November: a time to “keep your eye on death every day”

Clare Condon SGS

Clare Condon SGS

Pauline chose not to have invasive treatment, but to live each day to the full and to deal with dying and death in a positive and proactive way as cancer ravaged her body, writes Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS*

Last week I attended the Mass of Christian Burial for one of our Good Samaritan Sisters. She was aged 76. Today, in our Western society, 76 is not old. Yet women die from breast cancer at a variety of ages. Cancer makes no distinctions.

Pauline had been actively engaged in many pursuits when, just nine months ago, she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. She chose not to have invasive treatment, but to live each day to the full and to deal with dying and death in a positive and proactive way as cancer ravaged her body.

Her response was loud and clear. “I’d rather quality of life than length of days”. She was not interested in prematurely ending her days because of what might lie ahead. But rather, she was utterly committed to living each day to her fullest capacity, as best she could, with the ordinary daily resources that medical care could offer.

It is this attitude of hers that stands in stark contrast in a society that often won’t even discuss death and dying. For many people, death is seen as the end of the line and there is no life beyond the grave. Death, the great unknown, is to be feared and even denied. Yet we all know it is the one reality we cannot avoid.

Pauline’s attitude to death and dying is also mirrored in the institutional life of Catholic religious orders of women, particularly here in Australia. We are daily facing diminishment as our older members come to the end of their lives and new membership is scarce. However, contrary to expectation, there is no gloom and doom amongst us. We have a powerful belief in life hereafter, and death does not dominate nor diminish the life or ministries of individuals or of the group.

Pauline’s funeral service was a celebration of a life committed to seeking God, with all the questioning and challenges such a search involves. It was an acknowledgement of her ministry to education and social justice, and in recent years, to her work for vulnerable women who have been trafficked and abused. She was a committed member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).

For my own religious order, the Rule of Benedict, as our inspiration and guide, reminds us of Benedict’s words: “Keep your eye on death every day” (Rule of Benedict 4:47) – a sobering thought, indeed! What was Benedict actually asking of his monks 1,500 years ago? Does it have any relevance for us today and how we live our lives? I think it does.

Commenting on this dictum of Benedict, Cistercian priest Michael Casey OCSO, in his book Seventy-Four Tools For Good Living, says: “These unwelcome thoughts need not necessarily depress or paralyse us. They can be a source of energy bidding us to make the most of the opportunities we have while we still have them”.

We are all on the road of life, which ultimately leads to death. Whether we are aware of how and when that will happen is neither clear nor known. Death is mystery, whichever way we look at it. So I believe it is good to acknowledge this reality of ultimate death and to be willing to discuss our hopes and realities. Nothing is gained by ignoring this reality.

Pauline’s approach of open and faith-filled communication assisted her and others in facing her imminent death. Parting from family and friends was still challenging and difficult, but by sharing with those who were loved and who loved in return, there was no denial but a deep and abiding support and presence.

We are coming up to the month of November. The Christian Church has a long-standing tradition of dedicating November to honouring and praying for the dead. The Church believes in the communion of saints. Such a belief invites us to think beyond the confines of this earth, to the big-heartedness of God, to the mercy of God, to the possibility that this life is only the beginning, not the end.

November commences with two feast days, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. I’m inclined to celebrate All Saints Day for all the dead I have known, because of this incredible mercy of God.

The idea of praying for the dead has a long history in both Jewish and early Christian traditions. It was then developed over the centuries, particularly by Benedictine monasteries. It was Saint Odilo of Cluny who, in the eleventh century, chose November 2 for all the monasteries dependent on the Abbey of Cluny to pray for the deceased. The November 2 custom spread to other Benedictine monasteries and thence to the whole Church.

November is a time “to keep an eye on death daily” and to give thanks for all those who have gone before us and have influenced the world by their simple goodness. It is a time for contemplating death, my own and others’, and the possibility of being united in the communion of saints beyond this life on earth.

* Sister Clare Condon is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict.

