No Condolences Yet, Please

This post won’t be to everyone’s taste but I offer it in the hope that it may help some who are facing their own death or the death of someone they love. Audio version at the end.

A Herefordshire oak seen from the monastery
An old battered oak not far from the monastery

Did you know that in the sixteenth century the word ‘pragmatic’ meant something like ‘busy’ or ‘conceited’? Only in the nineteenth did it acquire its current sense of being realistic or related to facts rather than theory. I have always prided myself on being a pragmatic person, but I am left wondering which meaning of the word I should apply to myself this morning. 

On Wednesday I agreed with my oncology team that I won’t be having the chemotherapy scheduled to begin at Easter. It would have been the third kind I have been given and was a treatment of last resort. It may be possible to have some later; it may not. The window of opportunity for these things can be quite small. I have known since diagnosis that my cancer (metastatic leiomyosarcoma) is incurable save by a miracle. The fact that there is a lot of disease in my lungs and heart makes any kind of treatment problematic, but especially now that COVID-19 stalks the land. Just going to the hospital is risky because it would expose me to infection; having further treatment is risky because it would depress even further my compromised immune system; and how could anyone in my position contemplate putting more strain on the NHS?* That is the voice of reason: straightforward, clear-eyed, pragmatic in the commonly accepted sense.

But we aren’t all reason. We are emotion as well. And I am now bustling around like a demented hen, trying to do all the things that, to be honest, I should have done long ago. There is a sock drawer to be tidied, an immense quantity of paperwork to be sorted, jobs here, there and everywhere to be completed. I know I will never actually get them all done. I am not sufficiently well organized or disciplined, but I shall try. That, too, is being pragmatic, but in the older sense of being busy and active, even a little conceited that I am the master of my fate. I’m not, and that’s something I still have to learn to accept.

But what about dying itself? We all have our own views on that. The chances are that, in common with many others, if I die in the next few months, I shall die without the sacraments. I cannot easily express what that means to me, but if that should be my lot, I know that it is one I will share with many others, including many great saints. Can it really be so lonely to tread a path many have travelled before? I don’t know. What I do know is that whether I die alone or with someone watching at my bedside, with the sacraments or without, I shall be surrounded by the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who make up the communion of saints. So, surely, it will not be so lonely after all.

Death opens onto life, but the process of getting there, the business of dying, is not always easy. I have sat beside too many people as they lay dying not to know that it can be messy and painful. There is no point, however, in worrying about that before it happens. I do worry about the community and my family and friends, but I know I can do nothing about them, either. Worry, like guilt, is never very helpful. We must simply abandon ourselves to the business of dying and trust to God for the rest. How, then, shall I prepare to die?

I think I shall begin by saying ‘thank-you’. In fact, I rather suspect I may not get much beyond that. I want to thank God for everyone and everything, for the gift of life itself, for family, friends and community; for those who have looked after me so diligently; for faith, no matter how wobbly it has been at times; for all the enthusiasms that have filled my life and continue to surprise me with unexpected joys, including the slightly ridiculous ones with four paws and waggly tails.

Then, I shall go on as before, for as long as I can. Not for me the ‘last visits’ or ‘bucket lists’ of the super-organized. I’m a Benedictine, after all, and one of the things I love about Benedictines is that we are always slightly shambolic. The routines of monastic life are never absolute but they do prepare us for death because they involve dying a little more to self every day. The silence, the solitude, the asceticisms of our life are all a preparation. They are meant to make us more loving, more joyful, more eager to enter into eternity, but they do not make us value the beauty and holiness of our earthly life any less. In fact, I think they make our appreciation of this world and everyone and everything in it keener. 

I’m hoping I’ll have a good while left but I don’t intend any radical change in my way of life.  A conversion would be nice, but I do wonder whether I’d be capable of one. I’ve talked before about limping into eternity, and I think that’s the right verb.

So, have I reached any conclusions (no pun intended)? The first point I’d like to make is that dying is, in important respects, individual. If someone you love is dying, try not to force your ideas on them, no matter how much you fear to lose them or feel that, in their circumstances, you would want such and such. Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.

When Mary stood at the foot of the cross, every fibre of her being must have protested at her Son’s death. She would have done anything — anything at all — to spare him that; but she loved him too well to say or do anything that would have made the process of dying any harder than it was. She stood there, silent but with every nerve alert, accompanying him as best she could but not making any demands. When she was entrusted to the Beloved Disciple and he to her, she said nothing. That silence, that acceptance, was the silence of one who embraces the will of God because it is God’s will, the silence of one who is truly loving.

