“Suffering is the earthly aspect of that divine reality known as love.” (Secrets of the Interior Life)
Since I’ve left Milan, I’ve had difficulty explaining the Sacra Famiglia…and even here, in my attempt to order the millions of experiences I had in only nine days there, I still feel I’ve fallen short of reality. To start from somewhere, I guess it’s a residency for patients with severe mental and physical handicaps, but that description definitely doesn’t do it justice. It’s a sort of little town adapted to the needs of the ospiti, as the residents are called, with broad, automatic doors and ramps for wheelchairs at every entrance, complete with a church, woodworking and pottery workshop, hairdresser, and mini movie theater. According to each disability there are different buildings with round-the-clock nurses.
And everywhere, there are smiles.
I simply cannot describe the way the faces of the ospiti would light up when I would pass them walking (or wheeling) outside and greet them with a simple “buongiorno.”
It’s not just any smile. It’s the smile of someone who takes her daily walk by driving her motorized wheelchair with her foot because it’s all she can move. It’s the smile of a young man who had his job, his life, and his future lined up, and after a fall woke up in a wheelchair and with a tracheotomy. It’s the smile of a grandpa with a walker whose conversations remind you of a five-year-old, and who you know probably never turned six. There’s a lot behind those smiles.
During the nine days which we spent in this little world, there is one image in particular which is imprinted on my heart–and which I hope I will never forget.
One morning, during the usual breakfast routine, we sat down in the café with our cappuccinos and croissants, being happily greeted by the ospiti with kisses and conversations. In wheeled Francesca, who surprised me in two ways when I had met her. First, the way she could drive her motorized wheelchair perfectly, despite her tiny muscles that sometimes seemed to have a mind of their own. Second, how she managed to increase that already overwhelming smile of hers when she wanted to say hello. As we greeted her, the bartender called to Gabriele, who had been sitting at a nearby table. We had become good friends with Gabriele, as he loved to give hugs and tell us (or repeat five phrases to us) about Rome. Being able to walk and understand a conversation, we watched as he was entrusted a mission. Walking up to the counter, he took the drink which was handed to him, and turned to Francesca.
Time stood still as Gabriele patiently held the straw to Francesca’s mouth while she enjoyed her breakfast.
From the outside we are quick to see something wrong with them, but in reality, they have something ever so RIGHT.
Many, many questions passed through my soul as I passed the days with the ospiti. From the beginning, it was clear to me that despite all they seemed to lack, they had something I didn’t. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it… it wasn’t the experience I expected, of feeling like I don’t suffer in comparison with their lives. No, what impressed me wasn’t how different were are… Rather, little by little I came to realize that I am exactly the same as them. Yes, I who can walk, talk, eat, study a college degree, live independently…I am the same as them. Because we all have limitations and defects and wounds… Theirs are that they can’t walk or talk, or the connections in their brain that aren’t healthy. Mine might be more hidden at first glance (sometimes not…) but they’re really the same. They, as well as I, have the freedom to live the suffering in my life as I wish. Amid the smiles, there were also stories that had left only bitterness in their trails. I, as well as they, can add to the suffering with bitterness or redeem it with love. Neither option will take away the suffering itself–those smiles still come from wheelchairs and hospital beds. But it changes incredibly what that suffering becomes.
What they had, which I didn’t, was an embrace. An embrace of their own need and limitation which allowed them to embrace ME in a way that I had never experienced in the same way before.
My time with the ospiti did make me ask that famous question of why God allows some people to live in so much suffering…but their smiles confused my question. Those smiles just wouldn’t leave me alone. How was I finding the most genuine smiles I had ever seen in a place like this?
By the end of the week, after a long search, I could finally say that I could see God’s goodness in these sick and wounded, suffering people. I saw it precisely in the place of suffering which makes so many question God’s very existence. I saw it in those wounds, because it was there that I saw him bring forth life. If they are so truly happy, often more happy than we are, yet with more pain… Then their suffering can purify; it can give birth to a life more real than this one. Those smiles are an overwhelming light reaching through a rend in the veil under which the rest of us live– although that rend be a wound. I didn’t see a God who strikes with a lightning bolt and then leaves us to suffer meaninglessly. I saw a God who has reached into our fallen world, touched us where we most hurt, and given us a healing piece of paradise.