I talk to my friend Cecile most everyday. She is in her mid-nineties and her mind is clear enough to be humiliated by the betrayals of her failing body and wise enough to set aside any pride that might keep her from asking for comfort. I watch her secret internal divisions. She would be relieved to die, but wants nothing more than to be faithful to her god and useful to the world. She has told me it frustrates her that she has to receive more than she can give.
I chuckle at the irony of this. I stroke her head with my whole hand, not just my fingers, so that the warmth and whatever vitality my palm confers against her grayed and thinning scalp might be hers for a moment. The blessing of touch, for me and I hope for her. I tell her the greatest gift she can give, maybe the greatest of her lifetime, is to allow those of us who adore her the honor of lavishing our affections on her. “You’ve earned that much,” I say.
She frowns at me impatiently from the little perch on her walker, as if I’ve lost all sense of proportion. No single human life—so meager and flawed—can be worth devotion better spent on God. Not hers, not anyone’s. “It’s my devotion,” I say, “you can’t tell me where to spend it. Besides, I’m the minister, I know better than you.” This to make her smile and take a swipe at me.
How can I revere what I can only imagine at? I try anyway, and I can do so only because there is someone so lovely as Cecile, so pressed on and kneaded into unrepeatable form by a lifetime full of more than she can remember or anyone can assess: losses of children and grandchildren to AIDS and drugs and the tyrannies of human vulnerability; abuses by men and the nuns of her youth; the soldiers she nursed in Britain during the war, the haystacks of needles dispensed, the many sheets drawn up over expired faces and then gathered into a wad when the bodies were taken away; and the generosity with which she has nonetheless greeted her burdens and with which she has spent more years in prayer than most people born in 1920 have had the privilege to live, praying out of her hope for the good of anyone who catches her attention, for their endurance, for their success, for their fruitfulness. Her humor, her restlessness and still hungry mind. Her eyes radiate more joy, more sadness and more intelligence than should be possible for the weathered and overused body that is their setting.
That radiance and whatever is responsible for it, that I can revere.