welcome at this home, I believe, because the Lord is already here. He’s in the chapel under the appearance of bread. He’s in the beds, under the disguise of the suffering patients. And he’s in the hearts of the sisters, under the appearance of great love.
And if love is here and the Lord is here, then I’d say that lady has it exactly right. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home truly is a glimpse of heaven on earth.
Lorraine’s latest books are “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey” and “Death in the Choir.” Artwork is by Jef Murray. The Murrays attend St. Thomas More Church in Decatur. Her Web site is www.lorrainevmurray.com and her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.