Category Archives: death

A godly woman, Sister Thea

Lord, let me live until I die.
Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA

Twenty-five year ago today, on March 30, 1990, Sister Thea Bowman, like a shooting star, went home to live with God.

A black member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Thea lived out a vocation of being an African-American Catholic in a white congregation in a largely white Catholic Church. She preserved African-American traditions and incorporated them into her way of living her Catholic faith, that she had embraced as a ten-year old in 1947.

What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.

She lived this out in many ways, including co-founding the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at New Orleans’ Xavier University.

But in 1984 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but still maintained a busy schedule of speaking, finally from a wheel chair as her cancer progressed.

But what really impresses me is how she responded to her suffering and death: “I don’t make sense of suffering. I try to make sense of life.”

I have a good friend dying of cancer. A cousin’s husband is also being treated for cancer. And so I thought of them, and others suffering from cancer, when I read these words of Sister Thea:

When I first found out I had cancer, I didn’t know what to pray for. I didn’t know if I should pray for healing or life or death. Then I found peace in praying for what my folks call “God’s perfect will.” As it evolved, my prayer has become, “Lord, let me live until I die.: By that I mean I want to live, love, and serve fully until death comes. If that prayer is answered…how long really doesn’t matter.

But these are not just words for those suffering or dying. They are words for all of us, fitting words for Holy Week when we recall Jesus who handed over his life in love.

And so, may we pray to God as Sister Thea did:

Lord, let me live until I die.

Detachment, living in the now, and following the call

This morning I work up about 4 am and heard people talking near my house. I thought it was rather strange but went back to sleep since I had planned to sleep in this morning.

I finally got up at about 6:15 and noted the presence of a good number of people at the corner by the school. I saw my neighbor Juan and asked him why. He told me to come over.

I went over and discovered that his mother, in her early seventies, had died yesterday. I found out later that she had been in the hospital for a week. Last night they held a vigil in the home, as is the custom here.

I went and prayed at the coffin in the main room of the house and greeted those gathered in the kitchen and outside – many of the Doña Victoria’s children.

When I returned to my house, I grabbed a coffee and prayed my morning prayer.

Today’s second reading – 1 Corinthians 7; 29-31 – is not an easy reading. “The time (ό καιρός) is running out… the world in its present form is passing away.” Those who are weeping should live as if not weeping, those laughing as though not laughing – and so on.

But a sentence in Daily Gospel 2015 opened my heart:

…our time is too short and we need to use it well. Our life is valuable and we cannot just spoil or ignore the call of God.

Reflecting a little more I began to see this passage of Paul as a call to detachment – or, as St. Ignatius Loyola puts it, indifference. In the Spiritual Exercises, 23, he writes:

…it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things … in such a way that, for our part, we not seek health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters, wanting and choosing only that which leads more to the end for which we are created.

Detachment from all things can open us to respond to the call of God at any moment, even at the moment of our deaths. Indeed, I’d suggest that detachment can free us to die.

This afternoon Padre German will come to celebrate Mass for Doña Victoria who followed the Lord in her daily life, often participating in a base community in her house.

Am I detached enough to let God call me where I don’t expect and eventually call me home?

———
The citation from St. Ignatius is taken from the translation of George Ganss, S.J., as found in Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, a book that I highly recommend.

Fear of death

Today the Catholic world remembers the dead. We pray for them – mindful of our need for the prayers of all the community of faith. We are in this together.

But fear of death permeates our lives and, I believe, paralyzes many, especially in the US. The Letter to the Hebrews rightly notes that through “fear of death” people are “subject to slavery.” But Christ Jesus, the Compassion of God, has delivered us from the paralysis of fear.

As Henri Nouwen wrote, in  Letter to Mark about Jesus,

“The great secret in life is that suffering, which often seems to be so unbearable, can become, through compassion, a source of new life and new hope.

“God has become human so as to be able to live with us, suffer with us, and die with us. We have found in Jesus a fellow human being who is so completely one with us that not a single weakness, pain, or temptation has remained foreign to him.”

And so death does not have to be feared.

Some people have asked me about insecurity here in Honduras, especially about my upcoming move out to the countryside. Sure, I have some concerns but I can’t let myself be paralyzed by fear. But I also feel that my greatest source of security here, outside of God’s Love, is the love and hospitality of the people I work with.

Yes, I’ll die some day. I am sixty-six years old. And so I take comfort in Nouwen’s words in In Memoriam:

“Why do we think that Christian death is an easy death? Why do we believe that a hope for a life with Christ will make our death a gentle passage? A compassionate life is a life in which the suffering of others is deeply felt, and such a life is a life that may also make one’s death an act of dying with others…”

 

 

 

A grain of wheat and the witness of Romero

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground
and dies,
it remains alone.
But if it dies, it produces much fruit.
John 12: 24

The evening he was killed at the altar of the Divine Providence cancer hospital in San Salvador, Monseñor Oscar Romero preached on this theme. Here are a few lines from that homily:

You have just heard in Christ’s gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others, will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest….

This is the hope that inspires us as Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when justice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us…. Of course, we must try to purify these ideals, Christianize them, clothe them with the hope of what lies beyond. That makes them stronger, because it gives us the assurance that all that we cultivate on earth, if we nourish it with Christian hope, will never be a failure. We will find it in a purer form in that kingdom where our merit will be found in the labor that we have done here on earth….

Dear brothers and sisters, let us all view these matters at this historic moment with that hope, that spirit of giving and of sacrifice. Let us all do what we can. We can all do something, at least have a sense of understanding and sympathy….

[I]t is worthwhile to labor, because all those longings for justice, peace, and well-being that we experience on earth become realized for us if we enlighten them with Christian hope. We know that no one can go on forever, but those who have put into their work a sense of very great faith, of love of God, of hope among human beings, find it all results in the splendors of a crown that is the sure reward of those who labor thus, cultivating truth, justice, love, and goodness on earth. Such labor does not remain here below but, purified by God’s Spirit, is harvested for our reward.

The holy Mass, now, this Eucharist, is just such an act of faith. To Christian faith at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain — like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.

Let us join together, then, intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer….

As he finished these words, a shot rang out from the back of the chapel and Monseñor Romero, the voice of the voiceless, was killed instantly. But his death has brought life and inspiration to many – from poor shacks in Central America to churches throughout the world.

His message is a challenge for all of us, to live out our mission as the people of God.

——

Thanks to Whispers in the Loggia for reminding us of this powerful quote from a martyr and saint of our time.

All Souls Day

Today the Catholic Church sets aside time to remember those who have died, who have “fallen asleep in the Lord.”

Henri Nouwen has two great quotations to help us think about death:

“Why do we think that Christian death is an easy death? Why do we believe that a hope for a life with Christ will make our death a gentle passage? A compassionate life is a life in which the suffering of others is deeply felt, and such a life is a life that may also make one’s death an act of dying with others…”

 In Memoriam

 “The great secret in life is that suffering, which often seems to be so unbearable, can become, through compassion, a source of new life and new hope.
“God has become human so as to be able to live with us, suffer with us, and die with us. We have found in Jesus a fellow human being who is so completely one with us that not a single weakness, pain, or temptation has remained foreign to him.”

Letters to Mark about Jesus

The solidarity in suffering is freeing for the person suffering and the person accompanying. When we “sit together on the mourning bench,” we begin to see how Jesus has come to give us hope, sharing out suffering and also our joys.