By Sister Sheila Carney
It has long been a custom in our church to spend some time on Good Friday reflecting and being instructed by what we call the seven last words of Christ. Perhaps today, as we commemorate the death of Catherine McAuley, we can hear again some of Catherine’s final messages and, from this distance of 180 years, find the wisdom they hold for us today.
Reflection on these last words reveals several themes. The first is the concern she had for those around her — beginning with her physician. “‘Well, doctor, the scene is drawing to a close” she calmly commented at his appearance, to save him the awkwardness of having to tell her there was no longer any hope of recovery. Father Mahler, who had caused her so much distress and suffering was welcomed with the request that he forgive her for any way she might have offended him.
Throughout the day, her words to the sisters were full of consolation. Hear her saying to Camillus Byrne whom she had raised -“Kiss me, my heart, and then go but don’t be crying. I will see you again.” And to Gertrude Jones, one of the rare older members of the community whose own death could not be far off, “Don’t be afraid to die. I never knew it would be so sweet.” These are examples of the love that, even as she lay dying, focused her on others.
She spoke also of the future of the Institute. When Fanny Gibson exclaimed that they couldn’t go on without her she replied, “If the Order be my work, the sooner it falls to the ground, the better; if it is God’s work it needs no one.” To all gathered around her and to us as well she promised, “Preserve union and peace. Do this and your happiness will be so great as to cause you to wonder. My legacy to the Institute is charity.” Earlier in the day she had confirmed her will but this was an additional, intangible and precious bequest.
Finally, there are those words which reveal the graced and amazing composure and peace of soul that she exhibited in her last hours. To Elizabeth Moore as she increased her volume in leading the prayers for the dying, “No occasion, my darling, to speak so loud. I hear distinctly.” And repeatedly throughout the day, “Oh, if this is death it is easy indeed. The almighty has spared me so much.” The fact that she was able to hold a lighted candle to within an hour of her death is another indication of her clarity and her calm.
Catherine’s words reveal to us that, on this last day of her life on earth, the focus of her heart remained unchanged — resting in her unwavering trust in a Provident God and embracing with love and compassion her family, her sisters and her associates.
You will have noticed that I have, thus far, omitted what are perhaps the most often repeated of Catherine’s last words — the request that the sisters be given a good cup of tea when she was gone. This gesture of self-forgetfulness and of motherly concern for those who had kept watch with her has become central to our understanding of Catherine’s hospitable spirit and has helped us, over the years, to introduce others to her generous heart. And because it is such a potent and evocative symbol, it is important for us to linger over it and to plumb its deeper meaning.
Catherine’s words to Teresa Carton were: “Now fearing that I might forget it again, will you tell the sisters to get a good cup of tea — I think the community room would be a good place — when I am gone and to comfort one another. But God will comfort them.” “I think the community room would be a good place.”
I have puzzled long over these words. Why would a woman who was dying of tuberculosis, who had earlier asked that her bed be moved into the middle of the room so that she could get more air, why would she spend that precious air telling the sisters where to drink their tea? Why would Catherine, who had so carefully drawn her companions into the significant decisions about their life together and who had recently refused to name her successor because she knew it was their right to do so, why would she interfere in their decision about where to drink their tea? Why would she waste her precious breath unless this was important, symbolically important?
The expected place for the community to gather would probably have been the dining room. But in that era of religious life, the dining room was a place of silence and Catherine knew that the discipline of silence would not be what they needed. No — she sent them to the community room — the place where she had taught them to be sisters to one another. She taught them to be religious, yes, but first she taught them to be sisters. This was the place where they made life changing decisions together; where they laughed and played together and where, in her words, “not one cold, stiff soul appeared”; this was the place where they had shared an intimacy more familiar than what they had experienced at home.
Catherine knew that her death would be the most searing experience they would ever share and so she sent them to the community room to comfort one another because to have allowed each to sink into her personal grief would have been a dangerous thing. This was the time when the heart of the Institute would pass from her to them and they had to be together to embrace, as one, this new role and this new understanding. And she made them a promise — comfort one another and God will comfort you. She had said earlier that if they lived in unity and peace their happiness would be so great as to cause them to wonder. And this is where is would begin. In the community room.
So the message of the cup of tea is a profound one. It is a sacramental, if you will, of our life together. In it, Catherine asks us to be sisters to one another and to trust that, when we turn to one another in moments of joy and sorrow, in times of confusion and change, we will find God in that interaction. And herself as well, I believe. So we must use this symbol carefully because, in addition to all the other meanings with which we have invested it, it is Catherine’s final call to a loving and generous sisterhood among us.