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Many AIDS patients are rejected by family and friends.

In 1985, at the age of 53+ years old, Henri Nouwen left teaching at Harvard and move to France to live for at least a year with Jean Vanier and his L’Arche community that looks after the mentally handicap people, in Trosly. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Daybreak” published in 1988:


1. John’s Death (Oct 24, 1985)

     My dear friend Rose just called from Oakland, California, to tell me that her son John died yesterday morning at 9.30 A.M. Her voice was full of pain and desolation. “It is so hard, so hard, so hard to keep believing in the midst of all this,” she said. “I feel more lost and in anguish than when Dan (her husband) died.”  I heard her cries, her deep feeling of aloneness, her desperation.

     But she spoke words of consolation: “Oh, Henri, the people of the hospice were so good, loving, and caring. Many are gay or lesbian, and few are part of any church or believe in God, but their love for Johnny was so beautiful, so deep, so generous. Many give up their jobs just to be with their dying brothers and sisters. . . .Johnny has been loved to the end. . . I just want you to know.” Her words were like drops of hope in a sea of despair, inkling of gratitude in the midst of an overwhelming feeling of loss, flashes of light in a deep darkness.

     I said, “Johnny loved you so much and he told me how much your love for him meant to him. Hold on to that. Your pain is deep because you suffered that long journey toward death with him. You and he were so open with each other. You didn’t hide anything from each other. You saw and felt his struggle and he saw and felt yours. . . It will be hard for you. . . .very hard. . . .but I know your love is strong and beautiful.”

     I didn’t know John very well, but a few years ago when I was in San Francisco, Rose introduced me to him and we spent some time together. John told me about his homosexuality and his life in the San Francisco gay community. He did not try to defend his way of living or apologise for it. I remember his great compassion for the people he spoke about, but also his critical remarks about snobbism and capitalism in the San Francisco gay community. He himself was extremely generous. He gave much of his time, money, and energy to people in need and asked very little for himself. Seldom have I known anyone who was so eager to have me understand and learn. He was so non-judgemental, self-possessed, and honest that I came to think of him as an example of a just man.

     Last February, Rose called me in Cambridge to tell me that John was very sick with AIDS. I immediately flew to San Francisco and spent a day with Rose at her home and with John and his friend Mike in the hospital. John asked me to read the Twenty-third Psalm with him. It was the psalm he remembered, the psalm his father had prayed with him. It was a psalm that gave him peace. We prayed the words together several times:

     The Lord is my shepherd,

     there is nothing I shall want.

     Fresh and green are the pastures

     where He gives me repose.

     Near restful waters He leads me

     to review my drooping spirit.

     Tomorrow I want to write a little more about my visit to Rose and John. (pg 332)


2. John’s Agony (Oct 25,1985)

     My time with John and Rose showed me the ravaging power of AIDS. John could hardly stay quiet for a minute. Like a wild animal caught in a cage, he could find no rest, and his whole body moved in pain. To see his agony and not be able to do anything, to know that he would only get worse, was nearly intolerable. But I was struck by the care which surrounded him. Many AIDS patients are rejected by family and friends. But Rose’s love for her son grew stronger every day of his illness. No condemnation, no accusation, no rejection, but love as only a mother can give. And Mike, John’s companion, gave every minute of his time and every ounce of his energy to his friend. No complaints, no signs of irritation, just faithful presence.

     Mike knew that John would die soon. But it could be a week, a month, a year, or longer. He wanted only one thing: for John to feel a little better and be comfortable during the time that was left to him. “I don’t believe in God,” Mike said, “but if John wants to pray with you, please pray with him. Do anything that is good for John. That’s all that matters to me.”

     After I returned to Cambridge John began to recover somewhat. He left the hospital and found a small apartment where he could live with Mike. People from the hospital came daily to care for John while Mike went to work.

     In August I saw John again. He was less restless but suffered from terrible dizziness. “I want to die,” he said. “I cannot bear this dizziness any longer.” I asked him to accept death when it came, and not to hasten it. We spoke about Rose’s and Mike’s love and how much he meant to them. “Try to live for them as long as God wants you to,” I said.

     He asked me to give him the sacrament of the sick---“the last rites,” as he called them. He said, “I was baptised and received my First Communion, and I also want to receive the last rites before I die. Will you give me the sacrament?” He wanted to be alone with me. We sat together at the kitchen table. We prayed the Twenty-third Psalm again. I blessed him, crossed his forehead and hands with sacred oil, and prayed for healing---but also for the grace to die with Christ. Together we said, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

     He said, “Thank you very much,” and added in his typical understated way, “This certainly can’t hurt me.” Afterwards I talked with Mike for a moment. “I am afraid he won’t live into the next year,” Mike said. “I can’t even imagine what it will mean to be without him.” I saw Mike deep suffering. All the attention was on John, but Mike needed support, too. Rose knew this and gave him all she could.

     When Rose called me yesterday, she said, “Mike and I cried the whole afternoon yesterday. We had to. I am so glad that Mike and I can support each other. We both miss him so much.”