My second point is more theological. There are times when we may doubt whether we are truly loving, despite all our protestations. Yet we know that we are because we have been incorporated into Christ, and it is his love that is active in us. At Easter we shall sing of being buried with Christ in baptism (cf Romans 6.4) and if that means what I believe it does, not only our death but our dying is, too. What we are tempted to think of as lonely and individual is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. We do not die alone. We die in union with Christ Jesus, and that changes everything.

*No pressure was put on me. The decision was my own. I have survived much longer than anyone thought I would, thanks to the excellent treatment I have received over the years.

P.S. Please do not send sympathy just yet. As I said, I hope to have a while longer but do not wish to spend my time thanking everyone for their condolences. Be pragmatic!

Audio version

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73 thoughts on “No Condolences Yet, Please”

  1. Thank you is all that I can say.

    Thank you for being you, wrapped up in God, through Jesus Christ and an inspiration to me, who came to your blog as a raw, hurting, angry failed Christian, and who had been helped and encouraged so much by your writing and kind words and how that has influenced my own path and direction.

    I have no more to say, but I will continue to pray for you.

  2. I have no words adequate to express my thoughts and feelings. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you have taught and shared with me over the past few years. ❤️❤️

    • May there be much life in your days!

      Thank you for some real food for thought. The best was answering the “why?” of “it’s God’s will” with quite simply, peacefully and trustingly: “because it is.”

      That allows us to accept and make the best of it because that’s from where the most good will come.

    • We have been blessed to travel this journey with you. As with others. At Lourdes, we prayed for no miracle for Richard’s terminal cancer, but for a pain free and peaceful death. With the grace if God, he was granted that. Blessings upon you

  3. Thank you. You helped me to see that I did what was needed at the end of my husbands life “ Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.” God’s blessings in the times ahead.

  4. For your generosity, inspirational thought, wit, insight and good, sound Christian sense (too rare and special to be termed ‘common’), I thank you. My prayers and blessings.

  5. What I have come to understand about you is that you are generous, intelligent and know God. Your words this morning could not have been more relevant. This morning I will accompany a friend who has extensive metastatic bone cancer in her telephone consultation with her oncologist. She too turned down painful (and probably life shortening) treatments three weeks ago. She struggles with the fear of what he will now say. Remember us in your prayers please. Sending love and hugs to you. Thank you for bringing God here.

  6. As I read your words I could not help seeing in you my own sister Diana who fought breast cancer 14 years and died 2 years ago this past January 9th, not from cancer but from complications of the new experimental chemo that caused clotting in her legs. It was a blizzard that winter here in the colonies and she caught pneumonia and a fire truck was needed to get through the snow for an ambulance to get her to the hospital. Diana could not be kept in bed she was always high strung and active so she was getting out of her hospital bed and fell. The nurse rushed in asking “Diana are you OK?” She smiled and said “I’m fine.” With that last breath she passed into the arms of Christ forever. She has shit an embolism and was gone from our sight and embrace until we meet again in heaven. But not quite true. She is with me daily, not merely in memory, but I can actually hear her and know God has sent her to continue being my beloved sister in the communion of saints. No one is ever gone in the absolute sense and physics teaches us this in the law of conservation. These are God’s laws when He invented this infinite universe so that nothing should ever be lost. “Be of good cheer Lady Catherine” and this will be your greeting in eternity.

  7. Very sorry for the typo of the word shot. She shot an embolism. O well. Have a good laugh at that. Poor fool writing one thing and this menacing software that auto corrects what you write can radically alter what you intended to say. Smile dearest.

  8. Thankyou. Continue being yourself and I hope that you will feel inclined to keep your posts going once the sock drawer is tidied (surely nuns cant have too many socks for reasons of poverty but also more colour co ordination! I am about to start work nursing patients who should have been coming to day therapy at our local hospice. I will remember your words about letting people be themselves in my practice.

  9. May the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you, the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.

  10. I am shedding tears here . Not for your passing for as you say don’t send condolences yet . No I shed tears for your raw humanity , your willingness to share your flaws and to reach out to others with compassion and pragmatic advice ,
    The sense of peace which emanates from your post , the sense of wanting to help others to face life changing decisions with a surety found only in our faith , wobbly as that might be .
    I shall not mourn yet , there will be time for that inevitably. But mourn I will because of how much your posts , your love for others , your kindness and compassion have meant to me .Above all your shining love and witness for your saviour,
    But pragmatically . You go sort socks .etc etc .Each of my days will be blessed by you !
    Post lots !

  11. Thank you so much for giving us these Godly contemplations. As always you are lucid, challenging and prayerful. Sending you love and hope, as you do us.

  12. What can I say? thank you they are two small words but carry so much meaning. Enjoy sorting your sock drawer and enjoy what ever else you need to do or want to do. Enjoy sitting in Gods presence now and for eternity. I could say I will miss your words – and I and others will – but thats all about me. Thank you for your honesty, for the way you are looking at this, and your words about being yourself, I will remember these when those I love are near to death. God Bless you Sister in all you do.

