So Simple, So Momentous

by Susanne Stubbs

Times of death in a family can be times of grace. We can be evangelized through them.

Recently in Madonna House, two brothers and a sister have died. In each case, the persons had health concerns, but they were very present to life going on. In each case their final decline took place within days or a few weeks. One, in particular, was in the chapel with us for Mass on a Tuesday and on Friday entered eternal life.

I have thought a lot about death as the transition that can happen so quickly, so simply, and yet is so momentous.

It has often been said that the moment of our dying is the most important moment of our lives. I believe this to be true; but this moment of importance, like so much of our lives, can seem so ordinary.

The most recent death we have witnessed is that of Theresa Marsey, who died at 93. Was her death ordinary? Probably. Theresa had several ailments, which kept her mostly confined to her bed and in pain at the end of her life.

Finally, her whole body seemed to wear out. She was visibly failing. One night she died in her sleep. Pretty ordinary.

With the eyes of faith, however, we knew her death was no ordinary moment. No one’s is. When it came, perhaps we should have heard choruses of angels singing. Perhaps, we should have set off fireworks!

We have a song in Madonna House one line of which is, “It is my whole life I am giving to the King.” We sing it on the day we make promises.

The moment Theresa breathed her last breath, she was approached by the King for whom she’d sacrificed her whole life. The last breath was certainly ordinary; the moment that followed, superbly extraordinary.

We could observe Theresa in her last days and weeks leading an ordinary life. Although ailing or in bed, she was happy for visits and conversations.

I visited her early in Advent. She appeared weaker than usual, but there was still a vibrancy in her. We chatted about our friends, new and old, and then she wanted to talk about the book she was reading.

The book was a biography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux that particularly revealed how much the saint had suffered at the end of her life. As she reflected on the book, our Theresa kept exclaiming, “Boy, did she suffer! I had no idea!” This realization about her patron saint was consoling her.

As Theresa was reading about St. Thérèse last Advent, did she know it would be the last Advent of her life? Maybe, but who is ever sure?

She was doing what sick people often do. She was reading. But God knew it was her last Advent. He knew he would be coming for her on December 26.

Her choice to read about Thérèse’s last days may have seemed a natural choice, an ordinary choice. I see that choice and its consolation and grace as the extraordinary tenderness of God.

And is it not true that our ordinary life and our ordinary death are always covered with the extraordinary tenderness of God? Had we eyes to see!

My last ordinary moment with Theresa was five days before her death. My visit was short, deliberately so, as she had become very weak. When I entered her room, she half opened her eyes and recognized me.

Despite her frailty, her first words were, “How are you?!” The words needed to be mouthed and whispered, rather than spoken. In her last days, it was second nature for Theresa to offer ordinary hospitality. In a few days she died.

The mystery I constantly ponder about death is this: in one minute we are living in one world and in the next minute in another. The two worlds seem so vastly different—the painfully ordinary and the splendid extraordinary. And yet the veil between them is somehow very thin.

Light slowly enters the mystery for me. Perhaps the two worlds are not entirely different. Didn’t St. Catherine of Siena say, “All the way to heaven is heaven”?

The ordinary tasks we perform every day are good enough for God. Out of them he makes something extraordinary. Most days we don’t necessarily see this.

But each time we participate in the Eucharist, we eat the Bread of Angels. I thank God that at this moment in the day, at least, I know for sure that I have tasted heaven. This moment is always extraordinary.

When speaking of death, our foundress Catherine once said, “One day I shall wake up and realize I lived in a splendor the like of which I never understood.”

I think that through Theresa’s death I am beginning anew to understand this reality. One more death in the family, and once more I have been evangelized. I pray for increased perception to see the splendor in which I live.