Child-like not Childish

“[Jesus] sees in children traits and attitudes that are essential in anyone if he is to gain heaven, and, even in this life, if he is to enter the kingdom of faith. A child is devoid of even the slightest feeling of self-sufficiency. It is in constant need of its parents, and knows it. A child is fundamentally a being in need, and this is what a Christian should be before his Father God, a being in total need. A child lives fully in the present and nothing more. The adult’s less admirable predisposition is to look restlessly to the future, ignoring the here and now, the present moment, which ought to be lived to the full.”
—Fr. Francis Fernández Carvajal

To become like a child in the manor our Lord exhorts us is not an easy task. It is not easy to become a person who truly understands that we depend upon God whether we know it or not. It is not easy to trust the One when this trust requires faith and not certainty. It is very hard to live confidently in the awe and mystery of life when life can be so cruel and capricious.

I believe this is perhaps the greatest gift one can receive in spiritual direction. The gift of dependence upon the Father to guide us to what is best. This gift makes it possible to allow God to be both parent and friend.

Living in a fallen world that seeks to deceive us into believing we are our own salvation and masters of our own fates leads only to suffering and grief. It limits our spiritual creativity, stunts our growth in faith, and often leaves us bored and depressed because we are not aware of the loving presence always by our side.

Seeking to be child-like (not childish) opens us up to divine play and merriment. Such seeking makes talk with the One who love us so more open, honest, and receptive to the wisdom and true compassion that only God can provide.

Working with those with dementia has shown me that those who have maintained their child-likeness can find happiness and meaning even as they lose their ability to think. I have also found that those who have maintained their childishness are more likely to be bitter, depressed, and frustrated as their perceived power slowly drains away.

The Poet is Important

This last week I started something new in our memory care unit. We had our first poetry circle. This idea was not my own, but one I picked up from reading, The Montessori Method for Connecting to People with Dementia , (Tom & Karen Brenner. Jessica Kingsley Publishers). I was amazed at what the residents created.

The following is one of their poems.

A Man Living Here

To be a man in this place Never can be a disgrace A victory shall always discover As I seek to be a lover Which normally occurs as strong And never will I be wrong The women they seem so wise And have the power to surprise I am very comfortable I enjoy the part I play I am not dump-able I hope you see my way

Authors: Wilson, Pat, Gigi, and Mary

I wish I could provide actual pictures (HIPPA no no) in order to show the emotion and joy on their faces as they realized they can still be creative, humorous, and insightful. Next week we are going to write poetic prayers. Stay tuned.

I Am Not a Child……….

One of the most difficult things I face in my new position is listening to other staff members talk to the senior adult residents as if they were children. Yes, they have problems remembering things. Yes, sometimes their behavior seems childish or absolutely non-rational. However, they are still people. They are beings created in the image of God and deserve respect and dignity. They do not deserve to be talked down to or treated as if they are juvenile delinquents.

It is bad enough that they have lost their freedom. It is bad enough that they have to struggle to function and grasp why that are denied access to their rooms or limited in the decisions they can make. It is bad enough that they no longer can control some of their bodily functions and/or have difficulty in speaking. They do not deserve to be drugged, lied too, and/or treated with lack of respect.

So what do I do? I cannot judge or correct. I do not have the right and I do understand the stress that caregivers for people with dementia face. So, I pray. I try to model a different way of treatment. I make sure that I do not fall into an attitude of superiority. I seek to show love and respect at every chance I get. I seek to help and never to hurt of diminish the dignity of those who I have the privilege to serve.

I have made a discovery. I have been given a treasure. The people I minister to with dementia are some of the most loving, caring, honest people I have ever encountered. They have a spiritual nature that is seeking and willing unlike many church members I have encountered. They are deeply thankful when I listen to them. They are profoundly grateful for prayers and attention. They also have the ability to care for one another. They are not children, but they can be very childlike in the manner Jesus told us we all should be. I am so looking forward to visiting them when they are fully restored in our life that is and is yet to come.

I Do Remember God….

Today was a good day at the resident dayroom. I have been encouraging the residents to join me in observing the morning office. I had a group of nine that were very involved and aware as we practiced verbal prayer and Scripture. Most of those who participate are in the middle stages of dementia. Most of them will not remember their participation by the time afternoon rolls around. I always remind them that they might not remember but God does.

After the time of prayer I sit around with a group of five residents and talked with them about God and prayer. I understand that it is not wise to ask those who are suffering with dementia too many questions (questions can call confusion and it all draws their attention to there cognitive disability) so just use words like God, prayer, Bible, or some other faith related word and let them respond as they like. I have developed a close enough relationship of trust with these residents that they are willing to express themselves knowing that I will listen and not judge.

I started off with the statement. I remember when I began to realized there is a God. A couple of the residents began to talk about their memories of Sunday School. Another stated that she realize there was a God when God answered her prayer. She then stated, “In fact, that is when I feel closest to God.”

