“Please come with us,” said one of my fellow parishioners after a recent vigil Mass. “We’re afraid she’s going to die.”
I had no idea who “she” was, but my response was instantaneous: “Call 911.”
“We did,” the woman replied, her voice shaking. “But she keeps refusing treatment, and they said they can’t take her against her will.”
A neighbor of the parishioner was essentially trapped in her home, both physically and, perhaps more forcefully still, mentally and spiritually. Anya lived alone in the house she’d grown up in; her parents had died, and she had no real contact with her few remaining relatives. Now in her early 60s, she battled arthritis, agoraphobia and alcoholism, as well as a profound despair born of an abusive childhood.
A few days earlier, all of those forces had conspired to flatten her — literally. After a drinking bout, she’d fallen and couldn’t get off the floor of her bedroom. She’d managed to pull a blanket across her body and had resigned herself to laying on the stained carpet, surrounded by piles of clothing, boxes of snacks, empty water bottles and overflowing ashtrays: the tragic clutter of a hoarder. Her faithful chihuahua nestled close; the house reeked of animal and, sadly, human waste.
Fortunately, two of our parishioners, both daily Mass attendees who lived just a few doors away, kept checking on Anya; one had a spare key to the house and had implored her to leave with the medics he’d called no less than three times. But during each visit, Anya would rally just enough to somehow convince the first responders that she didn’t need to head to the hospital: she was “just resting” on the floor, she planned to call her doctor, a nephew was on his way to assist her.
Every attempt at intervention was snarled by a maddening tangle of patient autonomy rights, flawed mental health policies and the twin crises of gun violence and drug addiction that had utterly exhausted our city’s police and rescue squads. Compared to those bleeding from bullets or overdosing from opioids, Anya simply wasn’t considered endangered enough to remove from her home, while neighbors, fearing that she would die if left to herself, were at their wits’ end.
I raced to Anya’s house with my fellow parishioners and we entered cautiously, trying not to choke on the stench that swirled through the small, dark rooms. We knelt down beside Anya, whose large eyes gazed back at us in a puzzled sorrow.
“Why are you here?” she asked wearily, and as we gently explained we’d come to make sure she got help, she shook her head, looked at us and said, “I’m not worth it.”
In those four words, Anya summed up the misery of millions throughout history: human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, who have never grasped their infinite value in the eyes of their Creator — the One who sent his only Son to redeem them through a death and resurrection eternity will not suffice to contemplate.
It’s all too easy to twist theology into a theoretical exercise, a platform on which one can build a career as an academic or a media celebrity. Outside the limelight, the rest of us may be tempted to “keep our faith private,” not wanting to “offend” anyone at the dinner table, the family party, the office. Despite appearances, perhaps we’re not sure what we really believe, or in Whom.
For Anya, and for all those tossed to the wayside of the world — aborted children, migrants, trafficking victims, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the aged, those struggling with mental illness or addiction — questions about who we are, why we’re here and at Whose behest are matters of life and death. Actually, those inquiries are equally essential for all humans, but those of us with a roof over our heads, a full refrigerator and a regular paycheck are at greater risk of forgetting that fact.
So deep was Anya’s despair that she remained unmoved by fears of her condition worsening if she continued to refuse treatment. Wounded in mind and soul, she could not fathom that (aside from her little dog) anyone cared for her, and that her life was not devoid of meaning and purpose.
We appealed to a higher authority, and by the grace of God, we were able to speak to Anya about Christ and how he had left heaven itself to ensure she could be with him forever.
“But why would you help me?” she asked, bewildered. “You don’t really know me.”
That didn’t matter, we said; we shared a common dignity as humans, and as followers of Christ, we were called to share the Good News with all.
When she heard us say “Jesus loves you,” Anya stared back at us, startled. Her eyes filled with tears, and we glimpsed a recognition in her gaze, as if her hopeless thoughts had finally been interrupted. Within a half hour, she consented to go to the emergency room with the medics we again summoned.
Her dog entrusted to a neighbor’s care, Anya smiled faintly at us her stretcher was loaded into the ambulance. Though she could not cite the chapter and verse, she knew in the depths of her being what the psalmist had revealed about the Lord, who “raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor from the ash heap” (Ps 113:7), “supports all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down” (Ps 145:14).
The Anyas of the world await us everywhere. Let us hasten to meet them where they are, and bring Christ to them, that he might bring us all to himself.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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