Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Monastic Way of Bereavement

Little Peggy Banville
 as drawn by her older sister Diana (Dida)

How Does a Monastic
Community Mourn?

One of the reasons for creating this blog over three years ago was to offer a view into contemporary contemplative monastic life. What does it mean to be a contemplative nun at the beginning of the 21st century? Some older readers have a memory of dark, silent and foreboding monasteries; places where one might catch only a glimpse of a sister swathed in an elaborate habit behind the grille in the chapel or the parlor or hear only a disembodied voice behind the 'turn' in the foyer. Younger readers often have no memory or knowledge of the life at all and wonder what it is really all about. I hope that the posts here have filled in some of the gaps.

Our most recent community experience has been the death of a beloved sister, one of the foundresses of this monastery. She wrote her own story which appears on our website. Her obituary information can be read in previous posts.

My purpose here is to speak of the monastic way of death; to communicate in some fashion how living in the light of faith plays itself out in every part of life, including the end days.

Sr. Peg was a survivor. She had prevailed in spite of cancer, a heart attack, various cardiac procedures including open-heart surgery and two hip replacements. But in the last year cardiac issues became increasingly debilitating. After two episodes of hospitalization followed by some time in a nursing home and then return home, it became obvious that the end of life was approaching. Sister wanted to live the rest of her days, however many, in the arms of the community. In a monastery one of the regular assignments is that of infirmarian, the person who assists the sick as a nurse but without the RN after her name. Sr. Peg and the infirmarian worked out a plan to engage the assistance of Hospice. This was a wonderful choice. We were still caring for her in the day to day and later during the night but Hospice provided the care of an aide twice a week, a hospital bed, oxygen, home delivery of medicine, regular visits by a chaplain and a nurse. And whenever there was a crisis the nurse was only a phone call away. The move to Hospice care indicates an acceptance of the natural process of death. This acceptance is often a big hurdle. But the life of faith engenders trust in the Divine Will and Sr. Peg had come to that point of trust.

Sr. Peg was not totally bedridden until the last few days of her life. Prior to that, she came to community activities as she could. She said, "It's a sad house that cannot support one lady of leisure." When she came to Office or Mass she was often clad in her red (Redemptoristine red) robe and blue slippers. She attended a community meeting just eleven days before her death. After a particularly low time she requested the Anointing of the Sick and asked that we all be present. Afterward she declared, "I have been launched!"

Death came two days after the onset of a coma. We would pray around her bed in the morning and sisters took turns sitting with her day and night. With her permission preparations were made for her wake vigil service, the funeral Mass and her memorial card considering her desires for music, quotations, etc. So, in some ways, everything could be set in motion immediately. Her last breath came early in the afternoon. We all said our personal good-byes. The Hospice nurse was present to support us in these last moments. The process of completing the obituary, sending a death notice to all our monasteries around the world and notifying family and friends via phone and e-mail began.

Redemptoristine Nuns take solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In keeping with the desire for simplicity in all things, we ordered a plain pine casket from the Trappists in Iowa. Its simple blond wood spoke volumes of our values and our faith. It is also our custom that two sisters go to the mortuary to assist in dressing the body of the deceased sister in her habit. This is an expression of our continuing loving care, respect for the dignity of the bodily remains, and the sacredness of being clothed in the habit and other symbols of profession. The cross which she received at her profession of vows was placed in the casket.

We received Sr. Peg's body back at the monastery with a ritual service just before Midday prayer. Her casket was placed in front of the altar. All of our communal prayer came from the Office of the Dead in the Liturgy of the Hours and was offered in the presence of her body until Mass the next day. Friends visited from 2 to 4pm and again in the evening from 7 to 9pm. At 7:30 the community and a large number of guests offered Night Prayer (Compline). Within that Office Sr. Paula our prioress spoke most touchingly of her experience of Sr. Peg as sister and friend and co-foundress of this monastery in 1957. She invited others to speak. Among them were one of our lay associates, a former spiritual director to Sr. Peg, a sister from the nearby monastery of Poor Clares and another member of this community.

The funeral Mass was also celebrated in our monastery chapel. It was very crowded but we wanted all of these rites to take place in the intimacy of our home. Eleven Redemptorists priests were present as well as many associates and friends. Presiding at the Mass was the Vice-provincial of the Baltimore Province. The homilist was a priest of whom Sr. Peg was very fond. Many learned of her passing from the obituary published in our local newspaper. Incorporated into the Mass booklet were things written by Peg and art created by herself or her sister. Lots of photographs were taken and later shown as a slide show on a digital picture frame. A large display board had been prepared with an array of photos documenting her life as member of the Canadian military; as Redemptoristine nun for over 60 years; and as a much-loved member of a large extended Canadian family.

At the conclusion of Mass we processed on foot to the cemetery here at Mount St. Alphonsus where Sr. Peg joined three other sisters of our community. Dozens of roses had been sent to the monastery with condolences. They were strewn on the casket at the cemetery, their red buds standing out in bold relief. The formal blessing was given and then many took turns to punctuate that blessing with holy water. It was hard to leave the gravesite but we all slowly walked back to the Mount where the Redemptorists so generously provided a warm lunch for all.

All of the rites and the Mass underscored a life of faith in the Redeeming Christ. They spoke in words, music, atmosphere and joyful manner of our sister now united with her "Dear Heart". Of course, we are now quite exhausted and are living with a very much felt hole in our community. Such occasions do make one think of the future and what it holds for each of us. But we are also, by virtue of our memory of Sr. Peg, her faithfulness, her struggles, and her joys, even more motivated to do the same, to follow in her path. May we, through her intercession, be given the same strength, wisdom, love and gift of perseverance.

Our infirmarian, Sr. Peg's faithful and loving care-giver will take a week of much needed rest. The community will gather together this weekend to talk about memories and how we are handling this whole experience. We will try to live in the moment, to understand our sadness, our reactions and concerns. We also want to speak of the meaning for each of us in contemplating the transition into new life on high with Jesus Christ.

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