Tag Archives: selflessness

The Gift of Rosemary Kennedy

RosemarySuicides are on the rise, school shootings seem a regular event, insanity and violence not unexpected. Are we seeing the collapse of Western civilization? I often wonder. Then along comes a book like The Missing Kennedy, Rosemary Kennedy, by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff (Bancroft Press, 2015).

This is an important and encouraging book. The author tells the story of Rosemary Kennedy (1918-2005) from a personal perspective. Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff’s aunt, a nun, cared for Rosemary at St. Coletta’s in Wisconsin, a Roman Catholic home for the mentally ill. The young Elizabeth visited Rosemary when she visited her aunt, Sister Paulus. In this remarkable account, the grace of God ripples through the pages.

Rosemary Kennedy, “Rosie,” was born a slow learner, and it is thought brain damage occurred during her birth, but she had no physical handicaps. The highest reading level she achieved was 3rd-4th grade. As she matured physically into a beautiful young woman, she became vulnerable and at times disruptive in her innocence, and her brothers did their best to protect her. Her father, Joseph Kennedy, learning of a method that might calm her and ease her life, allowed a lobotomy to be performed, a procedure that had been occasionally successful (at the time). But the operation made things far worse, partially paralyzing Rosie age twenty-three, and nearly destroying her ability to speak. She would need assistance in the basic functions of living for the rest of her life.

This was truly a tragedy for all concerned. Joseph Kennedy sent Rosie to St. Coletta’s. For twenty years she was isolated from her family, the doctor decreeing such visits would disturb her. Finally, in 1961, sister Eunice and mother Rose began regular visits. So did the author, Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff.

The author, a Roman Catholic, was clearly influenced by Rosie and Sister Paulus, and I could see the grace of God working through them all. Elizabeth’s dedicated aunt, full of love for the helpless, the abandoned, and the unwanted, touched the hearts of all in her circle through her example. I could see that the author was given a deeper sense of appreciation for the handicapped and what it means to love sacrificially as her aunt loved. The dignity of every living person shines through these pages.

As I read this book, Governor Brown signed the bill legalizing assisted dying in California; the U.K. was studying the option, avoiding the word euthanasia, preferring death with dignity. Earlier and ongoing, the investigation of Planned Parenthood’s selling of baby body parts littered the news, the horrendous videos a reminder of what our nation has become. And of course, for the last forty-two years the unborn who might be handicapped or unwanted have been “terminated” in the womb under the euphemism of choice. What do these word-shifts do to our language? What do these actions do to our hearts? Do we become desensitized, hardened, with these images, these verbal aberrations, and these stories?

And does a book like The Missing Kennedy do the opposite? Does the story of Sister Paulus and Rosie, of the Kennedy family, the author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, make us more sensitive, opening our hearts to loving as we are meant to love, without regard to handicap, without regard to degrees of perfection.

When the Kennedys finally reunited with Rosie, they were inspired to help the mentally ill, funding research programs, passing legislation, and founding Summer Camp Shriver which became the Special Olympics. All of these efforts were the result of Rosie and her tragedy. Rosie’s handicaps became blessings, making those around her better. She taught them how to love. She taught our culture how to care.

There seem to be two streams running through America, one of selfishness and one of selflessness. The great irony, the devil’s victory, is that the former leads to unhappiness, depression, and suicide. The self-centered life chases a greedy illusion of met needs and devours itself in its turning inward. The self-giving life, one seeking God’s path of sacrificial love, ends up discovering joy, meaning, and the actual fulfillment of the self.

We are tempted today to throw out the undesirable, the inconvenient, the unborn, the less than perfect, the aged. And if we give in to this temptation, which might at times seem deceptively attractive and even arguable, we shall be changed as a people. We shall become hardened and we shall shatter.

The Missing Kennedy is full of photos, many from the author’s private collection. The ones I particularly loved were the group photos. At first there is just Rosie and Sister Paulus, then others join, including the author, then more and more Kennedys gather around Rosie. She becomes, in the end, the center of the family. We are all better for her having lived, reminding us that the Rosies of our world have a place in the heart of our culture. We are better, too, for Ms. Koehler-Pentacoff’s heartwarming memoir of Rosemary Kennedy’s life.

