Years ago, I met an amazing elderly woman: a much-loved great grandmother, grandmother, and mother and a quiet, stalwart member of my local church.
Willow thin, she kept her hair pulled back into a silver-gray bun. She stood slightly bent and kept a tight grip on her walker. Mostly homebound now, it was only on a rare occasion she attended a Sunday morning church service.
Her granddaughter called me one afternoon and asked if I’d be willing to be put on the volunteer roster. She was looking for people to keep this delightful woman company for a four-hour shift. It was no longer safe for her grandmother to be home alone, she explained.
“Sure,” I answered.
A few days later came my first opportunity to spend an afternoon with this woman. With a twinge of concern about how the afternoon would go, I parked, walked up the sidewalk, and knocked.
I could hear the sound of her slow shuffle draw near. With a smile, she opened the door and greeted me. “C’mon in,” she said and gestured me inside with a wave of her hand.
Grabbing the door to help her hold it open, I entered a small lower-level apartment. Nearly windowless, a couple of lamps gave the dim interior a warm glow. A few of her knick-knacks lined a nearby bookshelf.
Once inside, I made my way over to the table and sat down.
“Want some water?” she asked as she shuffled over to the small galley-style kitchen.
“Sure,” I answered, not because I was thirsty, but because I wanted to be polite.
A few seconds later, she walked slowly back to where I’d taken a seat and placed a tall plastic glass filled with lukewarm tap water in front of me. Then she slowly slid into the chair next to me.
“Thanks,” I answered, taking a sip. “What’s this?” I asked as I pointed to a pamphlet pressed open flat. Rows of names, along with their addresses and phone numbers, lined each side of the two pages.
“It’s the church’s directory issued a couple of years ago,” she answered.
Its date preceded a time before I’d joined, which explained why I didn’t recognize it.
“Oh, interesting,” I answered, still curious about why it laid open on her table. “You sending out invitations or something?”
“No,” she said with a wistful smile. “I have it out for other reasons.”
Now my curiosity was piqued. “Really?” I answered, hoping I wasn’t sounding pushy, yet wishing she’d confide its purpose.
“You see, I can’t attend church these days, which means I can’t help out there. It’s important to me to stay involved, though,” she said. She enunciated each word as if to speak them with care. “So each day, I use this directory here to pray through all the names listed.”
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. Did I hear this precious saint say she prayed through the entire directory every day? I thumbed through the pages and saw nearly a hundred names.
“You pray through the entire list?” I answered, clarifying what I thought I’d heard her say.
She blinked as if puzzled why I asked the question again. “Why yes, it’s the least I can do these days. Especially since I don’t get out much, it’s a small way I can give back to God and to my church family,” she said. And then, she smiled and added, “They’ve been so good to me; it’s the least I can do.”
I wondered how long it took her to say a brief prayer for eighty or so individuals and families. Even if she kept it to thirty seconds per name, that would take a minimum of forty minutes to complete. And then there was the monotony of doing such a practice if a similar prayer was spoken each time.
There was nothing easy or small about this dear woman’s daily habit. I knew of nearly no one who had the grit to maintain this ritual for very many days in a row. No, this was a monumental act — one that required sacrifice and endurance.
And at that moment, I realized I wasn’t the one volunteering to help her, but instead she was serving me. I was meeting a spiritual giant contained in a gnarled, aging body of this gentlewoman. And I was in awe.
As I walked out of her small home that day, I left changed. Witnessing her obedient faith transformed me. It shifted my view of what it means to serve and love others.
This woman’s private act moved me so deeply, I still can recall that day nearly thirty-five years later. That day I learned it isn’t necessarily the grand gestures that change the world. Sometimes it’s the small, hidden, and consistent practice of prayer of a faithful saint that has the power to send shock waves through our culture.