I took the train into New York City almost every morning, during the blazing summer after I graduated from college, and while I was diligent about looking for jobs, and bustling after interviews with publishing houses and magazines and newspapers. So it was that I generally spent most of the day pursuing a profession, and late afternoons poking around the city. The Cloisters, in the north, was a great place to laze alone in the grass before catching the train home.
One day I was indeed stretched in the grass there, staring out at the Hudson River and trying to remember if I had left a resume at the sailors’ hall on 13th Street, when I was hailed by, of all people, my cousin Maureen. I remember looking up and seeing her wonderful broad smile above me like a new species of light. I jumped up — she was the greatest of cousins, calm and generous and witty and gracious, and I had hardly seen her at all since she had become a nun five years before.
We sat for a while on the lawn and she explained that she was in the city as a student, pursuing a doctorate, preparing for a career as a teacher somehow — probably elementary school, given the focus of her order at the moment. But more and more she was beginning to think that this was a mistake for her.
“I love children,” she said. I do. “What could be cooler than teaching a child to read, or helping children begin to grow a little more confident about their own abilities, or helping a child pursue an interest in math, or music, or science? But I feel that maybe that is not the work I am called to do. I feel like maybe my work is to be present with people who are bruised and broken and helpless and besieged. More and more I find myself asking what are we here for? I have come to think that each one of us is gently pointed in certain directions. That is what we mean when we say God’s will, or the Holy Spirit, or fate, or providence. I believe this is quite real and the words we use are only labels for something we cannot really understand. But because we cannot understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t real, isn’t that so?”
I agreed, not that I had spent a great deal of time pondering the matter.
“I have,” she said. “One advantage of being a nun is that you have lots of time for contemplation. I think I am going to leave my order and join another. I want to be a nun but I want to do the work I should do, and I want to do it here. But I have to get to class and you had better get moving toward home. How pleasant to meet like this. Bless you. Love to everyone!”
And we parted. Soon thereafter she did leave her first order and join another, taking her new vows on her birthday; and she was embarked on a career of direct service to the Christ in every heart, in every soul, as a Sister of Charity, in New York City, when she died suddenly, only 33 years old, that broad beaming toothy smile extinguished forever in this world. But I believe, as she did, that there is an Imagination far beyond our ken, in which she is alight with love. I believe that she is not extinguished, and that perhaps someday I will be sprawled again in some unimaginable lawn, and I will look up, and see her grin, and leap up with deep delight.
The writer is resting at home following surgery and treatment for brain cancer. He sent this column before being diagnosed.