The retreat house bordered on the ocean, a delight for us who lived inland. The first morning, the water rushed the shore passionately, dragging a big swath of it back to sea. Unable to walk on water, I walked into it, lost my balance and fell. I laughed, got up, stumbled over to the nearest rock and dried off in the sun.
The next day, its passion spent, the sea kissed the shore gently. And I walked into a kiss.
In the large dining room two women of a certain age sat together. One was tall, stalwart; the other short, nicely dressed, with a long purple stain down one arm, a tattoo of broken blood vessels where she must have fallen. Nonetheless, she seemed to manage well enough.
At the end of lunch, the stalwart one offered to take her companion's empty dish but was gently brushed aside. So she left, holding a bright apple for later. When the coast was clear, the short one ambled over to the serving table, took two cookies, returned to her seat and slowly ate them.
I later learned the woman had diabetes. This gave me pause. Was I supposed to draw a lesson here? Admit that I also do what I know is harmful? Make my list? Mend my ways?
Or maybe say that sometimes all any one of us really wants is a little sweetness.
A string of pearls
"This is your Mama speaking. Be gentle with yourself."
Actually, it was my spiritual director speaking, a woman I had just met two days earlier and who certainly didn't know my "Mama," gone now for three years.
There was a long silence. Then a single tear slid down my cheek.
For my mother was indeed present. One of her last words to me were: Piano, piano, arrivo sano. Which she translated as Go slow and you'll get there in one piece.
Sensing an opening, the wise director added: "Stop running ahead of grace."
"I do it all the time."
"I know. But you only have grace for now."
With that, she handed me a gift. "Each hour is a pearl."
That night I sat at a wall of windows and watched the blue ocean turn gray, then black, then vanish. I remembered how pearls were formed around irritants, as some hours were. But a pearl is a pearl, and I would treasure every hour of them.
A few days later, I left the house of mercy with a kiss, two cookies for Janet, my companion, and a string of pearls around my neck.
Three weeks later we traveled to a golden jubilee celebration. For six months, Sister Betty had battled cancer, conquered it and now stood beaming in the doorway of a large auditorium. She threw her arms around us and gave us a bookmark that said, Gratitude is the memory of the heart. A friend stood next to her with a bowl of small gems that looked remarkably like pearls of every color imaginable. Janet and I each took a blue one.
Later, the jubilarian asked us all to open our hands and offer our pearls while she prayed; we prayed then sang with grateful hearts. I looked at her shining face and thought: What is it like to walk around with cancer, if you can walk around? What is it like to walk around every hour with a pearl in your opened hand? What is it like to know that you are the pearl you offer? To realize that you are yourself the house of God's mercy.
[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.]