Reflection for Vigil Service of S. Helen Lange, O.S.B.
September 28, 1913 – March 18, 2019
“If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together … there is something you must always remember: You are braver than you believe, Stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think….. but the most important thing is, even if we’re apart … I’ll always be with you. Know who said that? Well, Disney took artist’s license, twisted the words a bit and put them in the mouth Christopher Robin. In the original Chris asks Pooh, exactly what S. Helen might ask us: “… when I’m – you know – when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes? Promise me you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred…. he put out a hand and tried again, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you.”
I extend the sympathy of our monastic community to all of you – Sister Helen’s family, her many care-givers: Heritage Park staff and volunteers, monastery health care staff and a of her “few closest friends” … quite an understatement – Sister knew no strangers – everyone was a friend. In her later years she would cruise the halls at Heritage Park (the Assisted Living Facility where she resided) … greeting each person and waiting until they returned a greeting.
Sister was always one to enjoy a party AND she preferred to get things done yesterday rather than tomorrow. In our Catholic tradition this past week we celebrated two special feast days: Saint Joseph (foster father of Jesus) on Tuesday and Thursday was the commemoration of the death of our beloved founder, Saint Benedict. Both saints are honored as patrons of a peaceful death. As was typical, Helen pre-empted both saints’ days and got to heaven on the coattails of St. Patrick while Pandora provided Celtic music from my cell phone … softly playing near her head.
Today we honor and celebrate the life of Sister Helen who lived 105 years on this earth. She told someone recently, “Don’t say: I’m almost 106 years, it’s only 105 and a half years.” We can only imagine all the changes she lived through: world wars, depression years, how many presidents? And, Brother Stan noted this fact: I believe that Sister was one of the last in both the monastery and the abbey to have known all of the Abbots. She entered Holy Name a year before Abbot Charles died.
In her lifetime, Sister took pleasure in the advances in technology like the radio, a tape player for her “Books for the Blind” and a CD player for her music; b/w and color TV and then amazing computers. She knew party-line telephones when the operator ask: “Number, please” – then the mystery of dial up phones and amazing of all, cell phones and email (which she never used but enjoyed hearing messages from family and friends.) And, now, we have social media that got the news of her death out almost before she could knock on heaven’s door.
History books can cover the years of Sister Helen’s life time. And a review of church history will capture changes in the church. Now, we “on the inside” know what was REALLY happening in the religious communities. Those 5 girls from Texas – and there were 3 others who entered in 1930 – arrived with their footlockers filled with nun’s black shoes, white night gowns, undershirts and black stockings. Their families had provided what dowry they could, shared bed linens and towels from the family supply. And, in some cases it was the eldest girl in the family (like Helen) that they had graciously offered to God.
In the convent, Sister was one of those who “went with the flow” of changes in religious life … sometimes shaking her head over the “nonsense” but other times taking the lead in implementing changes. One evening in Ocala, the pastor invited the Sisters to the local Jai Alai fronton. Sister jumped at the invitation and hurriedly went to change clothes. Well, sort of. She’d worn a skirt that day but wanted to change to slacks for the outing. However, she forgot to take off her slip which now was on display from under her shirt hanging to her knees over her slacks. Cute picture!
I recall a time when we were teaching together in North Miami when she convinced me – and S. Rosaria, her cousin of happy memory – to be the first ones to go to school without our veils – hair showing, permed curls … and to our surprise, none of the kids seemed to even notice.
At Heritage, Sister enjoyed walking out front, along the driveway. The rest of us shuddered because Sister was losing her eyesight and could so easily have slipped off the edge of the walkway. But, she loved the color of the hibiscus bush in full bloom (which it is now) near the front door. And she’d patiently count the school buses passing by – evoking memories of “the good ole days” of teaching and producing operettas like “Cowboy on the Moon.” The “cowboy” had to get up on the roof of the church so he could glide on pulleys over the audience (from, of course, the moon).
She also kept track of the improvements on the apartment complex across the street … although she would remark often that she was blind and could see only shadows. Then, she might ask, “What is that man on the roof doing?”
When Sister would sit on her walker, she could feel the breezes on her face. …reminding her always of the wide open fields of Texas… of horseback rides to school, years of plenty and years of want, wet sheets handing in the doorways to try to cool the stifling summer air. And, Sister loved good music …and zippy parodies. I would venture a guess that the sentiments of this borrowed prayer will give voice to her wish:
Let it be beautiful when I sing my last song. Let it be day. I would stand upon my two feet, singing. I would look upward with my eyes, singing. I would have the winds envelope my body. I would have the sun shine upon my body. Let it be beautiful when You would slay me, O Shining One, Let it be day when I sing my last song! (Evelyn Easton I Send a Voice)
At her birthday gatherings – remember the one when the fire brigade came to put on the 100 candles? At such times – and most any time she could grab an audience – they were treated to her rendition … ON KEY … of “Home on the Range.” (Let’s honor her by singing what became her “last favorite song” – ALL sing “O give me a home, where the buffalo roam …” etc.)
Jesus tells us “I go to prepare a place for you …in my Father’s house there are many mansions.” Until Helen was cautioned (and deigned to pay attention to the warning) against wandering beyond where staff could observe her strolls outside, Sister would sometimes ask me to go around the building outside to the north end of the facility. She had become fixed on the belief that she and her father had helped to construct that building. I asked how they got there – she said she did the driving. She would look for the cornerstone that she and her dad (according to her) had built into the exterior wall just outside her bedroom. I wonder was she maybe unconsciously looking for that mansion Jesus had promised that His father had prepared for her and that she moved peacefully into on the morning of March 18…. sight restored, no more back pain and walker flung aside.
On many Sundays, (thanks to her trusty volunteer driver), Sister Helen joined us here at the monastery for Mass and dinner. In the down time waiting for dinner she would sit on the dining room porch (when we weren’t chasing her down in the parking lot as she ventured alone to see what that huge tank in the front yard was). Or she’d walk the halls checking for familiar wall hangings and to see if there were any changes. One such framed hanging is a “17th Century Nun’s Prayer” (we’d brought from our previous home across the street.) She appreciated someone reading it aloud as she prayed:
Lord, You know better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody: helpful but not bossy. With my past store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all, but You know O Lord, I want a few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on my aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by… Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a Saint – some of them are so hard to live with! Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in in unexpected people. AMEN
You may know that S Helen had some hoarding tendencies, particularly when it came to greeting cards from those she loved. One such was an excerpt from THE SILVER COMPASS by Holly Kennedy. It was written by a nursing home resident. So, I will close with this message, believing it is what S Helen would want you to hear:
You are invited to my funeral. Please come. Wear your best clothes, bring your friends, and send me off with a flair. And as you say good-bye, keep these things in mind: I wasn’t wealthy but my life was rich. I wasn’t brilliant, but I never got tired of my own company. Most important, I lived my life believing happiness is something a person has to decide on ahead of time. It doesn’t arrive at your door and knock. You need to unwrap each day like a gift and find your own tiny piece of happiness, sometimes in the middle of pain and sadness. So eyeball each other and share stories about me, good and bad. … Cry if you need to, but at the end, leave happy.
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress