When the fullness of love manifests itself it cannot be diminished. It becomes its own entity, a living, driving force.
Not romantic love, but divine love, brought to life in those around us. When we are able to feel that love, see it, we can breathe it in, embrace the joy, and if we really truly get it, we can be emissaries of that love.
I met one of those emissaries and was changed forever.
She was 103 when she left this world and went to her sweet Jesus. I had only been a part of her life for the last ten years. We journeyed together – an old nun and a middle-aged chaplain. She to heaven, me to a place deeply rooted in the sure and certain knowledge of God's love.
I am not one to see divine interventions every where along our road, but I know Sister Rose was sent – an embodiment of pure grace and love – all wrapped up in a four-foot, seven-inch bundle of Jesus-driven energy.
The first day I met Sister Rose, I had been on a 16-hour on-call at the nearby trauma center. I was tired but excited to be filling in for one of the nuns at the local Catholic hospital.
When I was introduced to her she immediately pointed to a chair, told me to sit down and asked me, “So what's your story?”
I honestly doubted that this nun really wanted to hear my story which included three husbands, numerous affairs in between those husbands, three children and lots of escapades – some scandalous along the way.
Given all that, you might be wondering how I became a Catholic chaplain?
I converted back to the religion of my birth through a resignation that it was the only place spiritually where I felt at home. Profound faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist keeps me there -- bitching much of the time about the bureaucracy that surrounds the beautiful presence in our tabernacles.
Chaplaincy called to me and I answered. My thinking was something like, “I survived a lot of trauma. I am still walking. Maybe I can give hope to others.”
Sister Rose came to learn my story – all of it – the everyday happenings, the parts of which I was proud – especially my three children, and the parts that filled me with shame.
She especially liked hearing about my ex-husbands. She was very direct and with regard to my second one, 25-years my senior, she would ask, “What were you thinking?”
She heard about what I thought was a miraculous third marriage to a man I loved with passion and devotion.
Sister Rose and I came to love each other. I loved her because she was brave enough to swim in all the crap with me. I guess she loved me because I was brave enough to risk telling her.
She told me her story. I always loved hearing how religious got the “call.” It started when she was seventeen. Her mother volunteered her to be the substitute housekeeper for the pastor of the local church. “I thought I was hot stuff,” she asserted. She was happy to be in charge of the money, the groceries, the meals. She loved that responsibility.
One day when it was nearing time for the absent housekeeper to return from caring for her ailing mother she went to church and asked God if he could please arrange for her to stay as housekeeper. She heard God tell her, “I have something better for you.” “Six months later I was in the convent!” she happily exclaimed .
It was that simple for this woman of God. He called, she answered. She lived her life keeping her promises of obedience, poverty and chastity with joy.
She did all sorts of things, including being in charge of the hospital's kitchen for many years. It wasn't until she was well into her seventies that she took Clinical Pastoral Education and became a chaplain.
Her style of chaplaincy was certainly like nothing I was taught in Clinical Pastoral Education.
It was all about love for that nun. She distributed Holy Communion with a humble, loving reverence that radiated from her little body. The patient would finish receiving the host then Sister Rose would say, “Thank you, Jesus. We love you, Jesus.” She meant it. She meant every word she prayed.
There was no little black book – that was how I managed to give Communion. Quickly trying to ascertain how the patient was feeling and then hurriedly going to that particular topic in the book. Pathetic really but like many Catholics the idea of extemporaneous prayer was a foreign idea – fine for those lovable, free-spirited Evangelicals, but certainly not for me. She soon taught me to pray from my heart. I couldn't even tell you where my little black book is.
We became friends. Real friends. I was one of the few people who didn't treat her differently because she was old. She liked that. I liked that she could make me feel that Jesus absolutely loved me, just as I was, broken and very imperfect.
During our time together she related a full life. Many adventures lived in the busy world of the convent. She happily shared her frailties as I shared mine.
She told of the time she was in Ohio and working on the order's farm. One of the other sisters, came rushing toward Sister Rose and her friend, planting at the time, ordering them to help hunt down an escaped cow. She was having none of that! She told her friend to keep her head down and pretend they didn't see anything.
I didn't mind how many times Sister Rose told me the same story. I understood that even if she added nothing new to the rendition, I could hear it differently each time.
Sister Rose was not much of a complainer. She learned early it wasn't thought well of in the convent. She told of going to her novice mistress with a complaint about a particularly annoying fellow novice. Her superior said, “So did she crucify you?” Sister Rose never forgot that. I must confess that I have not fully embraced that non-complaining sentiment but I'm working on it.
Sister Rose lived through much change in the church – it didn't faze her. She told me about the nun who allegedly said Mass. “That was a good one!” she asserted, thinking it was quite humorous.
She enjoyed the charismatic movement of the church and had quite a few good stories of the trips to the conferences they offered. She liked the energy.
She made her perpetual vows as Sister Deodata – meaning gift from God. A fitting name but when her order decided to give the option of changing to birth names, Sister Deodata eagerly became Sister Rose Lechner.
