Benedictine Women Service Corps (BWSC), an outreach of Saint Benedict’s Monastery, St. Joseph, Minn., invites College of Saint Benedict alumnae to join the monastic community in deepening relationships that support justice and service in a new location. Volunteers strive to live out the Benedictine Gospel values that were formed during their undergraduate education in a capacity that will challenge them personally, spiritually and professionally.
This week Erin Carey who serves with the Benedictine sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, blogs.
Before coming to the Mount, death was something foreign. It was something that stopped my own world for a few days, pulling me out of school, had me traveling to another city, or taking time off of work. It was something I didn’t face often, but when I did it was overwhelming. Death was so final and mysterious. Over the past four months, four sisters in community have passed away. As we prepare for another memory service and funeral this week, I am thankful for the lives of the women who I was not able to get to know well but who have shaped my experience in many ways.
With each sister’s passing comes beautiful rituals of memory services and funerals along with smaller rituals throughout the month after her death. For a month after a sister has died, a candle is lit in chapel during prayer. Her light shines in the back of chapel as everyone walks in. We pray with her and other sisters who had died on the date in years past, going back to the beginning of the community. The practices remind me that while the sister is gone, she is still connected to the community and plays a part in the shaping of life here, even though she is not bodily present. For sisters who died 70 or 80 years ago, they may not be remembered personally by anyone anymore, but they are remembered because every sister has had an impact on the shaping of the community. While the sisters mentioned at prayer may not be known by anyone in the chapel today, it is way to be thankful for the past for providing for the future. It is also a reminder that life will continue on even when we are gone.
During a memory service, the people gathered start in chapel. After a prayer, we begin the procession to the community room. The body is guided by pall bearers down the hallway connecting chapel to the community room. It is one last journey through the house. The family members, sisters and friends of the sister follow along behind, singing. During the rest of the service, stories are shared from the people who knew her best. There are always surprises. The stories are uplifting, touching, funny or profound. Because I did not have the chance to know these sisters well, it has been a joy to hear about their personalities and quirks. It paints a picture of each person, not just as they were when they died. It’s a picture of who they were in the last years of their lives and who they were as young sisters. After the sharing, everyone processes back to chapel for evening prayer. As family, friends and sisters file into chapel, each person bows in reverence to the body before finding a seat.
This reverence continues to the next day as well. We pray with two sides of chapel facing each other, so with the body in the middle of chapel, the focus of the prayer is centered on the sister. It is beautiful to encircle her with prayer. She remains in the center of chapel during morning prayer the next day and throughout the day, until the funeral in the evening. This literal living of the passage from the Rule of Benedict that says, “keep death always before your eyes”, has made death a little less foreign. I see each sister’s journey through death and into new life as something to be reverenced, bowed to, and accepted as natural. Death is still frustratingly mysterious to me, but I’ve seen it a little more closely now. Thank you Sisters Bernadette, Janet, Maureen, and Roberta for your presence in community, now and continually.