It was the summer of 1943. The nation was preoccupied with a war that was not going well and an epidemic of poliomyelitis. I was one of the victims of the epidemic. After three weeks in the Cook County Contagious Disease Hospital in Chicago, the medical authorities allowed my family to take me home.
In my bedroom, on top of a chest of drawers, there had been placed a small plaster altar sent to me by one of my many aunts. It was white with a green and gold angel on each side and a relief of Da Vinci's "Last Supper" on the front. On the top there stood a crucifix with six glass candles that glowed when the altar was plugged in, thanks to a light-bulb hidden inside.
For the first six months of my convalescence, a doctor came to our house once a week, sent by the local health commission and, as we were told, the "March of Dimes." He was a tall, quiet man with a large moustache; and his visits followed a pattern. I would be taken out of the "Sister Kenny packs" of hot, wet wool in which I spent my days and carefully examined. Then, at the end of the session, the doctor would put one hand behind my neck and the other under my legs to see how high I could raise my head and shoulders.
Though ten years old, I must confess that I often cried, not because of the seeming hopelessness of it all. After three full months, I still could not be pulled into a sitting position.
One day the doctor gave me a kindly lecture, the theme of which was that only courageous people contract polio. His argument centered upon the president who was then in office, Franklin Roosevelt, and others whose names I no longer recall. It was clear that I was not much impressed. So he sat silent for awhile, then rose, went over to the chest of drawers, bent down, and plugged in the plaster altar.
"Altars are to make us strong," he announced. And with that he launched into a rather involved theological disquisition. I remember only three points. First, Jesus Christ suffered and died on the altar of the cross in order to make us spiritually strong. Second, from the altars of our churches that same Jesus Christ feeds us with His body to keep us spiritually strong. Third, it was time for me to stop feeling sorry for myself and to start getting strong both spiritually and physically; and the way to do this was to focus my attention on the altar in my bedroom with its six glowing candles and the Lord on the cross in the center, the Lord who was waiting for me to join my sufferings to His.
The doctor continued to come for his weekly visits. There were, however, no more sermons, just as there was no more crying or whining. Still, on several occasions before leaving, he would give me a quick smile, go over to the plaster altar, bend down, and plug it in.
About a year later I was up and walking. Once a week I went to a physiotherapist in a neighboring town for exercises first in warm water and then on a gymnast's mat. One afternoon as I was getting back into my clothes, the tall, quiet doctor with the large moustache appeared. "How's our altar?" he inquired. I hated to report that my older brother had attempted to replace the light-bulb inside and shattered the altar in the process.
"Maybe that's just as well," the doctor observed. "It is probably time to graduate to real altars."
I said nothing, but he went on. "As I once told you," he noted, "altars are to make us strong. For the rest of your life, when things are going badly and you think you cannot handle it, look for an altar and put your sufferings on it next to those of Jesus Christ. Together, you and He will find the strength to do whatever needs to be done."
A few years ago I noticed an obituary in the Chicago Times. The doctor had passed away, honored by medical societies in the United States and Canada. I felt terrible. How I wished I had contacted him before he died to tell him of my gratitude for his medical care and especially for his having taken the time to speak to me about altars. How I wished I had been able to let him know that with each passing year I am coming better to understand what he evidently understood quite early in life, that altars are to make us strong.