As a young priest in my first parish, I visited an elderly woman with Holy Communion each month. Over the years that I visited her I became very fond of her indeed. By the time that I was visiting her she would have been in her 80’s. In appearance she was small, very small, her face was lined with age and her hands gnarled and twisted with hard work. The house was simple, not much furnishings and always smelled of disinfectant, I later realised this was from her cleaning and washing of rooms and bedclothes, that she did round the clock.
For the most part when I visited her she was sickly and in bed. She was never anxious for me to visit the other rooms in the house where her son and daughter like her were also in beds. You see for all of her life she had looked after them and her husband too who had returned from the war, a broken man.
As I got to know her more the picture became clearer. The husband was wounded and shell-shocked and never recovered. It fell to her to look after him, but she would have it no other way and would take no help. She nursed him till he died. Her daughter was severely disabled and needed constant attention. Her son also had many years of severe fitting and likewise had to be looked after.
In the midst of all this was this elderly woman, rising from her sick bed to change beds, to feed the sick, to sit with people through the night for most if her adult life.
From her there was never a word of complaint. Never a word of regret that her life had turned out. Instead a steely determination to see it through to the end. She wanted no help, no one to come in to assist her. She would do it right to the end.
There is no happy ending to the story. The daughter and son died before her. This was a consolation for her and she was to die soon after them, perhaps only months.
These years later, there is something that I will never forget about her. The burden that she carried without a word of complaint. The years of incredible dedication to others. The work that she did even to the point that she was hardly able to out one foot in front if the other.
I never got the chance to tell her how much I thought of her but I want to tell you today. She was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. A lifetime of selfless care for others. A lifetime if singlehandedly looking after others. A generosity beyond generosity. A love beyond love.
When I think of her these many years later, she rises up as a person who loved who really loved. She had little money but she was rich in ways that few people are rich. People would have thought her weak and fragile but she was string very string un ways that people are not strong. She looked old but yet she retained a youthfulness of spirit.
She comes to mind today as we have heard the words of St Paul speak about love. She was everything on Paul’s list – patient, gentle, never rude or selfish. Not counting the cost. Not quick o brood over injury.
She would be the last to think of it but her love as like the first reading says: a wall of brass, a pillar if iron, a strong fortified city.
Something of incredible strength.
Love can be felt like that. A fierce loyalty. A thing that cannot be quenched even despite the trials and difficulties that face you. Something so strong it feels like a fire in your bones. Something that makes you do seemingly impossible things. You will never give up on it, never stop believing in it. It will make you walk that extra mile, do the hardest things, spend yourself completely.
A parent knows that kind of love. A friend knows that kind of love. A son or daughter knows that kind of love. Grandparents and family know that kind of love.
Our whole Christian lives are about discovering that God is just exactly this, a God of love.
That’s simply the good news that we want to pass onto others.
I often think of Agnes in her bed and my visits to her. I think of that house so simple and so poor. And yet this woman of great riches. She knew much more about love that I would know or would ever know. She wasn’t to know it but she was passing in the good news.