Death And All His (Or Her) Friends

SistersofStJosephI’m not religious in any way, I think that’s pretty well established. I have no faith. Sometimes I think that’s a great pity, because death is pretty weird, all told.

There are few times in the life of average folk when, as the main character, front and centre, they’ll generate such a swell of emotional response. So many people fussing about – remembering, crying, celebrating, organizing and, perhaps most importantly, preparing food. Oh the food! Our waistlines can think themselves lucky that we’re not permanently surrounded by death.

I’ve spoken of my thoughts on death a few times before on mattsoldmanrants. I’ll generally be able to find something rantworthy in any topic, death being no exception. But this time, I have to acknowledge that death also has its good points.

I went to my aunt’s funeral yesterday. It was a day of recollection, happiness and celebration. More than anything, it was a day of community. My aunt belonged to a community from which my day-to-day life couldn’t be more distant; at the same time, it’s one that I’ve always been made to feel so much a part of, as if I were somehow integral to it and always so very welcome under its roof and within its walls.

As we were leaving yesterday, I mentioned to mum that I’m made to feel like some kind of layperson-celebrity every time I’m in their company. That’s just what they’re like. It’s not tacky, pointless adoration for the sake of it. Quite the opposite: it’s pointed, purposeful respect. I honestly think it wouldn’t matter who you were, they’d always make anyone feel that way.

In conversation, on whatever topic, they look into you, rather than at you; into your eyes, into your soul, as if they’re reading you, that’s how it sometimes feels. There’s never any suggestion that they’re pondering what the hell’s going on with your hair or how much weight you’ve gained since they last saw you or why that outfit. It’s a kind of genuine interest in you, the person, that’s rarely found elsewhere.

The whole thing really made me feel a part of something. As I was leaving a lady, who I’d never seen before in my life, called out to me, “congratulations on your wonderful aunt!”. Suddenly I felt proud of someone for whom I was in no way responsible but who, in so many ways, was very much responsible for the man I am today. Of everything she taught me and all the character traits I’ve tried to mimic over the years, the one thing I’ve never managed to achieve is my aunt’s absolute faith, her self-discipline and her dedication. I’d love to have that much faith – in something, anything. But I never have.

See, my aunt was a nun for nearly 58 years. She was a Josephite – one of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a congregation co-founded by Saint Mary MacKillop in South Australia in the 1860s. As a kid, I almost always lived wherever my aunt wasn’t, so I never had the opportunity to truly discover who she was until my teenage years. Up till then, I had a clichéd image of nuns, no doubt thanks to the likes of The Sound of Music and The Flying Nun. By the late-80s, even though it was still common to see nuns in full habit – whether the big spooky pre-Vatican II black garb or its more relaxed, modern (and usually quite beige) post-Vatican II update, my aunt and many of her sisters were abandoning the habit altogether and, for the first time, I began to see them as people, rather than as ‘nuns’. It was as if seeing them out of habit was like seeing a different person; it took me a long time to realise that they were always exactly the same, regardless of what they wore.

There was no denying it, though. They weren’t like normal people, in or out of habit. They were genuinely caring, giving and interested – all the time. If it was ever called for, they would quite literally give you the shirt off their back, or at very least rustle one up from somewhere with minimal difficulty. At their profession ceremony they take a public vow of poverty, amongst other things, which means they live quite unlike anyone in mainstream society, particularly in the modern age. The sisters’ lot in life is still as austere as it’s always been, yet they all seem perfectly happy.

Today convents are run much like businesses. Day-to-day life is a combination of work, prayer and learning through study or contemplation. It’s a simple life, far removed from what the majority of us know and, in many ways, very much a product of another time. Yet they’re all still wonderfully caring, graceful and among the most contented people I’ve ever known, despite having not a single possession to their names, other than perhaps a handful of personal effects. Aside from a box of photo albums and a watch that I immediately recognized, my aunt had no other possessions. Nor did she ever wish for any.

Yesterday I learned – or, rather, I was reminded – that religious don’t view death as life ending, but as life changing. And it’s a change they celebrate, even though the loss of a physical presence may be mourned. There’s a sense of community surrounding death in the religious world and it clearly says “this is something valuable”. And it’s not ‘was’, it’s ‘is’. As long as someone exists to remember them it’s all still very much present-tense, however much their life, their essence or their physical presence, may have been relegated to the past through the act of dying.

And speaking of the past, I was reminded of something else important yesterday: it’s well past time for me to go out and do something valuable.

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