Early morning I sit at a dark upper window facing a wide park and the slow rise of the next street over. There are five houses in a row ascending the hill.
Every morning, inevitably, my eye is drawn to the light in the top house. All the others lie in darkness, with shades down like closed lids. When the sun rises, sure enough, it favors the top house, so that it shines even brighter.
My eye is drawn to brilliance, in houses and in people.
Recently, one of our sisters died who was a kind of recluse. One of those houses with no lights on. Strange to tell, when her obituary came out, a steady stream of people came to mourn her loss, to praise and give thanks for the blessing she had been in their lives.
Which makes me take a long look at dark houses. And people. Is there some light deep inside I have been missing?
You never know where light will appear. Or when.
Weeks later I was in church for an evening Mass in ordinary time. We all sat in the silence, waiting for the great transformation to take place on the altar.
It was then I saw what appeared to be a thin flame burning on the head of every child, mother and grandpa, every curly, colored, trimmed, shaved head. The church was alive with lit flames, and it wasn't even Pentecost. I looked at my friend's head and smiled insanely.
And I kept smiling insanely — at the gentleman who held the door open at the Post Office and all the people inside, at drivers behind tinted glass, at the woman who bowled me over with her motorized wheelchair as I bent low for a bag of flour at the grocers. I looked up from the floor and there was her face, barely visible over a bed of flowers across the width of her chair and, yes, a flame on the top of her head. "So sorry," she said.
"I'm fine," I said. "Lovely flowers."
Now don't get me wrong. This is not the eternal sunshine of the placid mind. Yes, some lights are going dim and some are going out. I visit our elderly sisters. I read the news and the obituaries. I also read Global Sisters Report.
I see you in Nigeria empowering prisoners, and right here in town ministering to "my boys" at the penitentiary. In Botswana you teach children from unstable families how to read and write. In Menands, New York, you do the same thing. You give hospitality, meals and so much more in Chicago's Back of the Yards. It's called St. Joseph's Place in Hamilton Hill, Schenectady, New York. Come snow or rain your coffee pot is always on, your table piled high with soup and pastries. The flames on the tops of everyone's head are clearly visible and it is Pentecost.
Yes, some lights falter. Last month, my own brother lay like an old man in a hospital bed, every vital organ shutting down even as the doctors pumped him with antibiotics, red blood cells and white. All in a frantic effort to keep the flame burning on the top of his head.
Finally, they cut off a diseased finger on his left hand and sent him home with his hand wrapped big as a boxing glove. Two weeks later my brother was in Atlantic City, throwing dice with his right hand, a thin flame still burning. It may be our mother was tending that flame.
Her light shone steadily all of our growing up, a beacon illuminating our nights and days. When I suffered with pneumonia, my mother put me in her bed and lay on the floor beside me all night, a steadfast lighthouse keeping watch.
As she aged, my mother's light sometimes flickered as if disconnecting from a hidden battery. Periodically, my mother's light went out and we brought her to the hospital. In a few weeks she returned to us in steady, if not so brilliant, light. In the end, I held her hand, wept, and watched her light go out forever.
Now I pray that when the light on the top of my head is no more, Christ will send his mother and mine to bring me into the eternal light.
But before that day comes, I will do some baking, cross the park, and bring a cake to the darkest house on the hill.
[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. “We were called Sister” (U.S. Catholic) was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the CPA.]