Last week as I read the news of Philip Seymour’s death, my own internal questions, stirring within me since I arrived in El Paso, intensified. Questions about what it means to fulfill one’s purpose, how to discern one’s calling, and then step off the edge into the unknown to bring it forth into the world with courage and perseverance. I thought of this talented actor, how he embodied his characters, gave his all to the craft of acting. No matter how we judge his death, no matter how our minds view the circumstances and try to make sense of this tragedy, there’s one thing that stands out for me: how this man gave of himself to the cause of acting, and in so doing, to fully living his life’s calling.
But when you give yourself fully to any cause: the cause of acting, the cause of writing, the cause of creating, and especially the cause of serving, you can at times feel used up. You see things not everyone sees. You feel at a deeper level. When you’re devoted to giving yourself to fully living, you come up against raw humanity.
The danger lies in not grounding ourselves in something larger than our small self. In realizing it’s not just about us. We need spiritual grounding. We need practices that take us beyond the world’s limited focus. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Seymour was missing. I don’t know.
But I do know that the people I have met working here at the U.S./Mexico border—and the religious sisters in particular—exemplify for me what it means to give your all to the cause of fully living. They define what it means to “live on the edge.” To live with passion. In the service of something greater than ourselves. They know that the work they do, the people they serve, the call they are answering, is not about them.
Like Sr. Lourdes, for example, whom I met through Border Women. A trained psychologist, she works with undocumented immigrant children who have been apprehended at the border and are sent either to detention facilities for unaccompanied youth, or if they are younger than 12, to transitional foster care centers, while their cases are being processed. Some are as young as four years old. And all are separated from their parents.
Wearing a bright blue Mexican-style dress, wisps of her dark hair detached from her ponytail and falling onto her face, Sr. Lourdes defies my image of a nun. Her eyes shine and she laughs easily. Until I ask about her work. “Some days,” she says, “I go home and cry.”
The children’s stories, their situation, their future. Day after day she’s up against that rawness. What carries her through? What keeps that fire in her eyes from dying out? Faith, prayer, and the support of her community, she tells me.
Then there’s Sr. Doris (I’m not using her real name to protect the victims whom she serves). She ministers to people who have been caught in human trafficking, both in the sex trade and forced labor. It’s hard to fathom how prevalent this is. According to statistics from the International Labor Organization, 20.9 million people become victims of human trafficking every year. As much as 1.2 million of them are children (source: End Childhood Prostitution and Slavery).
Some young people are captured during their trek to the border. Their guides, or “coyotes,” sell them. Some predators travel into Mexico luring women with the promise of work and a safe transport over the border. The women come, some of them wives and mothers seeking to support their family. Once they discover what they’ve actually been hired to do, they are threatened. The predator threatens to tell their family, to ruin their reputation, to physically hurt them. The women feel trapped. These are just some of the scenarios. There are many others.
Sometimes these women—and men—are fortunate enough to find their way out of such bondage. That’s where Sr. Doris enters in. Steeped in shame and poor self-esteem, the victims come to be with her for awhile before moving on in their newfound freedom. She listens. She soothes their pain. She reminds them of who they are — “a loved and valued child of God.”
Her gentle voice soothes my own soul as I hear her say this. I tell her what a gift her ministry is. “They are as much a gift to me,” she says. She smiles. I think I have just met an angel.
This week, Sr. Nancy is visiting us from Milwaukee. Within her first few days here, she, too, gave me a gift. I just “happened” to be sitting with her in a small gathering of women discussing the evolving face of their Franciscan order. Out of nowhere, Sr. Nancy says, “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘if you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.’”
I had to laugh. I feel as though I’ve been standing on the edge for several months now. Wanting to step off, the spark within me longing to be ignited. Apparently, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
For Sr. Nancy, just as with all those I’ve been meeting, standing on the edge means living with passion. And at 79-years old, she still exudes that fire. Whether she’s championing for just immigration reform or helping a retired sister transition to assisted living, her passion is being present to what she is doing in the moment, in the service of God.
I see that in her. And I also see that possibility in me.
The other day we were at Mass together. During the kiss of peace, Sr. Nancy leaned into me and whispered, “Step off the edge, Pauline.”