“…and people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.” These words of the Gospel encapsulate for me many a childhood prayer. When I was a boy I could hardly speak due to a severe stutter. I remember asking God to heal me. After years of speech therapy and many a patient teacher, I am now able to speak relatively clearly, but I still face challenges from time to time. This minor “handicap” formed in me a bit of empathy for those who suffer more than I. It taught me that the body can obscure the beauty of the soul.
We all have handicaps in life. They range from the physical to the intellectual. They could be relational such as anxiety disorders or perhaps just an easily irritable personality. Yet some disabilities place us at a greater disadvantage than others. Some even cause us to be rejected by others. Jesus observed this and the exhaustion such suffering caused. Again and again he sought to heal. His empathy for the suffering caused the people to proclaim “He has done all things well! He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Most of us will eventually experience the handicap and exhaustion that age brings. Our bodies will grow weary, our minds will cloud and there will be a gradually fading from this life. This is not to be morose, just real. We will come to encounter persons with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Some of us will even experience this ourselves. We could even find ourselves incapacitated or deeply sedated. I am frequently alarmed by persons who come back from such experiences and mention how much they heard while the family thought they were fast asleep or unconscious. We should all take pause and think about what we say around the dying or the incapacitated. How frightening it must be for some who are in medical care to hear the frank talk of a family who is all too quick to let the person go.
It is important to remember that the soul of the individual remains untouched by such ravages of the body. They are still fully there with us. No one ceases to be themselves until God calls them home. So when we visit such persons we must be careful not to fall into the secular materialistic view that sees “life” only as someone who responds to us physically the way we think they should. Whether a soul can only mumble through the body’s mind, it does not take away their inherent dignity as a full human person and a soul fully intact. They are never to be deprived of nutrition, hydration, care or the kind words that are owed them. God has the appointed time and not us.
We are called to pray with these souls even if they cannot mouth or follow the words or thoughts in their bodies. Our prayers assist the soul. A priest should be called for the anointing of the sick long before death nears. And in all cases and with all people we must remember to speak to a person’s soul and not to what we see in the body.
Questions for Reflection
1. Who have I seen dismissed as “not fully there”?
2. How do I want to be treated in my moments of need?
Fr. Vander Steeg is pastor of St. Bernard Parish and St. Philip the Apostle Parish, Green Bay.