Sunday, March 29, 2009


Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

She was lying in a bed in an upstairs room in the home of her daughter in a small town in northern Italy. She had been lying there for a year, suffering from multiple physical ailments common to people in their eighties, as well as the daily grief from missing her husband who died years earlier. Her daughter daily cared for the physical needs of her ailing mother, week after week, month after month. Bathing, skin care, turning, spoon feeding, assisting in the basic tasks of living.

We spent three days in that home resting in quiet. We had been traveling for the previous few weeks on a spiritual pilgrimage across Europe. We came to rest, renew and reconnect with family. Over two decades ago, my brother married an Italian woman and they had been living in northern Italy ever since. While in his home, I found myself drawn to the side of the bed upstairs. There she lay, an Italian widow, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Nonna. She spoke no English. I speak only a few phrases of Italian, just enough to order coffee and brioche. We got along marvelously.

What do you do at the bedside of the dying? What if the dying person is an Italian grandmother who even if you had an idea of what to say to her wouldn’t understand a word you said? As it turned out, the language barrier was no hurdle. We moved around the barrier and met heart to heart in that sacred place beneath words.

We sang. I sang with my voice. Nonna sang with her eyes. I sang an old song in Latin. Dona Nobis Pacem. Grant us peace. She sang with her eyes shining as she attentively listened. I held her hand, chilled to the touch and wrinkled. I bowed my head and asked if she’d like to pray with me, using body language to convey the meaning of my invitation. She brought her hands together in a prayerful clasp. We offered our lives to God together, heart to heart, beyond language, nationality, gender, generation. Even beyond oceans which normally divided us.

Back in my college days, I had a poster on my wall which said, He who sings prays twice. I didn’t really understand the truth behind that saying until I sang Dona Nobis Pacem with Nonna. In that old Latin song, our hearts reached out to ask for and, wonder of wonders, receive the divine gift of peace.

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