To Live While Dying

Sr Janets memorial

“I don’t want to die while dying. I want to live while dying.”

Over a week ago I attended a Resurrection Mass for the woman who uttered these words while knowing cancer would soon end her life.

Sr. Janet fulfilled that desire. She lived her life fully. Even while in pain.  Even when she could no longer rise from her bed. She expressed gratitude for the simplest gifts she noticed from her pillow. She was imbued with joy. A love for the poor. And a light that filled me every time I was in her presence, just as it filled Sacred Heart Church on that Friday.

It reminded me that although physically, Sr. Janet was my age, spiritually, she is ageless. Her light lives on.

That’s not just some cliché.

I experienced this light from the moment I stood and watched her sisters proceed down the aisle in single file, their love and their grief palpable in the single white rose each of them carried.

white rose

I felt it again as her good friend Fr. Bill shared how she became a doctor so that she could practice what she called “poverty medicine,” providing health care to those who needed it most but couldn’t afford it. I was blessed to have visited Proyecto Santo Niῇo, a clinic Sr. Janet cofounded for children with special needs in Anapra, the very poorest section of Ciudad Juarez.

I recognized it in Matthew 25:35-40, the Gospel passage she had wanted to be read at the memorial.

There wasn’t anyone in that church who didn’t understand why.

She fully lived these words. As do so many in this El Paso-Juarez border community.

“Then the king will say to those on his right: ‘Come, receive my Father’s blessings. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me. Imprisoned and you came to visit me.’

“Then the just will ask: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were ill or in prison?’ The king will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-40)

As I looked around, recognizing so many friends and fellow volunteers filling the pews, I felt incredibly blessed to be part of this community. To learn from people who teach me, every day, the meaning of those words.

Like Ruben Garcia, of Annunciation House, who managed to slip into a pew during the Mass. Even with his ever-mounting and never-ending responsibilities, he took the time to come.  Because he knows, just as Sr. Janet knew, that God identifies first and foremost with the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.

Choosing a life of serving the poor matters. It increases our capacity to love. It electrifies our joy. It magnifies our light.

That’s surely what I saw in Sr. Janet.  I saw it in the joy of her vocation, joy in her faith, and joy for the poor.

She has shown me – as has this special border community – that living this vocation matters. Even though we cannot explain or understand it, living a life in love, of love, for love, matters. It’s what lasts.

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At Anapra clinic moms learn to care for their children, who receive medical attention made possible through the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati

Whether it’s being with the poor in Anapra, at the clinic where Sr. Janet patiently instructed and loved severely disabled children and their mothers. In the hospitality centers, where Sr. Janet, myself, and thousands of volunteers have given of themselves and been changed and graced in the experience.  Or in this community that shows incredible hospitality to strangers, whether they’re coming to volunteer, to simply visit and learn the truth about our border, or to escape desperation and violence.

Like Dylan Corbett said at the Hope Border Institute event Monday night:

 “El Paso is showing the rest of the country, and the world, how to treat people with dignity and humanity….What we are creating here should be a model for our government.”

What we are creating here, I believe, is the kingdom of God made manifest.

It is the difference between simply existing to get the most out of this life or fully living to give the most of who we are.

In the end, our physical existence is temporary. The light of our love is not.

If we are not grounded in this light and love, then nothing we do makes sense. Thank you, Sr. Janet, for being grounded in love.

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The Pleasure Is Mine

pleasure_child

Three-year-old Ana smacks a kiss on my mouth. I’ve just handed her a baby doll, complete with pacifier. Something to keep her company on her days-long bus ride to Florida.

Whatever pleasure I got out of finding that doll in our used toy bin at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center just got magnified a hundredfold.

Juana is 13. Too old for a doll.

Or so I thought.

But her eyes widen when she sees the one I’ve given Ana.

“Do you like dolls?” I ask in Spanish.

“Si.” She smiles. Off I go to locate another.

