by Cheryl Ann Smith.
My friend Martha Shepherd is dying. We’ve talked on the phone every week for the last few years, but the next call will probably be the one to tell me she has died. I live in Madonna House England, and I won’t see her again on this earth.
Martha and I were guests together in Madonna House 33 years ago. We were two wounded women with lots of fears but also a driving thirst for God.
We both joined Madonna house. Then I went on to live in many different houses in the apostolate, and Martha lived for the rest of her life with Arlene Becker in a poustinia house in Ottawa.
For the first number of years, our communication was somewhat sporadic, but more recently, God drew us together in the depths. We were both headed into burnout and were grateful for the consolation and strengthening we found in our friendship.
My journey took me to a place of deep healing in the Light of Jesus. And Martha’s path is leading to a resting in eternal Light.
I phoned Martha right after she learned that her cancer was terminal. As you can imagine, she was shattered. Yet three hours later, God had filled her with an experience of his Light and Love, and he gave her a word: "Follow the Lamb wherever he leads."
When I spoke with Martha a couple of days later, her voice was different: after living in an interior darkness for 17 years, the peaceful presence of God had taken up residence in her heart again. What else mattered?
"I’m not trying to figure this one out," she said. "I did nothing to bring the darkness on, and I did nothing to come out of it. I’m just following the Lamb wherever he leads. If he leads me to my death, that’s glory, because he’s there. If he gives me a physical healing, that will also be glorious."
That wondrous peace accompanied Martha for the next three months or so.
After surgery to remove as much of her brain tumour as possible, Martha sought relief through acupuncture rather than palliative chemicals. For a while, it seemed like life was being handed back to her, but then came a bumpy month.
"It would have been a lot more satisfying if I could have had my diagnosis and grace of surrender, and then shot to heaven, riding on a wave of glory", she laughed in classic Martha-style humour, "but I need to surrender to the not knowing and the hard work of waiting."
Well, the waiting wasn’t all that long, really: just a few weeks.
Before she got so sick, Martha realized she was heading into serious burnout, but she felt she couldn’t bail out of her responsibilities. Her love kept pushing her to give just a little more, a little more, a little more—until she collapsed. Later she wondered, "Was I just stubborn in pushing too hard?"
Inwardly I cried out, "Well, yes! I tried to tell you!"
Her next words pierced me to the heart and have challenged me ever since: "But are we not to literally lay down our lives for others, for love? I had to choose that path." Follow the Lamb wherever he leads, and that will include the Cross.
Before she got so sick, we used to dream about Martha living in a poustinia. I know she lived in a poustinia house for thirty years with an uncompromising life of prayer.
But her dream was to live in a little cabin in the midst of silence and beauty—like, for example, at the edge of our garden here in MH England, facing flowers and a field of sheep and gambolling lambs.
She could pray and write all the books that were inside her. With a lifetime of fidelity to God in prayer, a lifetime of compassionate listening to the sufferings and hopes of hundreds of people, she had much to say.
And it would come through the lens of a uniquely creative and humorous spirit. I could hardly wait to see those books emerge from her heart and pen.
I had heard seeds of books, as she developed ideas for various talks over the years. Oh, to have them written for the world to enjoy!
Today, we are building a cabin, a poustinia, on that very spot at the edge of our garden, and I know what name we must give it: St Martha.
Interesting isn’t it, that Martha’s last name is Shepherd, and her last word was Follow the Lamb wherever he leads.
Our Good Shepherd did invite Martha to share in his shepherding of his people. And she was true to this call of love. But on a deeper level, she allowed herself to be shepherded by the Lamb of God. She followed him to the cross of suffering love, and now he is leading her into his glorious Light.
In our last telephone call, I asked Martha if she still had energy for our phone conversations. "Yes, and even more often," she said. "They say that so much happens interiorly in the last weeks of one’s life, and it would be good to process it with you."
(In typical Martha fashion, she told me which author had said this and in which book. And in typical Cheryl Ann fashion, I forgot those details.)
Then she said, "There’s such a silence within me now. It’s like I’m here and not here. I don’t want to leave you all…" And then she trailed off.
Well, it seems that silence has completely absorbed her now. Perhaps she will be awakened by the heavenly choir and the voice of the Good Shepherd singing out, Come then, my love, my lovely one, come.
For see, winter is past; the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. The season of glad songs has come, the cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land…Come then, my love, my lovely one, come (Song of Songs 2:10-13).
Follow the Shepherd, my dear friend, as he leads you into Glory.
As it turned out, Cheryl Ann was able to come to Combermere to be with Martha for the last couple of weeks of her life.
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