What are you worth? That question can be answered chemically, financially and socially. Chemically, the compounds that make up the human body are worth less than $5. Financially, we can assess our value in terms of cash and debts. Socially, we could consider Facebook friends and real friends.
We can even measure our value by our waistline. A few years back, after losing a few pounds, I discovered the dangers of fishing for a compliment. “I only weigh two more pounds than I did in high school,” I announced proudly to my kids. One of my daughters, looking horrified, said, “Oh my gosh, Dad, you were that fat in high school?”
We might place our value in what other people think about us. Winston Churchill said, “When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks. When you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks. When you’re 60 you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.”
What is someone worth who cannot earn money, but only costs money? What is someone worth who is not thin, young and beautiful, but overweight, old and wrinkled? What is someone worth who is not feeling good and not thinking clearly? What is someone worth who is anxious, scared, lonely? What are the elderly worth?
Growing old can seem to take away a person’s value and dignity. In a society that values beauty, the elderly lose their physical good looks. In a society that values money, the elderly lose their economic productivity. In a society that values health and physical fitness, the elderly sometimes cannot even walk. But what society tries to teach us about the value of the elderly, what society tries to teach us about the value of ourselves, is a lie.
Imagine the most famous, the most influential and the most amazing person who ever walked on earth. He has crowds who adore him, no one can truthfully accuse him of wrongdoing. Imagine someone who was divine. Jesus was worth a lot.
Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these you did for me.” As Father Richard John Neuhaus said, “Nobody is a nobody.”
This vision animates the work of the Carmelite Sisters as well as the staff at Marycrest Manor, who are celebrating 60 years of care for the elderly. On the wall in Marycrest stands their mission statement, to serve the elderly “with the Compassionate Heart of Christ. We should consider: The patient’s bedroom another chapel. The bed as another altar. The patient as another Christ.”
The Carmelites serving at Marycrest stand in a tradition of service and love more than 800 years old. This tradition includes some of the greatest mystics, like John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila. They follow in the footsteps of Edith Stein, whose courage and seeking of the truth brought her from atheism to Catholicism, and from entering the Carmelites and to entering the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
The good sisters especially follow in the footsteps of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who knew that we will not all be rich, powerful or famous. She was none of these things. But she had the most important thing — love. She showed us that we can do little things with great love and to do this is to become heroic. And when she died at only 24 from tuberculosis, she left behind a “little way of love” that continues today in the work of the good Carmelite Sisters at Marycrest, where this mission of love in little things has been carried out for 60 years.
Christopher Kaczor is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of “The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church.”