Readings for November 11th
The Good Cup of Tea
Perhaps the most often repeated of Catherine’s last words is 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, to comfort one another. But God will comfort them.”
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 it 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.
(Liturgy of Remembrance: Commemoration of the death of Catherine McAuley. Sheila Carney, rsm)
Burning her shoes: Catherine’s final abandonment
Catherine McAuley died about ten minutes to eight in the evening on Thursday, November 11, 1841. Early that morning she disposed of her homemade shoes in a quiet but definitive gesture which has rich symbolic import as a revelation of her character. She had established an unenclosed religious order of women - “walking nuns” as they were popularly called - one of whose chief purposes was to visit the poor the sick and the dying in their own homes and in hospitals. She had used her associates, and herself, to go forward through the streets to those in need. Sr Elizabeth Moore recalls that “Early on Thursday morning, about 2am, she called for a piece of paper and string, tied up her boots and desired them to be put in the fire.”
This simple gesture of quietly burning her boots in the middle of the night stands as a remarkable symbol of Catherine’s final abandonment of herself to the providence of God. In this act of self-surrender she accepted the end of her walking, she relinquished her historical work as a Sister of Mercy, and she turned barefoot toward the God who stood before her in death. Like Moses who removed his sandals before the burning bush, Catherine McAuley deliberately and reverently entered the holy encounter of her death.”
(In the Tradition of Mercy - Mary Sullivan,rsm.)
If Catherine were Alive Today
Catherine died November 11, 1841, having set in motion what was to become the largest congregation in the world ever established by an English – speaking founder. The stirrings of her heart cast fire. This fire deliberately set to burn off stubble and weed at the end of the harvest, became the flame from which fires were deliberately cast in fields throughout Ireland and the world to burn away poverty, sickness and ignorance. In every country where mercy exists, Catherine’s own spirit lives .
If Catherine had lived at the beginning of the twenty first century, instead of the cries of the poor children of Dublin haunting her dreams, the cries of a suffering world would have troubled her sleep. She would no doubt have turned her energy to global interrelationships of rich and poor, knowing that as long as in any country the poor, the sick, the uneducated are oppressed or marginated, the light of the Gospels is dimmed, and peace and justice in the world remain elusive ideals. In the contemporary world, in spite of energetic measures to alleviate the ills of society – poverty, sickness, ignorance – the poor, the sick, the ignorant abound; the alienated, the lonely, the deserted and the abused abound. In a world of indifference concerning belief, the erosion of faith in God and in transcendent reality has spawned self destructive greed, selfishness and lifestyles of outmanoeuvring one another. Out of the consequent erosion of integrity in word and work, dishonesty, brutality and destructiveness abound.
When were spiritual and temporal works of Mercy – performed with tender courage – more needed?
(Tender Courage – Joanna Regan, rsm.)