We spent forty-five minutes in verbal ping-pong over matters of God, faith, and love. My heart was blessed. I can remember when it was difficult to get a church member to talk five minutes about their faith. I am finding that being a spiritual director/life enrichment assistant to people with dementia to be more rewarding to my life than I ever felt as a “professional minister.”

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Amen.

I Cannot Remember, I am Afraid

She kept repeating, “I am so confused! I cannot remember! I am afraid!” She was near panic. She had not been this confused in a long time. She could not remember where she was. She would ask me this. I would answer and then she would ask me again, and again. Such can be the state of her reality when her dementia became cruel and unsettling. She was afraid she would forget who she was.

All I could think to do was to tell her that even if she forgot who she was, God would not ever forget her. This made her stop and think. She is very old. She is 94 years old. She has no one left. He dementia is not constant. She has good days and bad days. She can be very articulate and is always polite and caring, even when facing the fear she was facing now.

Reminding her of God’s love is the only thing that seems to help when these episodes arise. She is a woman of faith. She misses taking Eucharist. I am considering giving it too her even though my ordination is with a denomination that does not hold to the sacramental nature of this ritual that I have come to embrace. I am too old to pursue the path for recognition of orders or ordination in another mainline denomination. I have about decided that the concept of apostolic session is more man-made than God sanctioned. I know God has called me to pastoral care and the celebrant role even though I do not have the sanction of a bishop to authorize me to bless the elements as they become the living mystery that is the body and blood of our Lord.

But this dear saint needs the sacrament and in the age of ‘Covid no priest or elder can be present in the bubble in which she lives. There is only me. I seek discernment as to how I should proceed.

I pray with her. I start a word game with the other residents. She becomes involve and the fear and panic ends for now. This darkness will return. I will do my best to help her get ready. We will again talk of the day in which Jesus will return, if it just for her. She has hope. Somehow I know it will be enough.

Amen.

Desolation

The quick definition of the word desolation is, a state of complete emptiness or destruction and/or anguished misery or loneliness. Spiritual desolation is when one feels empty of spiritual help and or a misery that pushes one toward the darkness of depression.

Ignatius of Loyola understood desolation to be an attack of the Enemy of human nature. Ignatius defines desolation as the soul being disturbed and agitated, “without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord.”

I have lost several battles with spiritual desolation and continue to struggle with it often in my life. Having an understanding what it means to be in a state of desolation helps some with the struggle. I have found my awareness of my entering a state of desolation helps this dreaded state from pushing me to near ultimate despair as it has in my past. Understanding and awareness of the presence of desolation keeps me from acting in a non-rational manner and from being as self-destructive in attitude and action as I used to be. Still, the struggle is just that, a strenuous and suffering in a spiritual struggle.

Ignatius, in his rules for the discernment of spirits, writes, “there are three principal causes for which we find ourselves desolate. The first is because we are tepid, slothful or negligent in our spiritual exercises, and so through our faults spiritual consolation withdraws from us. The second, to try us and see how much we are and how much we extend ourselves in His service and praise without so much payment of consolation and increased graces. The third, to give us true recognition and understanding so that we may interiorly feel that it is not ours to attain or maintain increased devotion, intense love, tears or any spiritual consolation, but that all is the gift and grace of God our Lord, and so that we may not build a nest in something belonging to another, raising our mind in some pride or vainglory, attributing to ourselves the devotion or the other parts of the spiritual consolation.” I have found that the reason I end up in spiritual desolation is probably the first cause. As much as I try, I find it difficult in our world of deceptions, distractions, and delusions to maintain some of the spiritual practices I so desire. Even though I love God, desire God, and seek to be in God’s will I fall and fail time and time again.

So what do I do when I once again find myself in a state of spiritual desolation? I pray. I pray the Jesus prayer over and over.

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”

I also refuse to make decisions that require change, retreat from foolish illusions of joy, and I retreat from any anticipations other than knowing that the desolation will end. When I do not know, but it will end.

I now work with people who face not only spiritual desolation but physical, mental, and emotional desolation as well. It is their world. I see them and suddenly realize my desolation is not nearly as bad. The people I work with are basically prisoners. They cannot go and come as they want because the reality they live in is not an accepted reality to those who live without the struggle of dementia. The people I work with also love God, but there are times they forget who God is and so maintaining spiritual disciplines is not a reality for them. There are times they forget who they are or even where they are. Yet, these folks too, in times of lucidness, understand that this desolation will end. Many of them hold on to one hope as long as their minds allow them to do so in the midst of their suffering. They hold on to the hope of the resurrection.

I am beginning to realize that perhaps I am not helping them nearly as much as they help me.

When Jesus Comes Back

This Sunday is the beginning of advent. Advent is the season of remembering the promise that Jesus will come again and remembering the promise that was fulfilled by his birth. Advent is about hope.

