Lives That Shine

by Jo-Anne Paquette

In the past year I have had the privilege of working in Our Lady of the Visitation, a wing of St. Mary’s where some of our elderly and those in need of care, live.

There is a joy in them that comes with the challenges, an engagement with life, maybe even a distilling of the lessons learned over many years of faithfulness, and a character that shines.

Years ago, someone said to me, “You spend your life waiting on God, making space for him and yet have no power to make him appear. Then one day he opens the door and shows himself, and all that waiting was worth it. The light shines through your life.”

As I watch and journey with some of my brothers and sisters in the community who are facing frailty, illness, and increasing powerlessness, I see a beauty shining forth. The fruit of a faithful life is apparent to all who are around them, and it is something to learn from.

One such lesson was given to me some weeks ago, just after Trudi Cortens had been quite ill. Trudi struggled to find the words to ask what was on her heart. I went back and forth with her until it became clear what she was asking: “What about our apostolic outreach? When can we begin it again?”

We had experienced an outbreak of COVID, and the whole of Madonna House was in lockdown. Trudi was concerned about our apostolic outreach.

The Lord beseeches us to seek to have a pure heart, a single-mindedness of will. Trudi’s lesson to me that day was: “Don’t lose your focus.”

On another day some months earlier, another of our elders, Theresa Davis, returned home from the hospital after a major stroke. She had not lived in Our Lady of the Visitation before. As we got her settled in her room and made her comfortable, it became obvious that she had something to say.

Even with her weakened voice and effort to find words, her message became clear: “What is the mission statement? What is the mission statement?”

Theresa was wondering what was being asked of her now, at this point in her life when, for most of the time, she would not be in the midst of the broader community. This is a beautiful (and burdensome) thing to ponder.

Sometimes our lives make sense until one day, something changes, some accident or physical illness, or we simply can’t see so clearly anymore. Then the question arises: What is my mission statement? What is God asking of me now? And how do I live that out?

Sometimes the outer body hides the question the heart and mind struggle with. Our Christian vocation to listen for the Lord’s voice, to act in charity, to forgive, and to pray for all, remains.

Another elderly friend some years ago taught me how hidden the work of God can be. I had been on a poustinia day, a day of prayer and fasting, and upon my return Jim Guinan asked me how my day was.

“It was a challenging one,” I replied.

Jim then said “We never really know how ‘successful’ or good our poustinia days are. They are hidden in God.”

Yes, it’s so true. We don’t know the answer to these questions. Now I am seeing this same question about the meaning of their lives in those who live at Visitation.

Yet these, their last days, might well be the most fruitful, the most important, the most beautiful of their very full, service-filled, given-over, varied lives.

Here is another lesson of the heart. This one I learned from my father.

Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself: as good-living and holy people age, they become more themselves. And people recognize it. It’s a fascinating thing to behold and one of the great, hidden works which I so enjoy seeing.

I noticed this in my father as he was nearing death. He became gentler—if that was possible—kinder and more thoughtful.

One day when he was in his last weeks of life, my father asked me where my mother was. We were caring for him at home. I told him that she had gone out with her sister on an errand and to have some lunch.

His response has never left me. “Oh, good,” he said. “I’m glad. You know, it’s hard for your mother these days.”

Yes, he was right, these days were difficult and the reality of saying “good bye” was with us each day. But, really? He’d been bedridden and dying for many weeks by then, yet he was still thinking of others. This spoke volumes to me of how his life had been distilled.

This last example happened on Christmas morning, as I went into the Visitation wing. I knew that Laurette Patenaude was up and having her coffee in her room, and I wanted to greet her and wish her a merry Christmas.

When I entered her room, I could see that there was something less than merry in what was happening there.

Laurette was struggling with something she was carrying and she managed to get out the words, “The babies … the babies … I can’t stop thinking about the babies.”

“The babies in the womb?” I asked.

“Yes, the babies in the womb, the babies who’ve died. Oh, the babies!” She struggled. I could see that the carrying of this burden of the babies was Laurette’s prayer. It was how she was praying and how the Lord had put this reality on her heart.

This was quintessential Laurette. She knew something which could only be articulated in the simple words, “the babies,” and yet it was so much more. She carried those children lost to abortion, the children who need prayers, the unloved children. All this was summed up in the prayer of her heart.

When I entered into this troubled place this past Christmas morning with Laurette, I knew it was a holy place where she carried others. Then I left her alone to continue to give her prayer to the Father.

Simplicity, beauty, peace, and joy, the beatitudes we are called to live flower each day at Our Lady of the Visitation. Sometimes it is in an articulate way, sometimes from a purity gushing forth from the heart. But always it is a blessing.

For this and for the gift of working at Visitation, I am truly grateful.