Saturday, February 21, 2009

I would like to tell you a story.

In 1969, just after my conversion, Our Lord through an uncanny chain of events led me to work in an institution for the mentally handicapped in Ontario. There were five thousand patients and literally miles of wards.

One day the supervisor said to me, "How would you like to work on a ward where we seldom get volunteers?" I said, "Sure! I'm willing. What kind of people are there?" He replied, "Well, I'll let you see for yourself."

We went down to a distant annex of the labyrinth, and he took me into a small ward which contained about a dozen stainless steel cribs. Like everywhere else in the building, it was a cold and barren place, devoid of beauty or cheer. There were no pictures, no toys, nothing on the walls. A nurse pointed to a crib and said, "Why don't you meet Jimmy? He never has visitors."

When I looked inside this steel cage, I saw there what I thought was a little boy. Flat on his back with arms spread wide he resembled the corpus on a crucifix. He was hydrocephalic. For those of you who don't know the term, in the old days before the development of medical technology for draining water off the brain, certain children suffered from greatly expanded craniums. As water built on the brain, their skulls would expand and expand, the bone structure growing to enormous proportions to compensate for the internal pressure. In this ward there were about a dozen such children with extraordinarily large heads, some of them with very small bodies. They had never been able to move, or play, or even pull themselves upright like other children.

"He's spent all his life in that crib," said the nurse."How old is he?" I asked, thinking that he was about six or seven years old, and mentally handicapped as well."He's twenty-one years old," said the nurse and went away.

Here was this small person staring back at me out of his little universe. It was a great shock for me, because it was my first experience of seeing a severely deformed human being. I recovered quickly, but it threw my senses into disarray for a moment. And yet, within a second or two, I saw his eyes. When you bracketed the face, blocking out the deformities, it was a very beautiful face. I am not talking about appearance but about something more elusive.

I saw a soul looking back through those eyes. A person was looking through those eyes at me, and I found myself to be a person looking through my own eyes at him—looking not as examination but as mutual presence to each other. Two souls regarding each other with full attention in a moment of silence, two persons between whom there was no common language. And yet the language of the heart is, as I was to discover, the most powerful language of all.

As we gazed at each other there were no social conventions to make it uncomfortable. For me it was heartbreaking but moving. His body was the size of a two or three year old's, and his head twice as large as it should be, and yet joy was shining out of these eyes. And I who had everything, all the powers of man, was in anguish, confusion, darkness. It seemed to me that here in this prisoner was mankind itself, a human person reduced to fundamental poverty. And joy was shining from his eyes!

Something came out of those eyes with the joy that was a powerful .... Words fail me utterly to describe what it was. I will have to use a crude term for it. It was like a beam of love, a force of love. And I saw that he who had nothing, he who was utterly poor, was rich!

Did he have suffering? Yes, perhaps crushing suffering, but he was rich. And I who had everything, I discovered at that moment, was the poor man.It was an awesome dawning of awareness, to feel for the first time the almost tangible power of the soul. Love is a power not only of the heart and the emotions, or the intellect or the will. It is a power of the soul—a power that gives life. And this abandoned "child", useless according to the mind of the world, was bestowing on me a gift that no one can ever purchase. He was simply loving me.

After a few more moments of simply gazing into each other's eyes, he opened his mouth, smiled at me, took my hand in his own and in a child's voice spoke the three radioactive words, "I love you." And I have never been the same since.Here in this radically reduced life is the value of the human soul broken open for us to see. Reduced, in human terms, to its essential greatness. Michael O’Brien

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