A birthday party for a 100-year-old Nun — and some God talk

A couple of weeks ago I attended a birthday party for one of the sisters at the convent. She’s 100 years old.

100 year

There were balloons, flowers, two sheet cakes and plenty of ice cream.

Lots of people came. All the sisters, of course, as well as others who knew her and even a few – like me – who never met her before.

I’m sure she didn’t care.

It’s unlikely she has any memory of the event and given her blank stare, it was unlikely she had any awareness of what was happening. But she enjoyed her cake and ice cream. That’s the main thing.

I sat at a table with three other employees. One of them has been working at the convent for 40 years(!) and she was the only one among us who really knew Sister Theodora. She told us a few stories.

Sister Theodora was a very kind person who loved talking to people. She was trained as a nurse, spent her early years caring for children but found her true calling when she was moved to elderly care.

Several times this employee would look over at Sister Theodora and say, “It’s so sad… it’s just so sad…” and the others nodded in agreement.

I’m probably alone in this, but I didn’t see what was so sad.

She lived a rewarding life, enjoyed her work, she made it to 100 and now she’s eating cake and ice cream. Okay, so maybe she doesn’t have memories of her past or knowledge of who she was as a person, but does she need them?

What is better? To keep your mind and be aware of everything you lost—your health, your family, close friends—or to lose your mind and not count the loss? In other words, she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. Why is that sad?

We are the ones who make it sad. We are the ones who look at people with dementia and think, “Oh, I hope I never get like that.”

As if our lives have worth only when we are of sound mind and body. As if that is what makes us who we truly are.

All right, I’m going to drift off into a bit of God talk right now, so if you aren’t into that sort of thing, just scroll down to the next heading.

Look, I’ll even give you a warning:

Warning: Contains God Talk

As I said before, one of my job requirements at the convent was to “be knowledgeable of Franciscan spirituality or willing to learn.”

I’ve been learning. One thing I learned is that Franciscans are real big on Humility and Contemplation.

(Notice the capital letters? That means they’re big on them.)

The key requirement for each is a self-emptying. Letting go of all those things you think make you who you are — your ego, your ambition, your work, your desires — and opening yourself up to fully experience God. They call this giving up your False Self in order to find your True Self.

(Again. Capitals.)

Another thing they’re big on is that this is a continual process. They call it Continual Conversion.

(Not only do they like capitals, they’re fond of alliteration.)

It’s ongoing. We can never fully achieve it during our lifetime, but there is joy in the trying so we keep at it.

I want you to know these aren’t wholly new concepts for me. Protestants also speak of emptying ones self, but we tend to breeze over it because it makes us uncomfortable. It smacks of obedience and frankly, we’re not real big on obedience.

Even so, I’ve been giving it a go and so far my progress has been… um… maybe “progress” isn’t the right word. Let’s go with “inching forward at a snail’s pace.” Yeah. That sounds about right.

Emptying myself by inching forward at a snail’s pace is going fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.

Okay, let’s breeze over that for the time being. What I really wanted to say was that the morning after Sister Theodora’s birthday party, this popped up on the app I’m using for centering prayer. It’s by St. Ignatius – the founder of the Order of Jesuits. That guy.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

Take note of that second line: “my memory.” Even that. Are we willing to give up that?

Fact is, we may not have a choice. We can (and should) take care of our bodies, eat well, exercise, yada-yada. But even then, our genes or our environment or whatever will have the last say. We entered this world not knowing anything, we may very well exit it not knowing anything either. One way or the other, we are emptied.

But to empty oneself willingly, that’s what old man Ignatius was talking about. Remember the chief goal: we are emptied in order to be filled.

The more I think about it, the more I believe we should consider this phase Sister Theodora has entered not as sad, but as sacred. She will soon achieve her True Self and return to God. She has entered a time of Holy Returning.

(Caps all mine.)

Does this sound foolish? If so, I’ll gladly play the fool.


End God Talk

Sister Theodora didn’t stay long at the party. They say she’s not fond of big crowds so once she ate her cake and ice cream, her nurse took her back to the second floor — the Memory Care Unit, where her and five other sisters live.

They receive excellent care there, as do all the sisters who need medical attention. One time at lunch, a sister who recently moved back to the convent admitted she felt a little guilty by how nice she had it. “So many people don’t have what they need, and here I am living in comfort.”

Sitting at the table was one of my bosses — I have two and they’re a married couple, so we’ll call him Mr. Boss.

Anyway, Mr. Boss said to her, “The way I think of ‘privilege,’ it’s not that we should take away the things that bring us comfort, but that we should make sure everyone else is raised up so they receive them too.”

I rather like how he put that, don’t you? And you know, from what I learned about Sister Theodora, I’m pretty sure she’d like that too.

34 thoughts on “A birthday party for a 100-year-old Nun — and some God talk

  1. Such a well-timed story during Lent and anticipating the miracle of Easter. “Holy Returning” – that’s a beautiful way to put it. Every time my ninety-years-young mother smiles – deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s – I’d like to think she’s experiencing that sort of transformation. Thank you, CJ.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Any article I do with God-talk gets three times the revisions of any other article I write, meaning a heck of a lot of revisions!
      Thanks, Andrew. (Could be wrong, but I think cat-lovers are often mystics.)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. And, to be honest, you shouldn’t have to do that. You should write what your heart tells you to write and not make corrections( just my thought)- it should be an emptying of what is in your heart when you write.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I fully admit, despite my upbringing I generally veer away from the God talk thing. All too often narrow interpretations or misunderstandings muddle things up.

