I spent several years in a psychiatric hospital as a chaplain. There was a nurse there, Irish and Roman Catholic, whom I’ll never forget. She was somewhere between my generation and my parents’ generation. Frieda used to kid around with me, lecturing me all the time on the big mistake that England made by, in her words, leaving Holy Mother Church, by which she meant Rome. When she recited the Nicene Creed proclaiming her belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” she meant Rome. I had fun with her as well and every time she referred to “the Catholic church,” I would add, “You mean the Roman Catholic church, right? Because I wouldn’t want you to think that the Roman Catholic Church was the Only Catholic Church.”
Frieda grew up in Ireland, a middle child in a very large family, a very poor family at a time when Ireland was at a low point economically. Her mother and father could not keep their family together, so Frieda was placed in an orphanage run by Roman Catholic nuns. Separated not only from her mother and father, but from her brothers and sisters as well, she learned to make a place in her young, green life for a profound grief that was there to stay. And yet Frieda was not a gloomy person. Of all the nurses, of all the doctors, of all the people at the hospital, Frieda was the one you would want to hang out with because she was funny and cheerful.
Several times she told me how at the orphanage she was fed and clothed and encouraged in her schoolwork, and she grew especially close to Jesus. But there were days she would awake in her dorm, surrounded by scores of girls just like her, with a deep longing for her family. She wanted to be close to them, but these sad feelings and thoughts made her long all the more and feel all the more distant from them.
Now this is where I learned something important from Nurse Frieda, to apply to my life and the lives of my parishioners. When her heart was breaking and she couldn’t take it anymore, as a child she would sneak out of her room and steal away into the orphanage chapel. She would pull back the frontal and crawl under the Altar and pull the frontal closed. She felt safe there and she would pray. And as she prayed to our Savior, she felt less and less sad and closer and closer to her family.
Why? Her mom and dad were good Catholics and they loved Jesus as well. They always talked about staying close to Jesus. Somehow over the weeks and months and years, little Frieda began to think of prayer as a rope, a connection that was tied to Jesus. It’s like Jesus is holding all these ropes that people all over the world and all over time are holding onto and prayer is like using that rope to pull in closer and closer and closer to Jesus. Therefore, this little girl reasoned, by drawing closer to Jesus she was also drawing closer to the people who were also praying and drawing closer to Jesus. The closer she drew to Jesus, the closer she drew to her mother and father and brothers and sisters. I think she’s exactly right! Frieda would pray until she fell asleep. When the nuns could not find Frieda they learned to go to the chapel and look under the Altar.
Our highest love belongs to Jesus and no one else will sooth our turbulent, violent heart, no one else will provide a haven of blessing and peace. We all need a home, a place of rest, and a shelter from the storm.