When Words Fail Grace Abounds

By Jake Braithwaite, nSJ

In my 10 months as a Jesuit novice, I’ve been across the country in settings I’d never dreamed of. Last fall, I worked as a chaplain intern at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. I spent the beginning of 2016 making the Spiritual Exercises at the retreat house in Guelph, Ontario, and then studying Spanish in San Antonio, Texas. After a few months on the road, I was excited to return to New York City, where I had lived for eight years, and to a hospital setting, an environment where I had found so much consolation in the fall.

Jake Braithwaite
I looked forward to working at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, as part of the “hospital experiment” portion of my Jesuit formation, expecting to draw on my rudimentary chaplaincy skills, though I knew, from listening to some intense stories from older Jesuits, that it would be a challenge. Our job would be to physically minister to patients, but I hoped that I’d also find the time to care for them spiritually. The physical labor felt somewhat less critical compared to the fruits of wisdom I thought we’d discover in conversation. Calvary’s self-identification as “the vestibule of heaven” heightened this expectation even more.

Early on, this presumption proved correct. While mornings were filled with physical tasks, afternoons tended to be free enough to visit patients. So, I started developing friendships. Many patients were lonely; others were naturally anxious about being at Calvary, knowing that they likely faced the end of their life. Some seemed to need constant attention, which manifested itself by regular use of the call button. I didn’t have very many medical skills, but I had lots of energy and a listening ear. For the understandably frightened patients, I prayed with them.

In my own prayer, I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to meet the patients’ emotional needs. I felt comfortable falling into a role I had treasured in Syracuse last fall, but, to my great surprise, physical interactions with patients (often lacking any conversation at all) also played a rich role in my contemplation.

Some patients chose not to talk at all. Some slept. Others had lost the ability to speak. Though this was a new challenge for me, I found myself falling in love with them, too. My fellow novice Brendan Coffey and I ran up the stairs from breakfast every morning, eager to care for them.
Christian Verghese, nSJ, (left) and Melvin Rayappa, nSJ, (right) with Sr. Mini Varghese, of the Daughters of Mary, who serves on the Calvary Hospital staff.

Soon, physical encounters dominated my prayer. I held up the most meaningful moments: Brendan’s care while washing, a gentle smile from a freshly bathed patient, the joy of a family member over a frustrating problem solved. I asked Christ to walk with me as I watched some of them grow weaker each day. I had expected to mourn for patients I’d grown friendly with. But I didn’t predict the anguish I felt when patients I had simply spoon-fed died, too. I relished the opportunity to meet patients where they were. Some just appreciated a running banter while we cleaned. Others wanted photos. No serious conversations about the end of life; for some, just selfies. 

The sacred nature of this contact became apparent during our third week. It was a particularly messy week on the floor, and Brendan and I were asked to assist with cleaning. In general, I wasn’t a huge fan of the smells of the hospital itself, but it was easy to rush in to clean up after the patients I loved. I took to prayer, discussing with God what might have given me this superhuman ability to turn off my olfactory glands. Then I remembered that Brendan and I had literally washed these people’s feet. Christ tells us to do this, I remembered! In prayer, Christ showed me that it wasn’t only a metaphor. By washing the disciples’ feet, Christ illustrated the bond that can be created through physical acts of love. Such great love, I saw, could mask even dirty diapers.

At the beginning of my time at Calvary, I sought tearful conversations with patients. By the third week, I knew I was most valuable if I brought them ice cream. So I brought them ice cream.

As we passed the halfway point, I asked Christ to accompany me even with patients who had been extremely standoffish. Unusual for Calvary, some of the patients were discharged back home. I took Pope Francis’ example to heart and kissed them on the head. I blessed their journeys.

Other patients looked ahead to lengthy stays at Calvary. My friendships had formed under unusual circumstances, and God was deeply present in the bonds. For patients fast approaching their final days, my words failed, and I knew now that I lacked any wisdom to guide them through the looming tedium and apathy. But I trusted in the power of the hug more.

As our time at Calvary came to a close, a new appreciation for Jesus’ ministry grew in me. Jesus spent time in contemplation, prayed with others, and taught them in groups and individually. But Jesus also had very physical encounters with the sick, the lonely, and the outcast. God became human precisely so that He might live with us, be with us, and minister to the physical bodies that we are.

After six weeks at Calvary, I know just how necessary that touch is.

Web Exclusive

Christopher Smith, nSJ, writes about the bonds he made with a Spanish-speaking Calvary resident approaching the end of her life. www.JesuitsEast.org/Calvary

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