By FATHER THEODORE BOOK, Commentary | Published October 5, 2006
For the last few months, I have had the privilege of serving as the chaplain at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home, just south of Turner Field, in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta. I’ve found a great grace in serving here—it is beautiful to see the hope and joy brought to the terminal cancer patients here and the peace with which they are able to depart heavenward, their hearts reconciled with God.
The consolation that so many of the patients are able to experience at the end of life is, of course, made possible by the people who work here. The nurses show concern and friendship to the patients and great camaraderie with each other. The workers who assist in keeping the place clean and beautiful for the patients and their families radiate the same joy and fellowship. Not surprisingly, I understand that there is almost no turnover in the jobs.
The spirit that animates the place (or perhaps I should say the Spirit that animates it) is not an accidental product of good management or human compassion, although those factors are certainly present in abundance. Rather, it comes from the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters who run the home and personally care for many of the patients. It is through the dedication of these women to Christ and the joy that flows from their consecration to Him that the whole place takes on its atmosphere of Christian charity.
When I describe the cancer home to people who have never been here, I often get the response that it must be terribly difficult to work exclusively with individuals in the last stage of their life. In truth, I have found few things as rewarding—there is a great grace and divine clarity that surrounds our last days on earth.
When I describe the sisters’ lifestyle, I often get a similar response—that it sounds difficult, or constraining, or even oppressive. While I do not deny that the sisters have made a great commitment that involves challenges and sacrifice, I rarely see the sort of joy shared by the sisters here among people who do not share that choice of self-dedication. In fact, when I reflect myself upon the lives of these Religious, I find myself wondering what sort of life could be better than the one that they enjoy.
The Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Rose of Lima, as the Hawthorne Dominicans are formally known, enjoy one of the greatest privileges and consolations that is available to us in this life—the freedom to dedicate themselves totally to the worship of God and the service of neighbor.
They spend each day caring for the sick, bringing God’s mercy to those in need and coming together in prayer before the Lord, present in the Blessed Sacrament.
Those finding themselves ill or weakened by age are surrounded by a community that supports them and values their presence. Even if they are only able to contribute in small ways, the sisters remain immersed in the life of their order.
Their daily routine is very simple, beginning with Mass and the praying of the divine office. First the patients are fed, and then there is time for breakfast. The day is spent caring for the patients, speaking with their families, or attending to the needs of the house. After the patients are given their lunch, the sisters take theirs. The afternoon brings a Holy Hour in the chapel with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, rosary and vespers. One of the sisters will stay awake through the night to attend to the dying.
Once a month, they take a day off to broaden their perspective, but it is not like time off from a job. For people who work for money, the job is often a necessary evil that interrupts the real work of living that fills their time off. For the sisters, the real life, their real engagement, is what happens while they are in the convent and at the home. Their charity and conviviality is not that of co-workers but that of family, and the care that the patients receive is not the care that comes from well-motivated workers doing their duty but the care that is given to a child, a family member or a friend out of love, without thought of any payment or reward. If most people and students who work do their living on evenings and weekends, the sisters have all day, every day for theirs.
The men and women cared for at the home do not necessarily come from strong religious backgrounds. In fact, most of them are not even Catholic. They come because a doctor or a friend has recommended it; sometimes they come because they have nowhere else they can go. The only requirement is that they have incurable cancer and are unable to afford treatment at an institution that works on a financial basis. No payment is asked of them or their families, and none is accepted. One does not charge a friend for the care that friendship brings, and that Christian love demands.
If they come seeking the physical care and medical treatment that brings comfort to the body during the last days of life, what they find is strength for the spirit. Not only for the narrow vision of the spiritual that would reduce it to prayer and visions, but the fullness of the spiritual life where human care and friendship and interaction is joined to the love of God and brings joy to all of the human heart. When they pass into the land of the blessed and experience the fellowship of the saints worshiping at the throne of God, surely they can say that they felt some first taste of that joy during their last days among the Dominican sisters.
The holy Scripture says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two teachings are not just commandments—they are also the most basic guide to a Christian life. They form a guide that can be followed by anyone, in any state of life, and will always bear fruit. But if those precepts bear fruit when they must compete with a thousand other tasks and priorities, how much more rich is their reward when they are the only priorities.
The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne know the beauty of a life where other distractions fade before those two great principles, and the rest of the world can only wonder when it sees their joy.