Sr. Rita Woehlcke, my soul friend, my aman-cara, has gone home on this day, September 23, 2023, the day of the Autumnal Equinox, which the Irish call Mabon, when the wheel turns into the long, quiet, dark half of the year, a time to ponder death and grief, and to bring in the harvest, a time to understand how very blessed we are with all we’ve been given. How fitting. How just like Sr. Rita to go out on a poetic note.
I, along with so many others, grieve. I also find consolation in this poem by Jane Kenyon, written while she was dying from leukemia. Rita and I talked about it a lot and agreed it contained one of the best descriptions of the God of her understanding.
NOTES FROM THE OTHER SIDE
I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.
Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror.
There are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course
no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing
of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.
The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,
and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
Last Monday I drove to The Villa, a Catholic healthcare facility run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph where Rita knew she’d spend her last days, to say goodbye to her. It was the day after her birthday. She was very weak and had lost vision in one eye.
“So it’s come to this,” I said as I held her hand and tried not to cry.
“One-eyed,” she said. “Pirate.”
As her brother, Leo, said, she had mastered the art of the one-word conversation.
“Phone,” she said.
I fumbled in the bedclothes, but couldn’t find it. A nurse came in and went fishing among the wires and blankets and retrieved it.
Rita had made a voice memo for me about some dreams she’d had a few days earlier, knowing she would soon be too weak to talk about them. I won’t go into the details of her dreams, but the images were all about transition, and the death of the ego, and transformation, and traveling. Right on the nose, all of them. Rita nodded along, repeating a word now and then, for emphasis.
“Big dreams,” I said.
“Big.” She nodded.
Then she drifted off somewhere for a little while. The veil between worlds was thin as mist.
She came back. “All creatures,” breath, “everywhere, everything,” breath, “all of us, we’re all fine, completely fine.” She opened her good eye. “God loves us so much more than,” breath, “cares about any of what we think are sins.” She closed her eye again. Mercy. Clothed in Light.
I told her she had saved my life, which she knew. I told her it was her unconditional love. “Good,” she said. “That was the point.” Breath. “How God loves.”
I kissed her forehead.
“Thanks for coming,” she said.
There were so many others waiting to see her. I told her I expected to see her in my dreams when she’d gone home. “Count on it.” She smiled. “Love you.”
A week or so before this last goodbye, I had talked to her on the phone, when she’d called me to wish me happy birthday. She was still at home with Sr. Mary Ann and Sr. Mary Carol then, but it was clear she’d have to go to hospital. She was unable to walk and getting weaker every minute. She was concerned about her books and wanted to know if I would take a bunch (of course!) and if I would take her spiritual journals. I would. Several years ago, we put together a book proposal about our relationship and the lessons she taught me about what it meant to be loved without judgment and how all the world was at once profoundly broken, and perfectly radiant with the love of Spirit. It is one of my great sorrows that we couldn’t find an interested publisher. Maybe I’ll be able to do something with her spiritual writings. I hope so. Being a writer, which she absolutely was, was important to her.
After I got off the phone I found myself rereading this poem by Laura Gilpin (Rita often pointed me to poetry):
It’s one of those pieces that contains so much more than is on the page. I have yet to be able to read through it without sobbing, but even amid the sorrow, there is some deeper mystery, some consolation.
I imagined the dialogue I would have with Rita about it, how the first stanza focuses on the boys, to the callousness, the blindness, and indeed the harsh capitalism of humankind. The boys find what they perceive to be a useless thing, a farm animal who died (as freaks of nature do), thereby depriving them of what they see as its purpose: to produce meat or milk, and money. What to do except wrap it in that most transient of things, yesterday’s news, and see if they can get a few coins for it. To gain something, at least. They’re human. I can’t blame them.
Then, in the second stanza, the focus is on the calf and the gentle, merciful wonder of his life. The north field – North Star, guiding principle, the direction of earth, the turning point of the wheel. It is perfect with his mother, with her love. The moon, the orchard, the wind… all spirits and messengers, all ‘”interbeing,” as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would say. And then that sky, which would not have as many stars were it not for the calf’s unusual perfection. He stares at those stars, recognizing home, perhaps (I may be projecting here, but if one cannot project hope into a poem, then where?).
We are not told of the moment of his transition, because no such moment exists. There is only the perfect summer evening of his experience. There is only the eternal love and beauty — all that he will ever know, and exactly where he is.
I think I used to separate myself from the calf, and that’s where the sorrow comes from. I saw myself as not-the-calf, not the one living in that eternal, sublime moment, but rather as the blind boys, and I felt a horrible sense of loss, regret, and hopelessness, even despair.
Now, however, although I still see myself as those poor boys, I also see that I am the calf, and the mother, and the evening, and the moon, and the orchard, and the wind, and those infinite stars – eternal, radiant with love, holy.
Rita taught me how to live in that truth.
Rita called the cancer her Wisdom Companion. Well, that Companion took her on a path that insisted on her complete surrender and trust, and through her writings she shared that journey with us. Such generosity! It’s very hard, and if I could change it, I would. However, however. We can’t change these things. We, too, can only surrender and trust and be grateful we knew her. Rita was, and is, in that north meadow, and what a holy place it is. I know that, but still, the tears come.
I can’t help but think of what Sojourner Truth said: “I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” Looking up into the still-dark sky, I swear I can see Rita traveling there, at the speed of light, into the arms of the God she so loves, into the welcome that awaits her.
May all who love her be comforted.
The funeral will be held at St. Joseph Villa, 110 W. Wissahickon Avenue, Flourtown, Pennsylvania on Saturday, September 30 at 10:30. Greeting of friends and family at 9:30