To Live While Dying
by Pauline Hovey
“I don’t want to die while dying. I want to live while dying.”
Over a week ago I attended a Resurrection Mass for the woman who uttered these words while knowing cancer would soon end her life.
Sr. Janet fulfilled that desire. She lived her life fully. Even while in pain. Even when she could no longer rise from her bed. She expressed gratitude for the simplest gifts she noticed from her pillow. She was imbued with joy. A love for the poor. And a light that filled me every time I was in her presence, just as it filled Sacred Heart Church on that Friday.
It reminded me that although physically, Sr. Janet was my age, spiritually, she is ageless. Her light lives on.
That’s not just some cliché.
I experienced this light from the moment I stood and watched her sisters proceed down the aisle in single file, their love and their grief palpable in the single white rose each of them carried.
I felt it again as her good friend Fr. Bill shared how she became a doctor so that she could practice what she called “poverty medicine,” providing health care to those who needed it most but couldn’t afford it. I was blessed to have visited Proyecto Santo Niῇo, a clinic Sr. Janet cofounded for children with special needs in Anapra, the very poorest section of Ciudad Juarez.
I recognized it in Matthew 25:35-40, the Gospel passage she had wanted to be read at the memorial.
There wasn’t anyone in that church who didn’t understand why.
She fully lived these words. As do so many in this El Paso-Juarez border community.
“Then the king will say to those on his right: ‘Come, receive my Father’s blessings. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me. Imprisoned and you came to visit me.’
“Then the just will ask: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were ill or in prison?’ The king will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-40)
As I looked around, recognizing so many friends and fellow volunteers filling the pews, I felt incredibly blessed to be part of this community. To learn from people who teach me, every day, the meaning of those words.
Like Ruben Garcia, of Annunciation House, who managed to slip into a pew during the Mass. Even with his ever-mounting and never-ending responsibilities, he took the time to come. Because he knows, just as Sr. Janet knew, that God identifies first and foremost with the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.
Choosing a life of serving the poor matters. It increases our capacity to love. It electrifies our joy. It magnifies our light.
That’s surely what I saw in Sr. Janet. I saw it in the joy of her vocation, joy in her faith, and joy for the poor.
She has shown me – as has this special border community – that living this vocation matters. Even though we cannot explain or understand it, living a life in love, of love, for love, matters. It’s what lasts.
Whether it’s being with the poor in Anapra, at the clinic where Sr. Janet patiently instructed and loved severely disabled children and their mothers. In the hospitality centers, where Sr. Janet, myself, and thousands of volunteers have given of themselves and been changed and graced in the experience. Or in this community that shows incredible hospitality to strangers, whether they’re coming to volunteer, to simply visit and learn the truth about our border, or to escape desperation and violence.
Like Dylan Corbett said at the Hope Border Institute event Monday night:
“El Paso is showing the rest of the country, and the world, how to treat people with dignity and humanity….What we are creating here should be a model for our government.”
What we are creating here, I believe, is the kingdom of God made manifest.
It is the difference between simply existing to get the most out of this life or fully living to give the most of who we are.
In the end, our physical existence is temporary. The light of our love is not.
If we are not grounded in this light and love, then nothing we do makes sense. Thank you, Sr. Janet, for being grounded in love.
This article was originally published on A Journey of the Heart, a blog by Pauline Hovey.