Saint Joseph: A vision in a dream

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By Dr. Alan Fimister 
Assistant Professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

While preaching to the crowds on the day of Pentecost, St. Peter quoted the prophet Joel: “I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”  

There is a striking inversion of expectations in this prophecy because, in human experience, it is old men whose hopes for this world are past and who, according to nature, have the disinterested clarity to see visions and young men, with their lives ahead of them and little understanding of suffering or failure, who dream dreams. Like his namesake of the Old Testament, St. Joseph was a dreamer and he has in devotional tradition overwhelmingly been portrayed as an old man. Certainly, there is no mention made of him as still living in the Gospels after Jesus’s discovery in the temple at the age of 12. By the time of Our Lord’s public ministry, his life seems to be in the past. On the Cross, the Saviour entrusts his mother to the Beloved Disciple, which he would not have done if Joseph lived.   

Not only does St. Joseph share a name and a propensity for prophetic dreams with the great patriarch of Genesis, but he is also compelled by injustice to sojourn in Egypt. The patriarch, however, seems to have been a silver-tonged man of affairs more prone to speak too much than too little. St. Joseph does not speak once in all the New Testament. His cares must have been enormous. He was the heir to the throne of David living the life of a humble carpenter; betrothed to the very tabernacle of God and deterred by holy fear from contracting his marriage to her; driven by the indifferent bureaucracy of imperial power to a perilous journey with his heavily pregnant wife; able from poverty only to fulfill the minimum of his ritual duty; driven by the bloodthirsty envy of a tyrant to take his family into exile and compelled by a prudent suspicion of the tyrant’s heirs to live away from his home for the rest of his life.  And yet St. Joseph dreamed dreams. He endured the glory and the burden of guarding the Redeemer in obscurity. For three days, he suffered the trauma of seemingly failing in that greatest of all responsibilities and then he died without seeing the glory of his foster child’s miracles and preaching.  

Joseph the Patriarch was a young man, the second youngest of his brethren. St. Joseph was an old man, and yet, he dreamed dreams. They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Perhaps, in order for those who have travelled far and who might imagine they have learned much, to hear God’s plans it is necessary, before all things, like St. Joseph, to remain silent.  I once knew two Franciscan novices. One had studied much before he entered the order and was quick to share his learning. His brothers had no objection and were pleased to hear his observations. The other was a simpler man who had walked a quieter path and seldom volunteered his views. When he did speak, it was most often under obedience, but when he did, an awed and reverent silence descended upon the brethren and every word was weighed with care by the other friars. As St. Jerome said of the Prophet Obadiah, whose book is shortest in the Old Testament, “his prophecy is shortest of any in number of words but yields to none in the sublimity of its mysteries.”  

Every event in our lives is willed or permitted by God. Often we complain that God is not answering our prayers, but all that we have known, every moment of our lives, is his answer. Too often we cannot hear him because we are telling him our plans. “Thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing,” Mary tells her 12-year-old son in the Temple in Jerusalem. “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” he replied. Like the astounded doctors of the law in the Temple, we each must learn that sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening is, as the Lord Himself has told us, the one thing necessary. Like St. Joseph, we must (as Luke tells us three times he did in chapter two of his Gospel) ‘wonder’ at the words and actions of Christ.  

St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the most ancient of all the fathers of the Church, tells us that God “has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ, who is his Word issuing from the silence and who won the complete approval of him who sent him.” And in another place that “the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her childbearing, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God.” St. Joseph was present for all three of those mysteries. The first he acknowledged by his faithful protection of the Virgin Mother, the second he accomplished in the poverty of the stable in Bethlehem and the last he beheld as he greeted his foster son triumphant over sin and death in the shattered gates of Hell.  

These are dark times in the land and the sea. Like St. Joseph, the model of artisans and the chaste guardian of the virgin, we must seek the Lord sorrowing, but with wonder and in docile silence. The grace of Christ purifies the visions of the young and enkindles the dreams of the old. “The world grows old, but the Church is ever young. She can, in any time, at her Lord’s will, ‘inherit the Gentiles, and inhabit the desolate cities.’” 

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.