Giving Thanks

prayerToday is the last Sunday of the Church Year and the Sunday before our national Day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the best antidote to selfishness and the best prescription for selflessness and thus leads naturally to the First Sunday in Advent.

Melanie McDonagh in the November 1 issue of The British Spectator makes the profound observation that the “cult of mindfulness” is largely a cult of self. It may or may not bring peace, alleviate stress, even heal depression, but it is an isolated lonely cult in which the focus is on one’s inner self. She is correct that the idea of living in the moment is pure Buddhism, and like Buddhism, the idea encourages us to escape suffering rather than face it, wrestle with it, and create meaning from it.

I have found that Christianity and Judaism pull the believer out of himself. It is through being self-less not self-ish that we find peace, and indeed, it is an inner peace that we find. How does this strange contradiction work? It works because in prayer we are focusing on the God who made us, and yet who also lives within us. Without belief in this objectively real God, we are merely wallowing in our own selves. Christianity brings the believer into community with all sorts of folks unlike him or her, different in age, gender, race, class, interests. We rub shoulders, we share tea, we are solicitous of one another. Most of all, we worship God (not ourselves) together, sharing this common outward vision, as we act out and re-present the great liturgical drama of church or temple.

And so Christianity and Judaism urge the believer to look around and, yes, smell the roses and live in the minute, for every minute is a precious gift. But these religions do far more. They urge the believer to face and interact with the real world. We call this interaction love, brotherly love. It is the sacrifice of that precious minute given by God, for the minutes are numbered, in order to give that minute to another, a stranger, someone unlike us. We pray for others; we visit the sick, shut-in, and lonely; we support charities that support life in all its facets, joyful and sorrowful. The history of the West is the history of this urge to better our world, to care for our communities.

Within this urge, this still small voice directing us to love, lies judgment. Judgment is not popular today; we are told we must not point fingers. And yet if we do not see clearly the true nature of what is happening around us and within us, we cannot better the world, and we cannot better ourselves.

God has spoken to his creation through his chosen people over many centuries. He has clearly marked the path to glory. The path takes us outside of ourselves so that God can enter those same selves. By shedding “me,” I miraculously find “me.”

One of the ways God has shown us how to do this is through simple thankfulness. The psalms are full of thanksgiving to God. To pray the psalms is to leave no room for depression. To offer oneself up is to know joy. It’s as simple as that. The Lord’s Prayer opens with praise that pulls us heavenward: Our Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come… Thanksgiving lives inside every word of praise.

And so this Thanksgiving Day, I look around me at my world, my nation, my community, my own heart. I try to see honestly, and I see generations of children raised in the cult of mindfulness. I see them highly mindful of their self-esteem, prone to take offense, demanding and self-righteous. They have lost themselves in themselves, as though whirling downwards, pulled into a vortex where depression imprisons them.

But on this Sunday before Advent and before Thanksgiving, I also look around me and see churches and temples where true thanksgiving is offered to a very real and loving Creator. I see voices raised together, not always in tune, singing thanksgiving and praise. I see love weaving among these communities of true believers who thank, not the stars, but the living and Almighty God for their very breath. I see islands of faith that show us how to be free from ourselves, not enslaved by ourselves. We do this by giving thanks to God for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today is called in our Anglican tradition “Stir-up Sunday,” named after Thomas Cranmer’s powerful Collect, the collecting or gathering prayer for this day, written in the sixteenth century:

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This is one of the many prayers that have formed the Western tradition. In this prayer we are called to act, to care for those around us, and through the caring itself we are interiorly rewarded. We will be changed.

And so, we look to the season of Advent, the four weeks that proclaim the advent of God becoming man, the Incarnation, the Christ child born in a stable. How do we prepare ourselves for this great coming? We give thanks, and in the giving thanks we receive God, we know joy. It is his chosen path. The way is clear.