“You are going to put on a performance.”
It was 10am on Thursday morning. We, six Capuchin postulants, were cleaning the craft room. This particular craft room happened to be located in the basement of our ministry site: a nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. And who exactly was informing us that we were going to be on the auditorium stage putting on a show–complete with musical acts, comedy, and dance–in about four hours time? We were given our marching orders by none other than Sister Joseph Maureen, a strong-willed yet affable nun with a mean Boston accent.
I instantly went into a panic. Since I was the only musician of the group that knew how to play an instrument other than percussion, I knew that I was going to be expected to take charge with the music. My mind flashed to all of my childhood piano recitals. In a moment, I relived all of the painful hours of practice that I had spent to ensure that my performances were “polished”. I was overwhelmed by the compulsive itch to give a good performance. In my mind, I believed that the worst I could do for somebody was to waste their time with a mistake-ridden performance.
Fast-forward to an hour before curtain call. My fellow postulants are still in the costume room, fooling around with all of the potential combinations of clown noses and wigs. I’m on the stage, in a purple wizard’s robe, wearing a sombrero and a disheveled lei, pacing silently whilst drowning in anguish. With 60 minutes left, we had worked out a theme (“Around the World”) and a smattering of countries which we would be touring with our performance. Beyond that, there was an utter lack of organization.
In that frantic hour of rehearsal, it was determined that I was the only one capable of taking over the singing for our musical numbers. This uncovered another deep-seated fear of mine: singing alone in public. I knew that my singing was average, but it wasn’t a “performance voice”…so why would anyone want to spend their time listening to an average voice? I was screaming on the inside.
But then, in those final moments, a mission emerged among us. We determined that, no matter how dreadful our performance may turn out, we were going to put our undivided hearts into it. We took on the single-minded conviction that we were going to let go of our fears and pretensions. We were going to knock these seniors off of their feet.
Within minutes, the spacious dining hall filled up with seniors from all seven floors of the home. Some came by their own strength & will, others entered on scooters, and the rest of the crowd probably had no clue what was happening.
The act opened with a sloppy Irish dance. Soon enough, we were in Mexico. This was the moment I had been dreading for so many years: I had no choice but to sing before the whole world. And singing quietly was not in the cards…there was a microphone! I stared intently into the microphone, strummed a zesty B7 chord on the old classical guitar, and croaked out those four syllables, “re-su-ci-TOOOO!”. At the same time that I realized how bad we were sounding, I realized how much passion we were putting into our performance. I danced and sang until my wizard robe was completely soaked in sweat and my virgin fingertips were raw from merciless guitar twanging. We toured Italy before jamming on an artificial Romanian folk dance.
Finally, we returned to the USA. Our closing scene involved a twirling American flag and a rowdy rendition of “This Land is Your Land”. My voice was beginning to crack by the last verse. When we finished, we were met with applause.
After leaving the stage, I quickly sat down at a dining table dazed, exhausted, and a little bit self-conscious. I kicked myself: why did Sister make us do this on such short notice? Why didn’t they applaud louder? Did they even appreciate all of the sweat we shed on that stage?
George–the Korean War veteran sitting next to me–nearly immediately rescued me from my self-absorption. “You guys sure lit this place up,” he continued, “some of these folks don’t even walk…and you made them dance!”. He was right. As I looked up and surveyed the room, I saw laughter and smiles all around. The frail were getting up from their seats, and even some of the employees were gleefully dancing with the residents. The scene was almost a little glimpse of heaven. “And you somehow managed to get me down here.” George had never been to any public events since his arrival at the home four weeks earlier.
And then it dawned upon me: these residents didn’t care about the quality of our performance. In fact, it wasn’t even a performance that they wanted from us. They only wanted our presence.
I am reminded of the Eucharist and those words of Jesus:
“take, this is my body”.
The greatest gift that we can give is not a flawless performance, or a well-wrapped package, or a heartfelt affirmation. The greatest gift that we can give is that of our own bodies.
We brought ourselves to be among the elderly, and we offered the best that we had on that stage. It wasn’t perfect. But the very fact that our bodies were on that stage was what bore fruit in the lives of those seniors.
Such it is with life. It has never really been about what we accomplish or who we impress. Those goals easily become masks behind which we hide our vulnerable selves. The wholeness of life is found simply in being present to it. The wholeness of our relationships is found not in the words or touches we exchange, but in the mere fact that we can be together.
After my conversation with George, I was approached by Terry. Terry is very old and severely afflicted by dementia. Most of the time, she cannot speak coherently. She walked up to me with arms outstretched and a beaming smile planted upon her face. This time, I did not hesitate.
I stood up, took her hands into mine, and danced like a fool.