At the start of the Easter season this year I was inspired by a reading that emphasized celebrating the 50 days of Easter. Yet as the season has unfolded there has been much more dying and death in my life than resurrection. I find it nearly impossible to continue to proclaim new and risen life when it seems that so much around me is being taken away.
I feel out of synch not only with the seasons of the church but also with the seasons of the earth as I live them these days. The light is lengthening, the weather is warming and the ground is greening — even in Chicago! Spring flowers continue to sprout and surround the altars as well. Everything says that it is a time to celebrate the rebirth of the Earth and resurrected life. Yet deep within me my spirit lags behind, frozen in the winter ground and is unable to rejoice.
The primary reason for this deep disconnect is the waning of life in my closest friend in my congregation. She and I have walked our entire journeys in religious life together: the excitement of entering, the perils of novitiate, the industrious days of early ministry, the persistent questions and doubts of the 40s, and the greater integration of life in the 50s. A sudden diagnosis in the middle of her 50s rocked us both to the core, yet she carried on valiantly with the aid of skilled physicians and the many tools of their trade.
In early spring, just as green fuzz began to dot the trees and tiny tips of leaf emerge in sunny garden spots, tests revealed that the cancer had invaded major organs. Suddenly we were in new territory that called for much handing over: teaching of college courses midway through the semester, invitations to write and speak, and eventually the independence of driving and walking. Each loss was a bit of death; meanwhile the trees flowered and leafed, tulips opened and drooped, and coats were replaced with sweaters (most days!).
Simultaneously, death, in its seemingly erratic fashion, has swallowed up several of our sisters with whom I shared ministry, community and/or friendship. We often say that death comes in threes; I think I’ve lost count in recent days. The season of new life is propped up against a backdrop of death this year. How to make sense of it? How to reconcile these seemingly opposites? How to continue to live life?
At the recent funeral for a sister with whom I shared a term in congregational leadership, I was struck by how well we celebrate this entry into new life. I had flown home to our motherhouse for the day and spent it in visits, conversations, prayer, and song. As I pulled away from our main chapel to return my rental car and fly back to Chicago, I was surrounded by the simultaneous bloom of pears, cherries, dogwoods and lilacs. Instead of taking turns in their usual sequential fashion, they decided to make a later appearance all at once! Together they were rejoicing with the new life in God of this sister whom we had just buried.
Might that not be a message to me and to us in these days of continued losses: terminal illnesses, incapacitation, closings, letting go? They happen not only in autumn and winter, on Good Friday and All Souls Day. No, they are with us in season and out of season. They are part of the fabric of our lives.
It is deeper than the incongruity of juxtapositions; it is the stuff of faith. It causes us to reexamine the quality of our relationships, the effectiveness of our ministries, and the manner in which we live our daily lives. It brings us together in conversations of faith: what do I/we believe about death and resurrection, about pain and suffering, about heaven and the communion of saints? To what are we called in religious life these days and into the future? Where is God calling and leading us?
Some days I don’t want to get out of bed to ask these questions, let alone ponder or work on some of the answers! But these hard days bring me closer to the heart of relationship and community. Often when I start to succumb to self-pity or wallow in loneliness, someone will call and I am reminded anew that I am surrounded by the love and support of community.
Then, too, there are the daily and Sunday Gospel readings from John 14 that console me each time I hear them: ” ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. … And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.’ … ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ … ‘I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.’ … ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.’ ”
God’s call to life, and even to new life, echoes in the vacuum of loss. May I, and may we, have ears to hear it and open hearts to receive it.
[Ellen Dauwer is a Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth of Convent Station, New Jersey, currently living in Chicago. She spent 20 years in higher education, teaching educational technology and serving in administration. She recently completed eight years in congregational leadership and began as executive director of the Religious Formation Conference in January.]