The contemplative group always began with paired discussion about the condition of our personal prayer life. Then, following a scripture reading, 20 minutes (which seemed like never enough time) was allotted to contemplative prayer. After that, we usually sang some songs, followed by announcements, and that was that. It was a group activity experienced individually for the most part.
During the last session, I was paired with a newcomer, named Connie. Shabbily clothed, with downcast eyes and meek demeanor, Connie looked like she had wandered into the wrong group, most of us being middle-class yuppie types, at least to the common eye, and none of us had any idea how she found us or really why she came. She did not want to discuss anything about each other's prayer life during our pair time. Rather, she wanted to talk to me about dying. It seems that Connie was in Stage 4 of esophageal cancer, something I know little about except what Connie told me. Prayer was not her concern. Putting closure to her life was. She did not want my advice. That was good for I had none to give. She wanted only a friend. She wanted to be touched, to be held, to be hugged -- all without words, a difficult task for an extrovert such as I, but I did my best to give her what she requested. I listened. I said little because I needed to say little. She said anything I would have said and far more. I wish I had listened with my memory as well as my ears because I would like to remember now more than I do. I recall that she said that she was ready to die, that she worried about nothing, and wished only that the pain could be less. She said that she knew that God loved her -- and added "more than you could possibly understand right now." That was odd, but I did not remonstrate. I just knew I was supposed to listen. She said she had no relatives or real friends in the world, that few would miss her. She accepted that. She wanted nothing before she died, but she did whisper one thing with some urgency before we were called back into a group for our contemplative prayer session: "Pray for me."
During the prayer session, Connie sat in the pew in front of me and next to the aisle, as I was. What I loved about these particular prayer sessions was the fading of the external world, the loss of outside distractions, and a sense of union with God. As I said, 20 minutes was just far too short a time.
This time, though, after 10-15 minutes, I felt something happening in the pew in front of me and, suddenly quite aware of all my surroundings, I noticed Connie. She was not praying. She was looking around, and, I swear, she did not look like herself. Not shabby anymore. A softness surrounded her. I could not tell whether it was coming from within or from without. I blinked several times, thinking I was somehow in a heretofore unexperienced state of some kind of unusual or at least never-before-described-to-me contemplation, but no, my eyes reported the same odd softness with each blink.
Suddenly Connie stood up, looking much like herself again, and started to walk out. I stood as she passed me and reached out to her with a questioning look. "Good-bye," she said. Nothing more. "I will pray for you," I promised in a whisper. We embraced warmly, and she walked out.
I could not concentrate after that and sat quietly, waiting for the others to finish praying. Then came our group sing-along of fairly short duration, followed by the announcement about the dissolution of the group. Perhaps it was the surprise nature of that announcement or a sense of imminent personal loss that kept anyone from noticing that Connie had left. Whatever the reason, no one said a word about it. The prayer group leader dismissed us for the last time. I interrupted before people scattered and asked if anyone had noticed Connie's departure. No one had paid attention to the fact that we were one less in number at the end than at the beginning. "We don't know who she is," one person said. "We've never seen her before," another volunteered. "Perhaps she realized she was in the wrong place," yet another suggested. Maybe any of those things. Maybe all of those things. Maybe none of those things. I told the group what I knew about Connie (except for the strange vision I had of her during prayer). I told them about her request for prayer. Instinctively, with no one individual taking the lead, we all formed a circle to pray for Connie. The leader look at me, so I said what I hoped were adequate words.
I have many times since wondered what happened there. The person from our mission prayer group who had attended with me said that she got the same feeling from Connie that I had: otherworldly, but she had no idea why. Perhaps when one is close to death, one is close to God.
Brother Charles, on Praise and Bless, wrote in this week's homily something that brought Connie back into focus for me today. He was addressing the question of transsubstation, but I am excerpting some of his words here -- please forgive me, Brother, for using them out of context -- because they immediately made me think of Connie:
"When God reveals himself to the world, what appears? On the one hand a newborn, vulnerable child, born of young, poor parents away from home. On the other hand, God reveals himself as a condemned criminal, tortured and in the midst of his execution. These are the mysteries of the Nativity and the Passion, the revelations of God in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and they reveal a God who is sublimely humble. "
Could God have been there in Connie, a humble, dying-from-cancer, living-alone, sixty-something, raggedly clothed, obviously poor, weak woman? A reminder to us that whom we consider "the least" among us may not be the least at all? None of us who were there will probably ever know, but at the time and now thinking back, that sense of another dimension that surrounded Connie still gives me pause.
Who was Connie? Does that matter? At the very least, she was someone who needed support, and we gave it the best we could. Isn't that something of what God wants us to do on this journey we call life?