I’ve got this beloved parishioner whom I visit in a care facility every other week or so. Her contagious smile and overflowing gratitude brighten the days of all around her. I’ve sworn before that there’s nothing that could cause her to complain or curse—she’s one of a kind, and everyone who knows her agrees on that. Just five years ago she was moving more freely than many people half her age. Honestly, some in the congregation questioned her age—thinking she was between ten and fifteen years younger than she actually was. She had found the secret to life, or had drank from the fountain of youth. It seemed as if nothing could slow or stop her. But that all changed. Though her gracious attitude hasn’t been lost in the slightest, life has slowed down and the memory itself has aged significantly. Now when I see her, our recent conversations, her friends from the community, and even my relationship as her pastor are all a struggle to recall. It saddens me greatly each time we visit.
For whatever can be said about losses in memory and the struggle felt by those eagerly trying to engage, there is an instance in every visit I share with this parishioner that gives me a glimmer of hope. Amidst the fading memories and darkness of confusion, a light shines—illuminating Christ’s presence there, continually working goodness even amidst loss. Each time we’re together, I will give my parishioner Holy Communion and together we recite the Lord’s Prayer. And with flawless memory, she who struggles to remember many things speaks with confident faith every word of this core prayer just as she has for decades since she first learned it as a young girl. It always amazes me as I sit there listening to her, unassisted, confessing her faith in the words taught to us by Jesus. What is it, I wonder, about this particular prayer that has kept it safe and secure from slipping into the abyss of loss memories? Is it its rote nature—the memorization behind it—which has fastened it to her mind? Is there more than intellect attached to it—perhaps emotions, experiences, and relationships tied up in its firm foundation for her? Do the feelings of comfort, peace, and strength—and not the neurons of the brain—pull these words out of the vault of faith and carry it into the limelight? Is there a hope at work within and beyond this prayer despite other faculties failing or having ceased altogether? Or, at the end of the day, is this a blessed mystery of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in and through this blessed child of God—something that cannot be reasoned, nor captured by an electroencephalograph (EEG)?
Whether science can answer these questions or not has no change on the beauty heard and witnessed in words of faith recalled in praying together. In such an instance of grace, hers is a holy memory—strengthening my parishioner as always for the continual journey of life, guiding her to listen and follow Christ, drawing her beyond the moment and whatever could find complaint or cursing and instead giving thanks to God. Yet, this holy memory is also more than what it is for her. For me, it is a gift from God—opening the eyes of my faith, in that instant, to see more clearly one such intricate way the Holy Spirit is actively at work within and all around us. God never ceases to work faith in and through us—even when we are hindered or our bodies become less able to respond. Perhaps it’s me clinging to my Lutheran theology, but in praying with my parishioner I’m reminded that this is not her choice or doing—rather it is as Martin Luther says: Instead the Holy Spirit who has called her through the gospel, enlightened her with God’s gifts, made her holy and kept her in the true faith, just as the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith (Small Catechism, Third Article of the Creed). God is constantly working the gift of faith in and through us. I give thanks to God for the holy memory of my beloved parishioner. When all other memories fail, her recalling the words of the Lord’s Prayer and speaking them with me at the end of our visit each time together is a blessing serving to strengthen me also for the journey ahead—no matter what may come or be lost along the way.