  13. What can I say? thank you they are two small words but carry so much meaning. Enjoy sorting your sock drawer and enjoy what ever else you need to do or want to do. Enjoy sitting in Gods presence now and for eternity. I could say I will miss your words – and I and others will – but thats all about me. Thank you for your honesty, for the way you are looking at this, and your words about being yourself, I will remember these when those I love are near to death. God Bless you Sister in all you do.

  14. Thank you Dame Catherine. I know you thought and prayed before you published this blog. I am so grateful that you did. I especially valued your thoughts on not receiving the Sacraments. Something I am finding quite hard to cope with. Prayers for the sock drawer and the admi, but above all for you. Prayers of thankfulness for all I have learnt from you. Prayers of hope that you have much more to teach.

  15. In the live streamed Mass from our parish today, the priest prayed for those who have had chemotherapy cancelled and one of those I remembered was you. Continued prayer.

  16. I cherish the memory of my pragmatic friend Elaine, who died from breast cancer when the options ran out after 20 years. Her daughter visited her in the hospice during her last days.
    Jane: Mum, have you got any advice you would loke to give me?
    Elaine: Yes. If you find a pair of jeans that fit, buy two pairs.
    ❤️

  17. Thank you dear Sister Catherine for your honesty in describing your thoughts and feelings in facing the situation we all have to face. Your faith, hope and love shine through. Thank you for blessing us with your reflections over the years. May God hold you close to his heart during this time. Love & prayers always dear Sister.

  18. Dear D. Catherine,
    Your wisdom, acuity, humour and generosity of thought have helped me more than you might imagine in my own stumbling journey of faith these past 7 years since my conversion. This is not a valediction, simply something I think every time I read your posts. Truly there must be a throng of people holding you in our prayers.

  19. I love your writing and your tweets. They make oceans of sense to me especially when I feel confounded and distressed by my Church and by my fellow humans. Let’s all live to the fullest from this side of eternity to the next. Would love to do lunch with you in heaven some time after we both limp in there. You will always be in my prayers. I wish you joys, peace, and beauty. Thank you!

  20. Thank you dear Lady Catherine for sharing your feelings and your thoughts with us! Your posts are so very personal and so inspiring , thank you for touching my heart and my soul with them . God bless you always! Sending you love from Berlin xxGabriele .

  21. So well expressed, dear Sister Catherine.

    Just back from praying the Stations. We want a life perfectly joined to His, and dying like Him, with the Cross He decides for me, will complete my life and make it a fit and worthy offering. At last a Catholic, I can now believe dying has been redeemed and given a purpose.

    There’s much to look forward to, too!

    Love from John

  22. Dear Sister Catherine, I am a relative latecomer to your posting, but I can only echo others in gratitude to your postings (ministry?) and pray that they will continue for as long as possible. Your latest posting is moving, sad, as ever thought provoking and also hopeful. Letting ourselves go and letting others go at the end of earthy life is not easy. But then being born into an earthly life is not easy either?

    I have been moved by the breadth of people who follow and comment, including those who follow other faiths or none.

    Thank you.

  23. St Mary of Egypt, who didn’t receive communion for many years in the desert, please pray for us.

    I’m told Mary of Egypt ran away from home when she was twelve and became a prostitute in the city. On pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she couldn’t enter the church of the Holy Sepulchre and experienced a profound metanoia, following which she headed out into the desert to seek God.

    I don’t find it easy to get a sense of her from the hagiographical stories, but I think she is a very special saint.

    Many years ago when I was a young student visiting Florence, I turned a corner in a gallery and unexpectedly came upon a wooden statue of St Mary Magdalene by Donatello, supposedly his last work. It’s very different to his well known statue of David with the jaunty cap. There was a tradition there of depicting Mary Magdalene as a penitent, clothed by her long hair. This statue of Mary Magdalene had a big effect on me. Photos on the internet don’t do her justice or convey her raw, compassionate humanity and unflinching love of God. She is praying.

    I like to think there was some confusion and conflation of different Marys in which their individuality got a bit lost but sometimes shines through regardless. I believe Mary of Egypt underwent her conversion after praying to Our Lady. Donatello’s statue of Mary Magdalene is how I imagine Mary of Egypt.

    Thanks for such an honest and helpful post. God bless you all.

  24. From across time zones, again, breaking my usual radio silence.

    I live near Boston, Massachusetts. My daughter lives just outside Los Angeles. They are three hours earlier than we are, and we in turn are are five hours from you.

