-By Sydney Michelle Therese March, BLA-Th, RN, BSN, PHN, MSB
September is upon us, and so is the feast day of a particularly special woman that deserves reflection and pause for healthcare professionals as caregivers.
September 5th marks the death and feast day of St. Teresa of Calcutta – the small, but mighty Albanian nun who transformed the world with her love for the most vulnerable among us: the sick, the poor, the elderly, and children. On September 10, 1946, she received her “call with a call” and satiating Jesus’ thirst and love for souls became her one desire. She started each day with communion then went out with her rosary to find and serve Him among those who were unwanted, unloved, and uncared for until more joined her in her call. In 1950, the Missionaries of Charity was officially established and today there are over 600 mission houses. Her mission: to quench the thirst of Jesus through her service of love. Is this not the literal call of the healthcare professional: to minister to our patient’s body and soul by showing God’s tender mercy through our presence and to then show them the path to healing?
Indeed, as individuals who care for the sick and suffering, we are to strive to emulate Christ, Who is the Healer par excellence! I cannot think of a more perfect individual on whom to reflect to remind us of our duty.
This modern-day, saintly woman, who was named after St. Therese of Lisieux, should inspire our work (she certainly inspires mine) and remind us of our sacred calling every day: to treat our patients, is to treat Jesus. We have the undeserved privilege of being able to share in our patients’ sufferings and (in many different and sometimes limited ways) unite them to Our Lord’s sufferings on the cross. I would even posit that, in a certain sense, we are called in a small way to take part in the Incarnation of Christ, who transformed humanity’s loss into joy through His Crucifixion. We help transform our patients’ lives through our work. Every day that we are with them we help them heal, we listen to them, we try to help them suffer well; many times we suffer with them (including interiorly when we leave our work), and we educate them on important matters of the body that is so intimately connected to the soul. At the same time, we can also encounter physical and verbal violence from our patients. This happens daily for those who work in the hospital setting. We even suffer physically, mentally, and spiritually in our own various ways for the sake of caring for them: delayed or no breaks (including bathroom), family separation, challenging relationships, challenging social life, sleep, enjoyment, etc. Yes, indeed, it is the Crucified One we are called to embody when at the bedside, regardless of the role that we play.
It is interesting to note that the Greek word for “emptying” is kenosis. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul denotes kenosis as the central tenet to the Incarnation of Christ:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with
God something to be grasped, but emptied [ekenōsen] himself, taking
the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being found
in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8).
It is the very action of emptying by “taking the form of a servant” that we do with our patients when we are with them: we place ourselves at whatever level they are at; we carry them and their sufferings by accompanying them while we listen; we often sacrifice our needs for theirs; and we empathize. Was not the extraordinary kenosis of the Incarnation of Christ the literal embodiment of God’s empathy for humanity that was made ill by sin? Could it not be said then that our calling as caregivers and healthcare professionals is a form of this ineffable kenosis? Is this not exactly what St. Teresa of Calcutta chose to do every day of her life? Did she not empty herself for the sake of the other who was suffering? Indeed she did, so much so that she experienced this form of emptying in a very deep spiritual way. What a woman to emulate!
Father Joseph Lanford, MC, who was the co-founder of Mother Teresa’s priest community, wrote his own profound reflection that should remind us of the work that we do, the Person we are called to imitate, and our means of kenosis, regardless of the setting in which we reside. Here are a few excerpts worth noting:
It is true. I stand at the door of your heart, day and night. Even when you are not listening…I want you to know that each time you invite Me, I do come always, without fail. Silent and invisible I come, yet with a power and a love most infinite, bringing the many gifts of My Spirit. I come with My mercy, with My desire to forgive and heal you, with a love for you that goes beyond your comprehension…. I come longing to console you and give you strength, to lift you up and bind all your wounds. I bring you My light, to dispel your darkness and all your doubts. I come with My power, that allows me to carry you: with My grace, to touch your heart and transform your life. I come with My peace, to calm your soul…. Nothing in your life is unimportant to Me…. I know every one of your problems. I know your needs and your worries and yes, I know all your sins. But I tell you again that I love you, not for what you have or ceased to do, I love you for you, for the beauty and the dignity My Father gave you by creating you in His own image. It is a dignity you have often forgotten, a beauty you have tarnished by sin. But I love you as you are, and I have shed My Blood to rescue you… I know your loneliness and all your wounds, the rejections, the judgments, the humiliations, I carried it all before you. And I carried it all for you, so you could share My strength and My victory. I know, above all, your need for love, how much you are thirsting for love and tenderness…. Do you thirst for love?…I THIRST FOR YOU. I thirst to love you…Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation and give you peace even in your trials. I THIRST FOR YOU…If you feel of little value before the eyes of the world, it doesn’t matter. There is no one that interests me in the whole world than you. I THIRST FOR YOU…. All I ask of you is that you entrust yourself to Me completely…
There is nothing I cannot forgive and heal; so come now, and unburden your soul. No matter how far you have strayed without a destination, no matter how often you have forgotten Me, no matter how many crosses you bear in this life; I want you to always remember, one thing that will never change. I THIRST FOR YOU – just you, as you are…”
Here is our translation as caregivers and healthcare professionals to our patients:
It is true, we stand at your door day and night, even when you are not listening or are asleep. We always come without fail when someone asks for our help – in the field and out of the field. We are silent in the ways we listen to you, and yet come with a power and love most infinite, bringing many gifts of God’s love to be with you. We come with His mercy, the desire to forgive you when you hurt us physically or verbally, the desire to heal you, with a love for you that goes beyond your comprehension. We long to console you and give you strength, to lift you up and try to bind all your wounds, bring you His light, dispel your darkness in this Vale of Tears, and all your doubts. We come with His power that allows us to carry your cross with you, with His grace to touch your heart and transform your life. We come with His peace to calm your soul. Your life is important to us. Given time with you alone, you share your problems, we know most of your needs and your worries and yes, even some of your sins. But we tell you again that we love you, not for what you have or ceased to do, but we love you for you – for the beauty and the dignity the Father gave you by creating you in His own image. It is a dignity you have often forgotten, and beauty you have tarnished. But we love you as you are, and just as Our Lord has shed His blood for you, we give our lives in service to rescue you. We know your loneliness and some of your wounds, the rejections, the judgments, the humiliations – just as Jesus has carried them, so too do we every day of our life as we leave the workplace. And we carry it all for you, so that you could share in His strength and His victory through our love. We know, above all, your need for love, how much you are thirsting for love and tenderness…we will help give you peace even in your trials…all we ask is that you trust us. There is nothing that we cannot forgive to help you heal; so come now, and unburden your soul.
It is only fitting to end with the beautiful, penetrating words of Mother Teresa; a prayer which is very dear to my heart, and one that I try to say before I leave for work:
Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick,
and, whilst nursing them, minister unto you.
Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you, and say: “Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.”
Lord, give me this seeing faith, then my work will never be monotonous. I will ever find joy in humoring the fancies and gratifying the wishes of all poor sufferers.
O beloved sick, how doubly dear you are to me, when you personify Christ; and what a privilege is mine to be allowed to tend you.
Sweetest Lord, make me appreciative of the dignity of my high vocation, and its many responsibilities. Never permit me to disgrace it by giving way to coldness, unkindness, or impatience.
And O God, while you are Jesus, my patient, deign also to be to me a patient Jesus, bearing with my faults, looking only to my intention, which is to love and serve you in the person of each of your sick.
Lord, increase my faith, bless my efforts and work, now and forevermore. Amen.
St. Teresa of Calcutta! Ora pro nobis! And may we all continue to quench His thirst through kenosis to our patients!