     Today John is being cremated. Tuesday there will be a memorial service. Rose will be there. Mike will be there, and so will most of John’s brothers and sisters. I will miss being with them. “Can I do something?” I asked Rose on the phone. “If you wish, send some money to the San Francisco hospice people for their work. When they came to help me wash and anoint John’s body and take him away, they told us that Johnny was the fourth person to die from AIDS that day in San Francisco. These people are so loving, so caring, so good. . .they may not believe in God, but they surely help me to do so.”

     I thank God for having known John and having come to know in a new way the inexhaustible mystery of human suffering and human love.” (pg 333)      


How God guided Mother Teresa to serve the AIDS patients.


True Love is loving without conditions and expectations

     “Love has no meaning if it isn’t shared. Love has to be put into action. You have to love without expectation, to do something for love itself, not for what you may receive. If you expect something in return, then it isn’t love, because true love is loving without conditions and expectations.

     If there is a need God will guide you, as He guided us to serve those with AIDS. We don’t judge these people, we don’t ask what happened to them and how they got sick, we just see the need and care for them. I think God is telling us something with AIDS, giving us an opportunity to show our love. People with AIDS have awakened the tender love in those who had perhaps shut it out and forgotten it.


Sister Dolores shows how simply being there with love is often enough:

     “There is a lot of fear at the beginning for those who come to us with AIDS. It is hard for them to cope with the fact that they are going to die. But being there with us and seeing us with others in their last moments makes a difference. I remember in New York that the mother of a man from Puerto Rico offered to nurse him if he came home. He thanked her but said he would remain with us, though he would visit her. One day he told me, ‘I know when I am dying you will be there holding my hand,’ because he had seen us doing it with others and knew that he wouldn’t die alone.

     It’s quite simple really. The dying are moved by the love they receive and it may be just a touch of my hand, or a glass of water, or providing them with some kind of sweet they desire. You just take that to them, what they ask for, and they are satisfied and know someone cares for them, someone loves them, someone wants them---and that, in itself, is a great help to them. Because of this they believe that God must be even kinder, more generous, and so their souls are lifted up to God. As we don’t preach, we just do what we do with love, they are touched by God’s grace.”


Brother Geoff, General Servant of the Ministries of Charity Brothers, also comments of the best way to offer love:

     “When people who are used to being rejected and abandoned experience being accepted by others and being love, when they see people are giving their time and energy for them, that conveys a message that, after all, they are not rubbish.

     Certainly, love is expressed first in being with before doing to someone. We have to continually, renew our awareness of this because we can get caught up in a lot of the doing for. You see, if our actions do not first come from the desire to be with a person, then it really becomes just social work. When you are willing to be with a poor person you can recognise his need and if your love is genuine you naturally want to do what you can as an expression of your love. Service, in a way, is simply a means of expressing your being for the person---and often with the poorest people you cannot completely alleviate their problem. But by being with them, by being for them, whatever you can do for them makes a difference. The message we try to convey to the poorest of the poor is: We cannot solve your problems but God loves you even while you are handicapped or alcoholic or have leprosy, and whether or not you become cured, God loves you just as much and we are here to express that love. And if we can help relieve their pain a bit all well and good, but it is more important for us to remind them that even in the midst of pain and suffering, God loves them. It’s a difficult message to communicate, obviously, but we believe that being for them is the first thing. If you spend time with a person then that is as much an expression of love as what you can do for them.”


Here, one of our volunteers, Nigel, describes his experience at our home for the dying and destitute at Calcutta:

     “When I went to help at Nirmal Hriday I hated the place because of the suffering and I felt absolutely useless. I thought, ‘What am I dong here?’

     Later, when I got back to Britain, I had a long conversation with one of the sisters about it. I told her I’d quickly learned sign language so I could sort out the difference between someone asking for a drink of water or for a bedpan and get it the right way round. But, apart from that, I hadn’t done a lot. I mostly sat on people beds and stroke them or fed them. You got some recognition sometimes, but not a lot other times, because they’re on their last legs. So when the sister asked me how I’d got on I said, ‘I was there.’ And she said to me, ‘What was St. John or Our Blessed Mother doing at the foot of the Cross?’”

     Do we look at the poor with compassion? They are hungry not only for food, they are hungry to be recognised as human beings. They are hungry for dignity and to be treated as we are treated. They are hungry for our love.” (A Simple Path, 87-90)


“Who are we to accuse anybody? It is possible that we see them do something we think is not right, but we do not know why they are doing it.

     Jesus encouraged us not to judge anyone.

     Maybe we are the ones responsible for others doing things we think are not right.

     Let us not forget that we are dealing with our brothers and sisters. That leper, that sick (AIDS) person, that drunk, are all our brothers and sisters. They, too, have been created by a greater love.

     This is something we should never forget.

     That sick (AIDS) person, that alcoholic, that thief, are my brothers and sisters.

     It is possible that they find themselves abandoned in the street because no one gave them love and understanding. You and I could be in their place if we had not received love and understanding from other human beings.

     I will never forget the alcoholic man who told me his story. He was a man who had surrendered to alcohol to forget the fact that no one loved him.

     Before we judge the poor, we have the duty to look inside ourselves.” (In My Own Words, 55)

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