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The Good Oil, October 20, 2015. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

12 Responses to “November: a time to “keep your eye on death every day””

  1. Anna Smit says:

    Thank you Clare, I truly appreciate your reflection on how Pauline looked at death & dying. I met Pauline 34 years ago when I was suffering from panic attacks and anxiety disorder. She encouraged me to look at why this was happening rather then just accept that this was my diagnoses. Pauline also invited me to be involved with her pastoral work she was doing and got me to visit families where a member was dying. I came to see that death wasn’t that frightening and could see the peace that the person experienced. Our faith in God has much to do with the way we accept death. Pauline was an inspiration, courageous, funny and much loved friend and I am missing her terribly. Thank you Clare for sharing her story xx

  2. Margaret says:

    Thank you for this lovely story of faith and trust and tremendous courage in Sr Pauline’s life as she journeyed home to her God and her eternal reward.

  3. Ian Faulkner says:

    Sr Clare. Your reflection put into words an idea I had about dying with dignity when my time comes. I have worried sometimes about friends who have allowed their bodies and spirit to be damaged in the vain hope of extending their life. I hope I have the courage and attitude of Sr Pauline when my time comes.

  4. Marjorie Edwards says:

    Pauline was a strong positive role model for so many of us at BallyCara. Her inspirational acceptance of her impending death was an apostolate in itself – in her final stage of life she was true to her vocation. Her wide-brimmed red hat and continued cheerful interaction with the Sunday Mass chapel community, many a good deal older than Pauline, symbolised the best in how we should spend our last days. Thank God for women like her!

  5. Kristen says:

    Thanks Clare for this reflection. It really does put death in perspective in a way and yes I agree it is good to talk about it with loved ones and friends as it will happen to us all in God’s good time. Today dad is 90[23rd Oct.] and I often wonder about his death when it is his turn as he has been a most wonderful dad to me.

  6. John Prior, svd says:

    Beautiful, Clare. Thank-you. Here in Flores Indonesia, I’m presently accompanying a local confrere, just 71 years old, slowly, oh so slowly, dying of cancer. Like Pauline he’s living life “to the full” day by day as he weakens. Please accompany Peter with your prayers – he’s asked me to preach at his funeral. John

  7. Julie Allen says:

    My loving sympathy to all the Good Samaritan Sisters on the death of Pauline. I was in Melbourne so regretfully was unable to attend her Mass. Thank you for your great article, Clare. It sounds like Pauline continued to display the same great faith and courage – and I am sure some feistiness – through her illness, as characterised her life and ministry. The young women I taught and the staff at Lourdes Hill were strongly influenced by Pauline’s articulate social justice stance, and she worked with us to inform our better understandings of trafficking, its impact on women and children and the need for solidarity and action in such matters. I am sad to have lost her as she was both my friend and a fellow fighter for the practical and relevant expression of Benedictine compassion in our times. She was strong and did not ever suffer fools gladly. To borrow Caroline Jones’ phrase, hers was an authentic life.
    I know, Pauline, that you will be enjoying the ultimate freedom you have now attained. I will never forget your good humour, your conviction and your drive.
    Requiescat in pace, Pauline.
    Posted with love.

    • Catherine Morgan says:

      Julie I was saddened to learn of Pauline’s death today. Her commitment to ending human trafficking and her energy were a profound and positive influence on both my daughters. Indeed hers was an authentic life.

  8. Anne Dixon says:

    Thanks Clare, I really appreciated your reflections re Pauline and also death in general. Being mums anniversary today I am struggling so it was a timely sharing. SALAMAT

  9. Marie Casamento says:

    A poignant and palpable on the life and death of Pauline. What a brave woman she was in her work with trafficking and as she approached death with dignity and fortitude. Thank you Clare for sharing this with us. Marie

  10. Liz Wiemers says:

    Thank you for your reflection Clare. They are words to carry with us in these days.

  11. Alison says:

    What a great read!

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