My lesson in gratitude

A detail from the cover of Sr. Patricia McCarthy's book "Douglas, the Boy Who Knew God"

As a "new nun" at the age of 20, I learned the most important lesson of my life — to say "thank you" to God every night. That lesson has sustained me through many more years of religious life. I learned it from Douglas, a 13-year-old severely challenged boy in a state-run institution.

Douglas could not walk and only spoke with great difficulty. He was paralyzed from the neck down and had been this way since birth. Because of this, he was always in a wheelchair. At the time I taught him, he did not have a motorized chair, so he was dependent on others to push him or turn him to face another direction.

Even holding up his head was difficult; most of the time he rested his head on his right shoulder. But Douglas had a smile that lit up a room, and he gave it away freely. I tell the full story of Douglas in a book I wrote about him.

How I came to know Douglas was a unique call from God. I was walking to college one day with other young religious women when a car pulled up. It was a priest who ministered at a state hospital in New York City. More than 5,000 patients lived in the institution.

Fr. O'Malley was one of the two chaplains. He saw these young sisters and asked if we could come to help him teach faith education at the place. Several conversations and meetings ensued, resulting in 20 of us going to the hospital every Sunday.

I volunteered for the unit housing young boys in wheelchairs. Douglas was one of them; he was a ward of the state of New York. He had lived there his entire life. He had no known relatives. There was no information on his birth mother.

He had never been off the grounds of the hospital, which had more than 40 buildings. I was teaching Douglas and 12 other children who used wheelchairs. They rarely left the building, but all, except Douglas, had family who visited them. Douglas had no one.

There was a Mass on the grounds of the hospital but my boys hadn't ever gone because no one could take them with all their wheelchairs. I was puzzling over this fact one day with an orderly, and he suggested we ask the older men who needed walkers if they could help. They could push the wheelchairs as easily as they could use walkers.

So, every week, we had a parade of old men, young boys and a few aides as we walked from our building to the main gym where Mass was held. The first Sunday we made the trip over, all the other residents knew we had never been there before and they clapped. The boys beamed.

Everyone instinctively made a big fuss over my boys, knowing they almost never went anywhere. Mass became a highlight of their week.

One Sunday, it was too rainy to venture outside with the boys and the elderly men. The boys were so disappointed to miss their weekly excursion and to be with others at Mass.

In an attempt to get them out of their discouragement, I began to talk with them about praying right where we were. Douglas interrupted me to say that he prayed every night before he went to sleep. Speech was difficult for Douglas. He spoke extremely slowly, struggling with each syllable.

Our regular Sunday classes were held in the cafeteria. From my spot in the cafeteria, I looked out on a large room with about 40 little beds side to side. That's where the boys slept. I was moved deeply by a little boy whose world seemingly was confined to one building in one hospital. I could imagine him in his little bed each night praying to God. I asked Douglas who taught him to pray. Ever so slowly, he said, "No one — I just know how."

I asked Douglas if he could share with the rest of us what he said to God at night. Douglas smiled and spoke clearly, a feat that was rare for him. With his most beautiful smile, he said, "I say, 'Thank you.' "

The other boys and I were stunned into silence by Douglas' comment. I have never learned a greater lesson about prayer or about life. I saw a young boy in light of his handicaps and losses. He saw himself in light of God's love for him and the delights of each day. He had the truer vision.

Moment by moment, day by day, year by year, I desire more and more a grateful heart. Gratitude is the only appropriate response to God for each day's gifts.

[Sr. Patricia McCarthy is a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame who has served as provincial superior for the United States province. She now teaches math at a Catholic school in Waterbury, Connecticut.]