Most days we are joined by a petite, frail old woman who wheels herself into the chapel, strains to reach the holy water font, blesses herself and then settles in to begin her daily devotions.
At six o'clock each morning, we Little Sisters gather in the chapel to begin our day with an hour of prayer. Most days we are joined by a petite, frail old woman who wheels herself into the chapel, strains to reach the holy water font, blesses herself and then settles in to begin her daily devotions. By the time we are ready to sing the divine office a half hour later, several more women and a retired priest have joined us. When I pass through the chapel mid-morning a whole group of residents is already there praying as they wait for Mass to begin. Again in the late afternoon they are there -- fingering their rosaries or thumbing through tattered prayer books as they prepare to join us for evening prayer.
Our elderly residents are a constant presence in our chapel. They are like the Biblical figures Simeon and Anna, whom Pope Francis recently called 'poets of prayer.' "The prayer of grandparents and of the elderly is a great gift for the Church, it is a treasure!" he proclaimed at a recent general audience. Prayer is "a great injection of wisdom for the whole of human society: above all for one which is too busy, too taken, too distracted."
"Prayer is the purpose of old age," said Pope Francis, quoting Olivier Clément, a 20th century Orthodox theologian: "A civilization which has no place for prayer is a civilization in which old age has lost all meaning. And this is terrifying. For, above all, we need old people who pray; prayer is the purpose of old age."
Clément's insight captures so eloquently the witness given by the residents of our homes. Although I am a consecrated person, I often become too busy and too distracted, as Pope Francis said. But each time I see the elderly quietly praying in the chapel, I am reminded of the sharing of spiritual goods through the communion of saints, and of St. Therese of Lisieux's words that prayer is a lever capable of lifting up the world. What a debt of gratitude we owe the elderly who offer prayers of praise, gratitude and remembrance, making up for the sentiments that, in our overly busy lives, we forget to offer God!
Pope Francis encourages his contemporaries to pray on behalf of others: "We are able to thank the Lord for the benefits received, and fill the emptiness of ingratitude that surrounds us. We are able to intercede for the expectations of younger generations and give dignity to the memory and sacrifices of past generations. We are able to remind ambitious young people that a life without love is a barren life. We are able say to young people who are afraid that anxiety about the future can be overcome. We are able to teach the young who are overly self-absorbed that there is more joy in giving than in receiving."
Grandparents, the pope said, "form the enduring 'chorus' of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise sustain the community which toils and struggles in the field of life." These are strong and moving words from Pope Francis, but his message is more than mere spiritual rhetoric. Just as cloistered religious believe that their vocation is to spend their lives interceding for the church and the world, I believe that the prayers of the Simeons and Annas I know are invaluable in interceding for me and the whole world.
Everyday I witness, as Pope Francis said, "The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing." I find it moving to realize that just when their physical energies are waning and the dominant culture considers them a useless burden, the elderly have such great spiritual power. How profoundly grateful I am to be able to share my life with such 'poets of prayer!'
Whatever your problems or worries may be, confide them to the elderly Simeons and Annas you know. They will not fail to take your concerns to heart and to present them to our merciful Lord on your behalf.
Sister Constance Veit is communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.