New bend in the road
Reflections at the end of lifeMaria Boulding
- 3 April 2010
Dame Maria Boulding had been a biblical scholar, a writer, a novice mistress and a hermit before being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 80. Urged by others, she set down her thoughts as she approached death. She found that her last days were a time that bore the marks of Easter
I was on a journey, a joyful journey full of interest, beauty, friendships and happiness. I knew I must be getting near the end, and was filled with gratitude for all that had been given to me on this journey that had been my life. At every stage along the road, I had been convinced that my experience made sense only in the light of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. I had been born in Eastertide. Later I received the monastic habit in Easter week, made my first vows in Easter week the following year, and took solemn vows for life in my community three years later, again at Easter.
Another certainty emerged in the years that followed; it was to do with my name. I had been baptised as a baby with the name Mary. Nothing else was added, though suggestions about a second name had been pressed upon my parents. For some reason, my father insisted that his first daughter (he had two sons already) was to be called simply Mary. As I came to love the Scriptures and find inspiration in them, I identified first with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and then with other Marys in the gospels. There was already someone called Mary in the monastic community, so eventually I edged as close as possible with Maria. I came to glimpse something of the function of these Marys as symbolic figures as well as flesh-and-blood people. In their several ways, they represented something of the reality of the Church in relation to Christ. My prayer and my life became centred on the Scriptures, an endless source of inspiration and joy along the way. I could understand my vocation only as somehow “being the Church”.
My last years would, therefore, have been in any case a time of thanksgiving, but something unexpected appeared round the corner: terminal cancer. There was to be a different journey ahead, a journey in weakness, pain, dependence on other people for ordinary things that I had always controlled myself. I had no idea how to face it, but I was certain that, though the road might be rough and I would have to let go of cherished independence, God would be in charge. “Make me walk in your truth, and teach me…” (Psalms 25:5, original Grail translation).
During my illness, my loving carers, closely in touch with experts, have been deploying a bewildering variety of medication for pain control and relief of other symptoms, and have achieved a good measure of success in reducing them to manageable levels. Yet those who are caring for me have always respected my freedom, and understood my wish to keep my mind clear. With a little time left, I could therefore reflect and pray over the meaning of my journey through life and through cancer. It could be a time of grace and discovery.
Personal and private discovery, or so I thought, should not to be spoken of except to a few very close and trusted friends. But one whose judgement I highly valued urged me: “Write about your journey.” I did not want to hear that, and turned a deaf ear, but the prompting came again. And again. The question refused to go away: could such reflections be of help or interest to others?
Certainly I had no intention of writing an autobiography. But I had met and walked with people who had inspired me and many another, and I came to see that some of those whose stories had meant much to me had themselves been drawn by God into long and often painful journeys. The more I thought about this, the more I came to see that their journeys bore the marks of Easter, the signs of Cross and Resurrection, of achievements that owed nothing to human cleverness or self-sufficiency. On the contrary, they were stories of weakness, failure, the humbling of human pride, reliance on the power of the risen Christ and the outpouring of his Spirit on all believers through his Easter victory. Moreover, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) is Jesus himself, he who had made the dark journey through death to glory. About this I could perhaps write.
These months of illness have become for me a journey of discovery. The first thing that happened was a flood of loving messages, from people whose paths have at some time crossed mine. There have been beautiful letters, cards, flowers, emails and visits. People have simply told me that they love me, leaving me repeatedly puzzled, because unable to see how I have ever deserved it. These communications have continued throughout what I have come to recognise as a blessed time. I have discovered that suffering and happiness are by no means incompatible; on the contrary, my weakness seems to help. New understanding of friendship, love and tenderness has been given. There is a way to walk, even as I grow weaker. Love is communicated at levels of shared suffering, tenderness and bodily care that I have never touched before, and my weakness has been needed to open them. The sacramental reality of Christ’s Body has become tangible. I am being shown the depth of love in those closest to me, and discovering in new ways what Christian community is. I am able now to accept the love of others, and believe in it, like a helpless child who has nothing to give except its need. Now, when I am useless, can do little in the way of work and cannot make a difference, all I can give is my need of other people. Somehow, the love is not a one-way street, not trapped or held up. It is for us all, within the Body, within God’s people. It flows round us and through us, for us all.
It is new every day. There are good days and bad days, but there is always a new discovery, a new bend in the road, a different view, a new landscape. The new discoveries are mirrored by the changing views from our new monastery in North Yorkshire, as the seasons unfold.
The key point now seems to be acceptance. This is another name for obedience, for saying “yes” to God. All the people whose journeys I considered in my book presumably had their own plans about what kind of life-journey they were going to make. Mary must have looked forward to a happy marriage, with Joseph and a batch of children. She had to let go of her own plans when a different kind of journey was indicated to her. “Let it be with me according to your word,” she replied (Luke 1:38). One translation proposed for this text is: “All that you have said, I accept.”
Paul’s journey, once he had accepted Christ and his place within Christ’s body, might have been foreseen as a triumphant progress around the Mediterranean world, with all his powers of eloquence and energy used to the full. Instead, he had to live with his “sting of the flesh” and experience weakness, in order that the weakness of Christ crucified and the power of Christ risen from the dead might be shown forth in Paul’s mortal flesh. He accepted.
Any Christian community, including the first tentative community in Jerusalem, has to let go of euphoria and make the journey to acceptance of themselves and others as a community of weak, sinful human beings, with plenty of forgiveness and mutual washing of feet. Everyone who perseveres through the inner journey of prayer will have to let go of his or her ideas about how the journey should work out, and accept another, far more baffling, itinerary. The two disciples who walked with Jesus on Easter evening certainly had their journey plans: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They found themselves on a more wonderful journey, very different from the one they had envisaged.
Augustine presumably envisaged his life’s journey after accepting Christ, as one of scholarly service to the Church against a background of community life and contemplation. Instead, he was asked to undertake a very lengthy journey as a pastoral bishop, caught up in controversy, administration, travel and preaching. The contemplative union he had longed for would be his, certainly, but only after he had accepted his place within the Church, with all the imperfections inseparable from the Church’s journey on earth. All these people accepted a journey which turned out to be a sharing in Christ’s Easter mystery, because Christ himself had accepted: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).
It is as though such a “yes” to God releases a spring, or opens a door, so that God can flood the one who accepts, and everyone else involved, with new grace, new love.
Letting go and letting God, loss of independence and self-sufficiency, being freed from the need to be useful and to justify one’s existence by any kind of achievement – these may be liberation and a way into deeper love. “Yes, I accept.” All these stories reflect a journey away from self-reliance towards the recognition that everything is gift, and that all these things you accept are only tokens. At the end, God offers himself. At the end of the journey, you will be asked to accept God.