I went to a funeral today for a religious sister who died after many years of suffering, both emotional and physical. When I entered the chapel, Mother Superior greeted mourners with a handshake and gentle smile. I expressed my condolences and she replied, “She suffered for a long time.”
That I could see each week at my hour of Adoration. Sister Ann (not her real name) sat in a chair apart from the other sisters. Over the years she relied upon a cane and then a walker. Always faithful to her Lord, she crept into the chapel for evening prayer and Mass. Each week she seemed to lean more heavily on the walker, severely bent over.
One day, Sister Ann was not in her chair. After Mass, it was rumored that sister was dead, victim of a brain tumor. That rumor was false. Sister Ann was alive, but in the hospital. One lady told me that sister was fighting for her life and was afraid. I thought how scary it must have been for her to be away from the chapel and her community. For 35 years she had adored Our Lord in exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Behind the altar where the monstrance is placed are glittering mosaics, patterned sunbursts of light. It was an artist’s rendering of the Holy Spirit radiating from the sacred Host. Now Sister Ann lay in a hospital bed with metal rails and blinking monitors. Eventually, she was moved to a small Catholic facility where an order of sisters cared for her. She died several months later, victim of a long battle with cancer.
At the funeral, revelations of her spiritual life were shared in a simple program printed on blue paper. Based on handwritten notes, Sister Ann wrote of her dialogue with God.
During a healing service I asked Jesus to heal me. I truly believe that the Lord spoke these words to me: “I will give you length of days to fulfill the mission I have given you on earth.” I told the Lord that I did not want to go through another round of chemotherapy.
The Lord responded to me with the thought. “This is your cross. Take up your cross and follow me.”
(I said) “Jesus, this is so heavy. But Jesus, with your help I will carry the cross for You.” The more I held on to this cross something began to happen. I moved beyond accepting my cross to embracing it. All suffering, even though it is a most difficult and unwelcome experience, is transformed by God. This life is so short. Eternal life is so long … I do not know what my future holds, but I know Who holds my future.
Sister Ann knew suffering even beyond cancer. An obituary mentioned her battle with anxiety and another event that shocked not only the local community, but the entire nation. Decades ago, the religious community experienced a horrific attack by a man afflicted with serious mental illness. After evening prayer, the man smashed glass on a locked door, opened it, and went inside. Once inside, he grabbed a steak knife, killing two sisters and severely injuring two others. It became national news. Reporters descended on the scene; large CNN news trucks, complete with satellite dishes, occupied nearby parking lots.
Sister Ann witnessed this horror. It must have been excruciating to process this tragedy, to accept it, and to forgive the assailant. Here was a woman who lived a humble, quiet life. After graduating from high school, she worked for many years in a shoe factory. Finally, she made the radical decision to answer God’s call and enter a cloistered community, but something was missing. Her favorite form of prayer was Eucharistic Adoration. Once again, she answered God’s call and moved to an order dedicated to Eucharistic Adoration.
Several months ago the religious community lost another member when Sister Mary fell gravely ill. Sister Ann sat by her bed and asked Sister Mary to come and take her home when that last day came. On September 18, Sister Ann passed away. To the comfort of all, it was the birthday of Sister Mary. All of us smiled when the chaplain told this story at Mass. We all filed out of the chapel into bright autumn sun. A funeral cortege somberly processed to the cemetery behind the convent, a graveyard where members of the order are laid to rest. Maple trees had begun to change colors, stunning in brilliant orange and red, marking a new season, and new life for one who had suffered so much.
Copyright 2018 Kathryn Swegart