The last photo of Sister Cecilia Maria, the Argentinian Carmelite sister who recently died of cancer at age 43, has drawn the attention and affections of the Catholic world.
Accounts tell us that Sister often played the violin for her fellow Carmelites as a sweet gift of music, but it was in her final moment that Sister Cecilia Maria provided her smile as one last antiphon of sweetness to the world. And its worth pondering her smile, and her life, because she had some very important lessons to teach the world.
First, she reminds us what beauty really is.
For a society that is so focused on beauty, very little attention is spent on defining beauty. What is beauty, and what relation does it have to love? What relation do love and beauty have to happiness?
These questions are not original to this author; indeed, these are the primal questions of the great literature, the great thoughts, and the great philosophy. But we’ve stopped asking them, not because we have answered them properly, but because we stopped caring about the questions.
Yet, regardless of philosophy, society nevertheless proffers its explanation of beauty. Sadly, these explanations are often tepid, if not altogether stupid.
Case in point. The covers of Vogue and Cosmopolitan serve as a microcosm of a generation that has lost it; indeed, who is lost. The cover girls are gaunt, distant, and unhappy looking—all by editorial design.
Their God-given inner beauty has been robbed; they often embody a plasticity of soullessness, and that denial of soul is a bigger lie than any airbrush could ever accomplish. These ubiquitous covers offer our wives and daughters a poorly-scripted fictional world that is governed by mannequins.
Then, in a stroke of spiritual serendipity, we see the picture of Sister Cecilia Maria; in a striking and immediate contrast to the faux world of models, we see the type of beauty that is borne of love and happiness. Among the vast array of cover girls who look dour in life, here is a woman who looks majestically happy in death.
Truly, hers is the countenance of Christianity. Christianity may not be in vogue, yet if one seeks the issue of happiness and fulfillment, the love of God is where to look.
Whereas our society is like a man who holds the key to happiness in his hand, yet insistently looks for it elsewhere, the smile of Sister Cecilia illustrates that she looked for happiness in all the right places. And found it. She showed the world the inescapable connection between love and beauty.
Second, Sister’s life and death also showed us the importance of truth, and its connection with beauty.
The worst lie ever told was that we can be happy apart from God. The original sin was the product of the original lie—a perfect untruth told by a master rhetorician. And one of those lies is that a life dedicated to God is an exercise in futility.
Ironically but predictably, much the world looks at Sister Cecilia Maria and thinks that she missed out. She missed out on almost all the things that are supposed to make women happy today. She missed out on the materiel of modernity.
She missed out on the high-priced wardrobe, the high heels, and the high-power career, the travel, the treats, and the trinkets, the bling, the boyfriends, and the breakups. This discalced sister, spiritually tethered by her vows, whose wardrobe essentially consisted of one dress and zero shoes, missed out on everything.
Everything except happiness.
Everything except God.
In truth—because of truth—she missed out on nothing.
In truth, it is those who are insistent on sin who are missing out. As a wise priest once put it, “Sin is boring; virtue is exciting.” The biography of sin has a million chapters, but all of them are the same boring story. Each with a storyline of sadness.
Twenty-three hundred years ago, Aristotle posited that the key to happiness is simple—aggravatingly simple. Aristotle wrote that “happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue.” The ensuing twenty-three centuries have witnessed a world that has strenuously objected to that basic truth observed by the philosopher.
But Sister Cecilia Maria knew this central truth, and her life and death were in accordance with virtue.
A Glimpse Into The Future
One of the most exciting things about the smile of Sister Cecilia Maria is that she seemed to glimpse into a future that can be ours. For some people, that kind of thought might be intimidating. After all, the thinking might be that while Sister Cecilia Maria is exactly the kind of person who goes to Heaven, I’m not.
But if that’s your thinking, look a little closer at her smile. Hers is a smile of assurance and trust. It is a smile that acknowledges a merciful and loving Creator.
Whether you’ve lived a life like Sister Cecilia or a life like Saint Dismas, whether you have loved God since your infancy or began loving Him in your final moments, the same merciful and loving Creator awaits you.
There is a saying that Dismas “stole Heaven” in his last moments. But this is untrue. Heaven is ours—ours to gain or ours to lose. The deed to Heaven was signed in blood by Our Savior’s deed on the Cross. Heaven is not stolen; you cannot steal that which God has purchased for you. It is not Heaven, but Hell that is stolen.
The beautiful truth is that God made you to be happy with Him.
Sister Cecilia Maria recognized this. In her final note, she wrote:
“I was thinking about how I would like my funeral to be. First, some intense prayer, and then a great celebration for everyone. Don’t forget to pray, but don’t forget to celebrate either!”
Sister Cecilia Maria’s death, her life, and her smile were a testimony to happiness. Our Lord assured us that the world would know we are Christians by our love.
What Sister reminded us is that part of that love is a smile.
Copyright 2016 John Clark. This article is reprinted with the kind permission of Seton Magazine, where it was originally published.
About the author: John Clark is a graduate of Christendom College, holding a degree in Political Science and Economics. He is a professional author and speechwriter. His book “Who’s Got You? Observations of a Catholic Homeschooling Father” has reached #1 in the Amazon Kindle “Fatherhood” category. He has written scores of articles about Catholic family life and has been published in such places as Catholic Digest, Latin Mass Magazine, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and CatholicExchange.com. He publishes a popular monthly column inSeton Magazine and a weekly column for SetonMagazine.com. He and his wife Lisa have nine children.