I have the perfect one in mind. Eyes as big as half dollars. Strawberry-colored plastic hair. The kind you can’t comb. But her face is more mature. Just right for a girl who’s probably never owned a doll in her life.

Why do I love packing a toy in these children’s travel bags? Why do I take pleasure in seeing their delight?

The answer, I think, lies somewhere in understanding the gift of pleasure.

pleasure-in-giving-pleasure-quote-1

If you’re a parent, you know the absolute pleasure of seeing your child delight in receiving a longed-for gift or special surprise.

I believe that the One who loved us into being takes that kind of pleasure in us.

And that God longs for us to take pleasure in the abundance of life. A life gifted to us. Created for us to enjoy.  As fully alive beings.

Sometimes, in between running around getting care packages ready for the migrants, answering their needs, calling for volunteer drivers, I have to step outside to get food in the walk-in fridge next door. And sometimes I pause and stand there in the sunlight. Look up into that constantly blue sky.

And give thanks. Aware of the pleasure I am receiving as well as giving.

Whether it’s in giving a special gift to a child. Preparing a meal for someone who’s hungry.

Receiving expressions of affection.

Or taking in the beauty of a golden full moon on a Friday night. Like I did tonight.

An abundance of opportunities to experience the pleasures of an abundant life.

But I have to say, I’m not always aware of them.

As Jesus said, it is God’s good pleasure “to give you the kingdom.” That kingdom is already alive in you. Alive in me.

Can I keep giving myself over to it?  Can I fully accept this gift?

abundance

A Mother’s Reign

00266 LDCM Queen Of Hearts Log

If mothers ruled the world…

It’s a thought I’ve been mulling over this week. Especially after visiting Christina and the mothers of Anapra.

Because I’m realizing what I actually witnessed in that bleak barrio.

I recognized it in the mothers’ faces as they encouraged their children. In their laughter as they prepared a meal together, each one bringing what little food they had to contribute. In Christina’s inestimable patience as she methodically strove to teach letters and their pronunciations to the young girl limited to guttural sounds and eye movements.

I’d almost forgotten, until a few days ago, Christina’s words to me that morning. How at one point she stared straight into me, her eyes bright and alive, stopping everything she was doing, as if to stress the importance of what she was about to say.

“el Reino de Dios está aqui,” she said in her native Spanish. “The kingdom of God is here.”

She actually beamed.

But I didn’t respond. I simply brushed off her words.

Something inside me recoiled against the idea that this place of pain and poverty could possibly be the kingdom of God. In my small mind the kingdom of God doesn’t have any children with disabilities, children who will never be able to feed themselves or urinate without help. Children who live in such abject poverty, nobody knows for sure whether there’ll be something to eat tomorrow.

My child’s faith wants a God who makes it all better. A God who makes the bad stuff go away.

But these women offered me something much more real. They reminded me of what is possible when God shows up in the compassionate, courageous vulnerability of a mother’s heart.

Hope comes alive.

Children are accepted and loved not based on what they can or can’t do. They’re simply loved for who they are.

And meager portions of beans and rice and potatoes are turned into a delectable feast.

mother_child_heart
What if the world were ruled by a mother? I suspect there wouldn’t be a need for so many people to migrate to escape unrestrained violence, to find work to simply survive. All girls and women would be educated and treated fairly and respectfully for the treasured beings they are. The Earth would be revered. And children wouldn’t be deported back to a country where their safety is at risk.

Now there’s a kingdom I’d jump in line to be part of.

But, as Christina pointed out, that kingdom already does exist. We can find it in one another.

 

As I was mulling all of this over yesterday, I came across a prayer called “Human Mothers — Thinking of God as Divine Mother.”

From Prayers to She Who Is, by William Cleary, a book of prayers based on the theological writing of Elizabeth Johnson, author of She Who Is, it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Here’s a copy:

Human Mother

Whenever I consider God as Divine Mother, the image softens, nurtures, and cradles me wherever I am. Sometimes it’s obvious how much I still need a mother. How much the world does, too.