This note (from facebook, used with permission) is from Fr. Vincent Daily, brother to my friend Eileen Daily and both of them sister to Connie Daily, who has DS. Connie is an adult, had a bad case of pneumonia last week, and is still in recovery…and Fr. Daily picks up the story there:
Just left my sister at the rehab hospital. She’s got a roommate for a few days. Anyway, Connie just went out of her way to go over to this person whom she has never met … Extends her hand and says, “Hi, I’m Connie”. The poor lady says, “Sorry I’m not better company, I’m going through chemo”. Connie hugs her and says “it’s ok”… Con sat next to her for a few minutes holding her hand. The poor lady had a beaming smile on. An occasion of grace.
As I do my night prayers, I just thank God for my sister’s greatness of heart and being an example of what it means to a genuine Christian.
This made a lot of people smile, but it’s more than a nice story. It reminds me of a question I raise in the manuscript, where I focus on what we think of the spiritual capabilities of people with Down Syndrome:
Vanier prods us continually: do we really believe in the holiness of people with disabilities? If we want to see a “sign” of witness that usually holds deep meaning to Catholics, there is a small order of religious sisters in France called the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb. It is a small contemplative community of nuns who have Down Syndrome in community with other nuns who do not. From their own literature:
Guided by the wisdom of St Benedict, we teach our little disabled sisters the manual labour necessary for their development. We live poverty in putting ourselves at their disposal. With them, we share the work of everyday life.
The office, adoration and the praying of the rosary are adapted to their rhythm and their capacities. In a spirit of silence, our prayer feeds every day on the Eucharist and on the meditation of the Gospel. ….
“We follow every day the ‘little way’ taught by Saint Therese; knowing that ‘great actions are forbidden to us’, we learn from her to receive everything from God, to ‘love for the brothers who fight’, to ‘scatter flowers for Jesus’, and to pray for the intentions entrusted to us.”[i]
It is striking, and produces a smile, to see the pictures associated with this small group of consecrated women: one never sees women with DS in a full habit. The description of their life together reminds one a bit of L’Arche. But perhaps the most salient reactions I have had are when I share this group with other Catholic women who have children with DS, or love someone with the diagnosis: they sometimes break down crying, with comments such as: “I would wish this so much for my daughter/niece/friend. I know she is so close to God. Why don’t other people see how holy these people can be?” Granted, a habit does not make one holy. And choosing the religious life needs to be a free choice, so I assume they practice ways of discernment that make certain that this calling is from God and a truly free choice for these women. But the habited nuns with DS stand as a stark visual reminder of the universal call to holiness. That indeed, regardless of any limitation, we are called to a spiritual infinite—we are called to union with God.
If we do believe in the holiness of people with DS, that they bear witness to Christ through a theology of the body as well as anyone else, the first story should not surprise anyone at all. Indeed, too much surprise should convict us.