On the Threshold of Heaven in Hawthorne
"Even—indeed, especially—at death’s door, we are loved by an eternal love made cruciform"
Br. Charles Marie Rooney, O.P.
August 02, 2022
Cancer Hawthorne Dominicans Hospice Momento Mori
It is an uncomfortable yet fundamental fact that death stands at the center of Christian life. Because of Adam’s sin, we die. Because of Christ’s death, we can live forever. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13). The question then follows: what are we to do now to be made blessed among men at the hour of our death?
A recent summer assignment with the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne testified profoundly to the perennial Christian answer: we are to love, as we have first been loved. Founded in 1900 by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Sisters dedicate their entire lives to caring for those who are indigent and ill with terminal cancer. They pursue a life of consecrated holiness—attending Mass, chanting the Divine Office, fulfilling convent duties—and spend the remainder of their days ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of their residents, who live in a large wing attached to the convent.
One might imagine working with those who have been dealt a certain death sentence to be a macabre experience. But the light of faith and the fire of love—which pervade Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, NY—instruct and impel us otherwise. The fact of the matter, oblivious though many of us be, is that we all have been dealt a certain death sentence from the moment of our conception. The human mortality rate is 100%. The charge of the Sisters, then, is to assist those whose sentence has been rendered specific and imminent: “you will die by cancer, and it will be soon,” their residents have been told. The Sisters’ vocation is thus a continual memento mori, which, because of their life in the Resurrection, is also a memento vivere (i.e. “remember [that you have] to live”): “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom 6:8).
For all of the physical afflictions endured by the residents at Rosary Hill, the greatest drama occurs within. Each resident must make the personal, affirmative choice to prepare him or herself for death. This always entails what is, for many, the most difficult step: admitting—usually after an odyssey of treatments and facility transfers, not to mention an often turbulent life before the diagnosis—that this really is my last stop before I meet the Lord, and it is in fact a great stop en route to an even better destination.
Assisting the residents along their via crucis are the Sisters, who act on the pattern of Veronica, the Holy Women of Jerusalem, Mary Magdalene, and of course, the Mother of God, whose name every Sister receives as part of her religious name. The deep beauty of the Sister-resident dynamic is the mutual surrender that lies at its core. On the one hand, each Sister strives to surrender daily—to die to her weakness and offer her poor, chaste, and obedient love to the Lord, and to his beloved ones in the ward. For the Sisters, this surrender is never imposed but rather desired; these women sought out and continue to seek this sacrifice and the unique intimacy with the Lord that it yields.
The surrender of the residents is different, for it comes by way of their response to an imposition. The residents are poor in health and funds, chaste by circumstance, and helplessly obedient to their mortal nature. They did not ask for the evangelical counsels, yet they have in a manner received them—albeit as a hard yoke and heavy burden. God, however, refuses to abandon them to such a fate: day after day, his merciful love flows through the labors of the Sisters and their staff—from the perpetual patient care to the scratch-off lottery prizes at Bingo, from simple human conversations to the liturgies and Eucharistic processions. Residents, in choosing to receive this love, find their once stony hearts enfleshed, and typically in the precise measure that their mortal flesh fades. They become meek and humble, and the yoke of the counsels becomes voluntary—and so easy and light. Baptism or Confession is often sought, and the soul is sustained thereafter by holy oil and heavenly bread.
In this mutual effort of sanctification—Sister ministering to resident, and resident purifying Sister—the pangs of the present age still perdure: the sacraments do not relieve pain, end suffering, or make family strife and past wounds vanish into thin air. But the sacraments in fact do more—much more. They reroute an entire life toward a heavenly horizon, redeeming all that came before Rosary Hill and super-naturalizing all that happens therein. This in turn effects an astounding peace in the midst of trial, which is the surest proof that “beating cancer” is principally a spiritual war fought on a bodily battleground, for “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail” (Jn 6:63).