When we speak of Jesus returning, many people think about the events revealed in the Book of Revelation. Many think the return of Jesus is about the end of the world. Yet, just this last week at the place I am now serving Jesus came back for three people.

Many of us forget that every human being is living in their last days. We may have thousands of last days, hundreds of last days or maybe just one. We do not know for sure when our life will end. Ultimately only God can either make or allow this end to take place.

This week, three people whose lives were lives of purpose, value, and love took their last breaths. A week ago I was laughing with one of them, rubbing the back of another, and talking to one about how wonderful of a life she had and was living. When I went to work today they were gone. Gone from my presence because Jesus had come back.

Their hope had become their reality. Happy advent saints!

Who Knew….The Path We may not Understand

Twenty-five years ago, I attended a seminar lead by Naomi Feil at the Prairie View Hospital in Kansas. She was teaching a method called Validation Therapy as a means of help people with dementia reach their primary goal, to die in peace. I took this seminar out of an interest in the spiritual formation of older adults. I was able to use some of the techniques of Validation Therapy at different times in my ministry serving local churches. I had no idea I would be using this material in a memory care facility at at this stage of my life. But God did.

Working with residents with dementia can be a frustrating and taxing experience. If you try to communicate with them using “dictionary words” or logic based in current reality you will get nowhere. In fact, you can push these poor people closer and closer to a state of vegetation. These individuals are no longer interested in your reality. They have a reality of their own. Learn their reality is the only way you can make progress. This progress may be a smile or simply an effort on their part to let you know that they understand you care.

Do these people have a notion of God? Do they have a spiritual life? Absolutely the do! As I have worked with very old people who are at different stages of dementia I have discovered that even in the last stages of dementia, the spiritual part of their being is active. We I say the Lord’s prayer with the residents, most of them join me either in the actual words or in the language they have created in their minds. When they hear hymns and spiritual songs they often respond physically in some way. When you pray with the individually they are very likely to squeeze their hand. The most important thing you can do when working with those who struggle with dementia is to let them know through you actions, emotions, words, and efforts that they are important. That they have value. You must validate them.

The other day, one of the residents who normally just complains of imagined problems, sleeps, or just sits and stares, suddenly began singing the Hallelujah Chorus with a beautiful voice and a deep emotion that brought tears to my eyes. She did this after I told her she still had purpose and could be a blessing. She would one day judge angels. I think she decided to join them in expressing the deep love for the Lord that was alive in her heart.

Amen.

What Can I Give?

She is almost 92 years old. She has outlived most of her family. Almost every move she makes causes her pain. She is in danger of falling so she mostly sits in her wheel chair. She has the beginning stages of dementia. She asks me, “Why does God keep me here?”

“I am of no use to anyone one, in fact, I feel like I am a burden.”

“Is there any reason for my life?”

What do you say to this person? I will tell you what I said. I told her life is not fair. I agreed with her life is difficult. I agreed with her that sometimes we cannot understand why God allows what he allows or acts as God acts. I then told her I totally disagreed with her self-evaluation of being worthless and with her idea that she had nothing she could give to God. I told he she could give to God something that no one else could give God, her faith!

I then reminded her of the story of Job. Talk about confusing. Job did everything right. Yet, Job faced horrible suffering and tragedy. Why did this happen to Job? I still do not fully understand, but one thing I do know is that Job did not abandon God. Job still gave to God the gift of faith. God blessed Job for this gift.

I have had to learn this the hard way. No matter how bad things get, no matter how unfair things seem, no matter how confused we are, or even how badly we hurt we can still give God the greatest of gifts, our faith and our love.

The dear saint to whom I was talking replies, “Thank you, now I understand.”

I Will Never Leave You or Abandon You- God

It had been a difficult morning. Many of the residents had not slept well the night before. Many were cranky and only wanted to sleep. Most were not allowed to go back to their room. It was my task to try to engage them in activities. The deck was stacked against me.

I tried everything I could think of. I put on music (love songs from the 50’s) but this usually effective tool did not work. I tried getting them involved in manipulatives and games. This worked for a short time but soon we were back to gloom and unrest. Even my normally faithful and active domino players did not want to play their favorite game.

Then, I decided I would read them a devotional. I hoped this would a least bring a positive presence into the living area. I announce what I was going to do (little response) and then asked them to pray the Lord’s Prayer with me. I began.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

As I spoke these words I heard voices joining in. Almost all the residents, even those in a near catatonic state joined in. Those with aphasia who could not control their sounds still formed the prayer on their lips. The tension melted and most of the residents listened approvingly to the devotion.

Deep within the hearts and soul of these individuals with differing stages of dementia the Lord still remained. Our Lord promised that he would never us nor abandon us. Even in the darkness that comes with dementia, God is able to break through, come from the heart and is expressed. I never cease to be amazed at this wonderful reality.

Sometimes spiritual direction is simply providing the opportunity for the light of God to shine through the challenges people face.