Hope - God's Great Gift
Originally published in March 1996
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
The spiritual care-giver knocked on the door. The AIDS patient sat alone in the dark room. He wanted to learn the Creed. He was French; and she wished she knew the Creed in French. It would be easier for him to learn it, and his memory was still good. He began to repeat after her, "I believe in God. . . ." The care-giver moved on to the woman in the next room. She was blind but her fingers could dance on the beads as she recited the Rosary. She was so happy - - The operation on her breast was a success. "They were able to get the whole tumor!" The next patient was a man of sixty who had had his arm and leg amputated. When asked by the care-giver how he was coping, he said, "The Lord never gives you more than you can endure." The young mother of two little children was next. She was waiting for a bone marrow transplant. She explained to the care-giver that only a few years ago there was only a 30 percent cure rate but now it was over 50 percent -- "I know I'm going to be in the 50% who live."
What did these patients have in common? They had hope -- hope for the future. Each patient viewed the future differently. The AIDS patient knowing that his illness was terminal wanted to learn about God by memorizing the Creed. The blind woman was grateful that her cancer had been surgically removed. The sixty year old man believed that God would always protect him from pain he could not endure, and the young mother hoped she would live to see her children grow up.
Everyone wants to believe that there is something beyond human experience. This gives them a sense of hope. In Catholicism, Christ is our role model for hope. Through his teaching, suffering, dying and resurrection, we enter into the mystery of faith and find God. Our religion reinforces our Christian hope everyday of our lives.
A spiritual care-giver to the sick must recognize the significance of hope. Not only must he or she be an informed Catholic, he or she must also be able to listen to the concerns, fears and hopes of the patient. To pray with the patient for a physical and spiritual care, to read passages from scripture that highlight God's healing power, to give the Eucharist, the centerpiece of life, to the patient these are all aspects of hope. When Christians are ill, either they may feel the need to have their basic religious beliefs reinforced by the spiritual care-giver or they may want to be in constant contact with God -- through the Eucharist, the Rosary, the Bible or prayer. Facing death only intensifies the Christians' desire to communicate with God.
Life is a process and patients may or may not accept death as part of this process. Whatever the situation, there is a need for hope. Those who deny that death is part of life use hope to avoid the reality of the situation and hope then becomes part of the denial mechanism. It is important that the spiritual care-giver presents God to the patient in such a way that the patient believes God can change a situation because God can -- maybe not in the way the patient intended it to be, but in God's design for each human life. Hope is always reinforced by the power of prayer.
When the patient realizes there is no longer any hope for a remission or cure, the focus of hope changes. The patient begins to develop other "hopes' that take the place of the cure. He or she may ask God not to prolong suffering or ask if life could continue long enough to attend a family member's wedding. There are many "hopes" that stem from the confinement of one's illness. Finally, hope is wanting to be with God after death or the resurrection. Christian hope is the essence or source of life even though the patient is dying.
The spiritual care-givers are standing at the foot of the Cross with the very ill helping the process of Christian faith enter into the patient's soul through the Holy Spirit. They are there to help the dying through the last stages of life.
Cures of physical symptoms and their causes are not always possible, but God's healing defines the element of hope in each person. God's healing comforts the patient who knows death is imminent for he believes the God who created him will redeem him. Healing emerges from hope in God even when there is suffering and the humbling experience of chronic and serious illness. When the patient finally embraces God, hope becomes God's healing power.
The American Association of the Order of Malta is training its members to become spiritual care-givers in hospitals and nursing homes throughout the country.
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