I’ve been besotted of late by a young Argentinian nun, called Sister Cecilia Maria. Before I was ordained I was planning my sabbatical (for Methodist presbyters ten years after ordination) I wanted very much to go to Latin America and meet with liberation theologians and women of faith so I was drawn to Cecilia Maria immediately.
Photos of the sister appeared on social media last year when many people noticed how, as she lay dying in hospital, her face showed the brightest of smiles. It turns out that it was not just in her dying, but also in her living that this smile shone. Shining like a star. In every photo I could find of her there was this smile broad and welcoming, inviting and somehow mysterious – if a smile can be such? Her appearance was of someone who was utterly taken up with joy, in the truest sense of the word. The internet was full of the holiness of this woman, her prayerfulness, her “holy face”.
Her smile made me smile too, in part because I ain’t no mystic but I know her secret. Sister Cecilia Maria practised a profound form of resistance.
The world tells us that physical illness is something to fear, an experience into which we are thrown, tumultuous and violent – the very last thing any of us would seek for ourselves or any other. The world is right, it’s shit. It hurts. It’s hard. It makes you cry unexpectedly. The world is right illness is horror. Mr-smells-of-ciggerettes-registrar, has just been to consent me for a surgery, I like this man greatly but when I see him I am reminded of the day more than a year ago, when he came into the high dependency unit pulled the curtain round and reopened my surgical wound with just his fingers to expediently get out sepsis. This is illness, it’s horrific and it messes with your mind as much as your body. It’s scary and dark and incredibly lonely, never doubt it.
However I believe it is possible to practise a form of resistance, to shut out the labels the world seeks to shove onto the sick (poor, brave, tragic, weak, needy, pitiable) and chose to find places, spaces and faces of joy. To notice God in the midst of immeasurable sadness and to be so enveloped and caught up in love that our faces – our words – our attitudes- radiate the shining of the stars in the heavens above. Don’t get me wrong, on Sunday night as I vomited a litre of bile and blood all down my favourite (designer chic) pyjamas I was not radiating some holy light – apart from the rosy cheeks which suggested a raising temperature. I’m not some kind of real life denying holy woman. I know though that Sarah the clinical support worker who mopped me up with such sweet gentleness and care enveloped me in a holy kind of compassion; the junior doctor who looked much like Harry Potter clearly overawed by the size of my (now 5) files and was at least ten years younger than me patted my arm and called me ‘love’ a crass but humbling attempt at pastoral care like bambi learning to walk it enveloped me in a kind of holy generosity; the housekeeping lady who shuffled round my bed so quietly the next morning so as not to wake me from my fitful rest and today in a warm Caribbean accent declared “Girl you look a million dollars better” – that’s God right there, enveloping me in holy love.
Like me, Sister Cecilia Maria liked to write and in many photos of her she has her notebook, when she was no longer able to speak she used it to continue to communicate with her community the discalded Carmalite sisters in Santa Fe, and her family. She wrote of her journey with God as a person given over to faithfulness to the Church and as a disciple who was suffering increasing physical pain and I suspect some psychological pain too. One quote from her writing strikes me particularly right now, “When you obey, even with the small things, how peaceful you feel inside, it is truly beautiful because you start to know Him, he talks to you in your conscience in the secret of your heart.”
My obedience is always to notice God, in the dark and the light places, spaces and faces. Small obedience just to notice but a huge act of mystical resistance to the powers that threaten to overcome. This way we can be both really living and living really, rooted in deep suffering and smiling like the shining of the stars.