Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Hospital Corners

Saint Ignatius' Autobiography, part 53

The nine companions arrived at Venice in the beginning of 1537. There they separated to serve the sick in different hospitals. After two or three months they all went to Rome to get the Pope’s blessing before setting out on their journey to Jerusalem. The pilgrim did not go with them, because of Doctor Ortiz and the Theatine Cardinal who had just been created. The companions returned from Rome with drafts for two or three thousand scudi which they were given as alms to help them on their way to Jerusalem. They did not wish to receive the money, except in checks, and since they did not go to Jerusalem later, they returned the checks to those who had given them.

The companions returned to Venice just as they had left it, that is, on foot and begging, but divided into three parties, which were always made up of different nationalities. Those who were not priests were ordained in Venice, and received faculties from the Nuncio, who was in Venice at the time, and who was later called Cardinal Verallo. They were ordained under the title of poverty, all taking the vows of poverty and chastity.

During that year they could not find a ship for the Near East, because Venice had broken with the Turks. When they saw their hopes diminishing, they dispersed throughout the domain of Venice, with the intention of waiting out the year they had decided upon, and then if there was no chance of getting passage, they would return to Rome.

It fell to the pilgrim to go with Faber and Laynez to Vicenza. There they found a house outside the city limits, which had neither door nor window, where they slept on a little straw they brought with them. Two of the three went twice daily to ask alms, and brought back so little they could hardly subsist. Usually they ate a little toasted bread when they had it, prepared by the one whose lot it was to remain at home. In this way they spent forty days intent on nothing but their prayers.

In his instructions on Jesuit training, Ignatius recommends that all Jesuits spend time working in some kind of hospital setting. As a result most novices spend some time doing such work during the 2-year novitiate. For me, this took several forms. Almost immediately, I started visiting patients at a local hospital. This is something that I hadn’t done much of before, so in many ways it was frightening. Some days it took all the energy and courage I could muster not to find some excuse to just wander around rather than make my way into people’s rooms. Some days I had a few conversations which I felt had done some good for people. Other days, I felt like I’d done nothing to make anyone feel better, and probably made a few people feel worse! These few months of trial and error, however, turned out to be good preparation for what was to come. For soon I would spend two months working in hospice care. After the rigors of the 30-day Spiritual Exercises, this was really the first great test of my fledgling vocation. Could I get past my fear, pride and discomfort to enter, however briefly, into the lives of these people who were suffering and dying? The answer to that question proved crucial, as I wrote about in my article, “I Was Dying and You Rubbed My Feet.”

My official “hospital experiment” would come two months later. I deliberately chose the one that scared me the most, perhaps because I’d learned so much from overcoming my fear of accompanying the terminally ill in their final days. This would be a new kind of challenge—The Father Purcell Memorial Center for Exceptional Children in Montgomery, AL. For two months I would work with severely handicapped children, only two of whom could speak, and only a few of whom could walk. I worked mainly in physical therapy. Each day groups of children would come down, we would lift them out of their wheelchairs and exercises their limbs, something that they could not do for themselves. They ranged in age from babies to teenagers. It didn’t take long to see what a gift these children were, as surprising as that might seem. Despite their limitations, they had a capacity to love and to be loved that brought out the best in people, even if at times they could be inexplicably difficult. Still, it was hard work, sometimes made harder by the harsh reality of the fact that some of these children were born handicapped because of a parents’ drug abuse or rendered handicapped because of physical abuse. And several had been left at the hospital by family members who never returned. There I learned the importance of allowing your heart to be broken by another’s suffering, and also the importance of loving, even if the person loved cannot acknowledge or return that love in a familiar way. Some time after, having returned to the novitiate, I was surprised by tears on receiving the news of the death of one of the children I’d come to know there.

I can see the attraction in hospital work for Ignatius. He no doubt realized, as I did, that working with the sick, the handicapped or the dying requires that one put aside pride, be selfless and find consolation in helplessness. And, perhaps the only way to do that is to be, as Ignatius, Faber and Laynez find themselves in Vincenza, intent on nothing but prayer.


Blogger andrea said...

You mentioned finding consolation in helplessness. Any clues on how to do that? When someone I love is sick or in pain, I want to DO something to fix it. Helplessness is frustrating. I guess helplessness feels like uselessness.

1:37 PM  

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