Our mission here in the United States is one full of surprises. After more than ten years here in Brooklyn, we continue to be amazed by the friends we meet. Sr Katie shares with us an encounter with one of her friends:
I live in a city which the recently canonized Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said was the city most in need of compassion. It is tempting for me often to see only this side of the city of New York: to see only the immense loneliness that so many people struggle with, to face the bureaucracy that keeps the poorest of my friends still homeless or to accept the broken relationships I find in so many families. Yet every time I sit down to write one of these letters to you, it’s the paradox I want to share, the one that we heard this Gaudete Sunday: “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.” (Isaiah 35:1)
If any place could be called a “desert,” I would say it’s a psychiatric hospital. Never did I imagine that I would spend so much time visiting friends in such a place. Never did I imagine that I would be telling you about the life and beauty and hope I see blossoming there. Like every big city, New York has its share of villains and monsters, but also has its share of quiet heroes and hidden saints. One is my friend J and his grandmother Doña V. She raised her children, then raised her grandchildren, and at almost 80 years old, is still clinging to Jesus with a strength that astounds me. J is a simple guy, in the truest sense of that word. It’s refreshing and real. He’s a man of deep faith - he knows that he is held in the hand of God. He’s spent several years in this high security hospital, serving parole for a crime he committed years ago, struggling with both mental illness and physical illness. He is also full of joy. But it’s the kind of mystifying-how can this possibly be-where does it come from- joy that disarms me.
When we went to visit him for his birthday, he was so excited to see us: “Happy Birthday to...ME!!!” he started singing, then ran into his grandmother’s arms. His joy was contagious, and everyone around him was pulled up into it - residents and staff alike, all of whom he knows by name. I was especially impressed by the staff I met there, whose kindness, gentleness and compassion overwhelmed me. As we sat down in the common room to chat, the first thing he wanted to do was pray and receive the Eucharist. So that’s what we did. As his friends came over to see what was going on, he would invite them into prayer, whether they were Catholic or not. Simply and honestly, he says “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...” and he teaches me how to pray. This, then, the source of his joy - he knows he is loved. Beyond his labels, illnesses or mess - he is the son of his Abba. This radiates out from him, and opens up the space in the lives of those around him to discover that same joy.
I entrust to your prayers J, and our many other friends who struggle with mental illness, especially those who do not have the support system of friends they need to stay hopeful.