    I did have a rather extended “conversation” a few years back when I reviewed a manuscript of a book a high school buddy wrote on spirituality called “Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World”. We march to different drummers but it gave much food for thought – well beyond the ritualistic, Sunday go to meeting, going through the motions routine many churchgoers practice. It’s a 500+ page book covering a plethora of topics. Needless to say, it was a lengthy discussion and interesting editing challenge. How do you try and steer someone who has strong opinions; where do you let things lay when you know you’ll never agree, where do you argue for setting aside the rose-colored glasses, where do you suggest rephrasing even if the conclusion isn’t one you’d make, and where do you sit back and give a little smile and a thumbs up? The author is Phil Bolsta, should you be interested in looking up the book. His philosophy veers towards eastern mysticism, with a dose of new age and a sprinkling of practicality.

    As for the Franciscan philosophy, it sounds more Buddhist than Catholic. Not that I’m an expert on either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I looked up your buddy, he seems to be doing well for himself. He has that “confident successful spiritual adviser” pose down pat. (I’m only being slightly facetious. I’m sure he’s a swell guy!)

      The Catholics actually have a long history of mysticism leading back to the first century — wait, that would have been all Christians, so make that a small-c catholic. Anyway, after the “great schism” when the Eastern and Western churches split, the Western church lost much of their spiritual side and got stuck in their heads. Hence, we got very tied up with “right” thinking and “proper” theology. But even then there were occasional mystics and saints who would pop up from time to time, trying to straighten things out, e.g. St. Francis.)

      As for these particular Franciscans, I haven’t heard one yet cast judgement on other faiths. They’re probably the least judgmental people I’ve ever met.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. The thing is, getting tied up with “right” thinking and “proper” theology is often another way of asserting power, especially over the uneducated and gullible. Folks are figuring this out, hence the erosion of organised religions. I suspect if they refocused more on the spiritual side and less on the us vs them side they might rebound. But considering the history of Christian vs Muslim, Catholic vs Protestant, Sunni vs Shite, I’m not terribly hopeful.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I was at a workshop where the Sister was giving a talk on the Cosmos (long story). Anyway, she was mentioned the cycle of life, growth, decay and death, leading into rebirth, and how it happens to ALL things. Somehow or other she mentioned it applying to the church, meaning institutional church — that it WILL die, so we should consider what part of it we’d want to keep for the rebirth. Our vote was for the mystic tradition. I’ll keep you informed when that happens. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  3. My mother has severe dementia and my cousin was bemoaning all the things she doesn’t do anymore. I say “pffft!” She was an angry person her whole life and she now has contentment. She’s well cared for and enjoys each day. (Not that I want my life to go that way, but I would prefer it to what my grandmother with ALS went through).
    I’m not a God person, but your thoughts were well-expressed. I have studied the Tao te ching and find the ideas of letting go of our ego and materialism to be something good to strive for.
    Nice piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Eileen.
      I’ve heard of that, where a formerly angry or vindictive person became peaceful with dementia. I’ve even heard of a former racist becoming close friends with a person of the race they hated most. Life never ceases to amaze me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very good and uplifting post. I have often thought that dementia is harder on family members than it is for the one who has it. (It can’t be all bad if one can still enjoy cake and ice cream.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Candice. I agree, it’s hardest on the family. Before my mom passed away, I read a book giving tips to family of Alzheimer’s patients. In a nutshell, it said stop worrying about what they do or do not remember, just sit with them, hold their hands, *be* with them. I’m so grateful I found that book when I did; it made my final visits with her far more special and peaceful.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your writing is so thought provoking and conversation evoking. I appreciate how you can express your beliefs with grace. Dementia can be a scary diagnosis. but after reading St. Ignatius’ prayer and your God Talk, I am reminded once more how love casts out all fear. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi CJ
    Thanks for sharing Sr. Theodora with us- a 100 year old’s birthday party- I haven’t met many 100 year olds. I think the Francescan philosophy is great and wish as Protestant I could follow more of it. IT is so difficult to give us up and empty our lives- as empty as it is to empty our cupboards- I find it difficult to empty resentment, hurts, anger, sorrow and a lot of those things that hold us to the earth. Sr. Theodora is in a blessed space and I say, let her be. Maybe she is one with her God where she is and maybe we need to be chosen to reach that space.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I understand all too well about how hard it is to empty yourself, even of the emotions and desires that harm us most. Somehow we cling to those the hardest, making it all the more important we try to let them go.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with the idea that dementia and similar conditions can be harder on the onlookers. I remember an Uncle who had dementia and how family would say things like ‘Oh, what a shame’, ‘So sad’. Yes, it was a shame and very sad, for us! Us who had lost his brilliant mind and sharp wit. But sad for him, sat there engrossed with something imaginary that only he could see and interact with and smile at? Lost in his own world; who of us knows if that’s a good or bad thing. I’ve also seen the anger and frustration that comes with dementia, but on the whole probably no different than the negative emotions felt in ‘the real world’ anyway. Maybe expressed more physically, in place of the verbal communication that’s now elusive. I don’t think it necessarily makes a life worse, just different. Happy Birthday Sister Theodora!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s much harder for the bystanders, of that I’m certain. Of course, I’m kind of counting on that a little too, beings how Alzheimer’s is so prevalent in my family. Whatever they appear to be suffering physically, they don’t seem to be aware of it mentally. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

      Liked by 1 person

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