An arresting vocation video recently released by the Sisters asks the question, “if death is at the end of it all, why try?” Because even—indeed, especially—at death’s door, we are loved by an eternal love made cruciform, which “deep waters cannot quench” (Sgs 8:7) nor death sting (1 Cor 15:55). On this truth hangs the Sisters’ whole reason for being, which one Sister expresses in the same video: “I hope that in those last moments, they can know that they are loved.”
Only acts of love—of God’s own unquenchable divine love—can convince someone that he is loved, yes, thirsted for by the crucified Christ. Everything at Rosary Hill boils down to this. So that when the last breath comes, and now becomes the hour of death, each resident might make Christ’s last words his own: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit,” and so hear in reply: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Image: Screenshot from “Hawthorne Dominicans Vocation Video” (used with permission)
Originally posted on Dominicana Journal on August 2, 2022.
The Dominican House of Studies
Forming Preachers of Truth in Charity.
Catholic theology in the Thomistic tradition for Dominican students and all who are interested in serving the Church, evangelizing the world, and growing in virtue, wisdom, and holiness.Give
Saturday January, 27
Fr. Basil Cole, O.P. named Master of Sacred Theology
Emeritus Professor Father Basil Cole, O.P., was recently given one of the highest honors of the Dominican Order. He was named a Master of Sacred Theology and now follows in a long line of great theologians going back to the founding of the Order.
Wednesday August, 02
Sin makes us forget. Sin is a “turning away” that makes it easy to forget. And it has a compounding effect, as the only way we can justify our sin to ourselves is through a forgetfulness of God...
Tuesday May, 16
Can You See That You Are a Prophet?
...the prophet is not a simple fortune teller or magician
Friday May, 12
The Cross, Again?
"Why do we talk about the Cross outside of Lent? Hasn’t Jesus won the victory over death and sin already?"
Friday May, 05
Give It Up for God
"What is the most important thing in your life? What would you do if God asked you to give it up?"
Tuesday May, 02
Action and Procession
"Is there a point to bringing the bread and wine to the priest during the Mass?"
Tuesday April, 18
2023 St. Dominic Medal Recipient: Msgr. Andrew Baker
Commencement: Friday May 12, 2023 at 5pm in the Dominican House of Studies Chapel (by invitation only)
Tuesday March, 21
"We find ourselves this Lenten week surrounded by a trifecta of celebratory days—this is odd. Shouldn’t we be dour? Shouldn’t we be occupied with doing penance and mourning for our sins? Were not those ashes to set us on a path of dismal gloom until the great Easter Proclamation brings it to a happy end?..."
Friday March, 17
God’s Suffering Shepherds
"It does not take a genius to figure out that God has a thing for shepherds. From Abel to Jacob, Moses to David, and Amos to the shepherds of Bethlehem..."
Friday January, 27
God at Rock Bottom
"The very idiom hitting rock bottom indicates a hopeful reality."
Friday January, 20
Remedy For a Common Evil
"Abortion remains the most contentious moral debate of our time..."
Thursday January, 05
Resquiescat in Pace: Pope Benedict XVI
"...the last sentiment he articulated as he was fading from this world into the next was a simple profession of love for Jesus Christ."
Friday December, 16
Now That’s What I Call Advent
"Love it or hate it, Christmas music is perennially around."
Tuesday October, 25
A Video Tour of the Dominican House of Studies
Join the Teller Brothers on a virtual tour!
Monday October, 17
An Autumnal Fascination with Satan
"In this cozy and creepy season, our spiritual battles are not against Satan alone."
Tuesday October, 11
"Next to each tabernacle reserving the Blessed Sacrament, there burns a steady flame, sometimes white, sometimes red, but always communicating the same thing: Jesus Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity—dwells here."
Tuesday October, 04
God the Chess Master?
"Many people think about God’s will in a manner similar to [a] chess game. Thankfully, this is not how God’s will works in the human person."
Friday September, 23
Eucharistic Concomitance and the Resurrection
"We know by faith that Jesus Christ, the eternal Word with his assumed human nature whole, resplendent, and never more alive, now dwells forever in the glory to which he calls us."