Posted at Catholic Insight
I studied her tired face for a moment and then asked, “What makes you feel that way?”
“When I was young,” she began, ” I had my children and I looked after them. Then they got married and had their own children and I looked after them. Then my husband had a stroke and was in a wheelchair and I looked after him for fourteen years. Now, nobody needs me anymore. I don’t have a purpose. I don’t have any more reason to live. I have so many aches and pains. Look at my legs. They are so swollen again today.”
She is a very generous woman, often buying little bags of candy for the children of her parish and asking Father to hand them out. When I visit her, she insists on giving me a little something from her pantry: a small bagel, perhaps a cookie, maybe even a bit of candy for my children. I don’t dare refuse because I know how important it is for her to show that she cares for me.
Her tiny apartment is modest but comfortable, clean and tidy. The crucifix given to her at her husband’s funeral hangs against a narrow wall. On her low bookshelf stands a humble statue of Our Lady gazing up at her crucified Son on His cross. Her bible and prayer book are neatly arranged on her coffee table.
“Well,” I began slowly. “God obviously still has work for you to do here since you still wake up each day. I think you have a great purpose. Maybe you can’t do the things you did when you were younger but I know you pray. Prayer is important. You can pray for your family. You can pray for the world. You can pray for those who don’t know how to pray. That’s such great work.”
“Oh, nurse!” she exclaimed. “I never thought of that! I pray all the time.”
“That’s right,” I encouraged her. “Look at Pope Benedict. In the eyes of the world, he is nothing but a frail old man hidden away somewhere waiting to die. But he’s doing God’s work by his prayers. He’s praying for all of us. That’s his purpose. And look at the saints who suffered from painful illnesses: St. Therese, St. Bernadette, St. John-Paul. And there are so many others. They offered up their suffering to save souls. Their pain and their illness had great meaning and purpose.”
By now, a smile seemed to melt away the lines on her face. “That’s true! I can offer my pains. Oh, yes! That’s prayer, too!”
Often we think that in order to live a purposeful life, we must be productive and very busy doing things. When illness or advanced age force us to slow down and we are no longer active, we can lose our sense of purpose, our sense of belonging, and life loses its meaning.
But God gives great meaning to our lives because He blesses each moment as an opportunity to be part of His great plan and to do His Will on earth. In a homily, St. Josemaria Escriva said that “[o]rdinary life is something of great value. All the ways of the earth can be an opportunity to meet Christ, who calls us to identify ourselves with Him and carry out His divine mission – right where he finds us.” And for many people, God finds us in places of uncertainty and struggling.
Our call is to trust in His providence and pray always to know His Will in any given time, in every trial, in the greatest sufferings, in the darkest, loneliest night. And our call is also to help our brothers and sisters in Christ who have lost their sense of purpose, and for whom the struggle is sometimes too great and too dark.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote a beautiful prayer on the purpose of our lives:
I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by name.
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have a mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next……….I have a part in a great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me – He still knows what He is about.
Painting: An Old Woman Praying by Nicolaes Maes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons