Eulogy for Sister Agnes

by Sister Teresa Jackson

Imagine if you will the scene from the Acts of the Apostles that we read. It’s outside of the Temple, it’s about 3:00, it’s probably hot, dusty, busy, crowded.  And this man is laying there, like he has for years, just trying to make some alms, some money to live on.

And it says Peter comes and looks at him intently. This man is a panhandler, a beggar, he’s used to people just walking past, not looking at him, trying to get by him. And here comes Peter and the man thinks he going to get some money. Peter looks at him intently, personally, really sees him, and says: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarean, [rise and] walk.”

Can’t you just see Agnes saying that? How many people over how many years did she look at intently, really seeing them, maybe for the first time, with her inimitable smile, and say rise and walk. That was Agnes. She was a healer. She healed in the name of Jesus. And she treated and healed each person as a unique, valued individual.

Agnes was a healer. She was widely recognized for her nursing skills. There are legions of people who trained as nurses with her, who were taught nursing skills by her, who were nursed by her, many of us who considered her their own personal doctor. And she was appropriately named a legend of nursing in recognition of her long and amazing career in not only patient care but in administration and leadership in the nursing profession.

But more importantly Agnes, like Peter, healed in the name of Jesus. There was no separation for her between nursing, caring, healing and faith. No one who was ever cared for by Agnes, whether it was asking for a band-aid or being cared for in a life threatening emergency, didn’t come away feeling like they had been treated as Christ and cared for in the name of Christ. We all know Benedict’s admonition that the sick are to be treated as Christ. For most of us that is pretty theoretical, especially when dealing with difficult people, but clearly for Agnes Christ was truly always present in even the most difficult people and she treated them as such.

But perhaps healing also can’t be separated from suffering. We know what a healer Agnes was but perhaps that is because she also knew suffering.  The Psalm we read describes her well: 

2I waited, waited for the LORD; who bent down to me and heard my cry, 3Drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp, Set my feet upon rock, steadied my steps, 4And put a new song in my mouth, a hymn to our God.

In her life Sr. Agnes experienced waiting, the cry in the pit of destruction.  But she also knew what it meant to have God set her feet upon the rock.   After a very difficult period in her life Agnes spent a year at a renewal program in Boston. Where many of us would have spent a good amount of time being angry or crushed or depressed Agnes used the time as a gift. She did her own hard, inner work. She allowed God to stoop down and draw her up. She worked with her suffering, her limitations and mistakes and learned from them. She allowed the pain she had suffered to change her and she came back to Cottonwood with a new song in her mouth, a hymn to God. Many of us were the recipients of the work she did in that year. Agnes became the formation director for a whole generation of women who came to St. Gertrude’s. Being formation director was a job completely unlike anything she had ever done before, although anyone who’s ever been in formation knows that it involves suffering. But even though it was totally new Agnes threw herself into it and spent a number of years sharing the depth of the wisdom of Benedictine life that she had learned through many years in community.

In the Gospel reading perhaps we see the culmination of a life well lived.  Jesus’ teaching that God cares for the birds of the air and flowers of field speaks strongly to the deep care that Agnes had for all creation. From her healing oils to her commitment to our Stewardship of Land committee she was grounded and rooted in the earth and cared for it the same way she cared for so many people in her nursing. She knew how the earth cares for and sustains us and we in turn must care for our earth.

But perhaps this passage also speaks to the level of trust and letting go into God that we are all called to. Agnes was not one to let go easily.  Those of us who remember coming to the dining room late at night only to find Agnes cleaning the coffee pot even when she was using a wheelchair know that.  She trusted in God but unlike the lilies of field she worked. The lilies of field clearly didn’t have a German work ethic. But I think at the end of her life Agnes knew what it meant to be taken care of by God without work, without sewing or spinning or the dozens of odd jobs that she always did. In having to let go, in finally being unable to work, in suffering, there was a deep surrender and Agnes knew that after a life time of seeking the Reign of God she was truly being embraced and brought home to God. After a lifetime of healing others she now knows her own healing and for that we give thanks.