Witnesses to speak for the light


Older woman holds her head in her hands - by Christian Newman on unsplash

This Sunday is Christmas day, a day when, by long tradition, all over the world, Christians wake up happy – thankful for all of the good things they have been given in life. Not just the good things they have been given this morning, but all of the good things they have received from God’s hand throughout their lives. And thankful most especially for the people they have been given to love and people who have been given to love them. This is a day for rejoicing in all that God has given to us, including his only begotten Son.

But let us not pretend. Some people feel they have been given little in life and, most especially, feel they have been given no-one to love and nobody to be loved by. Nobody should have no-one. And for many of them, Christmas is a time of additional pain because the joyful celebration of others only highlights their own loneliness, unhappiness and lack of hope. There are so many people who live lives of quiet desperation. The rate of suicide is always highest at Christmas. So, as I know among my own patients, is the rate of emergency admissions to mental hospitals. What does the Christmas message have to say to those who are in that kind of despair?

Before I became a priest, I spent some time working as a doctor in a hospice. That is a place where people go if they are dying of cancer or some other kind of terminal illness. And it happened that I was the doctor on-call on Christmas day. Most of the patients were taken out for the day by their relatives and friends; or if they were too sick for that, the family came to visit. The only patient in the whole hospice who didn’t get a visit that Christmas Day was a little old lady of 81. About the middle of the afternoon, the nurses called me about her. They said: “Please! You’ve got to come and see her – there’s nothing medical about it, but she’s been lying there crying her heart out for four hours. We’ve done everything we can, but we can’t comfort her. We can’t stand it any longer. You have to do something!”

So I went to see her, not entirely sure what it was I was supposed to do. She was in an open ward. All around her were other patients happy with their visitors. And she just lay there, an island of misery, quietly weeping. I pulled the screens around her to give her a little privacy and because I didn’t know what else to do, I sat down and held her hand. And it all poured out:
How neither her two children, nor the rest of her family had contacted her for years.
How, after six months in hospital and now in the hospice, she had no friends who kept in touch with her.
How this was her last Christmas: she knew she was dying of cancer:
How nobody in the world cared if she lived or died.
How she was going to die alone, friendless and unloved.
And, what seemed to hurt her the most, how probably no-one at all would come to her funeral.

I searched within myself for something to say that would comfort her and not sound hollow and meaningless – and found absolutely nothing that I could say. (It was not, I confess, a very religious time in my life.) So I sat with her, holding her hand in silence. After about ten minutes, a tiny little nun came in very quietly. She sat on the other side of the bed, held the other hand and began to pray. I don’t know how long we sat there praying, but it was a while. Maybe it wasn’t long, but it felt like a while. And then the little nun went away, as quietly as she had come. And the old lady turned to me and said: “Thank you Doctor, I think I’ll sleep now.” And she smiled – beautifully. That smile made my Christmas.

I never saw her again. She died that night. At her funeral there was only the priest, the nun and myself. But I hope and I believe that she died at peace with God and with herself and with the family and friends who had forgotten her. I think that is the best that any of us can hope for in this world.

But I will never forget her. Nor will I ever forget the little nun who spoke Christ’s words to her and touched her with Christ’s hands and taught me something about the Christian vocation. She was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.

As Christians we are asked not merely to repeat the words of the Gospel, but to embody them – to give them expression in our lives. If the love of Christ is to be a reality in the lives of those who need it the most, it can only be through our consoling and strengthening presence. If we truly live by faith, and have ourselves experienced the coming of Christ as a strength in times of suffering, then that is a gift to be shared. There are many people who live lives of quiet desperation – people who are overwhelmed by grief and who can only be saved from despair if we reach out to comfort them in the spirit of Christ. Let us pray that we too, like that little nun, may be given the grace to carry on Christ’s own healing ministry – to speak with his words and touch people with his hands.

We are not the light, only witnesses to speak for the light. 

Let us, especially this Christmas profess our Faith in God who appoints us as His Witnesses in the World.

Paul O'Reilly SJ