Over the years, we’ve been blessed to share many terrific and inspirational articles here from gifted Catholic author and speaker Nancy Jo Sullivan. As a long time fan of her writing, I was blessed to have an early look at Nancy’s latest book Couriers of Grace: My Daughter, the Sacraments, and a Surprising Walk of Faith. In my endorsement of the book, I shared:
For those of us who have ever taken the sacraments for granted without truly discovering the remarkable grace of sacramental joys all around us, Sarah and Nancy Jo Sullivan serve as our guides to seeing God’s bountiful grace all around us. Don a tiara or grab your crown, linger over these lovely pages, and prepare to have your heart expanded and your soul sweetly serenaded.
Today, I am happy to share a conversation with Nancy Jo Sullivan. I encourage you to visit her website and discover for yourself the beauty of Couriers of Grace, the legacy of Sarah Sullivan’s simple spirituality, and an open door toward your own ever deepening relationship with God and the world around you.
Q: Nancy, congratulations on the release of your beautiful new book Couriers of Grace. Please briefly introduce yourself and your family to our readers.
Born and raised in Minnesota, I’m a mama to three grown up daughters and a new son-in-law. My oldest, Sarah, was born with Down Syndrome, and after a brief stay on earth, (twenty three years) she now resides in heaven. Though it’s been nine years since her death, we are still unpacking her love lessons.
Professionally, I’ve spent much of my ministry career directing faith formation programs on the parish level. An established writer and speaker, my work has been published with Random House, Guideposts, Reader’s Digest, Loyola, Catholic Digest, and The Huffington Post.
Q: How would you describe this project to our readers? I’d love to know where the inspiration to tell Sarah’s story through the prism of the sacraments came from!
When I first submitted a proposal to Ave Maria Press, I wanted to write about the relationship of Mary and Elizabeth and their exemplary bond of friendship. A few days after Ave Maria rejected my idea, their editorial director called and asked: “Nancy, how about writing about the sacraments through the eyes of your late daughter?”
At first, I told them no. I couldn’t imagine how I would weave Sarah’s simple spirituality through a tapestry of sacramental teachings. For starters, I was a divorced Catholic and I wondered how I would write about marriage and the sacredness of family. Our Sarah, due to her many limitations, did not receive all of the sacraments and I still had some guilt about that. How would I write about reconciliation when I had stayed away from the confessional, sometimes for years at a time? Then, there were the clergy scandals that unfolded during the late 1990s and early years of 2000. Like so many Catholics, I was still wrestling with anger toward the church.
“I’m not a perfect Catholic” I told the editor.
After a long pause at the end of the phone, the editor said: “That’s exactly why we want you to write this book.”
Q: This is an intensely personal story. Has it been challenging in the years since Sarah’s passing to share her story? In what ways has sharing her life with others helped with your own healing and grief?
Now that I’ve done the arduous work of grieving and letting go, I feel a stronger sense of my vocational call. These days, it brings me such joy to speak about Sarah’s life at conferences and retreats. Sometimes, when I talk about my late daughter, it feels like her wisdom is being carried to my audiences on the wings of the spirit.
I think people relate to Sarah’s simple spirituality. Though she was limited in so many ways, she never once lamented about what she couldn’t do. Instead, she smiled, dance, and read tales of true love. She wrote love notes and collected crowns. She saw goodness in the life God had given her and lived out her royal identity as “God’s Princess.” “Mom, God lives in my heart.” she often told me.
Looking back, it was like Sarah and I were travelers on a freeway of faith. Sometimes, the two of us veered off course, exiting at signs marked with the words: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick. At these road stops, we encountered Christ in unexpected and understated ways. Because of Sarah, I came to understand the meaning of sacrament and the importance of recognizing the sacred at work in our lives.
In the opening paragraphs of the Baptism chapter, I recall a childhood memory. That winter afternoon, I skated on a pond across from my home when the ice began cracking and I fell into the cold and murky waters. As I gasped for absent air, I sensed that someone or something was hoisting me up, pushing me to a safe edge where I could ease myself out. I knew I had encountered God in the water, but why had I been saved?
Sixteen years later, on the day of Sarah’s Baptism, the answer came. As water was poured over Sarah’s forehead, her eyes opened and she wiggled and squirmed in my arms. When my eyes met hers, I saw myself being immersed in the font. Sinking into the water, I tried to paddle upward but the heaviness of grief weighed me down. I’m drowning… I closed my eyes and thought of the mother I would have to be.
This will be so much harder than my sister’s roads. I will have to give up so much more of life, and I don’t want to. Why did you do this Lord? Why to her? Why to me and Don? I don’t want to die to myself, not this much! Why couldn’t she be the healthy little princess we imagined? Why didn’t you save her and me from this?
But in those moments, it felt like someone was hoisting me up. “You weren’t meant to stay in the water,” an inner voice prompted. I held Sarah close. With misting eyes, I realized why God had rescued me a child. I had been saved for this miraculous moment. By all appearance, Sarah was the “least” in God’s kingdom, but the waters of Baptism marked her as royalty. I needed to learn from her.
This was Sarah’s baptismal day, yes, but I felt a sprinkling of grace, too. God was pulling me from the font of fear, planting my feet on the hallowed ground of hope. I had no idea what lay ahead, but I could move forward now, step by step and prayer by prayer. I had been saved to protect and nurture this anointed one. Like Sarah, and all other baptized believers, I wasn’t meant to stay in the water. On this day of light, my new mission had just begun.
Q: I was moved to tears in my reading of your book, but never more so than when I savored Chapter Seven. How did the combined retelling of the sacramental nature of your father’s anointing and Sarah’s blessing forever change the way you view this sacrament?
It’s strange, but in those early months after Sarah died, I found myself grieving for my father at the same time. He had passed away years earlier, just a couple of months after Sarah’s birth, at the age of fifty-six. As I thought about his struggle with alcoholism, I often scolded myself and said: “Maybe Dad would’ve lived longer if we had been more proactive.”
The turning point in my grief came when I realized I didn’t want to carry the heavy weight of guilt. I wanted to live as Sarah had lived. I wanted to spend the rest of my days adorned with freedom, happiness, and hope.
As I continued to thank God for the gift of Sarah’s life, I found myself doing the same thing with Dad. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day I woke up and said: “I feel lighter.”
Dad received his final anointing at my brother’s college hockey game. The priests were sitting next to Dad when he had a heart attack in the stands. With my mother close by, the sacrament of healing was right there for him at the hour of death. It was God’s presence in sign and oil. But what’s so beautiful about this sacrament is that we don’t need to be near death to receive it. If we are sick, despairing, or scared, or if we long to achieve victory over an addiction, this sacrament is meant for us. Looking back now, an anointing such as this would’ve given me strength to care for Sarah in her illness and in those demanding days of early grief.
Yet, I am at peace. Sarah’s sendoff to heaven had its own sacramentality. Just a few nights before she died, I reverently traced the sign of the cross on her forehead, and much to my surprise, she turned to me and did the same thing. I can still hear her blessing me with the words: “In the name of the fadder, son, and Holy Spirit.
Q: How do you hope that parish groups or reading communities might come together around Couriers of Grace to grow in faith and knowledge?
It is my hope that Couriers of Grace will serve as a table where all Catholics can gather to reflect, pray, cry, laugh, and hope together. I’m hoping that disenfranchised Catholics, especially those disabled by anger and mistrust of the Church, might find healing in the simple sacramental lessons Sarah taught so beautifully.