It is 7:00 am and already several members of the Joseph’s House community have gathered in the soft morning light of the living room. A candle is lit with fresh flowers on the coffee table. Sister Rose Mary Dougherty has set out a few books for our day-long retreat at home, our Mindful Monday.
Rusty arrived a few days ago. He has liver cancer with metastasis to his brain. Last night he felt restless and anxious. Cathy, our overnight nurse, invited him to keep her company since he couldn’t sleep anyway. They watched TV together and played some dominoes. Cathy helped Rusty begin to feel at home at Joseph’s House – she helped him find his place here. He is sleeping now, on the couch under a quilt. We don’t wake him. Ann, one of our nurses, and her little terrier Ajax come through the door. They join us in the living room for a few minutes before Ann begins her day. Tina has already started breakfast. Dishtowel in hand, she sits on the floor, her back against the couch where Rusty is sleeping. We pause for ourselves and we pause for one another. We open ourselves to the every-day sacred.
Just here. Just now. Just this.
All day, residents, volunteers and staff come to the living room to enjoy time in quiet. Some speak personally with Rose Mary. In our own way each of us comes here to find a place of rest in the middle of things. From time to time Rose Mary sounds a bell inviting us to pause wherever we are, no matter what we are doing, take a deep breath and bring our attention to just this moment, right here, right now. Mindful Mondays feel spacious and unhurried; calm and kind. Taking time on Mondays to be intentional about slowing down and listening deeply helps us to enter a sense of presence and peace on the other days of the week.
It’s a bit strange to admit this, but it took courage to introduce meditation and deep listening practices to our community. There was a point about ten years ago when we were running out of energy. As caregivers we seemed to be losing a sense of the sacred in our life and work at Joseph’s House. Our religious differences became obstacles to communication, so we stopped communicating much about God at all. Yet a longing persisted for a shared sense of meaning or mystery that could nourish each one and open us again to the presence of God as each of us understands God. To the peace that passes all understanding.
Today at Joseph’s House our intentional spiritual practices are a source of strength and hope. They have become part of our culture, the way we live. As we deepen the heart’s capacity to listen well and grow in knowledge of ourselves, our compassion deepens. After many years of making meditation practice a cornerstone of our work at Joseph’s House, each person’s religious identification is a valued aspect of their unique being. All of us – and this year we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and still-searching staff, volunteers and residents – enjoy finding a place of rest in the middle of things. When we pause and listen deeply from the heart we come into the presence of God as we understand God. In this way compassion grows and becomes a living presence at Joseph’s House.
In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes that when Jesus was moved to compassion for those who were left out, those on the margins of society in his time, His compassion announced that the hurt is to be taken seriously…the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but as an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. This means so much to me. Meditation and prayer deepen within me, and I experience greater awareness of the suffering of others. In the silence I notice and feel more. I am growing in my capacity to take the hurt seriously. Would that my will could align with God’s will to understand and resist and soften the suffering of the men and women we care for, and their families and loved ones.
Dr. David Hilfiker, Joseph’s House founder and longtime advocate for justice for the oppressed, helps us to understand and try to change the structures in society that privilege some of us so richly and oppress others of us so profoundly. He writes and teaches about urban injustice and he meets with our full-time year-long volunteers, talking to them about justice issues and their relationship to the men and women who live with us. Compassion goes deep when, as we welcome the men and women who come to Joseph’s House at the end of their lives, we are as aware as we can be of the social conditions that pushed them in our direction. It’s a delicate balance.
As this story comes to a close, it is getting late on Monday afternoon. Soon it will be dark. From the kitchen comes the smell of onions sizzling in the pan. It’s nearly dinner time. Rusty is enjoying a cigarette on the front porch. Little Ajax, his new friend, is keeping him company. In a few minutes, Rose Mary will sound the bell. We will come together to reflect on our day, to pray, to give thanks.