Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts on Mary Lou

The first time I met Mary Lou, I had just driven about seven hours across the state of Pennsylvania, through rain and sleet storms. I was twenty two and I think it was the first time I'd driven such a long way alone. I was coming to the monastery for a summer internship, and she opened the door for me when I finally arrived (late). She had been sitting on the bench, reading Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor.

"Jacqueline, I presume," she said.

I started apologizing for keeping her waiting and she shook her head, dismissing it. "Have you ever read this book?" she asked. I hadn't. It was the first of probably hundreds of books and poems that she would recommend to me, that would completely transform the way that I thought and the kind of person I wanted to be.

Sister Joan, who I had ostensibly come to intern for, was leaving the country the next day, and Mary Lou wanted me to meet her before she left. So she hustled me down to my room on the guest hall, told me to leave my bags unopened, and had me follow her out to her car, and we drove into Erie. She pointed out every speed trap along the way. "Slow down here. Slow down there. Don't want the cops to get you." It sounded like she was speaking from experience.

"Now we're going to take a little detour," she said, after about 10 minutes of driving. She drove down to Dobbins Landing, a major dock in the middle of the city, to show me Lake Erie for the first time. It was a chilly, windy, raw kind of day, and the lake was at its most stirred up, waves smashing against the dock and seagulls screaming. It looked and sounded more like the ocean than I would have imagined, and she was laughing with delight at how wild it was, and at how my hair, and the skirt of my sundress, were blowing in the gusts of wind coming off the lake.

She wanted me to see the lake, a place that she loved and where she had spent so much time, and was glad that we were seeing a version of it that was exciting, that got our blood pumping. I am so happy that I got to see her that way, that this was my first memory of her: easily overjoyed, so full of life, able to laugh at someone without belittling them.

These last three years that she has been living with cancer, as her eyesight dimmed and her energy lessened and the strength left her legs and then her arms and finally, finally, finally even her grip, she never stopped loving life. She never stopped experiencing real joy, and never became numb to the sorrows and pain and frustrations that she encountered, either. 

The glory of God is the human being fully alive, Iraneus said. 

She was good to me. She encouraged me to write more, to do things that scared me. We had a similarly weird inner belief system, and I could be more sincere and honest in our conversations about God than almost anywhere else, could drop the pious jargon that's usually expected, and dispense with my own tendency to put air quotes around words like "faith." She listened to more agonies about the minor crises of my late adolescence and early adulthood than she should have had to, and she was an incredible audience, laughing at all the right breaks in the stories. She would tell me when I was in the wrong, but usually she told me to be kinder to myself, and to everyone else I was telling her about. Talking with her, and listening to her stories, her problems, her descriptions of dillemmas, taught me how to tell a story without any villains.

I really love her. I would often say that, especially in these last years, when I was leaving her at the end of a meeting, or when she did or said something particularly endearing. "I really love you," I would say.

And so very many people really loved her. Respected her. Sent her cards and presents and love letters. Called her up and came to spend time with her. In these last days, there was always someone holding her hand.

"What is it like to be so universally loved?" I would tease her.

"Oh, it's very nice," she'd say.

I asked her one time, a few months ago, why she thought she meant so much to so many people, why she had so many dear friends and so many people who looked to her as a hero and a teacher. She seemed never to have wondered that before. But then she said, "I guess it's because people know that, whoever you are, I think you're okay. I like you. I think you've got a good heart."

Yeah. That's probably why.

She did so much here, in the eighty-one years that she had, that somehow still seem like not nearly enough. She founded umpteen ministries, wrote hundreds of poems, brought together community after community after community. But mostly she let people feel that she loved them, and that they were okay exactly how they were.

The world keeps turning, without her. We who loved her have to try to love life and love each other, like she did, though we'll never be able to replicate her bizarre sense of humor, the gut-punches of her poetry, her smile, her laugh, or her exasperated eye rolls. And if there's one thing she would have wanted, it would be that we would learn to love and delight in each other's mannerisms and styles and quirks.

She was so good. She was so absolutely alive.

Knowing her for almost eight years was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

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A blog by Jacqueline Sanchez-Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and a scholastic in the initial monastic formation process. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.