Her name is Alice. She took as her baptismal name Alice St. Hilaire – cheerful, happy. It is perfect. Sister Alice is a feisty, deeply intelligent, and yes, happy, nun. She has been my spiritual director for four years now. And she is my friend. This dear soul has walked some pretty mucky spiritual back roads with me. If anyone can see through the blind spots in my OCD faith, it is she. I have come to depend on her valuable insight. There are always questions – so many questions, all of which become annoyingly absent the moment I sit down to sip tea and share God-talk with her. Above all else, she has taught me to laugh at adversity and make uneasy peace with even the laughable parts of my psyche.
Every time I step into sister’s quaint living room, the presence of God is thick in the place, literally dripping from the walls and windows and oozing out of the carpet. Where more stereotypical elderly ladies might serve up of an overwhelming eau de chat, her home smells faintly of whatever modest breakfast was consumed earlier. It bears the years of humble struggle to survive in Yakima’s tough downtown. There, she stabs the dark with shards of light. She bears the frowns of pain inside her smiles of gratitude.
Sister is fond of saying that the ways by which God has revealed Godself to me become who I am and pave the way for whatever I will be next. Her life bears witness to the ramifications of this statement. It is why I have needed to make the short journey to her home so often.
I met with her last week for the final time; not because she finally threw in the towel with me – an understandable act under any circumstances. No, at 86 years old, she is tired. Her limping legs have difficulty simply bringing my tea during our direction times, an act of service for which she continually turns down my offers of help, let alone the many grueling tasks to which she has set herself for so long. The Sisters of Providence, the order to which she has belonged for decades, along with her local diocese, have determined that she needs to rest. The Catholic home in which she is being placed will offer access to better care in her waning years. I dare say it might also provide a few more ladies of her spiritual ilk, the kind who joke or hide the remote as easy as they pray. St. Hilaire indeed.
It seems right somehow that I face the loss of my dear friend right before Ash Wednesday. Death is an emptiness best seen as fire dies to embers, and ashes leave behind the memory of truth and talk and what once was. Too many have jumped on the ashes metaphor bandwagon for me to offer much that is new. But, I suppose that’s my point.
It’s always new. In the gospel, ashes are not a death, but a dare. God’s happy tale is of life and hope that lives in the smoke from the fire. Sister Alice will be gone in less than a week. But, I pray the warm fires of her presence and wisdom will live on in the person I am becoming. Ash Wednesday reminds me that, in spite of one empty fireplace, a new in-breaking of God is never far away and brings with it the smoky goodness of love. Eternal love.
A love Sister Alice St. Hilaire knows well.
Spring on Ash Wednesday
Begins again this springward journey;
rebirthing all that once lived.
Trickle again once fickle brook and stream
sickle sighs yet in repose, sleeping still.
Earth, sore and winter-stiff, seeks, sighs
stretches out skinny arms of want.
Her cold, hard bosom births not what soon will come
e’er the Sun’s hungry mouth suckles,
fills his lusty gut on hopeful barrenness
feasting on milk of timeworn, weary passage.
She forgets not the suddenness of late
and sooner dark, splayed upon a fine, greenness
come for to spite the buds of transforming light
bidding death where life has yet to emerge.
Warmly insistent she speaks, sharing her story
poured out over the long-shadowed land.
Bring such bothersome beauty to branchier speech,
fall around us, spilling, foaming such fury
and fermenting our soon-drunk wine of promise;
earthen spirit’s Eucharistic prayer.
Hush now, silence yourself bold coldness and spare not
freedom’s great gift only taken this once year’s-life.
Steep instead in warmness, worried not for lack
but bubbling and birthing bold words lightly spoken.
Remind us, refresh and reframe what is still rooting,
routing sad night-hood to don the new, the now, the never again;
only to return, restored and restoring,
Give us again your beauty for our ashes.
Wednesday speaks your secrets.
Robert Alan Rife, ©February 22, 2012
Laughing Mona found here