    The parish I attend when I her is Facebook streaming their noon mass every day. Her dear pastor says the mass in a solitary little rectory chapel that is barely large enough to turn around it, and, as Los Angeles is essentially bi-lingual, switches languages often during Mass. He does this again at 3 pm California time, which is 6 pm Boston time, for a holy hour of prayer that includes the Divine Mercy chaplet and the rosary, again in Spanish and English. I have been watching both for the last week or so.

    I live alone, and my beautiful daughter with her own new baby is very far away. During the Mass and the prayer hour, I can hear the traffic going by the chapel window—all only a mile or so from where she lives, a walk I take frequently to pay a visit—all so familiar, yet so far away. Yet it provides a very comforting link, to hear her world just outside Mass.

    Please know, dear Dame Catherine, that you have been, and ever are, in my masses and now, afternoon daily devotions. We who live in solitude cannot live with the complete immersion in contemplative life of monks and nuns, but we can still organize our days somewhat around a greater prayer life.

    In just a few minutes, the Mass will begin—mid-day for California, almost mid-afternoon here, and evening for you. As you wind down your day, and again in three hours when you sleep, know that some of us in far away places are praying for you during your nighttime hours. We will keep watch, in a way.

    God bless you, and much love.

  25. Harold and I listened to your post together and are very moved by your thoughts and words.

    We have received a number of phone calls and e-mails from people we’ve not been in touch with for a while, everyone considering their own mortality and that of others as Covid-19 sweeps around the world like the longest Passover night ever.

    We continue to uphold you in prayer as you live with cancer, in gratitude for your guidance and friendship and pray you have a good while longer among us. We pray, also for your family, friends and community and for all who visit your blog.

    Thank you for all that you are and all that you’ve given us (including your cauliflower cheese recipe!) We hope to meet up with you on the other side one day.

  26. Sister Catherine, I confess to being in tears as I read this but, as with all things, tears of sadness and joy or better said I suppose, those joyful tears of knowing God loves us and you, of course, so much. Even though we know ‘you ain’t dead yet’ allow us to mourn and rejoice that you’ll be received into Heaven soon of perhaps you’ll go into full remission, who knows. All in His perfect timing. I’d like to say something humorous about the dog posting from the great beyond but perhaps that will be left for another day. 🙂

  27. I’m sad to hear about your illness. I hope you have more time left than they say and that you have a peaceful painless death. However my comment is entirely selfish. I lost my 25 year old son, my only child, to suicide on Good Friday last year. It was completely out of the blue and there was no indication that he was suffering with any mental health issues. When you see him, please hug him for us and tell him how loved he was. I can’t bear to think what was going through his head at that moment to make him feel that was the answer. We are devastated and feel our lives to be without meaning or purpose now. I find it hard to understand why God could allow this to happen. Please pray for us.

  28. This is a gem! Pragmatic (in the more recent sense) and an act of caring concern for everyone in your position and for everyone who is close to someone in your condition. Your awareness of the Communion of the Saints is rare but real.
    Your request to respect the freedom of a dying person and not to add to her burden is so wise.
    God reward you for this and for many things you have given your readers.
    PAX!

  29. May God’s peace be with you, and your Community. Thank-you so much for your ministry of prayer. These posts are a blessing and give hope to so many. May this Holy Week and Easter be, for us all, a time of reflection and growing even closer to our Lord.

  30. I shall do as I’m told (probably for the first time) but you need to know that you are loved, respected and a total inspiration to so many women (and some men) with your wisdom and insight. I shall be waving my palms (messy leaves cut from my garden) tomorrow and praying with and for you.

  31. Hi…it’s Yvonne (Dufall) I was at the Convent with you too. I can see you have the love of so many people, & from what you have written I can see why. As you know many of us have got back together over the last 10 years, & you have always been spoken of fondly. So sorry you are leaving us, but who knows, with this virus, we may be coming with you.
    Cathy Callaghan is already there…..you will hear her wonderful laugh. And dogs ! There will be hundreds of them !
    God Bless….hope you don’t find too many odd socks ! Fond wishes. Yvonne x

    • Hi, Yvonne! I didn’t know Cathy Callaghan had died . . . She was lovely. I’m hoping I’ll continue to defy the statistics for a while longer, but who knows? Lots of love to you all. Please stay well. (P.S. Pleased about the dogs. If they aren’t there, it won’t be heaven ;–) )

  32. I will not send condolences, but will share this memory of Great Auntie Pat. Her garden was full every summer of pansies. They fascinated me, I think because they seemed to have faces. Great Au tie Pat would send me into the garden to pick some to take home and my mum would say “Don’t take too many.” So I would pick a few and go back inside. Every time Great Auntie Pat would send me out again to get more! We went through this ritual every time. Even today, some 55 years later, I think of her whenever I see big, happy-faced pansies. I send you a bunch, but not too many, of those pansies.

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