True reverence in a culture of irreverence
My Vocation is Love l Lindsey Weishar
Like many, the more public revelation and celebration of the group that calls itself the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — which has been in operation since the late 1970s — saddened me. In the midst of calls to boycott organizations that support mockery of faith, may we even more readily pray for these individuals and organizations, for to some extent I imagine “they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Closely following the news that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were being honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers came news of a different kind. In Gower, Missouri, a newer religious order, the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, made an amazing discovery on the Feast of the Ascension. As they prepared to move the remains of their foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, into their oratory, they expected to find dust and bones in her coffin. Instead, they found her body and habit well-preserved four years after her death.
In a culture that so readily celebrates irreverence, the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles offers a striking counter-example. Both before and after the pilgrims began flocking in to witness what seems to be the miraculous preservation of Sister Wilhelmina, this thriving religious community has lived a contemplative life, with a charism to pray for priests.
VISIT TO THE ABBEY
I visited the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower the Friday after the discovery of Sister Wilhelmina’s intact remains. At that point, she was not yet under glass, and visitors were welcome to bring religious items like holy cards, rosaries, and medals to touch to her body. We were also allowed to touch her as we prayed beside her body.
As I write this, I realize that for some of us, touching and praying beside a dead body may sound a bit creepy. The Christian practice of honoring the relics of holy men and women (bone fragments, pieces of clothing, etc.) has been in practice since the earliest days of the Church, when liturgies were celebrated at the tombs of early Christian martyrs. But as with all veneration, it is directed toward God and his glory. As St. Jerome says, “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” (It is important to note that Sister Wilhelmina’s cause for canonization has not yet been opened.)
Upon arriving at the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, I immediately noticed all who were helping the nuns with the increased flow of visitors to their home. Local Knights of Columbus helped guide cars into the parking spaces, and volunteers in the community helped pilgrims find seats at Mass and handed out water bottles and fruit to pilgrims waiting in the line to see Sister Wilhelmina, who at that time was in a room under the chapel.
Upon entering the chapel, a volunteer handed me a mantilla (a small veil worn over the head during liturgy). The Mass was a Latin high Mass, as is the custom for this community. It was beautiful to hear the nuns sing together. (To date, they have made more than a dozen albums of their sacred chant music.) When it came time to receive our Lord, we all came up to the altar rail and received Jesus on our tongues.
REVERENCE NOT SHOWY
It strikes me that reverence is not showy; it often appears in veiled ways — the way we speak to and about others, the way we interact with God both at Mass and in the silence of our hearts.
Receiving the body of our Lord at Mass prepared me to view the body of Sister Wilhelmina. As we stood in the line under the Missouri sun, I was touched at how the volunteers reverenced the needs of our bodies — for water, for nourishment. As we stepped into the shaded coolness of the room that held Sister Wilhelmina, I witnessed the reverence with which people interacted with her body. There was a certain quiet wonder as they entered into prayer. In my own interaction with her, I was amazed that I could touch her shoulder and feel the solidity of it.
Though irreverence often gets more attention, I’d like to celebrate the quiet loveliness of reverence. If you’d like to learn more about Sister Wilhelmina, be sure to check out the website for the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, and recent articles in The Catholic Post, the National Catholic Register, and elsewhere.
This month, in which we celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we ask him how we may approach him with greater reverence, greater love, greater wonder.
LINDSEY WEISHAR is a poet, freelance writer, and native of Champaign who has a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is executive assistant to the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. Write to her at email@example.com.