This past summer, I had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain at a hospital in my hometown. While I learned a number of invaluable lessons, the most powerful of them all revolved around the concept of gift. I experienced what it meant to give of myself by offering my own gifts to patients and staff. I also learned what it meant to recognize and receive the gift of the other, in all of his or her joy, suffering, laughing, and weeping. Lastly, I came to realize that self-gift and the gift of the other are inseparable from the gift of God. Instead of expanding on all of the technicalities of these realizations, I have chosen to share a story. This story will illustrate more fully my experience as a chaplain, with hopes of shedding some light on the inexhaustible meaning on the little word “gift.”
Before beginning the story, it is important to share frankly about my relationship with God during my summer ministry experience. Many times, I was so focused on representing God’s presence for others, that I lost awareness of God’s presence with me. At times, I didn’t feel God and I forgot that God was by my side. This is the story of how God invited me to recognize him in a different way and how that way led me to gift.
It was Sunday. I was on-call that day and the day before, and I accepted that I would not be able to make it to Mass that weekend. I lamented a little as I believed that I would not receive the Eucharist that week and that my spirit would be a little less nourished. I had visited with a patient, Mary, earlier in the week, and we had chatted for about 15 minutes. It seemed to me like an average interaction. On Saturday, I was paged for a non-urgent request to be visited by a chaplain. I stopped by the room to discover that same Mary who I had visited earlier had had a stroke mid-surgery. She was completely non-verbal; she had severe weakness in her arms. The doctors had told her son that recovery was unlikely. Her son talked with me about hospice care, and a priest was called to perform Anointing of the Sick. Saturday was a rough day for Mary and her son, and it was painful for everyone involved.
As I was visiting people on Sunday, I decided to stop by Mary’s room to say hello. I felt awkward at first, because she couldn’t talk or respond verbally to my questions. I was unsure of how to interact with her. As I walked toward her, she reached out for my hand. I said a prayer with her, and she gently squeezed my hand. We stood there for a few minutes, holding hands in the silence. Then I saw Mary’s mouth moving, as if she was trying to speak. After a couple more minutes, she said my name. “Maddie.” I smiled, sensing she was trying to say more. She kept saying a phrase over and over, but I could not understand it. After many attempts, I understood that she was saying, “I love you.” I love you. I was stunned and I could barely choke out a response. My hearted throbbed. I had a hard time soaking in her words. There was a sacred silence, in which the Holy Spirit gathered us both, together, into spiritual embrace. Our hearts were one in a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the presence of the other. After a few holy moments, I thanked her, and I prayed aloud.
I returned later in the day to see if her son had returned. She was alone, but something in me felt called to stay with her. This time, only a few hours later, Mary was able to put together full sentences. She told me her mouth was dry. Because she was NPO, I was not allowed to give her a drink of water. I had to use a sponge-on-a-stick type thing to help her soothe the aching dryness in her mouth. I dipped the sponge in water and shared it with her. As I reflect on this moment, I am overcome with emotion. The experience is intensely reflective of Jesus receiving vinegar from a sponge while he hung on the cross. God. I get it! This is you. In that moment, I saw with immense clarity and force the face of Jesus in this woman. In one of the truest and fullest ways possible, I had come face to face, eye to eye, hand in hand with Christ himself, hanging painfully, dry-mouthed, on his cross. In the most incredible and tangible way, I was with Christ. And he was with me.
I didn’t receive the Eucharist at Mass that Sunday. Instead, I received the Eucharist from the hands of a patient. God allowed me to hold the hand of his beloved Son as he hung on his cross. This – Mary’s story, my presence, and the mystical unification of both that is accomplished by Jesus’ cross and resurrection – is God’s gift. For me, this was a Eucharistic experience. Receiving Christ, in all of his forms. Giving Christ’s presence, in all contexts. It is becoming one with his life, suffering, death, and resurrection. Christ’s self-gift becomes our self-gift; Christ’s resurrection becomes our resurrection. There is a line in one of my favorite church songs that says, “we become what we receive.” Gift.