She was not so sure about lay ministers. I was very surprised to hear that she told another sister chaplain that if they hired a lay person she was quitting! I am glad that something kept her there journeying with me.
There was sadness in this beautiful woman's life. Living to such an old age brings grief at each passing of an old friend. Her mother was killed in an accident on her way to see her. The order's rules were onerous in the beginning of her vocation. She was kept from the family she loved. The visits with them were few. Most of the time she had nothing to say about where she went or how long she would be there.
Sacred Heart Hospital was blessed to have Sister Rose there for 53 years -- an institution at the institution!
The bedraggled, the liars, the drunks, the prostitutes, people of all states of life, flocked to Sister Rose, to be fed materially and to be loved. “God loves them,” she asserted.
The CEO at the hospital was one of Sister Rose's friends. They would talk companionably. He would tell her of the hospital's troubles. She would offer advice and support.
Age continued to haunt Sister Rose. It wasn't ill health. Her health was remarkable. She hated being put on display because she happened to be a nonagenarian. She regarded her longevity as simply not worth mentioning.
Once when she was 98 I took her to visit a priest in a nursing home. We entered the elevator with another woman who began a conversation with Sister Rose. The woman asked her how old she was. “Eighty-eight” she answered without batting an eyelash. “You look great for 88,” said the woman. It was the only time I remember Sister Rose looking smug. Later she assured me, “It was none of her business anyway.” Amen!
When anything went wrong in my life Sister Rose's answer would always be, “Let's just pray before the Blessed Sacrament.” That was a practice we never stopped in our friendship. The Blessed Sacrament always beckoned to both of us, providing warm, steady comfort in the midst of chaos.
Deep sadness descended on Sister Rose when her order called her to return to the mother house, an hour away from the hospital. Sister would sleep at the convent from Sunday through Thursday but she spent Friday and Saturday nights with the medical residents, living at the hospital. She spent much of those nights ironing altar cloths, purifiers and corporals. The hospital was her home, her place to love Jesus, her place to shine.
The first time her leaving was mentioned I got angry, very angry. Few of us at the hospital could understand why the order would bring this wound upon this good woman. She still functioned as a chaplain. The hospital was willing to make any accommodation the order felt necessary for her.
I was one of many who pleaded with the Superior. She was impatient and unyielding.
I called the superior general in Rome. Unlike the local superior, she was lovely and listened to my concerns. I don't know if that intervention had any effect but the idea of Sister Rose leaving the hospital was dropped for a year.
The time did come though -- the agony. This despite the efforts of doctors, administrators, and many other people – all begging for her to stay. This beautiful, then 97-year old nun, had to leave her beloved hospital.
There was a wonderful Mass celebrated by many priests who came to love this dynamo of a nun. Old friends came to wish her well.
She was not okay with this move and asked me if I would drive her out to the mother house for one more attempt at changing the superior's mind. I did. It was a hopeful ride. We took the long way, dotted with sheep, cows and goats. We prayed the rosary. I waited in the lobby as she put forth her arguments only to be turned down once again.
It was a very sad ride coming home. We both cried at the unflinching meanness of “Attila the Nun.”
She had many options. My nature is not one made for obedience. I offered up suggestions that in Sister Rose's mind did not meet the obedience standard, “I took vows. They are my community.”
Sister Rose never stopped loving her community, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. No matter how angry and hurt she was, she loved and defended them.
Sister Rose needed a carton to step into my pickup truck for the ride to the mother house to begin this new, unwanted chapter of her life. The truck was stuffed with boxes – among them one filled with green cards, with “The Miracle Prayer” printed on them – Sister Rose's favorite giveaway. Praying the rosary again, we made this trip without the benefit of happy conversation that marked most of our time together. Instead there was a companionable sadness, a distinct quiet. I couldn't talk because I didn't want to cry again. I would suspect it was the same for my friend.
Thank God there were warm faces to great her as we arrived. Nuns I grew to love over the years. They were the characters in many of Sister Rose's stories. While I am still working on forgiving the superior who wouldn't let Sister stay at the hospital, I grew to love the other sisters, well most of them.
I had promised Sister Rose to visit her as often as I could.
I kept that promise. My then-husband would accompany me, on almost every Sunday after Mass. The trips were happy ones. We would take in the beautiful scenery that graced the less-traveled route. Listening to audio books and holding hands, the time was a gift.
When asked what she did there, she would shrug, and say, “Eat, sleep and pray. What else is there?” She didn't let that become her life. Sister Rose went into action. There were many times when we would arrive and there she'd be pushing one of the residents from the assisted living section of the facility in their wheelchair. She found ways to minister to the residents, staff and other sisters.
We would come bearing goodies that we would share in the sisters' dining room. Coffee, sweets, spirited conversation with a bunch of nuns – it was my idea of a good time.
These visits continued through the years.
Every visit ended with a trip to the chapel and a prayer for us. She absolutely hated the tabernacle being off to the side. “This is his house!” she would angrily exclaim. I must admit I always thought the justification for moving the tabernacles was flawed so she got my support. She tried to have it moved. Like many things in the Catholic church, her initiative got lost in a bureaucracy that didn't welcome change – even if it was a change back to the way things were.
