‘Regaining Sight’ Is Nourishing Reading for Holy Week and Eastertide
This book by the Sisters of Life is a marvelous source of inspiration.
I love hearing stories of hope. Like the one my father once shared with me about his final assignment in the U.S. Army Air Corps while serving on the base in Biloxi, Mississippi, during World War II. The duty was issued by the commanding officer, who called Dad into his office one day and barked, “Corporal, you’re the new Chaplain’s Assistant!” Dad was stunned. With no experience in ministry, much less preaching, he wondered how he could possibly lead a “flock.” After all, he was a violinist and pedagogue and had been teaching at a college in Georgia at the time he was drafted.
Now he learned he was to lead the Black soldiers in their Sunday services which, according to unfortunate military culture at the time, dictated that Blacks be segregated from whites. Dad hated that fact. However, knowing military orders were final, and wanting to do his best for his fellow troops, he met with the chaplain and asked for advice. “How do you lead a service?” The chaplain simply handed him a Bible and replied, “They’re all young and uncertain of their future in the war. Just give them hope.”
Hearing that, Dad knew what he would do. He would give them hope through music. For the next several months, then, carrying a pump-style organ in a suitcase, he bantered easily with the men as he led them down to the beach, his chosen location for Sunday services. After reading a short passage from the Bible, he spent the rest of the time teaching them how to sing hymns in two-part harmony. “They loved it,” he said. “And after a while, they got so good at it that tears sometimes filled my eyes because their voices were so beautiful. They were singing from their hearts — praying, really. I’ll never forget it.”
Likewise, I will never forget the accounts I recently read in Regaining Sight: Stories of Hope by the Sisters of Life. The collection of 31 stories was chosen from stories previously published in the Sisters of Life magazine, Imprint, and are meant to help readers recognize how God has always been present in their lives, and always for the good. As the sisters describe the beauty of their charism to protect and to enhance the dignity and sacredness of all human life: “We exist to invite you to regain sight of yourself as a gift, the victory of love being won in your life, and the fact that Jesus can grow new life out of the places of death.”
As the title of the book suggests — and the adorable cover unmistakably depicts — accounts do not emphasize “places of death” but rather victories of love. We hear from married and single men and women, the sick, disabled and post-abortive women, including Lucy and Susan, who each suffered self-destructive aftereffects following their abortions, but regained sight of their dignity before God after attending the Sisters of Life Hope and Healing Mission in Manhattan. We learn the story about Steven McDonald, a police officer, who gave public witness to Christ by forgiving the boy who shot him many times in Central Park, leaving Steven, a young husband and father, paralyzed from the neck down. In Naill’s account, we learn from the young Irishman, now a seminarian, how he at last surrendered to God in prayer and was able to reconcile with his father and be healed of debilitating grief. Filled with gratitude, he says, “I live each day with the certitude that God deeply loves us in our brokenness. And I keep my eyes focused on him.”
Dr. Michael Brescia also lives with clear-eyed focus on God. As the co-inventor of the internationally renowned Brescia-Cimino fistula to treat kidney disease, he later co-founded Calvary Hospital in the Bronx and now serves as the executive Medical Director, administering palliative care to those suffering end-stage cancer. Sadly, while many in our “culture of death” choose assisted suicide, euthanizing themselves or others like animals, those at Calvary offer hands-on compassion, alleviating, as Dr. Brescia names them: depression, loneliness, physical symptoms and personal image distortion. Calvary treats more than 6,000 patients a year, he explains, and no one has ever asked for assisted suicide. Patients receive continual attention, are touched, embraced and repeatedly told, “I love you. I promise I will never abandon you.”
Explaining that he always prays at the doorway of a patient before entering the room, he then poses a question for readers’ consideration: “When someone is dying, do you think that room is part of this earth? No! You are not in this world. You have entered the vestibule of heaven.”
We receive more glimpses of heaven as sisters recount conversions and encounters with those they have met in their crowded, diverse Manhattan neighborhood where “sin presses up against grace,” and we learn the personal conversion story of Sister Pia Jude, who regained sight of her true dignity after shedding false ideas of happiness imbibed on social media. We are amused as sisters admit personal foibles and embarrassing moments that resolved in unexpected joy. And we learn the story by Father Elder, the sisters’ chaplain, who describes himself in college as a “professed agnostic” and “arrogant Columbia intellectual,” but who had enough humility, he said, to realize “you can’t just dismiss prayer until you have honestly given it a chance.” As he knelt, then, and prayed, the grace that immediately followed transformed him.
Cardinal John O’Connor, Sisters of Life founder, also received a great grace as the fruit of his prayer, but under very different circumstances. The episode he describes occurred during his 27 years of service as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. At the time, he was stationed on the island of Okinawa in bleak conditions, and undergoing an intense purification of faith.
He says, “I was priest, the only priest, for thousands of men, without families, without the ones they loved, torn by a thousand temptations, articulated by the presence of nearby villages which seemed to exist solely to meet the lusts and the desires of the men without families.”
He spent many long nights of desolation before “that tabernacle,” he says, “begging, pleading to the One who had suddenly become the unknown God, wondering if it would ever end. ... I had no sense of faith, and surely no sense of hope.”
And then one day, he says, “as quickly as it came, the darkness and desolation left, and the glory of the Resurrection filled the totality of my being. With it came a springtime of faith and awe, the beauty of springtime, a faith that, although I had been a priest many years by that point, I had never really known before. With it came a hope that I knew could never, never desert me and that, whatever darkness lay ahead — no matter what would be the vicissitude of combat, or living in a hole in the ground, in the mud, surrounded by violence, and no matter what (if I survive) would face me for the rest of my life as a priest — I knew, I didn’t presume, I knew, that I would never waver in faith or in hope again. That was more than 30 years ago, and there has never been a moment of it since. Love took over: the love of the Eucharistic Christ."
As we draw closer to Holy Week and the celebration of Easter, Regaining Sight: Stories of Hope is a marvelous source of inspiration.