Saturday, February 17, 2007

A dearly beloved sister's farewell

Mist rises from the Delaware River near Morning Star House of Prayer on the morning of October 18, 2006. It was the last day that I saw Sister Gerry.

"Now that I have made the transition from this life to a new life, I promise to hold each of you in my heart and to be your advocate before the throne of God.

"My prayer for you is, 'Let your light shine before all that they may see the good that you do and give glory to God, the Source of all light.'

"I will always love you."

Those are the words of Sister Geraldine Calabrese, MPF, part of a reflection that she wrote with the intention that it be read at her funeral. The entire text of the reflection is on the Web site of the Morning Star House of Prayer, which also features beautiful photos of Sister Gerry and a song for which she wrote lyrics.

Here is what I wrote about her in The Thrill of the Chaste:

I am typing this from a retreat house near the Delaware River, where I have come to write. The house is run by a pair of nuns who have retired from teaching. One of them, Sister Gerry, has been blind since the age of twenty-four due to a genetic disorder. Now eighty-two, she is remarkably vibrant, despite having cancer.

Have you ever met someone who positively radiated grace? I’ve had that experience on rare occasions, nearly always in the presence of someone old and frail. It seems that God gives something extra to older people who are suffering pain or a disability — if they’re open to receiving it.

Sister Gerry has that inner glow of one who has asked the Lord with all her heart to make her an instrument of His love and peace. Her eyes sparkle in a way that I’ve never witnessed in a blind person.

The other day, I discussed with Sister Gerry a book she had cowritten about the founder of her religious order, called Forever Yes: The Story of Lucy Filippini. A copy of the book was in my room at the retreat, and I’d begun reading about how the shy young woman living in seventeenth-century Italy reacted when the Church asked her to direct schools for girls and women.

Lucy went through an intense, dark period of soul-searching, feeling uncertain of God’s will. Finally, feeling no comfort or consolation despite her prayers, she stepped out in faith — “quivering” out a “yes,” as the book puts it.

Once Lucy made the decision to accept the daunting task, her comfort and consolation returned. But she had to take that first step on her own.

The story reminded me so much of my own life — times when, feeling trapped in darkness, I had taken a halting step out into the light. I might have felt stuck in an unsatisfying job or relationship, or just in a rut.

My experience of darkness could include fear of disappointment, fear of failing publicly, fear of ridicule — or all of the above. Most of all, I feared that there might be nothing out there for me —no job, or boyfriend, or life worth living, outside the familiar unhappiness that had become unbearable. When you’re facing that kind of hopelessness, you need more than ordinary strength to open the door that leads to a life of hope and opportunity. ...

... I told Sister Gerry of the memories that her description of Lucy’s anguish — and the eventual comfort she received — brought back to me. Then she told me that she had drawn upon personal experience as she and her co-author, a fellow nun, wrote that part of the book.

It was her reaction to becoming blind.

“I realized I had a choice,” she said.

Either she could believe her life was over, she explained — or she could say yes to blindness, and trust in what God had in store for her.

Looking at Sister Gerry — seeing her deep brown eyes with their improbable sparkle — couldn’t doubt that she had made the right choice. She had given so much to the world — and still had so much
to give. Her existence alone was a gift.

FURTHER READING: Obituary from the Asbury Park Press