Being loved into existence

by Virginia Herbers

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You never know what might come from oversleeping. On a random Saturday morning several years ago, I missed my alarm and found myself scrambling to get to the convent carpool before they left for the last morning Mass in the area, about 5 miles away. By the time I got to the front door, the car was already gone.

That left me with only two options: miss Mass completely that day or go to a funeral Mass at a neighboring parish. I opted for the second choice despite the fact that I did not know the woman who had died. Hey, it's always good to practice a corporal work of mercy, right?

Little did I know then what I know now: God had a message for me in that funeral liturgy that would last a lifetime.

As I walked into the church, which was standing room only, I learned that Vi, the woman who had died, was a beloved mother, grandmother, friend and wife. A woman in her early 60s, she had just lost her battle with breast cancer. Her husband and three daughters were the last to enter the church and were visibly devastated.

Eight priests from near and far had come to celebrate the final farewell of a woman who was one of the pillars of the parish. The priest who gave the homily had traveled over 1,000 miles to bid her farewell and provide a stunning tribute to her selflessness. It quickly became obvious to me that Vi was one of those people you met and never forgot, a person whose character made an indelible mark on everyone she encountered.

The prayers of the faithful highlighted the various charities that had benefited from Vi's advocacy and faithful support. The grandchildren each carried something that symbolized their special bond with their grandmother, each of the seven claiming to have been told in secret that he or she was "Granny's favorite, but don't tell the others."

As I sat in the back of that church, absorbing the love and gratitude for this woman I had never met, I was struck by the potential we each have to make a positive difference in the lives of others. It was truly touching. In truth, though, it was not yet all that different from other touching tributes I had heard given at funerals.

Then, everything took a different turn. Vi's sister-in-law stood up to give the eulogy. It went something like this:

"On behalf of my brother, James, and his children, I would like to thank you for being here to celebrate Vi's life. The value of her life is demonstrated by the sheer number of people who have come to say goodbye. It is true that she was a beautiful person, inside and out. She was generous, thoughtful, sensitive and loving. But I am here to tell you something you might not know: She wasn't always like that.

"As you know, Vi was my sister-in-law. When she and my brother were dating, I was not in favor of the match. He was in grad school and she was — well, let's just say she was what I called a 'spoiled-rotten brat.' James was in love, dismissive of my complaints that she was shallow, self-centered and seemingly only interested in him for his money. He would respond, 'You just don't know her the way I do. If you could see her through my eyes, you would love her, too.' Exasperated, I would storm out of the room, mumbling something about blinders and idiots.

"When they got married, I tried to believe she would change and be 'worthy' of my brother's love. Nope. Believe it or not, it actually got worse. She announced she didn't want to have children because she didn't want to wear those 'horrid maternity clothes.' She declared she had no intention of getting a job. She spent her days at the mall and the spa, ensuring her appearance was, in her words, 'on par with Lady Diana.' James would come home from work to find her lying on the couch, exhausted after an arduous day of shopping and hairdressing. He would throw in a load of laundry and get dinner started while she finished her nails or soaked her feet.

"After a year of this, I sat James down and begged him to open his eyes and see her for what she really was: a selfish woman who spent every dime he earned on herself. I asked him to tell me one thing she had done that demonstrated that she genuinely loved him. He heard me out and responded calmly, 'You just don't know her the way I do.' And he stood up and walked away.

"I was heartbroken over the havoc my brother's naiveté was wreaking in his life. I actually kind of pitied him. 'If only he could just accept the truth,' I thought. I prayed that God would give him eyes to see. It turns out my prayer kind of boomeranged.

"As the months went by, little by little, things started to change. James would come home, and maybe the laundry was started or the plates were on the table. Maybe. After a few more weeks, Vi would have vacuumed the living room or would respond, 'Oh, I didn't make it to any of the stores today' in answer to his question about where she had gone shopping. James told me Vi even made cookies for the veterans at the VA hospital, where he brought Communion every Sunday. And then one week, she started going with him.

"Little by little, Vi changed into the woman every person in this church knew her to be: selfless, generous and giving. This eulogy is a tribute to that woman — and to her husband.

"James, you were right. You saw something in Vi that no one else could have guessed was there, and you loved her into being. She became the woman you loved so very much, and we are all the richer for it. Thank you, James, for your faith and for your love. Thank you for loving Vi into our lives. Thank you for giving her to us. You were right. You were so right. You weren't the one who needed different eyes. We were. Thank you for not giving up on her — or on me. And Vi, thank you for letting yourself be loved into existence."

With the eulogy finished, Vi's sister-in-law sat down, and the congregation stood up for the final commendation, but somehow, I couldn't bring myself to move. "Thank you for letting yourself be loved into existence." What if we could do that for each other? What if we could love someone into being the best possible version of themselves, the way James did? Better yet, what if we could let ourselves be loved into our best existence by the Beloved who values our potential over our shortfalls?

Don Quixote saw the lady Dulcinea when everyone else perceived only Aldonza, a woman of ill repute. Author Gregory Maguire proposed that the Wicked Witch of the West had a name, Elphaba, and a story. And what Harry Potter fan doesn't remember that in the end, Snape was one of the good guys? The possibility of being recognized and loved for more than what we seem is all throughout literature. It's nothing new. What Vi and James taught me, though, is that this is not the stuff of fiction. This is the stuff of love.

Missing my alarm that Saturday morning was one of the best mistakes I've ever made. Thank you, Vi, for teaching me the lesson that has become a lifelong prayer: Lord, help me to see each person the way you see them so I can love them, too. And, Lord, help me to let you love me into my best self.

[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master's degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States province of her community.]