Receiving ashes this year was different for me than in years past. Instead of attending an Ash Wednesday service at a church, I attended Ash Wednesday Mass in a chapel at the hospital where I typically volunteer on Sundays. That Wednesday at the hospital, I was assisting the staff chaplains with the imposition of ashes in addition to being one of the hundreds of people who were visibly marked with the cross on our foreheads. Ashes were distributed not only in the chapel but in the midst of packed waiting areas, lonely hospital rooms, and in bustling hallways. From doctors and nurses to patients and their visiting loved ones, ashes were placed upon anyone who wanted them. In the course of my day at the hospital, these Lenten ashes took on additional meaning for me. No matter the job we hold or where we are at in life, we human beings are simply creatures. We are inherently poor. We are needy. We are incomplete. We are precious dust in constant need of God’s loving kindness, mercy, and wisdom.
Recently I visited a woman, Lucy, in her room at this same hospital.1 She was afflicted with a terminal illness, a particular kind of blood cancer now in its late stages. As we spent some time in conversation, I couldn’t help but notice the sterility of the environment – white walls, white bed sheets, and a monolithic telemetry monitor next to her bed tracking every change in her vital signs. Sunlight filtered through the window of her sterile hospital room, softening our shared space with a subdued radiance.
I asked her what needs and intentions she would like to bring before God that day. I often hear many of the same prayer requests – “I would like my body to heal,” “For my family members, who are worried sick about me,” and “In the hope that I never have to come back to this place.” What Lucy said next caught my attention. She did not hesitate in praying for the gift of wisdom to make the right decisions regarding her end-of-life care. In that sacred moment, I was a witness to a prayer generated from the depths of the heart, a prayer rooted in the knowledge that our God is the Giver of all good gifts. It was an earnest prayer spoken from a place of radical poverty. It was a humble supplication voiced with a profound degree of trust and humility. Why was I so deeply moved by this request of hers? Upon further reflection, it reminded me of the closing line from the First Principle and Foundation found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: “we ought to desire and choose only that which is more conducive to the end for which we are created.” Lucy knew she was on her way to meeting Jesus face-to-face. She was expressing a prayer that came from a place of true freedom in her heart.
Towards the end of our encounter, Lucy entered into a reflective mood. She looked serene and she spoke in a relaxed voice. She began to pour forth her own God-given wisdom upon me as she revealed the prayer that had kept her going all this time. It was a prayer she knew well, a prayer that anchored her in the midst of turbulence and uncertainty.
“Jesus, help me.”
I had heard this short prayer before, but this time I experienced it differently. In their simplicity, honesty, and poverty, these three words reflected to me the same essential qualities I was seeing in Lucy and in myself. We are poor creatures who are totally and completely dependent on God and on each other. Blessed are we who have been given the faith and courage to call upon the name of the Lord in times of trouble and tribulation, and blessed are we who accompany each other on this journey as we serve Christ in each other.
During this season of Lent, we are reminded of the nature of our relationship to God, Creator and Redeemer. We are asked to reflect on our innate spiritual poverty, a poverty born from the very fact that we are creatures and not the Creator. When we are tormented by our human vulnerability and by genuine feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, how might we respond? In these situations often marked with spiritual desolation, St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages us to hold fast to prayer and to labor in patience.
Lucy’s simple and sincere entreaty, “Jesus, help me,” maybe said once or maybe in mantra repetition, is a complete prayer unto itself. Prayers that can be said with only a single breath are sometimes the best ones suited for anchoring us in faith and hope. Lucy found comfort in this prayer as her earthly journey was coming to a close. Each of us have encountered and will continue to encounter situations in which our own human poverty will be felt in different ways – a temporary loss in employment, the inability to console a grieving friend, the end of a significant relationship, and so many others. In those moments, may we who speak to God in direct and simple ways be open to receiving the graces that God wishes to bestow according to God’s own timing and in God’s own fashion.
- Not her real name. ↩