On the Threshold of Heaven in Hawthorne
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.