Our Sister Rita Donahue (Rita of the Cross) peacefully passed away in the early hours of the morning of February 12th after a short illness. Her devoted and deeply loved family and friends gathered for her funeral Mass in our monastery chapel on February 19th. It was such a wonderful celebration of Rita’s life and vocation! Our Pastor, Fr. Richard G. Smith was celebrant. His exquisite homily that captured both the person of Rita and the essence of Carmelite life was a beautiful gift to everyone present for this final farewell to our dear sister. We want to share it with each of you.
Homily of Fr. Richard G. Smith
Funeral Mass of Sr. Rita Donahue of the Cross, O.C.D.
Philip Larkin was a great British poet of the last century; for me, there is little that’s attractive about his personality: he was a pessimist, a cynical misanthrope, he claimed to be an atheist (although I have my doubts about that claim) and an all-around curmudgeon. All in all, a very strange person with whom to start off the funeral homily of a Carmelite nun! He was a great poet, a great artist – and, in spite of himself, he gives us beautiful truths in his poetry, more than I think he may have been consciously aware of or, at least, admit to. In one of his poems, he’s visiting a church not far from London and he comes upon the late-medieval tomb of an earl and countess. It’s a sarcophagus style tomb, and on the top of the tomb is a relief carving of the earl and countess, lying side-by-side, with little dogs resting at their feet. He knows nothing, really, about the couple at all – the details of their lives are lost to history. There’s a warm detail in the stone, though, that he notices: the hand of the earl lies open next to his wife, and her hand rests in his. Whatever else may be true of them and their lives, he can see, all these centuries later, there was love here. And the last line of the poem is truly beautiful: What will survive of us is love. What will survive of us is love – I like to think Larkin was rhyming his thought with St. Paul’s: Love never ends . . . So faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
When St. Thérèse was working through her own sense of her Carmelite vocation, she experienced in her heart an overflowing desire to be all things and to do all things. And when she finally comes to realize how those desires could actually be lived, she expresses her vocation in unforgettable words that are ecstatic in their joy, she says: in the heart of the Church, I shall be love. Well, this morning, we find ourselves in the heart of the Church (who would’ve thought that would be Beacon?) and here, over the decades, Sr. Rita of the Cross, Rita Donahue, became love! What will survive of us is love: in the grateful and joyful memories we will carry with us, in the person Sr. Rita now is, she has fully realized her vocation, she is love perfectly embrace by Love. Love alone survives.
The story of this soul is truly a story of love – a love that began with her being embraced by God in the gift of her baptism not long after she was born on January 25th, 1933 when her parents, Joseph and Elizabeth, brought her to their parish church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to receive the new life, the true life that only Jesus can give. The rest of her life was really a living out and discovering the full meaning of that first and wonderful gift. That first sign of God’s love and Presence was deepened and made real for her, no doubt, in her home among her family. And she herself tells us that, from very early childhood, she felt a stirring in her heart to become a nurse. The example of a friend of her mother and her own sister, Grace, and the popular “Sue Barton” series of books aimed at adolescent nurse aspirants sparked something in her to give of herself in loving service. In so many ways, especially today, the art of healing really belongs to nurses. No one becomes a nurse for the money or for the glory, you only do it because you have love to give and you want that love to be an active love. Rita thrived in her nursing career, to the point of becoming a clinical instructor, training new nurses in the art of healing.
And then, she felt the stirring in her heart to go deeper, to give more, to love more completely. She entered the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1964 and served and loved God’s people in the Caribbean and West Indies as a nurse. She reached out to her sisters and brothers in family heath and obstetrics and pediatrics, she offered health classes in the far-flung villages of Dominica and was the medical “right arm” of the great work her ICM sisters at the Catholic Social Center there.
And then she felt the stirring in her heart to go deeper, to give more, to love more completely. She herself tells us “it was on the beautiful island of Dominica in the West Indies that I experienced a call to contemplative life.” I googled “Dominica” a few days ago – you should, too – it is a place of tremendous natural beauty. If you ever have visited the Holy Land, you know that the area around the Sea of Galilee, the area in which Jesus spend almost all of His public life, preaching and teaching and feeding and healing is also a place of tremendous natural beauty. A guide on one of my trips there pointed out the great beauty of that place and she said, when Jesus had something important to say to people, when he really wanted them to hear His words, He brought them to places of great natural beauty so that beauty would strengthen His words. I like to think that’s part of why God led Sr. Rita to the beauty of Dominica: in that beautiful place, she heard the voice of Jesus inviting her to come deeper, and beauty strengthened His word to her.
Love eventually led her to Carmel in what we-in-the-know like to call the “beautiful Bronx” and then here to Beacon. And in this place, truly she became love. Not in loud and dramatic ways, at least so far as most of the world would think; but, instead, in her ministering to her sisters in Carmel, sharing her talents as a nurse and caregiver, her sense of humor and expressions of love in skits and rhymes and songs composed for birthdays and jubilees, in her serving as the community’s living memory as archivist, in her clear compassion and quiet sense of joy, in her loving attention to planning daily liturgies (something she particularly loved to do), in the love she expressed to her family – her sister, Grace, her nieces and nephews and grandnieces and nephews, all of them continuing gifts of God in her life. And above all else, in her hidden life of prayer, she came to know Jesus in her prayer and that prayer became her greatest ministry of service and healing, her deepest self-giving, and her most complete loving because, as a Carmelite nun, she never came to prayer alone – how many countless thousands of people over the years did she bring with her to the feet of Jesus, to the heart of God day in and day out. Every last one of us here this morning was no doubt brought by her to Jesus many times. After Thomas Merton visited the Abbey of Gethsemani for the fist time, he wrote that he was amazed to have discovered that the center of the universe, what was holding the whole world together at any given moment, was a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, in the middle of nowhere. Make no mistake about it, the world is being held together right now because of places like this, and women like Sr. Rita.
And now, Sr. Rita goes deeper, still. Jesus promises to prepare a place for those whom He loves. What survives is love. And can you imagine Sr. Rita coming into that place just now? The kisses and embraces of her parents and her brothers William and John and all her family; the many nurses she trained; the almost countless number people from Connecticut to the Caribbean to the West Indies to the Bronx to Beacon to whom she showed kindness and compassion, whose pain she lessened and whose burdens she shared; the beautiful sisters God gave her in Carmel; all the thousands her prayer touched in ways known and (until now) unknown. In all those and above all those, the embrace of her Jesus. The joy is almost beyond our imagining.
I began with Philip Larkin, a poet of a somewhat questionable personal character, so allow me to end with a poet whose character is beyond reproach. Sr. Rita was herself something of a poet, and here’s something she wrote early on in Carmel:
Love gives joy to its lover,
Simple joy, quiet joy,
Except by those who know it.
Now, she knows it. Now, she knows it!