Dinner and Roses
22nd week ordinary time yr c 8-28-16 Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29, Ps 68:4-11, Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a Luke 14:1, 7-14
I once knew a nursing home resident who was blind and deaf. I saw her week after week, alone in her bed. I heard the aides yelling at her, as if yelling could make her hear – as if she was deliberately ignoring them. Her roommate took me down to the end of the hall, where no one was around us, and, with her hand covering her mouth, whispered in my ear, “I think she is being abused.” She would say no more.
I began to think of ways to reach out to this elderly woman. My heart broke when I read a Birthday card pinned to her bulletin board in her room. It was from her sister, who wrote, “I would come to visit you if only you knew who I was.”
Perhaps I had seen the movie about Helen Keller too many times, but I thought something could be done. One bright spot in an otherwise hopeless scene was that, since she lost her hearing late in life, she could still speak. I went to the Dollar Store, the starting place for many of my schemes, and bought some artificial roses. I had some rose-scented oil, given to me by another priest. I doused a single rose with oil, and went to the nursing home.
I began by touching her hand gently. Then I put the rose stem in her hand, and gently moved the rose toward her nose. She began to pull away, but then she caught the scent of the rose. She drew the rose in toward her nose, and took a long breath. She spoke, “I don’t know what it is, but it smells wonderful.” My heart did a little dance of joy. We had made contact. I made the sign of the cross in her palm and left her with her rose.
It was the best time we ever had together. Most of the subsequent visits were taken up by trying to get the staff to give her something to drink. Sometimes she would throw, with some pretty good power, whatever she could get hold of. Often the floor was covered with food or coffee she had thrown. One day when I touched her hand in greeting, she said, “I’m having a bad day.” Her actions fit with the roommate’s suspicions – she acted like she was trying to defend herself. I complained relentlessly that she was not given fresh water to drink, since her Styrofoam cup was dated up to two days old. The staff simply stopped dating the cup. Then I was barred from the nursing home for filing complaints with the state, the county, and the nursing home corporate office for other abuse and neglect I saw in the same “nursing home” – where it seemed very little nursing was done, and was certainly nothing like home.
Who are the roses in our culture? That’s easy. They are the movie stars, the recording artists, and singers like “Madonna”. They are the Olympic gold metal winners, the football players, baseball players who hit home runs or pitch no-hitters. They are the rising corporate millionaires, the faces identified with big-selling brands. They are the roses that we like to see, we want to meet, get their autograph. We stop and read the magazine that has their face on the cover. They are young and healthy, talented and attractive.
As for the sick, the elderly, the ugly, those visibly physically and mentally wounded, and those who are unable to compete in this economy, we give them Food Stamps – if they can fight their way through the application process – and a disability check which is only about a third of a entry-level employee’s wages – if they can live on air long enough to appeal the denial of their case once or twice. Oh yes, we tolerate them, maybe give them some occasional attention or a donation.
And what happens to them in return? Well, those we call “marginalized” are robbed of their sense of worth. They are aware they are a burden on society. One man, victim of a terrible auto wreck caused by a young woman who came down a ramp at a high rate of speed, told me he was like a “dog that should be taken out and shot.” He repeatedly told the nursing home staff not to bother to bathe him or help him get dressed when they were “short-handed”, which happened frequently. He said he was a burden to his family. He required a special wheel chair. He was able to buy a used wheel chair with the small settlement he got from the accident, and when it was worn out and un-repairable, he was told getting another chair for him was “too expensive”. He was left in bed for nearly a year, to develop deep bed sores which threatened his life. I found an attorney who convinced the nursing home to finally get him a wheel chair, but the aides only got him up when “they had time.” He was left without eyeglasses for a year. Ironically, he was an excellent dispatcher, and I am convinced that he could have worked if our society had opened those doors for him and others like him.
And what happens to us? We are deprived of depth of character, of insight and genuine understanding of the value of life and what beauty really is. We become shallow, selfish people who are accustomed to blaming people for the violence done against them. We become blind to what is happening. It is as if our artists paint bouquets that have been pruned of any flower that is faded, bent by wind or rain, or has uneven petals. We become unconnected to one another, and deny the realty that we are all dependent on each other, all one body, those who can pretend to be perfect and remainder of the rest who are – well, human.
Jesus said, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” In Jesus’ day, you would have been dropped from the “A list” for doing that – it was social suicide to eat with those below your social standing. No one would invite you to another dinner, and no one would attend your dinners. It doesn’t take much effort to be humble, when other people are so willing and able to humiliate you. Jesus asked a great deal of us. Jesus was not content with the social structure of the day – and I have no reason to believe we have made giant steps forward. Often, I can only tolerate 20 minutes of the BBC evening newscast before I am in tears.
One last thought – how would God see me? Would I be a rose to God? There is very little perfect about me. My face will never shine from the cover of “Time” magazine. I don’t get many dinner invitations, and I don’t sit at the head of the table. But yet I know that I am valuable and loved by my creator, and one day I will be at the heavenly banquet, where every seat is the best one. There are things too sublime for me, things beyond my strength; but just to be there will be enough.