March 19, 2017
Sister Edith shared with me a dream she had a little while after she returned from the hospital this past November. Happily I asked her to write it down so here it is in her own words: “I had to go somewhere. A boy of ten or twelve appeared, took me by the hand, and led me where I had to go. Then I was lying down or sitting, and he was standing beside me, looking down at me. I asked him, “What is your name?” He didn’t answer. Then I said, “Are you an angel?” (We had recently had the Book of Tobit at Vigils). Then he disappeared, and I woke up.” She continues with these words of Ps. 72 which seem to be her interpretation of the dream: “Thine to lead me in a way of Thine own choosing; Thine to welcome me into glory at last.” (Psalm 72 (73), Ronald Knox translation). Then, on probably the last day she could speak, she wanted very much to tell me the words of a hymn which she says she shared with Sr. Christina so that she could sing it to me. I couldn’t get all the words but what I heard was enough to get the meaning, basically that one must die alone, must enter the valley of the shadow of death alone.
Last Sunday the three apostles were together on Mount Tabor, and using that image I spoke about the charism of our Order as Community in Solitude. Yet these two dimensions of the life, integrated as they are meant to be, are quite unique experientially. Solitude is an experience like no other. It is our relationship with God that no person or family or community can fill. And the solitude of death is probably the most extreme form of aloneness, for we are going into an unknown that no one around us can fathom and into which no one around us can come. One must enter the valley of death alone. How acutely I feel this at the deathbed of a loved one, especially recently with Sr. Edith. Perhaps it is a share in the mystery of Gethsemani where the three were with Jesus, but only at a distance, as he himself prepared to enter the valley of the shadow of death.
Solitary prayer can have something of this experience about it. It can be an unknown land into which we must travel unaccompanied. William of St. Thierry has some wonderful meditations on desire for the desert that can lure the heart far away from everything on earth; that can put us in touch quickly with our deepest yearning. He prays: “And now, Desire of my soul, my soul desires to wait on you a little space, and to taste and see how gracious you are, O Lord. She implores your tender mercy to give me peace and silence from all things, whether outward or inward…Give me, O Lord, the comfort of my wilderness---a solitary heart and frequent communing with you. As long as you are with me, O my God, I shall not be alone…Lead me away, my refuge and my strength, into the heart of the desert as once you led you servant Moses; lead me where the bush burns, yet is not burnt up, where the holy soul that has earned admission to a like experience is all aflame with the fullness of the fire of your Holy Spirit, and, burning like the seraphim, is not consumed but cleansed. And then there comes to pass for the first time a better thing, the miracle of all your miracles, the sight of sights. The soul attains to the holy place where none may stand or take another step, unless he be bare-footed---having loosed the shoe-strings of all fleshly hindrances…”
Yes, the comfort of our wilderness is a solitary heart and frequent communing with him. And the gift we give to one another out of our solitary communing with God is a gift we would not be able to give otherwise. It is the witness of our thirst for God and of our groundedness in him. It is the conviction that we cannot live without his presence here and now. The Vatican Document on “The Church in the Modern World” states that by our lives of prayer we help keep alive in the human heart the desire for heaven. May we continue to do that for one another, both witnessing to and supporting one another in our lives of prayer as well as being lovingly and attentively present to one another as best we can in the ultimate hour of prayer, that is, in the hours of dying and of death when a sister goes forth to meet the Lord forever.