When I was out in Boston last spring, I was overwhelmingly blessed by the Lord by an opportunity to spend the week living with the Daughters of Saint Paul in their motherhouse. I’ve written before about the powerful experience of living with them, (the beauty of the rhythm of life, the inspiration of the palpable presence of Christ, the profound love present in the community) but one moment from that week has continued to stick out in my mind as the most blessed of all.
I was walking up to the buffet line to refill my plate with a second round of delicious food when I was introduced to Sister Mary Dominica, an elderly sister with a walker, bent over and difficult to hear. She was introduced to me as the sister who had been praying daily for me and my family. She was simple, she was humble, she was holy; and I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the presence of Christ, so clearly visible in this tiny old sister, and overwhelmed by the love she showed for a family she’d never even met before.
We recently received an email from the motherhouse about Sister Mary Dominica most likely being in her final days, requesting our prayers after the countless prayers she had offered for us, and noting that each sister who sat vigil with her in her final days was struck by a serene peacefulness in the room where a fellow sister in Christ was about to pass through this life and into the next.
As is typical with a lot us, death has always been a somewhat scary, or at the very least taboo, topic for me. I blame a lot of this on the fact that our culture has almost completely stripped away the experience of death from all of us. It seems to be quite rare for someone to be present as another passes from this life to the next these days. We have whisked it all away, preferring to maintain our blissful ignorance of the final moments of life in this world.
And yet, most people who have been present for the death of another, at least in the case of those that aren’t traumatic or violent, note the serene peace associated with the experience. Through the heartbreak and pain of losing our son, I think my wife and I would agree that we felt that sense of peace, love, and even joy as we experienced that devastating moment in our own lives.
It comes with the realization, through our faith, that “life is changed, not taken away,” which is something Servant of God Dorothy Day reminded her readers of in a 1945 article for the Catholic Worker. She shared her experience of sitting beside and taking care of her mother in her final days:
Sometimes I thought to myself that it was like being present at a birth to sit by a dying person and see their intentness on what is happening to them. It almost seems that one is absorbed in a struggle, a fearful, grim, physical struggle, to breathe, to swallow, to live. And so, I kept thinking to myself, how necessary it is for one of their loved ones to be beside them, to pray for them, to offer up prayers for them unceasingly, as well as to do all those little offices one can. When my daughter was a little tiny girl, she said to me once, ‘When I get to be a great big woman and you are a little tiny girl, I’ll take care of you,’ and I thought of that when I had to feed my mother by the spoonful and urge her to eat her custard. How good God was to me, to let me be there. I had prayed so constantly that I would be beside her when she died; for years, I had offered up that prayer. And God granted it quite literally. I was there, holding her hand, and she just turned her head and sighed. That was her last breath, that little sigh: and her hand was warm in mine for a long time after.
Dorothy’s experience, that of my wife and me, and that of the incredible Daughters of Saint Paul keeping vigil over Sister Mary Dominica during her final days, all point to one reality that many of us take for granted until God puts us in this position: Life is changed, not taken away. As we continue to go through our life, continue to reflect on the ever-nearing moment of our own passage from this life to the next, let us renew our consecration to Christ, to doing everything He asks of us, and pray that when one of our loved ones sit by us in our final days they will experience that inexplicable serene peace as well.
Copyright 2019 Tommy Tighe