By Sister Marie Michele Donnelly
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mt 16:24)
The first time I visited our Sisters in Peru was in the 1990s. I was delighted to be going, but also a little hesitant, primarily because I do not speak Spanish. We spent some time in Lima and Pacaipampa, but the majority of the time was spent in Chulucanas for community meetings and dialogue. I participated as well as I could at the meetings, with a wonderful simultaneous translator by my side. However, when more individual conversations were scheduled, the sisters suggested that I connect with some of the people who live in the nearby town. As a result, I had the opportunity to accompany one of the sisters, a nurse, on her rounds to visit those who were sick. It was a powerful experience for me to meet these folks in their homes—meager as they were. I was deeply touched by their warm welcome and their gratitude for the work of the Sisters of Mercy.
Around noon, we started back to the convent so we could escape the hot midday sun. The sister accompanying me asked me if I had enough energy for one more visit and I answered in the affirmative. Now, this sister had lived with me in the States when she was getting her nursing degree and knew me well. She knew that I was pretty much a “chicken-heart” when it came to difficult situations. She warned me that the woman we would be visiting had a “leprosy-like” disease and if I couldn’t handle it, I was to step outside the home and wait for her. I was not to show any dismay or pity, even though I knew that all her siblings had died from this disease and there was not much hope for her. That made me nervous, but I assured sister that I would adhere to her directions.
We entered a one-room dwelling with a dirt floor that was very dark inside and filled with acrid smoke. Two small children scurried to meet us, but the mom, Fanny, was sitting on a mat tending the fire. She was about 26 and pregnant with her third child. She could not walk but propelled herself on her elbows. She had lost fingers, toes and portions of her face. When introduced to me, Fanny smiled radiantly and extended what was left of her hand in a warm welcome. She and sister began an intense conversation about her health and pregnancy as I took in the family’s dire situation. Their poverty and desperation juxtaposed with the giggling toddlers and the animated mother will stay with me forever. I could not envision any hopeful future for them.
As their conversation ended, Fanny turned to me and spoke in Spanish. We were invited to stay for lunch, which was the horrid-smelling fish cooking over the fire. My companion declined for both of us, due to the hour. I asked her to thank Fanny for the invitation and to tell her that I would pray for her. Fanny then turned to me and spoke for several minutes with a warm, intense look on her disfigured face. When I looked to sister for the translation, her eyes were filled with tears. This was Fanny’s message to me:
“Sister, you do not have to pray for me. Something wonderful happened to me yesterday. I heard that the statue of ‘Senor de los Milagros’ (The Lord of Miracles) was being carried through the town. I decided that I would go outside and wait for Senor to pass by. I just knew that if I could stand and let his shadow fall on me, that I would be cured. I pulled myself up as straight as I could, and the miracle happened. Senor’s shadow fell upon me and I knew all would be well. So do not worry, sister. You do not have to pray for me. I will pray for you.”
It was a profound experience for me, and I had no real response except to awkwardly thank her. We left her and her children in the dark, smokey room to eat their meal.
That was 25 years ago. I have never forgotten Fanny and have inquired about her whenever one of our sisters visits from Peru. The last report was that she is alive, still living in Chulucanas and her children are all grown.
Ever since that encounter, whenever I hear the passage, “If any want to be my follower, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me,” I think of Fanny. To me, her situation seemed hopeless. Her cross was too heavy to carry. Her situation too desperate. Her disability too great. Her poverty too deep.
Yet, Fanny saw things differently. Courageously, her faith lifted her up into the presence of Christ, whose own suffering offered her hope and strength. Deny herself, she did! She refused to let the limitations of her reality block the transforming power of God. What a lesson! The Paschal Mystery was incarnate in this strong woman of faith. It can be that for me, too, and for all of us who allow ourselves and our limitations to be transformed by the unfathomable power of the Merciful One.