Many years ago when I was six years old, my parents took me to visit my grandmother in the hospital. This was not just any hospital, but an institution, what was used to be referred to as an “insane asylum.” My grandmother came from Sicily, a beautiful woman who experienced an emotional collapse, possibly due to a pregnancy that went very wrong. Her mental Illness grew worse as she got older, forcing her family, my mom, to endure much pain. She was finally committed to being in a mental hospital and ended up in the worst of the worst of “asylums” on the north side of Chicago.
She was withering away and nearing her death at just 62 years of age when my parents took me to visit her for the last time. Not a place to take a five year old child, but I thank my parents for doing so. The inside of the hospital was horrible: the dim yellow light, the smell of urine, the various screams, the screened in porches, the lonely human souls sitting on benches, looking aimlessly.
I was put on my grandmother’s lap and we gazed into each other’s faces. I saw her glasses, one lens cracked, her eyes had a gleeful look in them, as she looked at me and in me in love. She smiled a smile that would carry me to this point, as I write this reflection.
Jesus teaches about the Kingdom being like the smallest of seeds, the mustard seed, which when planted in the soil, becomes a large bush or tree that gives shelter to birds. So many things in life come in tiny fragments of experiences that hide a hidden power. My seemingly insignificant visit had a moment that shaped me forever, a moment of God planting the seed of his Grace in the mind and heart of a little boy.
I still vividly see her eyes, the glee and the suffering, and I see her smile wrapping its joy around me. This experience led me to my vocation, not primarily rooted in my parents or the witness of a priest. Yes, my parents and a particular priest had a shape in my calling, but it was my lonely grandmother, who suffered untold horrors, deemed “crazy” by cruel people, who brought me to the priesthood. It is this memory, in which I find refuge and shade, much like the birds of the sky.
Thank you grandma Sasso. I love you.