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.

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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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Love’s Response

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Apparently, my last post concerned some of my friends. Not to worry. I’m not down or discouraged. On the contrary, I’m actually very encouraged.

Encouraged because the more self-aware I become, the more able to step back and see what is arising in me, the less I identify with this judging, fearful self.  Encouraged that the more I allow myself to be held by love in the middle of all that arises, the more aware I am of the loving container that holds it all.

And encouraged because more people are willing to go down into those places in themselves.

This is what’s needed during this transformative time – this going down into the darkness and meeting what is there. It’s the only way we can begin to heal. As individuals, and as a nation.

Many have been reflecting on this topic lately. Guess we all know that darkness has been coming to the surface. Darkness that needs to be addressed.

As Richard Rohr said in a recent meditation:

“Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness….”

I’ve certainly tangled with my shadow. Struggled as I’ve discovered my particular woundings.

But I’ve also been trying to listen more deeply from this place.

Twice while in Albuquerque attending the Living School, I heard the same message, from different people on two completely unrelated occasions:  “God wants to take your heart and give you God’s heart in return. Be open to that.”

What does this mean? To have God’s heart?

To tell the truth, the idea scares me. It feels overwhelming, to have a heart that holds all the pain, all this darkness.

What will such a heart ask of me?

I don’t yet completely understand.

But as I listen more deeply, I hear that through this Heart, I will see the world differently. With eyes that recognize the goodness of everything. With a heart that can hold all the pain.

And a heart that is not afraid to step into the light.

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To stand up and speak up from a voice of love. Even if that voice makes others feel uncomfortable. Doesn’t allow them to remain complacent.

A heart that asks me to accompany those in darkness. Those living on the margins. Those who are vulnerable and have no voice.

I hear it challenging me to use my own voice to challenge and change the negativity and untruths associated with words we use. Words like “immigrant” and “Mexican.”

To live out the directive to “welcome the stranger.”

To boldly support DACA and the young people who have studied and worked so hard and contributed so much good to our society.

To speak up when laws are inhumane and need to be changed. Some of us take strong, proactive stands to change the abortion law because we say it is wrong to treat the unborn inhumanely, yet few will stand up to change immigration laws that treat suffering human beings inhumanely.

Love requires that I respond differently to such suffering.

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That I reflect on exactly what Jesus means when he says, “I was away from home and you gave me no welcome, naked and no clothing….I assure you, as often as you neglected to do it to one of these least ones, you neglected to do it to me.”(Matthew 25)

In my heart, I cannot neglect to hear that call. I can’t NOT respond.

And I know it will change me.

Spiritual leaders have been urging us to speak truth to power and call for justice during this transformative time when our collective shadow has shown itself so boldly. Rohr says, “There is every indication that the U.S., and much of the world, is in a period of exile now. The mystics would call it a collective ‘dark night.’

“Those who allow themselves to be challenged and changed will be the new cultural creative voices of the next period of history after this purifying exile.”

I may not know where I am going during this “exile.” I still do not fully know what is being asked of me. Or what it means to receive this heart as my own.

But I do hear love’s question, “Will you allow yourself to be challenged and changed?”

Can I say yes to this?

Can I respond wholeheartedly?

I have come to believe that this is what it means to be “virginal” – to let myself be a vessel, empty and available, open to something new being born in me. Something as unbelievable as the heart of God.

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