When Sister Rose hit her hundredth birthday, there was a festive celebration with tons of people, music, and testimonials, one of which I was honored to give. Her reply, happily delivered, was that she, “couldn't wait to meet Jesus!”
Every time a situation with my family surfaced I would tell Sister Rose. Our friendship demanded that I not become one of the people that kept things from her. She didn't want that.
She shared her disappointments also. She hurt for those around her. Sister Rose was hurt when people discounted her because of her age.
She was my biggest cheerleader. Everyone needs a Sister Rose in their life. Introducing me to the sisters, she heralded every one of my accomplishments, big or small.
Years went by and then one day I made the trip alone. I had the task of telling my friend that my husband, the love of my life, had been unfaithful and was moving back to England to be with his mistress.
We both cried that day. He was her friend too. She was a huge source of support for me in the ensuing months when I found adultery was minor in comparison to the heinous offenses that landed him in jail, probably for the rest of his life.
She told me about the time he came to visit her after we separated. “Well Carolee, there is no other woman, and it's all your fault,” she told me this laughing. Sister Rose was no dope.
Once she asserted I had a “Sears Catalog” husband. “He looked good on paper.”
When he was arrested she wanted to go see him. “He has to know that no matter what he has done, Jesus still loves him.” His betrayal was of such a magnitude that I didn't know if I could help her with this. Eventually I contacted the prison and asked that she be put on his visitors list. They never called back, I assume he was too embarrassed to see her.
Ministering to prisoners was nothing new to Sister Rose. One of her happiest moments was when a death-row inmate converted immediately before he was killed. Sister Rose had been writing to him, encouraging him to turn his life over to Jesus and ask forgiveness for his sins. She read the account of the execution in the paper and the prison chaplain reported that he acknowledged Jesus and begged forgiveness.
Her charity was real-- palpable-- and I wanted to be more like her.
Sister Rose's example inspired me to pray regularly for my ex-husband.
It wasn't until Sister Rose was 102 that she finally consented to use a walker. I was visiting with one of the other chaplains from the hospital. I had for quite some time tried to tactfully suggest that she might want to try a walker. She would give me withering looks that convinced me to drop the subject. Sister Clare took one look at her and said, “Rose, you need a walker.” Sister Clare then got one of the aides to bring her one and that was that! Her hip pain, the only health concern she ever expressed, was eased because of that walker. I was very grateful to Sister Clare for her forthright insistence.
My new found dire financial circumstances found me visiting less often. I was working four jobs and working every day. I didn't mind working but I minded not seeing Sister Rose. She was a priority. I still managed to find ways to see her fairly often but I missed the frequency I had enjoyed previously.
People would comment on how marvelous I was to be so loyal. I always pointed out that the joy was mine and that when I visited it was definitely as much for me as it was for her.
What I could count on was her love. She always was happy to see me. Our faces would light up when we saw each other. She would tell me she was ready to meet her Jesus. My only comment was, “Well you might be ready but I am not ready for you to leave,” admittedly selfish!
During the last weeks of her life she had moved to a wheelchair. While my heart was saddened for my friend, the wheelchair provided an opportunity to take her outside for a wonderful walk on a gorgeous day. Whenever we went outside she always wanted to go to the sisters' cemetery. That time was no exception. She stopped before many of the graves and prayed for her friends.
One of the last visits I had with her was when she was taken to the local Catholic hospital because she became faint. Her friend, Sister Eileen, called and told me she was admitted. I quickly went to see her. When I arrived she was sleeping. She woke, saw me and gave me a big smile and said, “Here I am lying around doing nothing!” She went back to the mother house that afternoon.
Two weeks later I got another call from Sister Eileen. Sister Rose was not doing well. They had her anointed and called in hospice.
This time I really raced. I arrived to see my friend wracked with pain but I was so glad to be there. The morphine began to work. I stayed. I prayed the rosary and prayed some more. I read to her from her Liturgy of the Hours book. I sang to her.
I prayed to St. Anthony to help her find Jesus. St Anthony was one of our favorite saints. I still have the statue of him she gave to me when she left the hospital.
I kept whispering in her ear, “Go to Jesus. He's waiting for you.”
Her sister friends could not have been kinder. They knew how special we were to each other and they honored me by allowing me to be with her. Sisters would come in and out of her room, checking on their friend who would be leaving them soon.
They told me the Friday before she became so ill she went out into the hall and thanked all the aides and nurses for taking such good care of her.
The circumstances of Sister Rose's death provided one of those rare moments in one's life when God's love comes up and washes you in its greatness. He allows you to drink it in, to revel in it, to be enveloped in his loving generosity.
Sister Rose died on the 13th of June, the Feast of St. Anthony, with only me by her side. In a mother house steeping with nuns, God graced this very faulty woman with the beautiful gift of being the one to walk my friend home.
I will forever be grateful for witnessing, when once again, God told Sister Rose, “I have something better for you.”