Sister Ann Reimund (See “Guts and Grace”) went home to the Motherhouse on November 11 and home to God on November 19. I offered these reflections at her memorial service in Albuquerque last Sunday:
Advent is a time for hearing from the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist. I believe that Sister Ann was a prophet among us. She rarely raised her voice-except of course in song-but when she did speak at our congregational gatherings it was always a “zinger”, full of passion and truth and often her characteristic wry sense of humor. It was not always a welcome message but always what needed to be said. She called us to our most authentic selves as Sisters of Charity, to live the words with which we describe our mission, vision and charism.
I would like to reflect as well on the prophetic meaning of Ann’s life. This is where I find great strength, hope and consolation. Sometimes the prophets did symbolic (and weird!) things to convey God’s message. For example, Hosea took a prostitute for his wife to show both Israel’s infidelity and God’s abiding love. Jeremiah smashed an earthenware jar in the sight of the high priests to symbolize God’s wrath and the coming destruction of Israel. These prophetic images came to mind as I struggled with the “why” of Ann’s sudden illness and death. Reflecting on her life I was struck by her radical simplicity. Who of us dioes not remember her very intentional choices: to take the bus or walk instead of driving a car, to make gifts instead of buying them, to sleep on a little futon instead of a bed, to furnish her apartment with others’ cast-off items. In these choices she was intentional- and sometimes exasperatingly extreme!
And I wonder, did anyone else notice Sister Ann’s preference for wearing black? What was that all about? I checked this out with some of her Sister-friends. One told me that it was because black made her look thinner. But she continued to wear black after she lost weight. Others speculated that it was because she chose to have so few clothes and “black goes with everything, you know!” I think that there was probably something about simplicity of lifestyle in her choice, but I noticed it much more in recent years, this wearing black, especially since she began her ministry as a counselor.
As I was thinking about this I remembered the “Man in Black”, Johnny Cash. You might recall that he wrote a song by that title to explain his own black attire. Listen to some of those lyrics:
“I wear black for the poor and the beaten down- livin’ on the hungry side of town…I wear it for the sick and lonely old, for the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold…”
I can’t say for certain that Ann attached these meanings, but I know that she carried a lot of people’s pain. She had the gift of compassionate listening and it was only natural that eventually she became a professional counselor and psychotherapist. One Sister said, “In a gathering Ann always knew who the person in pain was. She just had a keen sense about who was struggling.” Whether it was a student with a tragic home life or a person trying to recover from addiction, Ann sister-ed them.
The song ends: “Just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back…’til we start to make a move to make a few things right…I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back…” We didn’t have a “Man in Black” but we did have our “Ann in Black” and she surely tried to carry off a little darkness on her back. In this she gave prophetic witness.
When Ann’s illness snuck up on her like a thief in the night, she had to make some quick decisions. Each was made from a place of deep integrity and as I reflected on them I found again the prophetic word and action. Ann’s radical simplicity was manifested in her option for no intervention- when all of us were urging her to at least get a clear diagnosis and explore possible treatment. “We know what this is,” she said. What a witness she gave us in days when the national debate was raging over the cost of health care and the lack of access of millions of people! But her decisions were not just based on costs, financial or otherwise. She made each choice with her characteristic practicality, German stubbornness, quirky humor and a deep trust in God’s faithful love.
Theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu says that “It is the task of the prophet to help people confront the numbness of death.” (Religious Life: A prophetic vision, p. 52) How Ann helped us through her last days! Will any of us forget her “wake and viewing” open house? She said that it was “an introvert’s hell” but that she just couldn’t figure out any other way to see everybody to say her last goodbyes in such a short period of time. She spoke with candor about the great changes being thrust upon her. She lived her last days with an intensity and urgency that mirrored the message of the scriptures at the end of the liturgical year: Stay awake! Be alert! You know not the day or the hour. One will be taken, one will be left. She made the Gospel come to life as she prepared for death.
Ann was so very gracious, letting us in, concerned for us, for her Sisters and friends, for her clients, even as she packed up her life in Albuquerque. She showed us how to let go, to hold life and its treasures so lightly that relinquishment looked graceful. No clenched fists. Her gratitude to each person was spoken, never assumed or taken for granted. She was indeed a prophet who helped us “confront the numbness of death”.
I know that like all prophets Ann had moments of struggle and a tremendous grief. “I thought I would have more time…” she said. None of us had much time to make meaning of it all. Once she arrived back at the Motherhouse, Ann entered into a deep quiet, sleeping at long stretches, doing-so it seemed-her own InnerWork (the name she gave to her counseling practice). We might have wished for more conversation but her listening had turned inward. Sister Rose Cheng, one of our beloved wisdom figures, told me about sitting with Ann in that silence. “Sister Ann reached out to hold my hand,” she said. “We sat for a long time. We didn’t say anything.” Rose is one we would all choose to be with us in such moments. No words were necessary. This was the prophet’s reward: a graceful falling into God.
Late last Friday afternoon I arrived at the Motherhouse in time to visit Ann’s grave in the cemetery. “How can you be here?” I cried. I sat on a bench overwhelmed by sadness. Then in the stillness I felt Ann’s presence and this hopeful message: “Everything’s all right- and it’s so good!” That’s what she wants us to know, wants me to tell you: “Everything is all right- and it is so good.” Thank you, Ann. Gracias a Dios.