At the end of evening praise at the monastery each night, whichever sister is the prayer leader says something like, “And for our sister next to die, we pray…” before beginning the Prayer of Jesus. When I was living there during my internship, I would look across the chapel at the women standing there with their arms outstretched in prayer, most of them old enough to be my grandmother, and I would turn my eyes up to the skylights and think, “Oh please, God, don’t let any of them die while I’m here.”
That’s a childish way to think, of course, and even just a couple years later I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was so fervent in that wish, so fearful of what death would do to the (mostly) peaceful bustle that I had come to love in the monastery. But I was that fervent, and that fearful.
Benedict says we should keep death daily before us, and however many my spiritual failings, I’ve had an aptitude for that part of the Rule for most of my life. But until I started spending significant time with the Benedictine Sisters, I didn’t realize that that aptitude even had the potential to be healthy. Death had fascinated and troubled me since the nights in grade school that I spent lying in my skinny bunk bed, feeling a new, sinking certainty that— no matter how much I might hope otherwise— my life could never be long enough for me to read all the books I would want. I may have had an innate morbid streak, but it had definitely been enhanced by September 11th. My family lived across the Hudson from Manhattan at the time, and for months my brother and I passed the pillar of smoke from where the towers had been on our way to school. From the vantage point of an eight year old, the endless wars that followed the attacks seemed to cement just one message: life is short and it’s fragile.
Of course, there is a reason why so many spiritual traditions encourage an awareness of mortality. There is a reason why Psalm 90 asks God to remind us how short our lives are. Remembering that death is on the horizon can put countless minor inconveniences into perspective, and hold you back from any number of pointless arguments. But the brevity of our lives can also feel so utterly unfair. It’s hard to accept that some autumn, when the leaves change, it will be the last time I see those colors. It’s hard to imagine that an ordinary cup of coffee will be the final one. It’s hard to look at mentors and friends and parents and know that one day I won’t be able to ask their advice. It’s hard to grasp that everything we have is, on some level, in short supply. Sometimes remembering that nothing is permanent makes you grateful, and sometimes it makes you morose and anxious. I think I err toward the latter.
So learning about how to live in a way that neither ignores nor obsesses over death is one of the most important things that living and working with the Benedictine Sisters has offered me. While no one in the community died during that first summer I knew them, in the two and a half years since then, I’ve attended enough sisters’ funeral services to know that of course death is not alien to the monastery. On the contrary— it’s very much a part of the rhythms and rituals of monastic life. Just last week, after the death of Sister Jean, I sat with the community and with Jean’s loved ones at her memory service, where those who knew her told stories about her life, and all of us sang songs, laughed, and sent her on her way into whatever is next.
The community holds these services for every sister after she dies, and as much as they exist to honor the sister who has died and comfort those who miss her, I think they show all of us who gather there that death is something we can cope with. Watching the community gather to remember the departed sister reassures us all that we will be remembered after our own deaths, that the wisdom and kindness that we pass along to others will be shared after we go, that our adventures and struggles are part of something bigger, something worthwhile.
I was especially struck by the one sister’s remark that Jean, who spent much of her life in contemplative prayer, “was not afraid of death … but saw it as melting into the greater consciousness that is God.” I tried to imagine not being afraid of death— more importantly, not being resentful of death— and was reminded of something another sister told me once.
“I’ve been in this community for over 120 deaths,” she said. “I’ve noticed that the way you die usually matches the way you live. Quiet people tend to go quietly, private people tend to go when they’re alone, people who have always struggled and held on to things tend to struggle and hold on.” No one had ever told me anything like that before. But it was another example of this lesson I keep trying to learn: there is a lot we can’t control, but we can control our attitude. We can shape ourselves into people who aren’t fearful and aren’t resentful and don’t cling, and even if that doesn’t change the substance of a painful reality, it might take the sting out of it a little bit.
I still cannot imagine saying goodbye to this world, which for all its flaws is so very beautiful. I still generally dread loss; still, sometimes sit in chapel, and look at those women, and think, “Please, not for a while, God.” But I’m starting to realize that if you can let go of some of the need to control, or at least to focus it on the things that are actually in your power— Am I being the kind of person I want to be? Am I treating others well? Am I finding meaning in what I’ve chosen to do?— you may end up with a life that is so rich that death cannot harm you.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.