My Saturday afternoons are normally my book reading time – I like to crawl up in my introvert shell and meditate on timeless wisdom of the ages. This week, I had to debate on whether I had to change the plan to be involved in a ‘service project’ instead. I decided to get out of my introvert bubble and risk extroversion by helping out on the ‘service project’ because of two reasons – One, I feel strongly about ‘acts of unconditional compassion’ being one of the key ‘fruits’ of a Christian life. Two, the service project plan, to go door to door and offer to help with anything in house that may need ‘fixing’ is something that has deep historical precedence in the tradition of the Christian monks of the medieval world.
The Christian monks, the modern caricatures not withstanding, were in many ways than one, the ‘social safety net’ of the Medieval world. The monks who were into compassion ministries, helped poor widows cut firewood, established good agricultural practices and turned their monasteries into hospitals to take care of sick. I strongly believe, that the modern civilization, fragmented and dysfunctional as it is, needs a reinvigorated application of the principles of medieval monastic ministries of compassion. Enough of my rationale for dragging myself away from my world of books on a quite afternoon.
Anyways… a few of us, friends from First Presbyterian Church go together and split up to groups 3 groups of 4 each (yes, were were a total of ‘twelve’… surprise, surprise). My group went knocking door to door. None of the residents wanted our help. Some were suspicious, some skeptical some were pleasantly surprised and wished us well. So much for my exalted rationale of giving up my time with books to sow seed for recreating a new monasticism (Parched humor if you will… :P). As our group did a full circle and was getting close to where we had started, we found another group toiling hard in the yard of a house that looked kind of old.
The front and back yard was covered with dry leaves. The group that was working there told us that there was an old lady in the house who did not seem to have anyone around to help her clean her yard. It looked like none had touched the yard in like 10 years. As we started work on the yard, further details were filled in. The old lady had dementia. She kept forgetting what she had just said and kept asking the same question again and again. She had to be reintroduced to the person who she had met just 10 minutes ago.
As we were toiling along, one pragmatic observer said, “you know, we do this cleaning up, but she may not even remember this at all”. It was indeed a discouraging thought. Not that the point of helping is to be remembered, for to expect that would be ‘conditional’ compassion, but to ‘remember’ is to have a relationship. All relationships are a form of remembrance. When we think about someone we love, we do not so much have some ‘abstract’ thoughts about the person as much as we remember something we did with them in ‘concrete’ terms – like the one time we took a picture posing like crazy in a photo booth, or that of having a drink over a meal and funny conversations, or the time when we lost track of time talking about the happenings of life.
As I was toiling away, I wondered what it meant to not have memory and the meaning it brings. After all, there is no meaning without memory. Memory of events and people gives us the context to find meaning within. To have toiled at cleaning up the yard, but to be unable to give the old lady a ‘memory’ of this seemed to sap away the meaning of this act of compassion. On the other hand, an act of compassion for the sake of an act of compassion was good enough too, so I kept tarrying on… As were the fellow toilers.
Every now and then we stopped to chat a bit about how sad the state of existence of this lady was. Her house had holes, the roof was cracked etc… etc… Someone was hatching plans to find more about the lady by talking to the neighbors to see how else we could help her. After all, the poor lady couldn’t be trusted to remember her own story. The pity of the old lady became the fuel driving us harder to clean up the place.
As we were in this pity induced mission work, one of the ladies in our team who had met the old lady said something that brought a paradigm shift. Apparently the old lady had prayed that morning to Jesus that He would send someone to clean up the yard. And we were an answered prayer. I couldn’t help but wonder that in spite of all ravages that dementia had brought upon her, she had not forgotten to pray. At that point, my pity of the old lady turned into admiration for her. This old lady who forgets left, right and center still remembers to pray. She remembers the one relationship that truly matters. She remembers the one thing that truly makes life meaningful – her memories of her relationship with the sweet Lord.
This paradigm shifting revelation was one of those powerful moments in life when you pity someone and condescend to help them, only to realize that you are the one to be pitied. If there ever was a dementia in which one would forget everything except the Lord and what He does for us, then that would be the most blessed kind of dementia. In fact, if one thinks about it further, one realizes that everyone is demented in someway or another. A few weeks back Facebook and Twitter were buzzing with the people’s thoughts on the Emmys and then it was about NFL and now it is about Sochi Olympics next week it will be about Valentines, all this remembering is great, but if all these distractions lead us to a place of not remembering to pray, and consequently about forgetting the Lord, then that would be the kind of dementia that is the worst of all.
As people get older, they are increasingly consumed by fewer and fewer things. At that point, it is blessed to be possessed by a ‘remembrance’ of ones relationship with the Lord. The lesson to me from this experience was that I needed to build my life-memories around my relationship with the Lord, so that when I get old and senile and forget everything that I have read in my books or talked with my friends, that I would remember my relationship with the Lord.
At the end of our clean up by which point we had filled up 30 thrash bags with dry leaves and twigs, that old lady walked up to the door to thank us. As I beheld her tiny hunched physique, all I could see and be astounded by was the burning Spirit of the living God in her. If I had spent my 4 hours of Saturday afternoon with my books, warped up in my world of eternal truths, I wouldn’t have been any close to encountering the sort of real life wisdom that I found manifest in the faith of this old lady who has dementia, but of the other kind, the kind that reduces all distractions and focuses her to truly ‘remember’ her Creator and find meaning in that sweet memory. The sweet lady of old faith may not remember us, but her ‘remembrance’ of the Lord would be sweeter for her prayer was answered through the work of the twelve on a Saturday afternoon.
I pray to God that, my demented self, which remembers the vain trivia of this world but forgets the Lord would be turned to the dementia of the other kind, the blessed one, like that of this lady of old faith, which forgets the vain things of the world, but as the Philosopher of ‘vanity of vanities’ commends, “remembers the Lord”.
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” – Ecclesiastes 12:1.
Ps: As I gathered from a note today (Monday) sent by one of the girls who had arranged for this service event, and who visited with the lady today, the lady whose house we cleaned had the fondest memories of our help and had ‘gushed’ about all that we had done to her family. This good news makes the whole experience sweeter still. 🙂